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Friday, May 18, 2012

Fracking bans and frying pans

France and Bulgaria have banned hydraulic fracturing.   Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin has signed into law the first state ban on hydraulic fracturing (though it is largely symbolic).  A National Day Of Action against fracking has been scheduled for July 28th in Washington, DC. .

What’s the connection?  

Concerns about fracking are real and urgent.  They should not ever be minimized.  They must – and in my view can – be addressed by government AND industry – though we are a long way from doing so. The peril of climate disruption is arguably even more urgent, and it’s long past time to act on a scale commensurate with the crisis. Action requires that choices be made – short- and long-term.  Natural gas – responsibly produced - presents an immediate opportunity – a choice - to reduce carbon emissions from electricity generation by half and pave the way to renewable energy growth that we are not making fully.  I’m not convinced that we have a better choice.

Can fracking and climate protection be reconciled?

If fracking opponents engage about climate change, a typical response that I’ve heard from very well-intentioned people is that we must rely on energy efficiency, skip over gas, and go right to 100% renewable energy.  It’s possible, they say. Studies have shown it.  Possible, alas, does not mean probable.  One study calculates that, globally, getting to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 would require building the equivalent of about twenty million 2 MW wind turbines, 1.7 billion 3 kW roof-mounted solar photovoltaic systems, and around 90,000 300 MW solar power plants.  Those are mind-numbing numbers that ignore costs, resource requirements (a lot more mining of precious metals, for example), manufacturing constraints, infrastructure requirements, and of course, all-too-absent political will.   

Let’s take just the case of the United States, then.   This sobering analysis suggest that – ignoring costs - to reach just 80 percent “clean energy” by 2035which includes a continued reliance on natural gas for about 20 percent of U.S. electricity would require, for example, about 185,000 2-megawatt wind turbines (that’s 22 such turbines erected every day for the next 23 years) or over 700 large (500-megawatt) solar farms to be built.  The largest current solar project in the US is about 10% of that size. These projects would also require overhauling the entire national electricity grid and developing scalable energy storage technologies.  And the same missing political will.

What about efficiency?  The author of the above analysis says that “even if everyone in the U.S. changed all their incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent lights, it would still only save about one percent of the total electricity needed to meet the 80 percent target.”

That, of course, is an obvious, serious oversimplification. There are vast opportunities to be had in efficiency gainsWe must invest in and realize these gains.  And we must make a major shift to renewable energy by adjusting our energy policies to drive renewable energy growth.  In even the most visionary approaches to a low carbon economy, however, gas would provide a quarter of our electricity.  Practically, then, we must expand the currently very limited role of distributed generation and smart grids and use natural gas as the vehicle that propels that development, while reducing carbon emissions from electricity generation by half.  Then we must reduce the remaining emissions by 90%, by applying carbon capture and storage technology to all fossil-fueled electricity.

Those are all choices - along with tougher fracking rules, and more science to address fracking’s unknowns - that we can make right now.

We have jumped from the frying pan to the fire. Will we be consumed?   

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Buffalo or Bull?

The University at Buffalo's (UB) Shale Resources and Society Institute has issued a report, "Environmental Impacts During Shale Gas Drilling: Causes, Impacts and Remedies," which offers a quantitative data review of Pennsylvania's regulation of hydraulic fracturing of natural gas from January 2008 through August 2011.  One of the study’s stated purposes is to ease drilling fears in New York State, where a de facto moratorium on drilling is still in place.

The two principal authors released economic impact “analyses” of Marcellus drilling in Pennsylvania in 2010 and again just a year later in 2011 that were sponsored by the Marcellus Shale Coalition.  The studies were used successfully by the industry to beat back the enactment of a reasonable severance tax on gas production in Pennsylvania.  The UB study does not disclose the source of its funding.  But it does – incongruously - contain more economic "analysis."  Why was THAT included in a report on environmental violations, I wonder? 

I will be blunt.  In my view, the study attempts to put the best possible face on the gas industry’s environmental record in Pennsylvania.  But judge for yourself.  The study breaks down this top level data:

Between January 2008 and August 2011, there were 2,988 violations of Pennsylvania environmental regulations by the natural gas industry.  The study does not indicate whether the rate of inspection stayed constant, decreased, or increased – a rather important piece of data.  Of those almost three thousand violations - according to the study’s methodology - 1,844, or 62 percent, were administrative in nature or issued to prevent pollution from occurring. The remaining 38 percent, or 1,144 notices of violations, were for environmental violations.  (Again, you be the judge of the methodology.)  Further, those 1,144 violations stemmed from 845 unique environmental “events”.

The study defined “major environmental events” to include major site restoration failures, serious contamination of local water supplies, major land spills, blowouts and venting, and gas migration.  The UB study identified 25 such “major environmental events” in the 44 months studied.  Appendix B, a summary of the major violations, makes for interesting reading.  

The study adds that “In all but six cases, the resulting environmental impacts from major events have been mitigated.”  That leaves, by my calculation, 24 percent of major environmental impacts that have not been mitigated.

Three out of four isn’t bad?

Further: “Non-major environmental events concern site restoration, water contamination, land spills, and cement and casing events that do not involve what is classified as having major environmental impact.”

Reassuring, right? 

The UB study found that the incidence of polluting environmental events declined 60 percent between 2008 and August 2011, from 52.9 percent of all wells drilled in 2008 to 20.8 percent through August 2011.  The authors stated, “On this basis, the Marcellus industry has cut its incidence of environmental violations by more than half in three years, a rather notable indicator of improvement by the industry and oversight by the regulators.”

So the industry’s rate of failure has fallen from 53 percent of all wells drilled to 21 percent of all wells drilled. This is supposed to be reassuring?

Based solely on the data presented in the UB study, the industry's performance has improved.  Fair enough.  But there are still too many violations of state environmental laws. The number of violations is declining only as a fraction of wells drilled, not in absolute numbers.  Serious violations and pollution incidents continue to occur, and a quarter of those that have occurred have yet to be mitigated. 

Hundreds of violations is not a statistic that the industry can be proud of, nor is it acceptable.

The gas industry can and must do better.  

Fracking studies on the rise reports today that the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council (NRC) plans to launch a preliminary review of the potential human and environmental risks of shale gas development, and in particular hydraulic fracturing.   The initial review could lead to comprehensive nation-wide study of the direct and indirect risks associated with shale gas extraction.

The studies are propelled by continuing public alarm over the risks of shale gas development, the industry’s continued resistance to more stringent regulation at state and Federal levels, and what has appeared to be lip service from the industry about addressing public concerns.

NRC is the latest Federal agency to enter the fracking fray.  EPA is conducting a study of the impact of fracking on drinking water and last year, the Secretary of Energy’s Shale Gas Subcommittee made recommendations how to make the process safer. Further, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) is reportedly looking into health risks of fracking. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies is working to identify human health concerns associated with shale gas development and examine potential frameworks, such as health impact assessments, for filling some of the data gaps.  With over ten thousand shale gas wells permitted in Pennsylvania alone, and with the industry galloping ahead nationwide, there is a lot of catching up to do.

The NRC project is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation, and will solicit stakeholder input on risks associated with natural gas production – including socioeconomic and other impacts - on rural communities.  NRC will then commission a series of papers to assess the knowledge base and state of science on those issues.  Once complete, NRC will conduct two workshops using those results - the first looking at the characterization of risks, and the second on governance.  That second workshop will reportedly include examining the exemptions of hydraulic fracturing from the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, and state regulatory regimes.

Meanwhile, here in Pensylvania, the Geisinger Health System wants to use its huge database of electronic health records to help researchers get definitive answers on the health impacts of gas drilling.

These studies put the spotlight on the proper role of government and of science in wrestling fracking’s issues to the ground.  State and Federal rules on fracking – and the industry’s own practices - should go where the science leads.  But this should not just be about studies by concerned interests outside of the gas industry.  There is opportunity here for the industry to lead. To engage with stakeholders in a deeper and more transparent way and embrace rules that will separate the best actors in the industry from the poorer ones. To arrive at a real win-win-win for the environment, the economy, and shareholders.  Will that happen?

Along with these studies, we must weigh the economic, security, and – critically, climate - benefits of shale gas, to arrive at the best policies to responsibly develop and use this resource and propel renewable energy development at the same time.

There is much work to do.

Monday, May 14, 2012

France’s Pennsylvania Connection

What happens in Pennsylvania doesn’t stay in Pennsylvania. 

Europe’s third-biggest oil company Total wants the incoming administration of Socialist President Francois Hollande to take a fresh look at rules barring exploration and production of shale gas resources in France.  Last June, French lawmakers voted to outlaw fracking, making France the first country in the world to enact such a ban.  (Earlier this year, Bulgaria became the second nation to enact a ban, reacting to nationwide protests.)  French President Nicolas Sarkozy said at the time that the ban would remain in effect until there is proof that shale gas exploration won’t harm the environment or “massacre” the landscape.

And as I wrote here, Pennsylvania’s experience with Marcellus Shale development is serving as a cautionary tale to the world.  I heard that directly from visiting French legislators, and from officials from several other European counties when they came to Pennsylvania for a first-hand look.
Total alone is producing natural gas from the Barnett Shale field in Texas, and plans to develop unconventional gas in Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, Denmark and Poland.  Allaying the concerns about fracking should be viewed by Total and the gas industry generally as the path of least resistance to global development of shale gas resources - the path to a win-win-win for the environment, the economy, and shareholders. 

What happens in Pennsylvania doesn’t stay in Pennsylvania.  Until the gas industry fully embraces that notion, it will find the path to shale gas development strewn with obstacles and wreckage of its own making.