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The Fracking Debate – The “Truth” about Gasland and water contamination

May 25, 2011 1 comment

One of the major concerns with regards to hydraulic fracturing is the potential for fracking fluids – specifically, the chemicals in them – to contaminate drinking water. The YouTube video titled “My Water’s on Fire Tonight” outlined this concern:

But there’s more in the water than just H2O
Toxic chemicals help to make the fluid flow
With names like benzene and formaldehyde
You better keep ‘em far away from the water supply

The drillers say the fissures are a mile below
The groundwater pumped into American homes
But don’t tell it to the residents of Sublette Wy-O
That water’s fracked…. We’re talking Benzene…

It is believed that there have been thousands of cases of groundwater contamination in the United States due to this fracking process. But, there is some debate on the validity of these claims. On May 13, Jamie L. Vernon, PhD wrote a post about the pro- and anti-fracking debate for Discover Magazine’s blog, The Intersection where he brought to light doubts surrounding claims of groundwater contamination. In his opinion:

…this is a hilarious production designed to draw attention to the fracking debate.  To be clear, my biggest concerns are not centered on the hydraulic fracturing fluid per se.  I feel the recent PNAS paper highlighted the much more worrisome problem of methane gas leakage.  In fact, the PNAS paper stated that there was no evidence of contamination of drinking water with deep saline brine or fracking fluids.

To be clear, this PNAS paper does not say that water contamination is not a potential problem with the fracking process. Instead, it indicates that recent claims of groundwater contamination in the United States might have been overstated.

Regardless of the validity of the water contamination claims, this concerns has captured American’s attention. Some of this success could be rooted in the success of the “Gasland”  documentary by Josh Fox. This movie focuses on the use of hydraulic fracturing to unlock natural gas stored in shale (rock) underground, and the potential negative environmental impacts of using this technology. But, it’s main anti-fracking argument centers on the potential for fracking to contaminate drinking water supplies, painting a highly negative picture for viewers.

Unsurprisingly, this documentary has received negative press and backlash from organizations including the organization called America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), a pro-natural gas association that promotes the use of natural gas in the United States.  In response to the Gasland documentary, ANGA supported the released of a short video – titled “The Truth About Gasland” – that puts a call out for “open, factual and fair dialogue” surrounding the development of the nation’s natural gas resources. In this video, the creators state that “the film “Gasland,” whatever the intentions of the filmmaker, has contributed to a dialogue based more on fear than facts. While it is a dramatic movie, ‘Gasland’ is a deeply flawed documentary that gets several important facts wrong. Learn more at http://ANGA.us/truthaboutgasland

Energy At the Movies at SXSW

April 29, 2011 1 comment

During this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW) interactive music and film festival in Austin, TX, an event was held to discuss Energy at the Movies. Hosted by Dr. Michael E. Webber of The University of Texas at Austin, this event focused on energy as it is portrayed in and influenced by the silver screen. After giving a lecture on this topic, Dr. Webber hosted a panel discussion with research scientist and author Sheril Kirshenbaum, film historian and UT film Professor Dr. Charles Ramirez-Berg, screenwriter and director Matthew Chapman, and producer Turk Pipkin. Yesterday, UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering released video of this discussion. If you’d like to check out the lecture that inspired this discussion, you can access the youtube video here.

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Battery Swapping to Beat E-Vehicle Blues?

Driving an electric vehicle has environmental upsides including zero tailpipe emissions and a significantly lower carbon footprint compared to most of the vehicles you see on the road today. But, it also comes with the downside of a limited driving radius – leading to “range anxiety,” which can prevent many would-be electric vehicle owners from taking the plunge.   However, a new approach to filling up the “tank” – via battery swapping – could put this anxiety to rest.

The new Nissan Leaf can get up to 110 miles per charge, according to online Leaf enthusiasts (the EPA vouches for 100 of those miles per charge). But, this number drops significantly if you like your air conditioning or radio. Even at the peak, this driving radius would be too small for a trip from Austin to Houston (at 163 miles), much less a family adventure to the Grand Canyon. The optional 50kW DC fast charging port could allow you to recharge to 80% in about 30 minutes, assuming you can find a place to plug-in. But, that’s still a 30+ minute stop for every hour or so of driving.

One option to extend this driving range is to forget about charging your battery – but, instead, swap it for a new one. The theory is pretty straightforward – just like filling your take with gas at a filling station, electric vehicle drivers can drive up to a battery swap station and replace their “empty” battery with a “full” one.

In Japan, this option is already being tested by high-mileage cab drivers. Last week, Israel announced its first battery replacement station for individual customers.

Now, this option still runs into the chicken-and-the-egg problem faced by natural gas vehicles today. Without extensive investment in swap stations throughout the US, there will not be enough swapping stations to get drivers from point A to point B. But, it might be viable in the shorter term with strategic investments in specific areas of the United States.
[Thanks to @AmoebaMike for mentioning this article to me via twitter @mclott]

Noble Energy Granted Gulf Deepwater Drilling Permit

Four months after President Obama officially lifted the moratorium on deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico a new drilling permit has been issued to Noble Energy Inc., a global independent energy company.  Their well, located 70 miles southeast of Venice, LA, will drill 6,500 feet below the water’s surface. This is the first permit to be issued since the April 2009 Deepwater Horizon explosion and resulting oil spill that released millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf. According to Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement:

This permit represents a significant milestone for us and for the offshore oil and gas industry, and is an important step towards safely developing deepwater energy supplies offshore… This permit was issued for one simple reason: The operator successfully demonstrated that it can drill its deepwater well safely and that it is capable of containing a subsea blowout if it were to occur.

The permit came only days before Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was set to defend the agency’s 2012 budget request in Washington, where Republicans have been critical of that office’s conservative approach to issuing new drilling permits after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

 

What if? Disruptions to world oil supplies

February 27, 2011 Leave a comment

What if…?

What if the uprisings that are currently spreading across northern Africa and the Middle East affected world oil supplies?

How would the world’s oil markets respond to a temporary loss of Middle East oil production (1/5th of the world’s oil production and 70% of its spare production capacity)?

Yesterday, David Wogan published a thoughtful post about the potential consequences of disruptions to our oil supply. He has been studying alternative transportation fuels at The University of Texas at Austin as a graduate student researcher for the past 3 years and it acutely aware of the sensitivity of the U.S. to disruptions to our oil supply. And, in the face of recent uprisings and unrest in northern Africa and the Middle East, David took a moment to discuss world oil markets and their sensitivity to changes in oil production levels.

Oil is traded on a world market, with tankers of crude constantly moving across the world’s oceans. It has become a world market in part because of its portability – it can be easily pumped and stored in its liquid form, unlike natural gas that must be compressed and stored in pressurized containers. Refined petroleum products, such as jet fuel, are also traded between countries. The United States, while a net importer of oil, still exports billions of barrels of refined products every year.

In his post, David explores what might happen if unrest in Egypt expanded into the Middle East, which is home to 1/5 of the world’s oil production and 70% of its spare capacity. He discusses the world oil market’s sensitivity to even small production disruptions, while discussing the particular sensitivity of the United States, which depends on petroleum to power (almost) its entire transportation fleet.

Our vehicle fleet is almost entirely depended on liquid petroleum, leaving us vulnerable to political crises around the world – regardless of where the oil comes from. Some would point to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as an option, but it is a short-term solution, and even then its long-term viability is questionable. Natural gas is also a global commodity, andenvironmental concerns about hydraulic fracturing make domestic production a tough deal to sell.

Therefore, the United States is left in a predicament where even though it might like to see a change of power in the Middle East, it is ill-prepared to deal with the outcomes.

Check out David’s post here. You can also follow him on twitter @davidwogan.

Note: Map above is from Wikimedia Commons and was found using Creative Commons. Graph was also obtained via Creative Commons.

AAAS Annual Meeting – Day 1 Favorite Session

February 18, 2011 Leave a comment

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Today was the first “full” day of the annual meeting for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This year, the meeting is being held in Washington, DC at the Washington Convention Center. It will run until Monday, hosting panel discussions and plenary speakers on a variety of science topics from sustainability to science and society aimed at giving scientists, engineers and journalists a chance to discuss not only the research topics that they explore, but the ways that they communicate their findings to the world.

Throughout the day, I attended portions of 6 sessions. My runaway favorite – “Science Without Borders and Media Unbounded: What comes next?” moderated by Bud Ward from Yale University’s Forum on Climate Change in the Media. The conference program provides the following summary for the discussion:

Climate science and “mainstream” journalism interests are undergoing what some call, in the case of journalism, an “epochal transformation.” The communications challenges facing climate science — manifested in part by widespread misunderstanding on the part of many in the public and their policy-makers — will play out against fundamental changes, shaking the very nature of journalism, communications, and science education communities, with blogs, list serves, and “tweets” increasingly complementing (or are they?) conventional journalism. Climate science and climate journalism in the end need each other if we’re to have a more informed and more engaged citizenry. Steps each sector takes during the coming months and years will help shape public and policy-makers’ understanding of the climate changes we all will face. In this session, one of the nation’s most respected students of modern journalism pairs with two journalism practitioners whose reporting frequently puts them in the public spotlight in responsibly informing the public about climate science and policy. The three share critical insights into navigating climate science communications in this “perfect storm” of an economic, geopolitical, scientific, and environmental issue. They serve up a feast for the climate science expert discussant to kick off an exchange with the audience.

Moderator: Bud Ward, Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media
Discussant: Kerry Emanuel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Speakers:
1. Tom Rosensteil, Project for Excellence in Journalism
2. Seth Borenstein, Associated Press
Reporting on Climate Change for a Wire Service
The combination of journalists and scientists in the room for this 90-minute discussion made for an engaging (and insightful) discussion. After the conference ends, I will be posting about this discussion on climate change science vs. climate change science journalism. In the meantime, please check out my twitter feed @mclott, as well as  #aaasmtg. David Wogan also ran a great twitter feed today (@davidwogan).
Tomorrow, there are many presentations that look interesting to me – including the following:

Court Upholds EPA’s Ability to Regulate Texas Emissions

January 13, 2011 1 comment
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Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Attorney General Greg Abbott, and Ag. Commissioner Todd Staples announce lawsuits against the EPA late last year

 

The Lone Star State has been fighting the Obama administration’s plan to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act since it was first announced back in 2009 – making it clear that they did not approve of federal oversight on this particular issue.  Yesterday, in a blow for Texas Governor Rick Perry, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the EPA had the right to issue greenhouse gas permits in Texas.

During this appeal, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (a Republican) argued that the EPA does not have the right to take over a state’s own greenhouse gas regulation programs. According to Abbott, the EPA should give Texas time to establish its own permitting structure, before stepping in with federal oversight. Even more fundamentally, Abbott does not believe that the EPA has a right to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Unfortunately for Abbott, it looks like the U.S. Court of Appeals does not agree.

Environmentalists are grumbling at Texas’ series of appeals aimed at blocking the EPA’s regulatory capabilities. In response to the most recent ruling, EENews reported the following reaction from the Environmental Defense Fund:

“The state government in Texas has now filed three cases in the federal courts to block EPA’s greenhouse gas pollution reduction policies, and it has been rejected three times,” said Steve Cochran, vice president of climate and air at the Environmental Defense Fund. “If Texas put half the effort into carrying out greenhouse gas pollution control measures that it put into fighting them, EPA would not need to be involved.”

In a way, I agree.

And Texas might too – there are rumblings that the state might try to implement the EPA’s rules itself, in order to avoid federal oversight of the state’s activities. According to Terry Clawson at Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ):

[TCEQ] has neither the authority nor the intention of interpreting, ignoring, or amending its laws in order to compel the permitting of greenhouse gas emissions.

The TCEQ is disappointed in this decision, but confident we will ultimately prevail in our insistence that the EPA must follow its own rules and federal law…Environmental regulations must have some environmental benefit, and not just expand the power of the federal government.

Bottom line – Unless this issue is sorted out during the current legislative session (Texas’s legislature only meets once every two years), it appears that the EPA will soon be issuing new permits in the Lone Star State.

What does this mean for Texas?

Yesterday’s ruling means that, unless Congress takes action to prevent the EPA from issuing rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions, state’s will find themselves subject to a series of new regulations (issued Jan. 2). In Texas, this translates to (approx.) 167 facilities receiving greenhouse gas permits that could, over time, limit their ability to emit these gases during their operations. Included in these facilities are power plants and petroleum refineries, a backbone in the Texas economy.

Combined with earlier rulings in cases of Texas v the EPA, Washington appears to have the ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars, light trucks and stationary pollution sources (like power plants and refineries). As a first step in this process, these facilities would have to certify that they are using the best available technology for limiting emissions if they wish to maintain their operating permit.

(The NY Time Greenwire provided background on this topic last week in a very nice article on January 5, 2011.)