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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Argument from ignorance, part 3: the willful kind

An argument from ignorance is a conclusion that a proposition is false because it has not been proven to be true. When it comes to the impacts of unconventional natural gas development, Pennsylvania is suffering from an acute case of such arguments that grows in severity with each new revelation.

The first Pennsylvania instance of this faulty reasoning was a study that found no evidence of water contamination as a result of hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania's Marcellus region - because monitoring infrastructure and technology have not kept pace with drilling.

The second Pennsylvania instance was a revelation last year that the state does not track - or event count - the number of letters it issues as a result of investigations of water quality damage complaints. This was despite the fact that, as it later came to light, oil and gas development in the state contaminated water supplies at least 243 times since 2007.

The latest Pennsylvania instance comes in a story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that's profoundly troubling. What the P-G reports is that this third instance is the most egregious of all - a case of willful ignorance:

Three widely cited state studies of air emissions at Marcellus Shale gas development sites in Pennsylvania omit measurements of key air toxics and calculate the health risks of just two of more than two dozen pollutants.
State regulators and the shale gas drilling industry over the past four years have repeatedly used the regional studies to support their positions that air emissions from drilling, fracking wastewater impoundments and compressor stations don’t pose a public health risk...
Not only did the DEP not calculate the vast majority of chemical hazards, but its determination that public health would not be harmed was not made by anyone with training in medicine, toxicology or environmental or occupational health...
This apparently willful ignorance is intolerable.  It places lives potentially at risk.  It must be corrected immediately - and investigated thoroughly.  Those responsible for such willful ignorance must be held to account.

Monday, October 20, 2014

TX uses fracking income to create public trust fund. Why not PA?

A Texas fund that collects rents and royalties from oil and natural gas development has built the largest education endowment in the country.

StateImpactPA reports that:

The publicly run endowment, called the Permanent School Fund, is worth $37.7 billion dollars. That’s $1.3 billion more than Harvard University’s $36.4 billion endowment. Jim Suydam, a spokesperson for the Texas General Land Office, says a big part of the story is the shale gas boom...
The Permanent School Fund dates back to the 1800′s, to the time when Texas was an independent public and had more land than cash. So lawmakers tied government lands to a special fund that helps build and maintain public schools. In essence, the state fund is a giant landowner that leases its surface and mineral rights to private companies, and charges a 25 percent royalty on the oil and gas. The Permanent School Fund also leases land to cattle ranchers and sells water rights.
A long-overdue severance tax on natural gas production in Pennsylvania could fund something similar for education and other needed investments. But I've proposed the creation of an analogous - but specialized - conservation trust fund for PennsylvaniaThe conservation trust fund would be created from royalty income from existing state forest natural gas leasing - income that's currently being squandered - over $225 million this fiscal year alone - on stopgap budget fixes. 

The state forest is being damaged by natural gas development.  The first use of state income resulting from that development should be to mitigate that damage and conserve the public's forest - something our state's constitution requires.  Investing income drawn from the public's lands in a public trust fund could also fund urgently needed investments in state parks and forests and statewide conservation - and, properly managed - endow those same powerful economic engines long after the gas ceases to flow.

If Texas can resist the urge to spend every nickle as soon as it comes into the state treasury, and instead take the fiscally conservative course of thinking about the future and investing in it, so can Pennsylvania.

Will we?

Friday, October 17, 2014

Study: fracking won't save the climate

A new peer-reviewed study from researchers in several nations, published in the journal Nature, finds that abundant global natural gas supplies will reduce coal use, but also crowd out nuclear and renewable energy as well, providing little if any climate benefit overall through 2050.

Limited impact on decadal-scale climate change from increased use of natural gas used separate computer models of the effects of abundant global supplies, and finds that: 
Future CO2 emissions are similar in magnitude with and without abundant gas, as the two emission trajectories continue to rise over time at similar rates. 
This really isn’t a surprise, as readers of this blog know. See, for example, here, here, and here.

The critical piece of the study was that its models were run assuming current greenhouse-gas reduction policies.  Those policies are totally inadequate to prevent climate catastropheLeveraging the attributes of natgas-fired electricity to intentionally build a short bridge to a renewable future is where the world must go.  That will not happen on its own. In the end, it’s all about policy, and that includes requiring CCS for all fossil fueled electricity.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Study: fracking caused 100's of small earthquakes in Ohio

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that a new study has found that hydraulic fracturing - not waste injection - triggered hundreds of small, unnoticeable earthquakes in eastern Ohio late last year:
The report, which appears in the November issue of the journal Seismological Research Letters, identified nearly 400 tremors on a previously unmapped fault in Harrison County between Oct. 1 and Dec. 13, 2013.
That included 10 quakes of magnitudes of 1.7 to 2.2. That’s intense enough to have temporarily halted activity under Ohio’s new drilling permit rules had they been in place at the time, but is still considered minor.
The quakes fell along a fault lying directly under three hydraulic fracturing operations and tended to coincide with nearby activity, researchers found. About 190 quakes were detected in a single three-day period last October, beginning within hours of the start of fracking. None of the quakes was reported felt by people.
These quakes are in addition to five tremors in March, 2014 near Youngstown that state geologists concluded were caused by fracking activity near a previously unknown fault.  That incident spawned new state regulations aimed at limiting the possibility of seismic events related to unconventional oil and gas development.

The newest study supports the wisdom of Ohio's adoption of those regs - and the need for similar measures in other states.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

NETL to launch fracking lab; are there other pathways to change?

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the National Energy Technology Laboratory will launch a working shale oil and gas laboratory, which will be used to test technologies that could get more oil and gas out of each well and simultaneously lessen the environmental impact of the industry.

Among NETL's interests is the "holy grail" of waterless fracking using liquified natural gas. As the story notes:

Companies have successfully fracked with carbon dioxide, nitrogen and propane. But those are expensive and often impractical.
I've argued - repeatedly - that full-cost accounting of all of the risks and costs associated with the use of water and chemicals in fracking may make the business case for the so-called "futuristic" technologies and get them deployed a lot sooner than under the current business-as-usual paradigm. And that the same accounting should drive the development of regulations that encourage the growth of these technologies.

Investing in technological development is an important and necessary function of government. But a new paradigm is needed to drive technology in the direction of sustainability.  How much more quickly could we reach NETL's goals if business decisionmaking and regulatory development were fully aligned with them?