Energy and the Environment

If Democrat Barack Obama was Republican Brian O’Malley, his actions and record thus far would place him among the greatest Republican presidents of the modern era; a socially moderate, fiscal conservative with an itchy trigger finger.

The Earth has enjoyed moments as the cause célèbre in America but nothing trumps our good mother like a great recession. To the best of my recollection she even failed to make an appearance during the presidential debates. This lack of information makes deciding which candidate would be better for the environment over the next four years difficult.

We do have the benefit of some information, however. For example, the Republican platform has been virulently anti-environment. Each candidate during primary season took turns trying to out-pollute the other in the name of progress, calling for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency, the loosening of drilling restrictions and the construction of a pipeline from Canada to Texas. Green energy was mocked and global warming ridiculed. Republicans eagerly portrayed every Democrat as Jimmy Carter in a cardigan and an eco-zealot.

If only that were true.

The fact of the matter is that the Democrats have little to point to in the way of environmentalism themselves. Sure the pipeline was stalled and fuel efficiency standards were increased, but that’s about it.

Our understanding of the environment and our relationship to it through food, water, air and energy is far more sophisticated than our politics and policies. But no matter how broad the consensus on climate change is in the scientific community or how widespread the anecdotal evidence of our decaying Earth and corrupt food supply is, we are all guilty of willful blindness with respect to the urgency required to face our challenges.

President Obama talks a good game, which indicates he is aware of both the seriousness of our environmental peccadillo and the political reality that prevents meaningful change. And, in fairness, when presented with a clear opportunity to affect change he did so by sending billions of dollars flowing into the clean energy research field when the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009, aka “Obama stimulus,” was passed. Of course, the only thing people now associate with this act is the failure of Solyndra despite the fact that the funding mechanism for this particular company was established during the Bush administration. The stimulus simply added liquidity to an existing plan.

But it was Obama’s calculated risk against overtly touting this investment into clean energy that blew back on him in two ways. The first is that the American public, particularly those who consider themselves champions of the environment, have little idea these investments were made and therefore believe he failed them. Compounding this sentiment is that these investments have little short-term payoff and are therefore less tangible. The second is that the opposition was able to make Solyndra synonymous with the stimulus, thereby presenting it as the rule instead of the exception.

This risky decision of quiet messaging does, however, make political sense. After all, any attempt on the part of the White House to put the environment in the spotlight before the economy would have had terrible repercussions to Obama’s polling figures. He is already derided by paranoid right-wing conspiracy theorists (with national talk shows) as being a closet Muslim and a socialist who sympathizes with terrorists and apologizes for America every chance he gets. Oh, and was born in Africa.

But as I have often contended, if Democrat Barack Obama was Republican Brian O’Malley, his actions and record thus far would place him among the greatest Republican presidents of the modern era; a socially moderate, fiscal conservative with an itchy trigger finger. But, he’s a black Democrat whose re-election is for many in this nation a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

So, politically, I get it. Below-the-radar environmental work is better than installing solar panels on the White House roof again. There’s proof that this is a bad reelection strategy. Morally, however, I was hoping for what everyone else who voted for Obama was hoping for: that he would enthusiastically champion a progressive social and environmental agenda—one that took aggressive action against oil companies and Wall Street speculators and fought evil agra-giants like Monsanto and ConAgra.

Unfortunately, any hope we had of Obama challenging the Koch brothers to a duel on Pennsylvania Avenue or executing a hostile takeover of ExxonMobil were dashed when moderate policy Vulcan Barack Obama took the Oath of Office instead of liberal cigarette smoking Chi-Town radical Barry Obama.

To really confuse matters, no one pressed either guy into stating plans to protect the environment. Moreover, they have both adopted this mantra of “all of the above” with respect to energy policy. Nothing bold, sensible or sustainable. Just “yes” to everything and deal with the consequences later.

So what makes this week’s topic so hard to dissect is that no one seems to care much about it. Perhaps more than any other topic I’ve covered thus far in this election series, the fight over Mother Earth has been reduced to choosing between the lesser of two evils. I know it’s a hackneyed phrase, but it’s appropriate, nonetheless. Essentially it boils down to this: Mitt Romney’s “all of the above” plan includes eliminating the EPA and letting oil companies drill in Central Park if they want to; whereas, Obama’s “all of the above plan” stops just short of that.

Sorry, Mother Earth. When unemployment dips below 5 percent and the Dow reaches 15,000, we’ll be sure to call and check in. Until then it’s the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon.

Slight edge to Obama.

Where Was I?

Over the next several weeks I am dedicating this space exclusively to the big issues of the election. One at a time. The goal is to put each issue into its own proper context, devoid of ideology. Nothing I write will be worthy of a meme or ironic block text quote on Facebook.

My goodness, the presidential election is almost upon us and my notepad has gathered a thin layer of dust over the past few months. Now that my self-induced writing coma is over, it’s high time to get on with the business at hand: participating in the armchair media punditry battle where I make believe the things I say will have an actual impact on who will be elected President of the United States.

As my home state of New York is all but a foregone conclusion—a place where candidates troll for funds but take electoral votes for granted—I can only hope my words fly across the social networking transom and into the eyes and ears of undecided swing state Rumpelstiltskins. Therefore, if you have a cousin in Ohio or an aunt in Florida, by all means, please feel free to share.

Over the next several weeks I am dedicating this space exclusively to the big issues of the election. One at a time. The goal is to put each issue into its own proper context, devoid of ideology. Nothing I write will be worthy of a meme or ironic block text quote on Facebook. (Although if a particular quote inspires you, I insist that the accompanying image be one of a tearful clown.) The ideas herein and heretofore will not fit on a bumper sticker or even a tweet. But hopefully, at the end of the series, I will have provided enough factual information to assist one in making an informed decision. As I have a good idea of where it is all going, I can tell you that I have already made up my mind.

(Spoiler alert) I am voting for Barack Obama. Again. The answer as to why a privileged white guy from the suburbs who once ran for a local office as a Republican would cast not one, but now two votes for this man shall hopefully become obvious by the end of this series. For those impatient souls who are inclined to write these missives off in advance, having already read the last line of the story, I bid you farewell. For those willing to join me in this informational pilgrimage, this first column will serve as base camp—the place from which we begin our summit quest.

Base camp is where climbers find oxygen and sustenance. In our virtual journey the air we breathe will be logic and our nourishment will be the facts we consume. Even Sir Edmund Hillary would find the air quite thin in a place as bizarre as Washington, D.C., where nothing is as it seems and politicians suck the oxygen out of any room. It’s what makes our baseline discussion here so important.

Here are the key facts for us to consider as we begin our ascent:

• The net worth of the 400 wealthiest Americans as measured by Forbes magazine exceeds that of more than 150 million Americans. (That’s half of all of us.) Net worth is measured by assets such as one’s home, retirement investments and cash in the bank compared to related debts such as your mortgage, student loans and car payments. This figure has been vetted numerous times and it is agreed that this statistic is not only accurate but, in all likeliness, slightly conservative.

• When Barack Obama was the president-elect, the economy was shedding jobs at a rate of 100,000 per week. When he was sworn in as POTUS in January of 2009 that number had ballooned to 200,000 per week.

•  Seventy percent of the federal budget is mandated by law. Of the remaining 30 percent, or $1.1 trillion, half is allocated toward military spending. To put things further into perspective, the Environmental Protection Agency is less than 1 percent of the discretionary budget, making it a fraction of 1 percent of the total. So let’s notspend much time talking about how the EPA is strangling our competitiveness.


•  During his tenure as president, George W. Bush gave back more refunds to the top 1 percent of taxpayers than the bottom 80 percent combined. In addition to these tax cuts, he depleted the surplus by waging full-scale traditional war against two nations that had NOTHING to do with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

•  The financial system is in complete and utter disarray due to the irresponsible deregulatory frenzy that occurred over the past three decades. Regulations and capitalism are not mutually exclusive; in fact, a well-regulated economic system with proper regulatory checks and balances ensures financial freedom. This is not a counter-intuitive proposition. Only Wall Street tycoons, lobbyists and conservative think tanks want you to believe this.

There you go. These are the baseline facts by which we shall guide our discussion going forward. And I mean discussion. It’s no fun writing in a vacuum. So let’s talk.

The reason these points are few and focused is that the president has very little to do with things outside of the economy and military strategy. True, the POTUS sets the tone and establishes priorities outside the scope of defense spending and taxes, but these are the areas over which he has the greatest direct influence. The wild card regarding social issues is the potential death or resignation of a Supreme Court Justice as the implications of a presidential nomination have far-reaching and enduring consequences. But choosing a president based upon whom he might select for the highest court in the land is tricky and implies that one’s ideology is so fixed on a particular issue or issues that policy discussions are distracting sideshows to a larger social agenda. 

Oh, I almost forgot my most important disclaimer. It is my firm belief that our nation is sick and our notion of democracy—having to choose from a field of two—is a caricature of its intended self. An illusion. But there are nevertheless important and immediate consequences inherent in the choice before us, no matter how much of a mockery and diversion it represents from whence we came. With that, let our quest for the summit begin.

Next week: John Maynard Keynes. To spend, or not to spend. See you on the mountain.

ProPublica: EPA Confirms Fracking Linked to Contamination

The agency’s findings could be a turning point in the heated national debate about whether contamination from fracking is happening, and are likely to shape how the country regulates and develops natural gas resources in the Marcellus Shale and across the Eastern Appalachian states.

Feds Link Water Contamination to Fracking for the First Time

by Abrahm Lustgarten and Nicholas KusnetzProPublica, Dec. 8, 2011, 8:18 p.m.

In a first, federal environment officials today scientifically linked underground water pollution with hydraulic fracturing, concluding that contaminants found in central Wyoming were likely caused by the gas drilling process.

The findings by the Environmental Protection Agency come partway through a separate national study by the agency to determine whether fracking presents a risk to water resources.

In the 121-page draft report released today, EPA officials said that the contamination near the town of Pavillion, Wyo., had most likely seeped up from gas wells and contained at least 10 compounds [1] known to be used in frack fluids.

“The presence of synthetic compounds such as glycol ethers … and the assortment of other organic components is explained as the result of direct mixing of hydraulic fracturing fluids with ground water in the Pavillion gas field,” the draft report states. “Alternative explanations were carefully considered.”

The agency’s findings could be a turning point in the heated national debate about whether contamination from fracking is happening, and are likely to shape how the country regulates and develops natural gas resources in the Marcellus Shale and across the Eastern Appalachian states.

Some of the findings in the report also directly contradict longstanding arguments by the drilling industry for why the fracking process is safe: that hydrologic pressure would naturally force fluids down, not up; that deep geologic layers provide a watertight barrier preventing the movement of chemicals towards the surface; and that the problems with the cement and steel barriers around gas wells aren’t connected to fracking.

Environmental advocates greeted today’s report with a sense of vindication and seized the opportunity to argue for stronger federal regulation of fracking.

“No one can accurately say that there is ‘no risk’ where fracking is concerned,” wrote Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, on her blog. “This draft report makes obvious that there are many factors at play, any one of which can go wrong. Much stronger rules are needed to ensure that well construction standards are stronger and reduce threats to drinking water.”

A spokesman for EnCana, the gas company that owns the Pavillion wells, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In an email exchange after the EPA released preliminary water test data two weeks ago [2], the spokesman, Doug Hock, denied that the company’s actions were to blame for the pollution and suggested it was naturally caused.

“Nothing EPA presented suggests anything has changed since August of last year– the science remains inconclusive in terms of data, impact, and source,” Hock wrote. “It is also important to recognize the importance of hydrology and geology with regard to the sampling results in the Pavillion Field. The field consists of gas-bearing zones in the near subsurface, poor general water quality parameters and discontinuous water-bearing zones.”

The EPA’s findings immediately triggered what is sure to become a heated political debate as members of Congress consider afresh proposals to regulate fracking. After a phone call with EPA chief Lisa Jackson this morning, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., told a Senate panel that he found the agency’s report on the Pavillion-area contamination “offensive.” Inhofe’s office had challenged the EPA’s investigation in Wyoming last year, accusing the agency of bias.

Residents began complaining of fouled water near Pavillion in the mid-1990s, and the problems appeared to get worse around 2004. Several residents complained that their well water turned brown shortly after gas wells were fracked nearby [3], and, for a time, gas companies operating in the area supplied replacement drinking water to residents.

Beginning in 2008, the EPA took water samples from resident’s drinking water wells, finding hydrocarbons and traces of contaminants that seemed like they could be related to fracking [4]. In 2010, another round of sampling confirmed the contamination, and the EPA, along with federal health officials, cautioned residents not to drink their water and to ventilate their homes [5] when they bathed because the methane in the water could cause an explosion.

To confirm their findings, EPA investigators drilled two water monitoring wells to 1,000 feet. The agency released data from these test wells in November that confirmed high levels of carcinogenic chemicals [2] such as benzene, and a chemical compound called 2 Butoxyethanol, which is known to be used in fracking.

Still, the EPA had not drawn conclusions based on the tests and took pains to separate its groundwater investigation in Wyoming from the national controversy around hydraulic fracturing. Agriculture, drilling, and old pollution from waste pits left by the oil and gas industry were all considered possible causes of the contamination.

In the report released today, the EPA said that pollution from 33 abandoned oil and gas waste pits – which are the subject of a separate cleanup program – are indeed responsible for some degree of shallow groundwater pollution in the area. Those pits may be the source of contamination affecting at least 42 private water wells in Pavillion. But the pits could not be blamed for contamination detected in the water monitoring wells 1,000 feet underground.

That contamination, the agency concluded, had to have been caused by fracking.

The EPA’s findings in Wyoming are specific to the region’s geology; the Pavillion-area gas wells were fracked at shallower depths than many of the wells in the Marcellus shale and elsewhere.

Investigators tested the cement and casing of the gas wells and found what they described as “sporadic bonding” of the cement in areas immediately above where fracking took place. The cement barrier meant to protect the well bore and isolate the chemicals in their intended zone had been weakened and separated from the well, the EPA concluded.

The report also found that hydrologic pressure in the Pavillion area had pushed fluids from deeper geologic layers towards the surface. Those layers were not sufficient to provide a reliable barrier to contaminants moving upward, the report says.

Throughout its investigation in Wyoming, The EPA was hamstrung by a lack of disclosure about exactly what chemicals had been used to frack the wells near Pavillion. EnCana declined to give federal officials a detailed breakdown of every compound used underground. The agency relied instead on more general information supplied by the company to protect workers’ health.

Hock would not say whether EnCana had used 2 BE, one of the first chemicals identified in Pavillion and known to be used in fracking, at its wells in Pavillion. But he was dismissive of its importance in the EPA’s findings. “There was a single detection of 2-BE among all the samples collected in the deep monitoring wells. It was found in one sample by only one of three labs,” he wrote in his reply to ProPublica two weeks ago. “Inconsistency in detection and non-repeatability shouldn’t be construed as fact.”

The EPA’s draft report will undergo a public review and peer review process, and is expected to be finalized by spring.

 

Binge and Purge

Conservative, anti-environmental activists such as Michele Bachmann like to portray the EPA and other environmental regulatory bodies as proof of America’s increasingly hostile, dystopian government when in practice the very opposite is true.

Part V of The Season of Our Disconnect

Jon Huntsman, President Barack Obama’s former ambassador to China, broke away from the field of Republican presidential candidates in bellicose fashion this week. He chose to take on his opponents by slaying a sacred cow in today’s GOP by thumbing his nose at unconventional wisdom with the most scandalous pronouncement thus far in the campaign. If you are sensitive to radical ideas and harsh language, I urge you to stop reading now.

In a tweet to his followers, Jon Huntsman said: “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”

Crazy, indeed.  What’s next? Dinosaurs roamed the Earth?

Huntsman is reacting to the growing anti-environmental platform in American politics, a curious development in an even more curious nascent silly season. Sorry, Planet Earth. Due to the ongoing recession it is increasingly evident that the Earth-friendly platform will not be making an appearance this time around as our current president seems to favor the corporate interests of companies like Monsanto and Cargil; the opposition candidates… well… quite frankly it looks as though they just flat-out hate you.

For example, the winner of the ridiculously un-scientific Iowa Straw Poll, Michele Bachmann, has promised to shutter the Environmental Protection Agency on her first day in the White House. Rick Perry won’t close the EPA, but he’ll make gall-derned sure he castrates it like a bull calf to keep it from killing our jobs. Rick Santorum has said that because humans exhale carbon dioxide, regulating carbon emissions is therefore ludicrous. (No, I’m not making any of this up.) Most of the people running for president on the GOP ticket seem to believe that even though we are still the wealthiest nation on God’s greenish/brown Earth that environmental standards are holding us back. That maybe—just maybe—if we allowed ourselves to revert to pollution standards from the height of the Industrial Revolution, we would be better off. 

Mind you, although we haven’t lost our standing as the No. 1 economy on the planet, we do rank second behind China in carbon emissions. This loss of status has somehow translated into a sort of clarion call for deregulation activists who equate progress with the relaxation of environmental standards. Never mind the fact that on many days one would have trouble seeing clearly through the window of a building in Linfen, China, or that the Beijing government instituted “emergency air-quality measures” in the days leading up to the Summer Olympics.

Our narrow view on environmentalism has left everyone already suffocating from American ignorance and Chinese malfeasance nonplussed and defenseless. In his book Harmony, A New Way of Looking at the World, Prince Charles talks about his experience at the UN Conference in Copenhagen and the “all-out assault on the evidence base” of climate change, calling it “a deliberate attempt to dampen the justified concerns about the climate change threat.”

Presidential candidates who call for dismantling the EPA to help America reclaim its hegemony in destroying the atmosphere are nothing more than hucksters handing out licenses to operate toxic apothecaries stocked with volatile organic compounds. Conservative, anti-environmental activists such as Michele Bachmann like to portray the EPA and other environmental regulatory bodies as proof of America’s increasingly hostile, dystopian government when in practice the very opposite is true.

Ironically, common ground regarding the environment can be found in yet another profound area of intensely partisan disagreement: universal health care. It is in this debate that one can find room for both ardent anti-climate change deniers like Rick Perry and fervent environmental activists like Al Gore, whom Perry once supported. It’s far easier to agree that noxious emissions and pollutants increase the risk of disease and that a sick population is an expensive one to treat. Therefore, isn’t universal disease-prevention by regulating pollution a more efficient way for the market to deliver robust health care? Hell, there’s even room for Ron Paul under this tent.

Whether or not our society wakes up to the fact that we are indeed killing the planet and sacrificing human health along the way, there is an inevitable truth greater than all of us. Those who are most attuned to changes in weather patterns, the degradation of the world’s food supply, the rise of chronic health problems, and the rapid disappearance of clean water understand that humans will ultimately pay the price for our sins, not the Earth.

This is not the first time the Earth has been in such a precarious position. Moreover, there is mounting evidence of how she handles crises. We binge, she purges. The most succinct explanation of this phenomenon is from the great orator and environmentalist Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation. Rather than paraphrase, I’ll leave you with his sentiment:

“What if we choose to eradicate ourselves from this Earth, by whatever means? The Earth goes nowhere. And in time, it will regenerate, and all the lakes will be pristine. The rivers, the waters, the mountains, everything will be green again. It’ll be peaceful. There may not be people, but the Earth will regenerate. And you know why? Because the Earth has all the time in the world and we don’t.”

– Oren Lyons

What New Yorkers Should Know About Hydrofracking

You can’t put the Earth back the way it was. Can’t cure the cancer these companies left behind. Can’t put the pieces of rock back together.

Hydrofracking Operation in PennsylvaniaA seat at the table. This was the going price for tacit support of hydraulic fracturing, “hydrofracking” as it is commonly known (or simply “fracking”), from the New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV) and several other state environmental groups. I resigned my personal seat at the table on the Long Island board of the NYLCV after it took such a pusillanimous stance on what will prove to be one of the worst environmental and shortsighted economic blunders in New York’s history.

Late last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed a blue ribbon panel to advise the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on the regulations and rollout of hydrofracking upstate, effectively ending the moratorium on natural gas shale exploration. Hydrofracking means breaking through shale to extract natural gas trapped in pockets deep beneath the ground, a process that has deservedly come under increased scrutiny recently for countless reasons. But first, a little context.

Hydraulic Fracturing History. Natural gas is a cleaner-burning fossil fuel than oil, and something the United States has in abundance. Increasing access to natural gas is compelling as our dependence upon fossil fuels continues to grow while our tolerance for protecting oil interests around the globe steadily wanes. And since the combination of renewable energy, conservation efforts and efficiency standards have yet to keep pace with our insatiable appetite for energy consumption, any solution with environmental advantages, no matter how marginal, is persuasive.

Fracking has been around for more than a century as a means of pressurizing the drilling process of oil and gas wells. It’s referred to as “Enhanced Oil Recovery”, a process required for the most difficult of drilling scenarios, where oil and/or gas are trapped within rock formations. Essentially, once a well is drilled, a mixture of water, sand and a small amount of chemicals are pumped down the well at extremely high pressure; the mixture bores through the shale to release the gas into the well while the sand and chemical combination help prop open the fracture in the formation. Back on the surface, the gas is separated from the extraction fluids.

It’s important to understand that the pressurization itself is one of the reasons that the declines in the rate of shale production are steeper than from primary and secondary drilling methods. Removing fossil fuels from the ground is a difficult and delicate process that ranges from relatively pristine oil fields that can be easily drilled and pumped to the most extreme cases that require hydraulic fracturing through dense rock formations. The need to maintain intense levels of pressure in the drilling environment—as opposed to tapping an easily accessible reservoir under the desert—means that more can go wrong along the way. These areas reach what is known as “production total decline” faster than other plays—or drilling sites— because the pockets are spread out through the shale formation and difficult to access, and pressurization is hard to maintain over time. In fact, shale gas was considered too difficult to tackle until Halliburton established a new horizontal drilling protocol in the late 1940s that revolutionized the industry; even still, it wasn’t until the technology was enhanced by the chemical mixture in the 1990s that fracking began to catch fire, renewing the natural gas rush primarily in Texas, New Mexico and Wyoming. 

 Where we are today. There is no question that decreasing our dependence on foreign oil is popular and necessary. The question is whether this is the right method of extraction, particularly in a populous place such as New York. The answer is definitively “no.” And the reasons aren’t strictly environmental, though the pernicious effects of fracking on human health and the environment are certainly enough to arrive at this conclusion independently. Advocates of fracking have argued that the proper regulation of the process and the protection of the watershed are enough to satisfy environmental concerns and that the economic benefits of fracking the Marcellus Shale, which runs from Tennessee through New York, are considerable, particularly in hard-hit areas upstate. But taken individually, every argument in favor of fracking falls down under scrutiny. So, let’s get to it.

Environment. Fracking is both an art and a science. This is the most complicated of drilling endeavors. Because of the precarious nature of this technology, it is nearly impossible to contain the spread of contaminants involved in the process; likewise, it is impossible to contain the spread of methane gas once it is released from the shale. Fracking cannot and does not extract 100 percent of the natural gas from the rock, leaving a small quantity behind that can infiltrate surrounding areas. Moreover, the process itself requires millions of gallons of water that eventually return to the surface  contaminated by the chemical mix. In no instance, has there been a system robust enough to thoroughly remediate the return flow from a gas well.

Countless examples have been offered to the public and to state and national environmental agencies of the dangers of fracking, whether they are contaminated drinking wells, methane gas explosions or known-carcinogens found in areas near drilling operations that could only have come from the pressurized mixture being shot through these wells. Despite the growth of cancer clusters near the drilling wells or the evidence of homeowners living in fracking areas being able to set their tap water on fire, New York believes that it has the secret regulatory sauce to control the hazardous effects of fracking. Okay, so let’s look at the regulatory environment.

Regulation. The only reason fracking chemicals have remained proprietary is then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s insistence that the 2005 federal energy bill exclude the Environmental Protection Agency from hydrofracking regulation that would normally have come under the purview of the Safe Water Drinking Act. Cheney allowed his former employer, Halliburton, to do an end-run around the regulations the moment the public started linking environmental contaminants to the new chemicals used in fracking. His actions alone should alert any nose-breathing person to the inherent danger in this process. Instead, we have new “mandatory regulations” from the EPA, which are not yet the law of the land, that require full disclosure of these chemicals. Good luck. If the government had any ability to enforce this requirement, it would already be law. Yet, when Sen. Robert Casey [D-Pa.] introduced a bill (S.1215 Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act) in 2009, it died unceremoniously in committee. He attempted again in March of this year to revive the bill (S.587), and it too is sitting in committee where it will also undoubtedly meet its maker.

New York believes that it can keep hundreds of wells in check through the auspices of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Although Gov. Cuomo’s 2011 budget didn’t hack away at the DEC staff, the resource-strapped agency is incapable of policing leaks below gas stations, let alone monitoring wells throughout New York. The idea that the DEC will have the manpower to regulate these operations is a joke, and everyone knows it. The only logical conclusion here is that the economic benefits of infrastructure spending and job creation are so great that the state is willing to take the gamble. 

Economy. The thought of residents in a small, working-class town upstate coming off government assistance and getting back to work, putting food on the table and earning an honest wage is the kind of post-recession Norman Rockwell imagery the oil and gas industry would like us all to believe. The economic reality of gas drilling of the fracking persuasion is a little different than this ‘Wish You Were Here’ postcard from a bygone era. First of all, the drillers are too smart to buy property anymore. Instead they offer attractive drilling rights in the form of leases to landowners who are indeed paid handsomely for access to their land. Once the rights are sewn up, employment grows. But not necessarily the kind of employment illustrated above. Experienced drillers and machinists come from far and wide to exploit the new territory because they are already trained in this field of expertise. Suddenly, restaurants are packed, car dealers are moving inventory, and supermarkets and drugstores are filled with new faces in the community. I’m not suggesting this is a phantom recovery, because it’s not. These are important economic steps, but not if they are fleeting. The problem lies in the short productive life of the wells being drilled, which ends up curtailing the peripheral employment created during the height of production.

When American think of oil and gas operations, they think of enduring periods of wealth typically associated with the gulf states or Arab nations that went from rags to riches seemingly overnight, awash in the endless supply of crude. Unfortunately, the reality of natural gas stands in stark contrast to this vision. Gary S. Swindell, a well-known petroleum engineering consultant, conducted and published a study in 1999 on the 30-year performance of Texas natural gas wells, some of the highest yielding gas wells in the nation. His conclusion: “There have been substantial changes in the decline profiles of wells drilled in Texas over the last 30 years. This study indicates that for new Texas gas wells, the decline rates in the early years are now on the order of 50 percent per year.” Swindell updated the study in 2005, noting the rate of decline is closer now to 60 percent per year.

What does all of this mean? It means that the easy stuff is gone. Every year we have to look for deeper, more difficult plays, and the only reason the oil companies keep gobbling these operations up is because the market price is so artificially high due to market speculation. If we were in a normal commodities pricing environment, none of these areas would be considered because there wouldn’t be a shale play in America that would make financial sense.

Even the U.S. Energy Information Administration cites that “the average gas well half-life has dropped for all major production regions and for the lower 48 States. Second, the regional gas well production half-lives have converged to a value of between 23 and 25 months.” Translation: At best, the average production life of a natural gas well is four years.

 Four years. After that, they’ll be gone. The customers in the restaurants, supermarkets and auto dealers will have moved on to the next play. That’s called a bubble. But when this bubble pops, there’s no going back. You can’t put the Earth back the way it was. Can’t cure the cancer these companies left behind. Can’t put the pieces of rock back together. When the wells are sucked dry, so too is the local economy when the drillers head for the proverbial hills and leave the land owners high and dry with polluted and devalued properties. This is a zero-sum game, and for some reason, with all of the information and resources available to us, we’re still willing to take a “seat at the table” instead of dismissing the practice entirely.  

Personally, I refuse to vie for a seat at the devil’s table to drink hemlock and swallow my pride. The NYLCV and others are committed to advising the official hydraulic fracturing policy as though it’s a policy worthy of consideration, or worse, a fait accompli. It is neither. We still have a choice. The only question is whether we have the courage to make the right one.

Global Warming – Copenhagen

Want to take a trip down the environmental rabbit hole? Spark a discussion about climate change and watch human warming reach extremes far greater than any place on the globe.

To the right you have the laughable stance adopted by the conservative movement that humans are having no effect on climate and the atmosphere. At the other extreme are non-scientist policy makers and pundits holding “The End Is Near” signs on every street corner claiming that Iowa and Chad will be beachfront property by the end of next year.

Personally, I’m not qualified to discern which side is closer to representing the truth.

What I do know is that the debate should remain in scientific circles because I have yet to meet anyone qualified to entirely explain the variances in global temperatures. While world leaders are dithering in Copenhagen and arguing over hacked e-mails about tree rings versus thermometers, the public needs to close its ears to the noise produced on both sides of the global warming debate and focus on the tangible aspects of industrial pollution.

You don’t need to be an expert on carbon emissions or reference “parts per billion” to understand that we are seriously screwing up the planet. Public health has been compromised by the rise of industry. While there are several factors that contribute to the decline in public health, much of the discussion centers on energy production and sources because it’s the baseline driver of industry. So let’s look at it.

First of all, there is no such thing as clean coal. True, you can clean coal emissions, but the process of scrubbing coal to burn cleaner is just as much of an environmental disaster. There is no such thing as clean nuclear energy either, for that matter. True, the emissions are carbon neutral, but at some point every nuclear facility must dispose of the spent fuel used in production. The spent fuel must be stored somewhere and wherever that place is, it’s no place you want to be near.

Large wind farms in lakes and oceans are unrealistically expensive and remarkably inefficient. The Danes will tell you differently and espouse the virtues of wind power—just look at the marvel that is Copenhagen—but the fact remains that they are the largest manufacturers of wind turbines and have a vested economic interest in, shall we say, massaging the numbers. However, wind, solar and geothermal energy present viable options on a micro level and should be encouraged in every corner and backyard of the world. Individuals and small businesses need affordable access to clean energy solutions, not just municipalities.

Economically, there is no such thing as cheap oil anymore. Whether or not the Saudis or Venezuelans care to admit it, we have hit peak oil in the largest, most accessible oil fields around the world. Period. Are there places on Earth with large reserves of oil and natural gas? Yup. Is it easy to get to? Nope. Expensive to retrieve? Yup. Environmentally secure to extract? Nope.

As far as Cap and Trade is concerned—please. Giving large corporations and polluters the ability to buy their way out of cleaning their emissions is a lousy practice. Lisa Jackson from the EPA is on the right track by simply drawing a line in the sand and taking it out of the hands of Congress. The message from the Obama administration is clear: Clean it up. If Cap and Trade is allowed to continue one can only imagine Goldman Sachs creating a derivatives market that bundles pollution credits in with mortgages on homes with inefficient boilers and selling them to school boards in Greenland. No more government-backed securities bought by large corporations and sold on opaque markets, especially if they contain something as ethereal as carbon credits.

This is it folks. We have reached the tipping point. The only option heretofore is conservation.