A politically sexy ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new pro-environment fueling station in Bloomfield, Conn., took place on Dec. 9. Three weeks later, on New Year's Eve, a scary 4.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Youngstown, Ohio.
The link between those events is natural gas and the increasingly controversial method of getting it out of the ground known as "fracking."
And standing somewhere in the middle of it all is Connecticut Congressman John Larson, who's become a leading national advocate for increasing use of natural gas as a cleaner, safer alternative to foreign oil.
Geologists in Ohio insist the New Year's Eve earthquake — one of 11 in that area recently — was not natural.
Fracking, which comes from the term "hydraulic fracturing," involves using high pressure to force water and chemicals deep underground to push up natural gas. Those Ohio experts say convincing circumstantial evidence suggests the most likely trigger for the quakes were deep wells used to pump huge amounts of fracking waste water thousands of feet into the earth.
Natural gas wells in the area have now been shut down while investigations continue. But the quakes are only the latest and most dramatic developments in a series of revelations and investigations involving the potential environmental and health risks of America's frantic, almost headlong rush to develop and use its vast natural gas resources.
In 2011, scientific studies tied the fracking process to all kinds of nasty crap.
According to ProPublica, which has published a series of investigative articles on the issue, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concluded fracking was responsible for ground water pollution in central Wyoming. Other studies found private wells near Pennsylvania fracking sites were 17 times more likely to be contaminated with methane gas. A Department of Energy panel reported substantial environmental risks surrounding the process.
A ProPublica report in September detailed cases of people in various areas of the country who live near fracking wells and suffer from health symptoms that include tumors and skin lesions.
None of that was mentioned at the Dec. 9 opening of the new Bloomfield compressed-natural-gas fueling station. Larson was at the event, as was U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal and a bevy of happy state and local politicians and proud energy dudes from all over.
"Natural gas is affordable, abundant and American, and could hold the key to breaking our dependence on foreign oil," an ebullient Larson told the assembly dignitaries.
There was praise for Clean Energy, the company that built the station. And for the Yellow Cab Company, which is the first cab operation in the nation to convert its cars to run on compressed natural gas. And for all the benefits the station would bring to the public, because anyone with a CNG vehicle can fill up there.
The Bloomfield station is part of a planned network of natural gas and other alternative energy stations being set up around Connecticut with the help of $13.2 million in federal energy cash.
There are already fueling stations in Bridgeport and West Haven. Another is due to open in Windsor Locks. There's an upgraded station in Norwich being used by the local utility, and a similar operation is targeted for Glastonbury.
In a lot of ways, natural gas is cleaner, cheaper and a more reliable energy source than oil, and advocates like Larson insist it can be a "bridge" to a future of sustainable wind and solar energy systems.
But even Larson admits there is a dark side; that natural gas — like nearly all energy sources — "contains certain risks."
Asked last week about those Ohio quakes, Larson was quick to point out that the legislation he is sponsoring in Congress to encourage the conversion of the U.S. transportation system to natural gas "has nothing to do with fracking."
Larson says he is also supporting a new bill that would place new controls over natural gas fracking to eliminate health risks and reduce environmental pollution. "We want to be sure [fracking] isn't placing anyone in danger," he says, adding that natural gas "can potentially be a great resource to our nation for energy."
Lee Grannis is coordinator of the Greater New Haven Clean Cities Coalition, which is administering the federal grants to set up Connecticut's new natural gas fueling system. And he's an even more outspoken defender of the push toward natural gas than Larson.
Grannis says that, despite those Ohio quakes and new fracking studies, he's now "less concerned" about nasty environmental and health risks of natural gas than he was before. In part, that's because Grannis says all the attention is triggering a big response in Congress and the states to stop irresponsible natural gas "wildcatters" from screwing things up.
He blames the pollution and health issues on "wildcatters who didn't know what they were doing. … When you've taken all the right precautions, there's not been any problems."
"If you compare it to all the [oil] drilling, and what happened in the Gulf, it's next to nothing," Grannis says of the natural gas fracking stuff.
Charles Rothenberger, a staff attorney for the Connecticut Fund for the Environment, disagrees. He believes the U.S. has simply moved too fast to exploit natural gas resources without reckoning with the consequences.
"The wildcatting nature of hydraulic fracking around the country now … is just inappropriate," Rothenberger argues, saying tough national standards need to replace the hodgepodge of state and local regulation occurring now.
The trouble in all this is that natural gas is a double-edged environmental sword: cleaner burning than oil, but possibly just as polluting because of all the methane produced. Perhaps less damaging to get out of the ground than oil, except for that fracking crap and those unexpected and frightening earthquakes.
As Larson is fond of pointing out, one natural-gas-powered tractor trailer can reduce air pollution equivalent to taking 300 cars off the road.
But Rothenberger's skeptical attitude echoes that of an increasing number of environmentalists who remember other so-called "silver bullet" energy solutions like the ethanol craze that didn't quite turn out to be what advocates claimed.
"This needs to be studied more … before we rush headlong into developing this resource," he says.