Post image for ‘Fracking’ in Europe: Who’s in, Who’s out

Two days ago, the New York Times reported that the French Parliament is “leaning” towards a ban on hydraulic fracturing, the American-made technological revolution in production that has vastly increased the known economically recoverable global reserves of natural gas. According to the article,

French lawmakers opened debate on Tuesday on proposals to ban a method for extracting oil and gas deposits from shale because of environmental concerns, throwing up the first serious stumbling block to firms that want to use the practice.

Looking with alarm at the experience in the United States, where shale gas is booming, even members of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s governing conservative party have come out against the practice, known as hydraulic fracturing, in which water, sand and chemicals are pumped deep underground under high pressure to free scattered pockets of oil and gas from dense rock formations.

The article, while interesting, misses the big picture. For starters, it’s unclear why French lawmakers would look “with alarm” at the U.S. experience. While there is some evidence that poorly built “fracking” rigs could lead to the escape of methane into local groundwater wells, this isn’t as disturbing as it sounds. Methane (ie, natural gas) does not make water poisonous, and there is no evidence that the fluids used in the process, which could be toxic, have leaked into well water. Much more importantly, there is ZERO evidence that the process affects water tables used for utility scale water supply, although environmentalist special interests are quick to try to conflate well-water methane contamination with water table contamination. The upshot is that hydraulic fracturing has been used in this country for fifty years, without harming public health and environment.

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Post image for Reviews of the Cornell Natural Gas Study

As was widely reported this week,  a new study has just come out concluding that, compared to coal, shale gas fracking is anywhere from just as bad to much worse in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the holy-grail of peer-revision, there appear to be some very obvious methodological problems and reliance on very poor data (which the researchers have admitted, and wish they had access to better information).

Here is a piece of a review from Matt Ridley, entitled “Black Propaganda.” (Read the whole thing):

So, in other words, shale gas has greater global warming potential than coal only if you rely on lousy data, misunderstood accounting categories, quadrupled assumptions about methane’s relative greenhouse potential — and then only in the short term, when people like Black are always telling us it is the long term we should worry about.

A review from Michael Levi of CFR (again, the whole thing is worth reading):

First, the data for leakage from well completions and pipelines, which is where he’s finding most of his methane leaks, is really bad. Howarth used what he could get – figures for well completion leakage from a few isolated cases reported in industry magazines, and numbers for pipeline leakage from long-distance pipelines in Russia – but what he could get was very thin. There is simply no way to know (without access to much more data) if the numbers he uses are at all representative of reality.

Second, Howarth’s gas-to-coal comparisons are all done on a per energy unit basis. That means that he compares the amount of emissions involved in producing a gigajoule of coal with the amount involved in producing a gigajoule of gas. (Don’t worry if you don’t know what a gigajoule is – it doesn’t really matter.) Here’s the thing: modern gas power generation technology is a lot more efficient than modern coal generation, so a gigajoule of gas produces a lot more electricity than a gigajoule of coal. The per kWh comparison is the correct one, but Howarth doesn’t do it. This is an unforgivable methodological flaw; correcting for it strongly tilts Howarth’s calculations back toward gas, even if you accept everything else he says.

One last comment: I worry about what this paper says about the peer review process and the way the press treats it. This article was published in a peer-reviewed journal that’s edited by talented academics. It presumably got a couple good reviews, since its time from submission to publication was quite short. These reviewers don’t appear to have been on the ball. Alas, this sort of thing is inevitable in academic publishing. It’s a useful caution, though, against treating peer review as a mark of infallibility, as too many in the climate debate – both media and advocates – have done.

The weak data and unorthodox methodology should make one question its ultimate conclusion, and it doesn’t help that the author is apparently an anti-fracking advocate. The EPA has already called this study an “important piece of information” and it has been reported on without mentioning the critiques in a number of media outlets (and here). Some outlets were better:

Mark D. Whitley, a senior vice president for engineering and technology with Range Resources, a gas drilling company with operations in several regions of the country, said the losses suggested by Mr. Howarth’s study were simply too high.

“These are huge numbers,” he said. “That the industry would let what amounts to trillions of cubic feet of gas get away from us doesn’t make any sense. That’s not the business that we’re in.”

Most business models don’t include plans to allow billions of dollars of your product to escape into the atmosphere.



Post image for Iain Murray on Japan’s Nuclear Crisis

CEI’s Iain Murray has an op-ed in The Washington Times today explaining what can be learned from the ongoing nuclear crisis in Japan.

Here’s an excerpt:

Without this vigorous defense of nuclear, the Obama energy plan will have a massive hole at its core – one that cannot be filled by wind and solar power any more than it can be filled by fairy dust. The obvious answer is for the administration to stop its war on coal, but that is unlikely. The only other plausible choice is natural gas, derived by hydraulic fracturing – a procedure that environmentalists are already trying to ban. If they want to keep their plan going in any workable form, the president and Mr. Chu need to tell Americans unequivocally where their future power is going to come from, and push back against ideological environmentalists who are trying to ban practical sources of energy.

Read the rest here.

Post image for Van Jones: Fracking is poisoning our water

The New York Times has a story on the front page of its business section headlined, “Natural Gas Now Viewed as Safer Bet.”  Politico’s Morning Energy reports that Van Jones tweeted a response: “At least until the public learns that fracking poisons H2O.”

Van Jones appears to be a serious person.  He is certainly highly respected in the liberal academic and political establishment.  He earned a law degree at Yale University, founded three leftist activist organizations, and wrote a book, the Green Collar Economy.  Time magazine named him a Hero of the Environment.

President Barack Obama appointed Jones in March 2009 to the new position of Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.  Jones resigned in September 2009 after controversies arose about several of his past statements and associations.

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Post image for New York State Geologist Rebuts Fracking Alarmism

In an interview last week with the Albany Times Union, New York’s state geologist, Dr. Taury Smith, a self-described liberal Democrat, called the state’s natural gas deposits “a huge gift.” Over the last decade, the natural gas industry has been revolutionized by the rapid development of a drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing. In that time, economically recoverable reserves in the U.S. roughly doubled. New York could be among the biggest beneficiaries, as it sits upon huge deposits of gas, known as Marcellus Shale, that are now recoverable. Environmentalists, however, oppose hydraulic fracturing because they oppose all fossil fuels, and they have waged a misinformation campaign against the practice. They allege, without evidence, that it threatens to contaminate water supplies. On the basis of these unsubstantiated claims, environmentalists frightened New York lawmakers into enacting a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. Dr. Smith dismisses the environmentalists’ allegations as being “exaggerated,” and “the worst spin.”

Post image for Primer: President Obama’s War on Domestic Energy Production


Clean Water Act: The EPA has invented a “pollutant”— salinity—in order to stop surface coal mining in Appalachia.  It claims that this “pollutant” harms an order of short-lived insect, the Mayfly, which has not been proposed for listing as an endangered species.  The EPA has set a numeric water quality standard for salinity which effectively bars new surface coal mining permits.

Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act: Despite the fact that the 1977 SMCRA explicitly authorizes “valley fills” (a necessary byproduct of surface coal mining in the steep terrain of Appalachia), the Department of the Interior is working on a re-interpretation of the so-called “100 feet buffer rule,” a regulation derivative of SMCRA, which would effectively outlaw valley fills, and, as a result, Appalachian surface coal mining.

Oil and gas

Red Tape: The de jure moratorium on deepwater drilling permits in the Western Gulf ended on 22 October 2011, but the de facto moratorium remains.  Two weeks ago, a federal judge in eastern Louisiana (the same one who overturned the first moratorium, and who then found the Department of the Interior in contempt for issuing an identical, second moratorium), ordered the Interior Department to act on 5 pending permits within 30 days.  Interior is also slow-walking shallow water permits.

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The New York State Assembly this week voted 93 – 43 to temporarily ban a natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing. The moratorium lasts until May, 2011, but state regulators weren’t expected to start issuing drilling permits until summer, so the legislation is largely symbolic. New York State is home to huge natural gas deposits that only recently become economically recoverable, thanks to the emergence of hydraulic fracturing technology, which is also known as “fracking.” Environmentalists oppose the practice on the grounds that it could affect groundwater supplies, although there is no credible evidence to support these claims.

There has been a technological revolution in the natural gas industry over the last decade. In that time, a drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has become economically viable, thereby allowing for the exploitation of huge natural gas reserves that had been too expensive to recover. As a result, America’s natural gas supply has roughly doubled.

In his post-election address last Wednesday, President Barack Obama indicated support for the fracking revolution. His administration’s record, however, is decidedly mixed on the issue.

On the one hand, the State Department is a big proponent of the technology, which it sees as a long term deterrent for Russia. As I’ve noted elsewhere, environmentalist policies in some European countries-but especially Germany-have rendered them increasingly reliant on Russian natural gas, even as Russia has proven willing to use its energy resources as a geopolitical bargaining chip. By exporting the fracking revolution to continental Europe, the State Department hopes to weaken Russia’s influence.

Moreover, Obama’s EPA has kept away from regulating fracking, although it easily could. Indeed, with the Clean Water Act precedent set by the its assault on mountain top removal mining, the EPA could shut down whatever industry it wants to in all of Appalachia, which is home to the largest and most promising natural gas resources made available by fracking-the Marcelus Shale in Pennsylvania and New York.

On the other hand, different agencies within the Obama administration are cracking down on fracking. The Bureau for Land Management (within the Department of the Interior), for example, refuses to grant leases to drill natural gas along the Rocky Mountains. Under a new Interior Department instruction memo for implementing the 1987 Federal Onshore Oil and Gas Leasing Act, the BLM can (and is) withholding scores of millions of dollars of leases, pending completion of National Environmental Protection Act litigation. Contemporaneously, the Council of Environmental Quality is making NEPA challenges even easier.

So what to make of these conflicting signals? At first I thought that Obama saw himself as a visionary problem solver, and that his vision was to address supposed global warming by embracing gas at the expense of coal. Now, I’m not so sure. It looks like he’s being jerked around by people who know better how the executive branch works.