Frack, Baby, Frack: The Insti-Environmental Nightmare

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How scheme sold as pro-energy independence & climate-friendly unleashed environmental disaster in 5 years; From U.S. to Australia, Poland & India; Clean water as legal casualty; Green lesson from Bangladesh

Hydraulic fracturing - fracking. Click through to the "Gasland" website for more detailed explanation

The devil really is in the details: Fine print can kill. In 2005, as part of Bush/Cheney Energy Bill, a then obscure natural gas mining technique –  hydraulic fracturing – was given an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Corporations were now allowed to keep the chemical contents of fracking fluid, used to break up shale deposits, a proprietary trade secret. Since Halliburton, where Dick Cheney had been CEO prior to becoming vice president, was one of the few producers of fracking fluid, the exemption became known as the “Halliburton loophole.”

Freed of any legal constraints, the fracking gold rush was on. It didn’t matter how many dozens of carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic compounds environmentalists discovered and documented in the “secret sauce,” the energy companies had the law on their side. Indeed, they had the law in the bag.

Within a matter of months, drilling began on the first of what would soon be tens of thousands of wells, mostly in the West –  including wells on public BLM lands opened up under the patriotic banner of energy independence. Thousands of millions of gallons of water – 3 to 7 million per well – mixed with sand and fracking fluid were then injected under high pressure to create mini-earthquakes designed to release natural gas that had been sequestered in the rocks for millennia.

It worked. Released from its underground stone matrix prison, the gas surged to surface. And immediately began bubbling up in all sorts of unintended places, producing some pretty spectacular special effects such as flammable tap water. More spectacular, though harder to see, were the effects on humans and other animals.


Beyond the breathtaking speed at which this environmental nightmare roared forth, is the gobsmacking stupidity that put energy company interests over clean water safeguards. While there are alternative sources for energy, there are none for clean water.

Josh Fox, whose much-acclaimed documentary, Gasland, galvanized public outrage against fracking, offered fracked water to the few energy company executives he managed to interview. There were no takers. Perhaps legislators should be required to do without clean water for a few days before voting on any legislation relegating it to expendable status.

Yet as heroic and laudable as Fox’s personal investigative foray may be, it is also deeply unnerving to realize that this is what it took. The mainstream media was years late to the story. And though public outrage recently led to a temporary fracking moratorium in New York state, the practice, along with its proprietary poisons, has gone global.

  • Australian "60 Minutes" segment on shale gas drilling in Queensland

    In Australia, “gas is the new gold.” Mining contracts are potentially worth $100 billion, with government royalties estimated at $850 million (less than 1% of the profits), while landowners receive a one-time payment of $1.500 per well. Australian law favors mining interests, allowing drilling without landowner permission.

  • Poland sees fracking as the route to energy independence – and independence in general  – from Russia, which currently supplies more than 50% of the country’s natural gas needs. Also, in an effort to meet European Union greenhouse gas emission standards, Poland needs to reduce its reliance on coal. Fracking recently began in a region near the Baltic Sea. (On the flip side, Russia’s enormous investment to develop its vast natural gas reserves may prove a bust, with would-be buyers “fracking their own – which has raised some concern about geopolitical ramifications.)


Industry supporters insist that fracking can be done cleanly and aquifers kept safe. But like the BP Deepwater Horizon debacle in the Gulf of Mexico, even if the risks are small, the costs, should something goes wrong, are incalculable. No amount of money can undo all the damage to the environment or repair blighted futures.

With fracking, the price is pretty steep when all goes right. Any gains that natural gas may offer as a cleaner fossil fuel are lost in the collective exhaust of the thousands of tanker trucks hauling millions of gallons of water to drill sites.

Leaky wells also release methane -20 times more potent a greenhouse gas as CO2 – directly into the atmosphere. Nobody keeps track of these rogue emissions. If just 1% of the wells are leaky (and the rate is likely far higher), the tally quickly spikes to hundreds, if not thousands, of wells.

So: Jobs, royalties, bountiful natural gas supplies, fat profits for energy companies and reliable dividends for investors versus polluted water, sick people, mounting medical costs, dead wildlife, bankrupt farms and ranches, lost income, depressed real estate values, lost income and real estate tax revenues and rich corporate lawyers churning out non-disclosure agreements.

Why is this even a debate?


Despite the literally earth-rattling arguments of pro-fracking interests that insist global energy demands and emissions targets can only be met in the near term with natural gas (no matter how costly in GHGs it may be to get it…), breakthroughs in solar, wind and wave power, along with improvements in efficiency and conservation, suggest otherwise.

In just the last week, researchers at Stanford announced a way to triple solar efficiency using cheap, easy to obtain materials, while scientists at Cornell and China’s Northwestern Polytechnical University used biomimicry to reinvent the urban wind turbine.

The technologies dazzle with potential, yet the transition to broad commercial adoption has been difficult, in large part due to policies such as the Halliburton loophole that “un-even” the playing field.

The answer to energy supply is not the 20th century paradigm of one-size-fits-all (coal, oil, gas, nuclear), but a mix and match of macro and micro technologies that can be adapted to local needs. Imagine if the $100 billion in Australian shale gas deals were diverted to such technologies: Jobs, tax revenues, unpolluted natural resources, healthier people…


A few months ago, Eduardo Jezierski, a colleague from InSTEDD, was interviewed for The Space Show. Although Ed spends his days developing technologies to improve disease surveillance, humanitarian response and local resiliency here on planet Earth, there is considerable overlap between working in the developing world – often the aftermath of a natural disasters – and the kinds of challenges facing space exploration. How do you make the most of limited resources in difficult environments?

When the conversation turned to energy, Ed talked about his about a trip to Bangladesh to visit Grameen Shakti, the microfinance pioneer’s “green” spin-off, where he watched their solar program in action:

They bring in the separate parts for solar panels, converters, adapters,  etc.,  Local village women come in and gather the resistors and capacitors and cables and LEDs and boxes and panels which they put into baskets to take homes to assemble. They bring them back at the end of the day assembled, and for each solar converter they create, for example, they get 8 cents.

They get some training in soldering and the converters get tested. Even though you might not think it is an efficient way of doing the manufacturing, it is very self-sufficient. Now you have a work force in every village where the women can actually fix solar converters, where the school girls are trained in trouble-shooting the solar systems. It creates a local economy, a local self-sufficiency to the point that sometimes the grid vendors – the electricity grid – might reach a village and the people say, “No. We’re fine. We have electricity. It’s essentially free. We’ve paid off all the microloans for the panels. We have light. We can charge our cell phones. We’re fine.”

Well over 100,000 solar panels have been installed through the program.

Clearly this is not the answer to energy supply and distribution, but an answer tailored to a specific need and place. Still, it shares characteristics of many other good answers: It is modular, scalable, affordable, replicable and green.

These are the kinds of answers we need to encourage. These are the ones that lead to real energy independence.


“Gasland” on HBO, produced and directed by Josh Fox

“Hydro-fracking and earthquakes? Uh oh…” by Kate Mackenzie, FT / Energysource

“A Colossal Fracking Mess” by Christopher Bateman/ photographs & video by Jacques del Conte, Vanity Fair

Pro Publica coverage on fracking (search list)

As You Sow, organization that promotes corporate environmental and social responsibility through shareholder advocacy, grantmaking and innovative legal strategies 

“Post COP15, Part 2: Five Ideas That Could Help Save the Climate (Really)” by J. A. Ginsburg, TrackerNews Editor’s Blog

Hi Tech / Low Tech: Lab in Cell Phone, Origami Diagnostics and Looking for the Unknown Germ

122208_labinacellphone400Bio photonics. Until yesterday, when a story on Wired magazine’s website about a “MacGyveresque” cell phone lit up Twitter universe, I hadn’t a clue. This particular cell phone, developed by Aydogan Ozcan’s lab at UCLA, doubles as a cytometer that can analyze blood cells for disease based on the cells’ light diffraction signatures. In short, rapid diagnostics literally at the speed of light in a portable package that fits in the palm of one’s hand. And as a cherry on the good news sundae, all the physical parts — an LED, a webcam, the phone itself — are off the shelf and cheap.

The implications for public health, particularly in poor developing countries, are, of course, enormous. This also has the potential to be a game-changer across the board, putting a “lab” in every doctor — or community health worker’s — pocket, dramatically reducing the time and cost of tests. Imagine: health-care costs that go down.  (Although, as my colleague Ed Jezierski at InSTEDD points out, if it turns out that proprietary component of the test is expensive, the bargain disappears.)

The Wired story was grouped on TrackerNews with a Technology Review article providing a more detailed explanation of the imaging system (which can also be used for testing water):

The counter has high throughput–while it’s capable of detecting small numbers of cells, it can image as many as 100,000 cells in a 20-centimeter-squared field of view in one second. The counter can, for example, determine the concentration of red blood cells in an unprocessed blood sample with 90 percent accuracy. Red blood cell count can be used to diagnose anemia, to monitor malaria, and to monitor patients’ responses to chemotherapy.

For those wanting even more detail, the Ozcan lab’s website has links to several technical journal articles. And for those, like me, who could use a fast backgrounder on bio photonics – Wikipedia to the rescue!

Origami Diagnostics

paperchip4If you haven’t got cell phone handy, George Whitesides at Harvard can whip up a diagnostic chip out of paper and tape. It turns to be surprisingly easy to create channels on the stamp-size pieces of paper  to control the flow of sample fluid — a drop of blood, for example. By creating layers separated by tape, a single chip can be used for multiple tests. The results appear as tiny dots of color that can be easily and quickly analyzed, much like a pregnancy test.

Whitesides’ nonprofit, Diagnostics for All, which was created to scale up and commercialize the concept, won both the 2008 Harvard Business School Social Enterprise Business Plan Contest and the MIT $100K Entrepreneurship Competition, so is further along the tech transfer trail than most.

Looking for the Unknown Germ

Both the the phone and the paper chip are designed to test for known pathogens. But what about the new ones that keep popping up, such as SARS, or those expanding into new regions, such as West Nile virus in the U.S., or chikungunya in Italy? Ian Lipkin’s team at Columbia University have developed  GreeneChips, glass slides with “over 30,000 pieces of genetic material, representing thousands of different pathogens. which can test for almost all known viruses, bacteria, fungi, or parasites,” and Mass Tag PCR, a “multiplex platform that allows epidemiologists and doctors to simultaneously test one sample for the presence of up to 30 different agents.” When a faced with a novel pathogen, the tests can quickly determine what its closest relatives are, which, in turn jumpstart the investigation as to whether it is a vector-borne, air-borne, food-borne or water-borne disease. Although Mass Tag PCR is provided free to WHO Network partners, these are still pretty boutique technologies.

But who knows? A Greene paper chip or a Mass Tag cell phone could be just around the corner….

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Toolmaking for the Greater Good: from Amy Smith’s D-Lab to a Cambodian Innovation Lab, Going Local for Better Answers

As part of Popular Mechanics magazine’s annual conference on world-changing innovation, Amy B. Smith, MIT’s pied piper of Design-That-Makes-a-Difference, was named this year’s Breakthrough Leadership award-winner. It was an easy choice. Smith and her team of “D-Lab” students have helped set the bar for practical brilliance. Whether they are making charcoal from plant waste or engineering a better corn-shucker, it is thrilling to see the dramatic impact their simple yet deft solutions to grinding every day problems can have on people’s lives.

Even those of us best described as “mechanically-challenged” can grasp how these inventions work — which is a big part of the point. In fact, it is #4 on Smith’s list of “Seven Rules for Low-Tech Engineering”:

Create “transparent” technologies, ones that are easily understood by the users, and promote local innovation.

Personally, I have given up hope of ever understanding all the nifty features on my too-smart-for-its-own-good cell phone. But I know I could master that corn-shucker (the “Design on $2 a Day” video includes a segment on it — note to MIT: video embed codes please…)

Rule #7 also focuses on the critical user-interface issue, but with a emphasis on design as an iterative, rather than a static, process:

Provide skills, not just finished technologies. The current revolution in design for developing countries is the notion of co-creation, of teaching the skills necessary to create the solution, rather than simply providing the solution. By involving the community throughout the design process, you can help equip people to innovate and contribute to the evolution of the product. Furthermore, they acquire the skills needed to create solutions to a much wider variety of problems. They are empowered.

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