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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Can frack fluids migrate upwards to groundwater? New study says yes

A new study by hydrologic consultant Tom Meyers that was published in the journal Ground Water has concluded that fracking chemicals injected into the ground in the Marcellus Shale could migrate toward drinking water supplies, and do so  far more quickly than experts have previously predicted.
Meyers has also studied a case of groundwater contamination in Pavilion, Wyoming on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council (full disclosure: I have recently completed a consulting engagement with NRDC), the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Sierra Club and the Oil and Gas Accountability Project. There, Myers concluded that fracking was indeed the cause of the contamination.
Scientists and the gas industry have claimed that thousands of feet of impermeable layers of rock between the Marcellus shale bed and groundwater supplies would keep fracking fluid, which contains benzene and other dangerous chemicals, safely isolated nearly a mile below those water supplies. Indeed, as I wrote in an article for Energy Dimensions, a new UK study suggested that the risk of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing is very low, and that it can be virtually eliminated if fracking is stopped a minimum of 600 meters from aquifers. 
The Meyers Marcellus study used computer modeling and concluded that natural faults and fractures in the Marcellus, and the effects of high-pressure fracking itself, could allow chemicals to reach the surface in as little as "just a few years."
Who is right? We urgently need more science to find the answer. 

UPDATE:  More on the study and reaction to it here.  I am told that the industry will be responding tomorrow or Monday. I will post that response as well.

Level the tilted energy playing field

Two new articles by Stanford University scholars say that America's approach to clean energy needs to be reformed if it is to meaningfully affect energy security or the environment. Renewable energy technologies must survive without major subsidies, they argue.   

True enough.
The Breakthrough Institute and Brookings Institution have offered smart policy reforms that would put clean tech on a path to subsidy independence, make efficient use of scarce public dollars, and drive constant improvement in these crucial technologies.  Renewed investment in research, development and demonstration (RD&D), and in US manufacturing capability and workforce development are needed if clean energy is to prosper. After all, the shale gas revolution that today is putting pressure on renewable energy deployment was made possible by government subsidies and investment in RD&D.
But the Stanford scholars go further.  They say that clean energy must compete dollar-for-dollar against fossil fuel-based energy. Public subsidies for these technologies should be judged not just in total dollar amounts, they argue, but also per unit of energy produced.
This approach would introduce an enormous bias against clean energy. It’s not just about gigawatts. But let’s start there.
It’s absurd to suggest that the oil and gas industry is primarily – or solely - guided by Adam Smith’s invisible hand, while clean energy must be weaned from the Mother’s milk of subsidies.  A 2009 report by the Environmental Law Institute (ELI) found that the federal government provides substantially larger subsidies to fossil fuels than to renewables. Subsidies to fossil fuels totaled about $72 billion between 2002 and 2008, while subsidies for renewable fuels totaled $29 billion over the same period. Worse, the study found that subsidies to fossil fuels generally increased over the study period. Worst of all, the largest fossil fuels subsidies are in fact written into the U.S. Tax Code as permanent provisions. In contrast, many subsidies for renewable energy are short-term incentives that carry expiration dates, limiting their usefulness in stimulating investment. 

A dollar-for-dollar comparison of our energy sources must also internalize all of the costs that the fossil fuel industry has successfully externalized.  The costs of aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf – of our nation’s blood and treasure - must be included in any fair accounting of the true cost of oil.  The 2005 Energy Policy Act exempted natural gas production from several longstanding environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).  And the environmental and public health impacts of coal production and combustion are immense. 

Add in the costs of global climate disruption, of the threats it poses to our national security, of  extreme weather that is now the norm, and the impacts of climate disruption on businesses generally as fossil-fueled global climate disruption races ahead, and we get closer to a fair accounting with which we can judge our energy choices. 

We need to have a rational discussion about those energy choices and their consequences, and a real plan to optimize the benefits of the natural gas boom by using it as the bridge to a renewable future.

UPDATE: Here is a must-read article on Federal subsidies for solar energy

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Geologic carbon storage atlas released

On May 1, the U.S. Department of Energy and partners released the first-ever atlas mapping the potential carbon dioxide storage capacity in North America – capacity that has been estimated at 500 years’ worth of current emissions.

Identifying areas where carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and factories can be stored is part of the daunting challenge of allowing for the continued burning fossil fuels without catastrophic climate disruption.  But the atlas' identification of shale beds as potential storage resources illustrates yet another challenge.  As I have blogged previously, drilling theses shale beds for natural gas could preclude their future use as storage locations. 

Natural gas when burned for electricity production is 50% cleaner than coal when it comes to carbon emissions.  It thereby reduces carbon dioxide storage requirements by a similar amount, or, viewed another way, doubles the life of storage resources. But drilling for that gas also may render huge chunks of storage space unusable.

There are no easy solutions, and more scientific work on this potential conflict is needed.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Global water cycle intensification from climate disruption an imminent threat

Mother Jones today reports on new research that finds that the salinity of the world’s oceans is changing rapidly due to a warming atmosphere, and that this is resulting in an intensification of the global water cycle of evaporation and precipitation –- by an “incredible” 4 percent between 1950 and 2000. That's twice the rate predicted by models. 
These same models have long forecast that as a result of global climate disruption, dry areas of Earth will become drier and wet areas wetter. There will be more desertification and more flooding.  The availability of freshwater will change drastically – something that will be far more destabilizing to human societies and ecosystems than warming alone.  But it’s all happening much faster than the models predicted.  At this rate, the global water cycle will intensify by a frightening 24 percent in a 3°C warmer worldBut International Energy Agency warns that the world is on track for warming of 6°C by the end of the century.
If this new research is correct, we ain’t seen nuthin yet.
We must take action now.