The last time I sat down at a computer was about 400 miles ago and a lot has happened since then. We cycled north to the small town of Roundup and took Route 12 west across central Montana, eventually on our way to Helena where we spent a few nights. After Helena we headed north to the Holter Dam, an organic farm in Fort Shaw, and a 4th of July I’ll never forget in Choteau. The Rocky Mountain Front has given us rolling hills that have challenged us as much as the wind did on the plains. I’m ready to eat lunches that consist of more than flour tortillas, cheese, and tuna! Though I have eaten a lot healthier on this trip, except for after 50-mile days when I eat six spoonfuls of Nutella. We have eaten fairly well for a month long camping trip if you ask me.
In the past few weeks we’ve seen everything from the high intensity machinery of the Signal Peak coal mine, to the rows and rows of wind turbines at the Judith Gap wind farm, to agencies and nonprofits in Helena working on energy issues. It’s incredibly complex, this transition afoot toward renewable energy sources.
Key to that transition is natural gas. It’s viewed by many as a “bridge” fuel. And, as we learned while visiting NorthWestern Energy, it’s used to flatten out, so to speak, the inherent volatility of wind energy and, increasingly, solar.
The technology of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) combined with horizontal drilling has made natural gas cheaper than coal, which is a primary reason behind the coal industry’s struggles, as we saw at Signal Peak, where dozens of workers were recently laid off. Natural gas has its advantages, but it also poses risks.
Burning natural gas releases half the CO2 of burning coal, so it can help us reach targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions across the country. But there are a whole bunch of negative impacts that come along with it. With casing malfunctions of wells, drinking water can be affected in shallower wells. We read about a study by Stanford University scientists that found shallow fracking wells had a clear impact on underground drinking water sources. Fracking also leads to methane pollution. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. Lastly, in a University of Texas study researchers linked injection of the wastewater back into the wells with earthquakes. Granted, this isn’t fracking itself but it is a practice that is very common with the overall production of natural gas and oil.
Will our increased dependence on natural gas prove to be a bridge, or will we remain hooked? We learned at Judith Gap that storage—batteries like Tesla’s—are being used to help wind farms deliver more consistent energy. If storage technology continues to advance, perhaps natural gas won’t be needed as much when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.
As the bike tour moves west, the scenery is getting more and more beautiful but that means the hills are getting that much bigger. As I said before, it’s been challenging, but well worth the longer days. I’m excited to get up to Glacier National Park and experience some jaw dropping scenery and hopefully get to some cooler temperatures as we learn more about climate change.