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Saturday, July 27, 2013

CAP: U.S. natural gas use must peak by 2030

A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) finds that the use of natural gas for electricity generation must peak by 2030 if the United States “is to meet its climate goals and avoid the worst impacts of global warming.”

The CAP report underscores what has long been recognized: that to meet the internationally-accepted target of keeping global temperature within 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the U.S. will have to cut its CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050.  Because of that – even though gas emits only half the CO2 of coal when burned for electricity - natural gas is only a near-term climate tool – and that only if methane emissions from the entire natural gas value chain are minimized.

The only way that natural gas can have a longer-term role in our energy portfolio without exacerbating climate disruption is - as I and others have noted - for carbon capture and storage technology to be applied to natgas power plants. That seems unlikely at the moment.  The natgas industry is asleep at the switch.

But CAP’s focus on natural gas is, alas, more academic than reality-based.  Coal-fired electricity generation and U.S. carbon emissions have come roaring back as natural gas prices rebound and begin to rise beyond the very narrow band where gas can displace (artificially) cheap coal. U.S. Energy Information Administration data show that natural gas-fired generation is down 13.4% in the first 5 months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012.  Coal generation is up 11% and is displacing gas.  

It's obvious that The Invisible Hand will not lead us out of our self-imposed climate peril - unless an accurate price is placed on carbon, now. If we lack the political will to impose that price, and to reduce coal use, focusing on the limited climate utility of natgas strikes me as missing the much larger point.

Still, the CAP report is a sobering reminder of the immensity of the climate and energy challenge we face – and of the urgent need to start making decisions – and choices – now. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Landmark or mile post?

Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Energy revealed that the preliminary results of a study of one Western Pennsylvania Marcellus natural gas well over a one year period has so far showed no evidence that fracking fluids had migrated upwards to contaminate drinking water.

According to published reports that are worth reading,  the drilling fluids used in the Greene County, PA well were tagged with tracer chemicals.  Those chemicals weren't detected in a monitoring zone 5,000 feet below the surface - almost a mile below groundwater, which is typically found at depths of about 500 feet.  The study also showed that most of the man-made fractures for that well traveled just a few hundred feet; one fracture traveled 1,800 feet out from the well bore.  Still, all of the fractures were at least 6,000 feet below the surface - a mile below any drinking water.

The study is an important one.  But is it - as some suggest - a landmark?  I think it's more of a milestone in a longer journey.  The study is of one well, and the results so far are from one year.  These preliminary results do not represent a clean bill of health for fracking. The study is ongoing.  Kathryn Klaber, CEO of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, was quoted in reaction to the study as saying, commendably, that "It's important that we continue to seek partnerships that can study these issues and inform the public of the findings." I could not agree more.  Indeed, the use of tracer chemicals for monitoring efforts should become the industry standard, and required in regulation.

So, the data so far say that the primary threats to drinking water from fracking are surface leaks and spills of fracking fluids and wastewater; methane migration due to cementing and casing errors or shoddy practices; and improper disposal of drilling wastewater.  All of those threats  can be minimized with excellent industry practice and strong regulations and enforcement.  And they can be further reduced - if not avoided altogether - with the development of waterless fracking technologies.

Maryland update

Two updates on my work in Maryland, for those of you who are keeping score.

First, here is an article that appeared in Maryland's Daily Record on July 21. The context provided by the Daily Record is accurate - and quite a bit clearer than some have suggested.

Second, yesterday, I had the privilege of making a presentation to Maryland's Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission on comprehensive development planning at their 19th public meeting. That statistic alone is impressive and speaks volumes about the commitment of Governor O'Malley, the state departments of Environment and Natural Resources, and the hard-working commissioners to thorough, transparent work. 

Another impressive fact was the strong attendance by citizens - attending the meeting on a weekday afternoon in the middle of summer.  

I'm not sure if anyone from Food and Water Watch was present in the audience.  If they were, they kept it to themselves.  If no one from the group was there, or if they were represented and stayed anonymous during the meeting's public comment/Q&A period, that says a lot, in my view.
My presentation to the Commission was followed by an extended round of tough, fair, knowledgeable, and intense questioning by Commission members.  Later, I had the opportunity to field more incisive questions from the obviously well-informed audience. 

I think that the Commission process and the public's participation in it augurs well for Maryland as it wrestles transparently with the complexities of potential shale gas development in the Old Line State.

Monday, July 22, 2013

What do citizens and policy makers need to know about fracking?

As I've written previously, this Wednesday and Thursday, I'll be participating in working group sessions and a public forum on Science, Democracy and Community Decisions on Fracking at UCLA Law School in Los Angeles, an event hosted by The Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists

I'll be joining over 60 experts from business, academia, NGOs, law, government, and the media in this important event.

I'll be participating on the event's Understanding the Regulatory Landscape panel.  I'm looking forward to a dynamic interaction and real dialogue about all of the complicated issues surrounding unconventional oil and gas development.  I hope it will serve to elevate the public discussion about the state of the science around hydraulic fracturing, the state and federal policy landscape, and what citizens and policy makers need to know to make informed decisions on oil and gas development that involves hydraulic fracturing.

You can watch the webcast of Thursday's public event by registering here.