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.

DEVILISHLY DUMB BARGAIN

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.)

COST / BENEFIT

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?

FRACK NOT: AN ALTERNATIVE FUTURE

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…

MODULAR, SCALABLE, AFFORDABLE, REPLICABLE & GREEN: WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM BANGLADESH

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.

RELATED READING / VIEWING:

“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

PopTech: Day 1 – Reimagining and Beyond Imagining

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Blame it on the birds. And the elephants, lions, biochar, Indonesian agroforestry, dirt batteries, mechanical caterpillar waves, global maps, messenger bag-cum-lighting systems, a cyber-dance experience and one very lovely essay about migration. But not too far into the first day of PopTech, the conference’s “Reimagining America” theme disappeared. Which was fine. It seemed too limited for a confab about Big Thoughts, even here in a small, charming  American town (that could use a little reimagining itself – connectivity way, way too spotty). In any case, you can’t really reimagine, or even imagine, America without including the rest the world in the equation.

And nobody brought that point home with more heart-wrenching eloquence than Chris Jordan with his slide show of photographs of dead albatross on Midway Island, killed by a diet of plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Photograph after photographs of birds, heads twisted by pain, guts split by a bounty of all too familiar bottle caps – perky shades of reds and blues favored by marketers – had the audience in shock and *this* audience in tears. This wasn’t an isolated occasional bird tragedy, but the picture of a extinction-in-progress. And because it took so darn long for anyone to discover the Garbage Patch, a ghostly-insidious man-made chemically-enhanced primordial soup the size of at least a couple of Texas’s (Texi?), it is far too late to do much about it – at least for the albatross (“Midway Journey” project blog – notes & videos).

Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Save the microbes! Save the plankton! Save the food chain!  Who knows? We might just save ourselves, too.

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The day was filled with jolts of Overwhelming Problems paired with Glimmers of Hope.

John Fetterman, the myth-come-to-life mayor of Braddock, PA, a bankrupt rust-belt town that had been all but written off. A strikingly tall bald figure, with dates tattooed on his massive arms to remember the victims of violent crimes (thankfully, no new tattoos in over a year), Fetterman’s unvarnished recitation of all that had gone wrong coupled with some very basic ideas of what can be done had the crowd on a can-do upswing. Renovate those $5,000 homes (average price – since the recession, they’ve lost value). Add artists. LOTS of artists. Plant urban gardens. Hold lots of family-friendly it-takes-a-village-to-make-a-village. Clear debris and make a park. Then came news of a major hospital closing, which will not only take jobs from the area, but leave the population – mostly poor and minority – in a health-care desert. It is hard to make money taking care of poor people. So much for the greater public good or, for that matter, public health.

I began to wonder whether some of the health solutions being tested in the developing world –  many driven by cell phone tech – wouldn’t be appropriate here, too? (e.g., PopTech Fellow Josh Nesbit’s FrontlineSMS: Medic & Hope Phones).

Indeed, one of the conference’s most intriguing themes to emerge so far is this concept of two-way innovation: developed to developing world and vice-versa. (Note to makers of One Laptop Per Child: I really really REALLY want one of those computer screens designed for use in full sun…)

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On the Glimmers of Hope front, the PopTech Fellows were batting it out of the park. From Jason Aramburu‘s efforts to commercialize biochar, a carbon negative solution that also improves soil fertility, to Eben Bayer’s nifty mushroom-mediated compostable alternative to landfill-choaking styrofoam, Aviva Presser Aiden and Hugo van Vurveen’s “dirt batteries” and Emily Pilloton’s no-nonsense determination to enlist an army of young designers to come up with Better Answers, there was a sense that it’s still not too late. We can, just maybe, turn this thing around and not go down the climate change tubes.

FLAP – Flexible Light and Power – a prototype of a portable lighting system stitched into a Timbuktu messenger bag – also caught the crowd’s imagination. Designed by MIT’s Sheila Kennedy, it’s a simple idea that could radically change the way we think about solar deployment, opening up the space to all kinds of new ideas. No longer would solar be consigned to rooftop panels or a strip on a pocket calculator. It can almost literally be woven into the fabric of our lives, turning us into portable “plants,” photosynthesizing as we go about our daily business. (More from Erik Hersman on field-testing the design in Africa.)

Indonesia-based Willie Smits also has big plans for photosynthesis, with a scheme that would not only reforest the world’s rain forests, but generate jobs and an array of crops, supply power to poor villages, restore biodiversity and wildlife habitat and dramatically reduce demand for foreign oil. Smits “Tapergy” plans is an integrated system that works with Nature to increase the productivity of land while capping CO2 “volcanos” that result when millions of acres of land, particularly peat-lands, are cleared from monoculture oil palm plantations. (read more about Smits work in “Trees for Trees” post – page down to section on “You Had Me at Organgutan” – includes videos)

There was much more to Day 1. But Day 2 is about to begin. So, connectivity willing, follow on twitter: #poptech / @trackernews.