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Friday, March 8, 2013

One sixth of US (and twice that of PA) leased for oil/gas exploration

A new analysis from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) finds that at the end of 2011, 70 of the largest oil and gas companies operating in the United States held leases covering at least 141 million net acres of American land—an area approximately the size of California and Florida combined, and equal to one sixth of the total US landmass.  Federal lands made up 38.5 million acres of the total —an area slightly bigger than Florida.  

It's a good bet, according to the Congressional Research Service, that 90% of the wells that will be drilled on all that acreage will use hydraulic fracturing

The implications of these staggering figures are obvious, complex - and yet, I would suggest, largely not well-understood.  In Pennsylvania at least, we're still in the early days of what promises to be decades more drilling.  The cumulative impacts of all that drilling and fracking need careful study, monitoring, analysis, and regulation. They demand industry best practice.  More fundamentally, comprehensive, landscape-level development planning must be required of oil and gas companies to avoid, minimize, and mitigate (in that order) impacts on air, water, wildlife, and all that land - particularly land that's held in public trust.  

I've written in this blog about the many calls for such planning by industry leaders, investors, Federal and state governments, and leading national and international NGOs. And there's evidence that that kind of smart planning can not only minimize impacts but also save the industry money in the process. But progress on the ground in implementing smart planning is, at best, slow, and certainly not universal. That must change - especially in light of NRDC's analysis. 

How does Pennsylvania stack up?  There are at least seven million acres of Pennsylvania's 27 million acres leased for gas development.  And the number may be as high as 10 million acres, according to a senior executive of a major exploration and production company that I've spoken to. So, between a quarter and a third of all of Penn's Woods is leased for gas development - twice the national average.  And 700,000 acres of that total is state forest land where the Commonwealth either does not own the mineral rights or has leased the land for gas extraction. That's a third of the 2.2 million acre publicly-owned state forest.

So arguably, the potential cumulative impacts of natural gas development in Pennsylvania are far greater than they are nationally.

We - citizens of gas-producing states, and all Americans - have a lot riding on how well government and industry perform in stewarding privately and publicly-owned land.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Is CCS a "dead man walking"?

This must-read article succinctly voices the argument that carbon capture and storage technology, while viewed as urgently needed,  "looks like a dead man walking"  absent the imposition of an aggressive carbon tax.  

Author Chris Nelder cites four main reasons for his assessment:

  1. the cost - in dollars and energy - of the technology is so high - he provides a revealing table from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office - that only a carbon tax could level the playing field for CCS;
  2. the existence of cheaper alternatives - including a rapidly expanding solar market that finds more and more instances where solar is at or below grid parity without subsidies
  3. the need for massive government subsidies for the technology; and 
  4. the chronic inability of at-scale CCS demonstration projects to get off the ground. 
About the only thing that Nelder may have missed in making the cost argument is that energy efficiency alternatives, too, may compare very favorably with CCS investments at current costs.

All that said, conditions could change.  Capture technology is evolving - though not rapidly enough.  And the shale gas boom could, with CCS, morph from to a near zero carbon form of energy. Given what at this point is the need for an "all of the above" strategy to combat disastrous climate disruption, I think research and demonstrations of CCS should continue - with a vastly enhanced sense of urgency. At least, CCS could be viewed as another hedge that may be needed to soften the coming climate blows.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Aging infrastructure is an existential threat to shale gas

The Environmental Defense Fund is doing critically important work to understand the complex issue of methane leakage – not only from the production of natural gas, but along the entire supply chain, to end-use in natural gas vehicles. EDF will also focus on the gathering and processing, long distance transmission and storage, and local distribution of natural gas.   EDF aims to complete the entire two-year, $10 million effort by December 2013.

EDF is likely to find some troubling data on many fronts. Perhaps the most troubling will have to do with our nation’s aging infrastructure. It’s not just roads, bridges, water and sewer systems (to name a few) that are failing across the country.

According to The Washington Post, Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment has found that Boston’s aging gas transmission infrastructure had 3,356 leaks.  Duke has collected data on methane leaks under Washington D.C.’s roads as well and found, in the words of Professor Rob Jackson, that “Washington is at least as leaky as Boston, if not more,” Jackson said. “It looks like it has both more leaks and bigger leaks than Boston.”

Leaked methane is lost product – and lost profits – for production companies and utilities.  Worse, it’s tremendously damaging to global climate that has already past several tipping points and is headed for catastrophe. So, it may not be a stretch to conclude that the nation's aging gas distribution infrastructure is an existential threat to the shale gas era.

EDF’s findings, and the great work of universities like Duke, must be used to help guide how companies, states and the federal government measure, monitor and manage methane emissions.

But if we are to achieve the climate benefits of the shale gas era, we must not only get the rules right.  We must as a nation face up to a task we have so far utterly failed (despite huge economic benefits) to shoulder – the rehabilitation and modernization our deteriorated national infrastructure.

April 4, 2013 Update: High leakage rates in Manhattan's natgas infrastructure identified

April10, 2013 Update: As part of the EDF study mentioned above, a Washington State University research team will begin this month to quantify methane leaks on natural gas lines and use the information to estimate a national methane emissions rate for US gas-distribution systems.