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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Recycling and fracking's water footprint

The oil and gas industry says that 90 percent of Pennsylvania’s fracking wastewater is reused or recycled.  That’s a good thing.

But how much of a good thing is it, really?  This article provides an answer to that question.  And the answer is - not nearly as good as it sounds.

It describes a study conducted last year by the environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies that attempted to trace the use of water in hydraulic fracturing. Researchers looked at water use - from withdrawal to ultimate disposal of resulting wastewater - at several wells in the Marcellus Shale formation in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

  • Approximately 4.3 million gallons of fluid are injected per fractured well.
  • On average, only 6% of injected fluid is recaptured. The remaining 94% remains underground, permanently removed from the hydrologic cycle.
Recycling 90% (maybe – more on this below) of the 6% that’s recaptured doesn’t sound nearly as good, does it?

The fact that 94% of water used for every frack job is permanently removed from the hydrologic cycle is far more troubling that the industry’s stereotypical, out-of-context touting of a high recycling percentage. The report doesn’t describe what the cumulative impacts of that permanent removal might be over the course of the next several decades, as perhaps hundreds of thousands of wells are fracked.

And refracked. The report says: 
Marcellus well production begins to decline significantly after the first or second year and requires re-stimulation with new water injections after five to ten years.
The report says only this: 
While a considerable amount of flowback fluid is now being reused and recycled, the data suggest that it still displaces only a small percentage of freshwater withdrawals, which will limit its benefits except in times of drought where small percentages could be important. While West Virginia and Pennsylvania are generally water-rich states, these findings indicate that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations could have significant impacts on water resources in more arid areas of the country. However, if existing techniques are applied to the much deeper and thicker Utica Shale that lies below the Marcellus, than (sic) even water-rich regions could find that shale gas operations make water supplies vulnerable.
In short, the true scale of water impacts can still only be estimated, and considerable improvements in industry reporting, data collection and sharing, and regulatory enforcement are needed. The challenge of appropriately handling a growing volume of waste to avoid environmental harm will continue to loom large unless such steps are taken.
There’s an urgent need for a lot more science on this subject, in my view. And for more and better data on water use. On that subject, the report said that there are: 
critical gaps…that prevent researchers, policymakers, and the public from attaining a full picture of trends. Given this, it is highly likely that much more water is being withdrawn and more waste is being generated than is known. 
The report recommended to: 
  • Require operators to report all aspects of water use and waste production, treatment, and disposal along the entire life cycle of shale gas extraction.
  • Effectively enforce new rules governing surface water withdrawals and increase oversight of industry surface water withdrawals in order to protect rivers and streams.
  • Develop new methods to reduce water and waste at all stages of shale gas production.
There is good work being done by individual drilling companies on water recycling and alternative water sources, and important innovations coming from companies that service them.  But it is not enough to avoid short- and long-term conflicts between fracking and other water users - and a healthy environment.  Full life cycle water use tracking and reporting must be required, and business processes and regulation must both drive to a goal of waterless fracking.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Wisdom! Be attentive!

During my two terms (forgive the off-topic, self-serving link, or ignore it) as Mayor of my home town about a million years ago, I remember attending a service at a Greek Orthodox church. When it came time for the scripture reading, the priest sang out an admonition.

“Wisdom! Be attentive!”

For some reason, that chant came back to me as I read this from Michael Mazerov of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

It seems that entrepreneurs and business executives of high-growth companies are a pretty smart bunch – smarter than most elected officials who think they can lure them to their states by cutting taxes and starving essential public services like parks. As Mazerov writes:   
Cutting state taxes to attract entrepreneurs is likely futile at best and self-defeating at worst, a new survey of founders of some of the country’s fastest-growing companies suggests.  The study, which is consistent with other research, should be required reading for state policymakers…
The 150 executives surveyed by Endeavor Insight, a research firm that examines how entrepreneurs contribute to job creation and long-term economic growth, said a skilled workforce and high quality of life were the main reasons why they founded their companies where they did; taxes weren’t a significant factor.  This suggests that states that cut taxes and then address the revenue loss by letting their schools, parks, roads, and public safety deteriorate will become less attractive to the kinds of people who found high-growth companies… The new survey… found that:
  • “The most common reason cited by entrepreneurs for launching their business in a given city was that it was where they lived at the time.  The entrepreneurs who cited this reason usually mentioned their personal connections to their city or specific quality of life factors, such as access to nature or local cultural attractions.”
  • "31% of founders cited access to talent as a factor in their decision on where to launch their company. . . .  A number of founders also highlighted the link between the ability to attract talented employees and a city’s quality of life.”
This rightfully turns the conventional "wisdom" of how to make states "attractive to businesses" inside out.  Instead of cutting taxes and public services, when it comes to attracting high-growth businesses, focus on making states more attractive for the entrepreneurs to live in with high-quality services.  What a concept!

It’s already well-established that conservation - and state parks - are proven job generators. But there’s real wisdom in the these findings – about natural resource conservation and using access to nature as the most effective path to attracting high-growth companies and high-wage jobs.  That wisdom also benefits all of us.  Will public officials be attentive? 

Monday, February 17, 2014

100% renewables by 2050? Really?

The Solutions Project makes the provocative claim that our nation can get all of its energy from renewables by 2050, and has offered state-by-state plans to get us there.

The abstract  for its report: 100% Wind, Water, Sunlight(WWS) All-Sector Energy Plans for the 50 United States says this:
This study presents roadmaps for each of the 50 United States to convert their all-purpose energy infrastructure (for electricity, transportation, heating/cooling, industry) to ones derived entirely from wind, water, and solar (WWS) power generating electricity and electrolytic hydrogen after energy efficiency measures are accounted for. The numbers of devices, footprint and spacing areas, energy costs, numbers of jobs, air pollution and climate benefits, and policies needed for the conversions are provided for each state. The plans contemplate all new energy powered with WWS by 2020, about 80-85% of existing energy replaced by 2030, and 100% replaced by 2050. Electrification plus modest efficiency measures would reduce each state’s end-use power demand by a mean of 37.3% with ~85-90% due to electrification, and stabilize energy prices since WWS fuel costs are zero.
More details can be found here.

Pennsylvania’s “solution” is presented in this graphic:

We’ve all heard the adage "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” Indeed, recently four top climate scientists raised the concern that renewable energy can't scale up in the same time frame as proposed here.  But a very quick review of the roadmaps and the FAQs raises a few points to ponder: 
  • The plan proposes a total electrification of the economy, including industry and transportation. A complete transformation. Think revolution, not evolution.  
  • “Modest” energy efficiency measures include replacing every appliance, insulating every home and building in the nation, (vastly) expanding public transit, and changing out the nation’s entire vehicle fleet.
  • The capital costs of scaling all of the technologies prescribed (some of which are far from market-ready), of electrifying the economy, of providing a brand new (ground, at least) transportation system and fueling infrastructure, and re-doing the nation’s building stock and the systems that run them are not specifically provided. Just getting off coal and oil has been estimated by one expert to cost around $6 trillion. The resultant costs of electricity is an analysis I'll leave to others.
  • The footprint calculations apparently do not seem to include the necessary transmission infrastructure that would be needed to take advantage of all that renewable energy.  The National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) has said that it's possible to get to 80% renewable energy by 2050 with currently-available technologies, but as I wrote here: 
Getting to 80 percent renewables implies the need for construction of 110-190 million miles of new transmission and 47-80,000 miles of new intertie capacity, according to NREL...there will be enormous habitat fragmentation and myriad other impacts as transmission towers and power lines spiderweb across the landscape.
  • The policy prescriptions that the authors claim can drive all of this appear a bit thin, if not facile. To be sure, the climate and public health benefits surely need to be monetized and included in any calculation of the true cost of energy. That addition to our energy calculus is long overdue.
The report is certainly provocative, and maybe it’s inspiring. I’m sure it’s intended to be both – and should be, if we are to envision a fundamentally different way of powering our nation, and the world. And while NETL and others have shown that the hurdles we face are not technological, but much more economic and fundamentally political, getting to energy Nirvana is much easier said than done.  Beware oversimplification of a wildly complex issue.