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[1THING] Blog: Archive for June, 2012

[ U.S. Opens More of Arctic and Gulf for Offshore Drilling ]

The U.S. has opened more offshore areas to oil drilling — including parts of the controversial Alaska Arctic frontier — in the Obama administration’s push to further reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil.

The plan, released by the Department of Interior, allows the leasing of 12 areas in the Gulf of Mexico, which suffered from the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, and three of the coast of Alaska, including the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, and Cook Inlet Planning Areas, between 2012 and 2017.

Drilling off the Alaskan coast has been hotly contested by environmentalists because of concerns about sensitive environmental areas and the impact on Native Alaskans who rely on those areas for food and clothing.

Because of that, the government says it’s using a targeted approach, opening some areas but placing a 25-mile buffer area near the coast of the Chukchi, and subsistence whaling areas in the Beaufort near Barrow and Kaktovik, Alaska.

Areas that the U.S. plans to lease have the “greatest resource potential while minimizing possible conflicts,” said Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Director Tommy Beaudreau in a statement.

“Put simply, this program opens the vast majority of known offshore oil and gas resources for development over the next five years and includes a cautious but forward-looking leasing strategy for the Alaska Arctic,” said Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

U.S. oil fields have seen a surge in production in recent years, thanks to new production from shale oil beneath the Great Plains. President Barack Obama noted in his State of the Union address this year that U.S. dependence on foreign oil was lower in 2011 than any of the past 16 years.

But many offshore leases were held back as the administration evaluated safety measures to prevent another disaster like that of Deepwater Horizon. A report card issued in April by members of a national commission that Obama had assembled to review offshore drilling safety found that, though much had been done to improve safeguards and regulations, action from Congress was sorely lacking.

(Related: “U.S. Oil Fields Stage Revival, But No Easing Gas Prices“)

Though welcomed by some, the new leasing strategy was met with criticism from several different sides.

“The plan is too aggressive, too broad and too rushed,” Regan Nelson, senior oceans advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a blog post. “We believe an array of critical safety and environmental issues must be addressed first before America puts more coastal areas at risk.” She said the U.S. should be focused on promoting renewable energy sources instead of allowing oil and gas drilling.

“Currently there is no demonstrated ability to clean up oil in icy Arctic Ocean conditions. A major spill in the Arctic Ocean would make responding to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster look easy,” said Taldi Walter, the National Audubon Society’s assistant director of government relations, in a release. “Moreover, the Arctic Ocean is one of the least-understood ecosystems on the planet.”

Still, some Republican politicians said the plan was too restrictive.

“Today, the Obama Administration has announced a bleak future for American energy production by keeping 85 percent of America’s offshore areas under lock and key and refusing to open any new areas to drilling,” said Doc Hastings, Republican chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, reported Reuters.

In Virginia, politicians from both parties complained about the state’s exclusion from the five-year plan.

“Energy exploration . . . would boost domestic energy production, while benefiting the commonwealth’s economy,” said Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.

In Alaska, though, most officials welcomed the strategy.

“For over three years, my message to the Obama administration is that as America’s energy storehouse, Alaska can and should responsibly supply a significant portion of our country’s energy needs,” said Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), according to the LA Times.

Meanwhile, Shell* already has two drilling rigs on the way to Alaska, making it the first company to explore the state’s offshore resources. The departure of the rigs from Seattle this week comes after years of legal and regulatory battles.

(Related: “Shell’s Voser Talks About Food, Water, Energy and the Need to Explore“)

Shell plans to have more than 20 ships, rigs and support vessels in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer, reports the Anchorage Daily News. The company, which successfully tested a new spill containment system this week, appears on track to get the well-specific permits it needs to begin drilling in July.

* Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.

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[ Shell’s Voser Talks About Food, Water, and Energy; Calls for Carbon Price; Stresses Need to Explore ]

Peter Voser, the chief executive officer of Shell, sees a world where energy, food, and water resources face increasing stress, and where businesses can offer the leadership that national governments have failed to provide in the search for solutions.

Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge, an effort to engage and enlighten readers on the question of how the world will meet its growing energy needs in a responsible, equitable, and sustainable way. Shell’s own actions are closely scrutinized; it is one of the world’s largest energy companies, producing 3.2 million barrels of oil and 9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per day.

Voser sat down for a wide-ranging interview with National Geographic last month in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, not far from the international company’s headquarters in The Hague. He discussed the role of natural gas in the global energy mix and the need for regulation, his own company’s launch of drilling in the Arctic this summer, and what nations could and should be doing to ensure both affordable energy and protection of the environment and climate.

The interview took place at a business forum that Shell hosted on global environmental stresses, so Voser began by noting the United Nations’ forecast that global population will grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050. Between that growth and the fact that 1.5 billion people today lack access to modern energy or adequate food, Voser said he believes growing demand for fuel and power is inevitable. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Why is Shell bringing together businesses to talk about energy, water, and food?

When you drive new energy demand you automatically will drive water demand as well, because a lot of energy components will need water to be produced. It’s clear that the stress on water, the stress on land, the stress on agriculture, and the stress on energy is going to intensify. I think it’s time that through collaboration, different industries and governments and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] need really to work together [on] how we use these resources in the longer term. Because if you all just go and use the maximum, there’s not going to be sufficient [resources]. We need to put money into innovation and collaboration.

(Related: “Growing Food Demand Strains Energy, Water Supplies” and “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Food, Water and Energy“)

Nations have had such a difficult time collaborating on something like climate. Is there anything businesses can do, that nations and governments haven’t quite been able to do, when it comes to shared resources?

This is about a bottom-up approach. Because the top-down approach, in climate and in other areas, across boundaries, hasn’t always worked. From a business perspective, through pilot projects, through working together and collaborating, we can actually start at local levels to influence the policymakers, regulators, and NGOs, by actually demonstrating that we can do it. I think there’s a role for us to play: to drive these pilot projects, to bring our thinking together, and to share the thinking.

(Read about examples of corporate pilot projects: “Shining a Light on the Linked Stresses for Food, Water, and Energy”)

Natural gas is cleaned and processed into a range of gas-to-liquids products at Pearl GTL, Qatar. (Photograph courtesy Shell/Flickr)

 

We built a gigantic gas-to-liquids plant in Qatar. That needs—and produces—a lot of water. If you would take water from Qatar, a country where water is not that readily available, that would be a drain on their total water [resources]. Now we have actually a completely closed system [using only the water produced by the plant’s own processes]. So we don’t take water from Qatar. This needed R&D, innovation, design. It cost us more money to do so, but I think it’s an example of where a country worked together with us in a big project to actually design it in the right way.

Natural gas is so transforming the energy picture, certainly in my country. What do you think is the potential around the world for natural gas?

Natural gas rig, Louisiana (Photograph by Daniel Foster/Flickr)

 

We have, against current production or current demand, 250 years of gas reserves in the world. Gas has, from a climate change point of view, the enormous advantage that it is a much lower CO2 [carbon dioxide] fossil fuel. Therefore it’s an ideal destination fuel to produce electricity. Our assumption is that gas demand will increase significantly going forward, because it has  all these positive components in it.

(Related Coverage: “The Great Shale Gas Rush” and Graphic: “Breaking Fuel From Rock“)

Shale gas has obviously entered this field as well, which makes gas now even more important, because we have much more. I think the emotional discussion in Europe about the impact of developing shale gas resources is at a much higher level than in most other countries. I think we, as an industry, but also governments, have a lot of education still [to do], so these very valuable resources can be actually developed.

There are many companies doing shale gas development—more than 60 in Pennsylvania alone. What’s Shell’s view of the need for regulation to ensure the development is handled responsibly?

We have taken the very unprecedented step last year of making our operating procedures, guidelines, and policies publicly available, with the objective to lift overall operational standards. As you say, it’s a very fragmented, competitive environment. It’s not only to lift the operating standards, but also to give the regulators, which are mainly at state level, an idea of what global top world-class standards could look like, which they could actually use in setting the regulations.

I think we need regulations. We need, specifically, monitoring systems, be it on water usage or groundwater contamination issues, on the chemicals which are used, and [on] monitoring methane, which is the other subject we are discussing in the United States at the moment.

(Related: “International Agency Calls for Action on Natural Gas Safety” and “Air Pollution from Fracked Natural Gas Wells Will be Regulated Under New U.S. Rules“)

We have been fracking in the [United States] for the last 78 years, and we didn’t experience any groundwater contamination because, if you do it the right way, there is no groundwater contamination. The methane issue can be monitored. For example, at Pinedale [Wyoming] we built infrared sensors into our operations to detect any leakage of methane so that we can immediately stop it. The technology is out there. It’s about focusing on it, monitoring it, and actually investing in it.

We’re already seeing gas displacing coal for electricity in a dramatic way in the United States. What is your view of the potential for gas to replace oil in transportation?

I think you will see gas entering into many areas. This will drive, in my opinion, the energy policy, the electricity policy of the [United States] in the years to come.

Gas can be used in transport. I would see it more in the heavy truck business than in the normal passenger car business, because I think consumer behaviors are slightly different in the U.S. compared to some other parts of the world. We are running pilot projects on energy in transport. We are looking at one pilot project at the moment in Canada, the green corridor coming from Edmonton going to Vancouver; we’re building fifty refueling stations there for gas. We are looking at various projects in the U.S. We are looking here in Rotterdam actually at gas for shipping. So I think gas in transport will be key. In heavy trucking and shipping, I can clearly see it.

(Related: “Trading Oil for Natural Gas in the Truck Lane“)

Natural gas fueling station (Photograph by Scott Smith/Flickr)

 

There are infrastructure issues.

Some needs to be built. So we’re building gas-gathering stations and we’re building pipeline systems that will be small-port transport systems. But I think that can be done. I see gas in transport specifically for the U.S., and for China, by the way, and for the global shipping industry.

In the United States, our driving has plateaued, and we’ve displaced gasoline with ethanol. Our cars are getting more efficient, and yet from the point of view of the American driver, our gasoline prices are still high and going higher. Is there any point to all of these steps that we’ve taken? Are we going to see higher prices in the future, no matter how much we conserve?

I was just in Washington last week. You can clearly see gasoline prices are high on everybody’s mind. But let me first give you a global long-term view on energy prices. I think energy prices will go up—because of the demand pressure, because of scarce resources that are more costly to develop. And renewables, which are entering the market the market—it could be for electric cars or whatever—they’re just going to be more expensive than what we are using today. So I think long-term [energy prices] are going to go up.

U.S. gasoline prices are still cheap compared to the rest of the world. One needs to understand that. Therefore the consumption, either per capita or per consumer, is actually much higher. The energy behavior in the U.S., compared to for example Europe, or some of the emerging countries, is different by a high factor. That brings me to energy efficiency and energy usage. Some change in cultural behavior will have to happen in the U.S. over time. And therefore I think, yes, higher prices in the long term. But I think if you combine that with the efficiency gains we still can achieve, and with maybe some cultural behavioral changes, the net of the energy price may actually not go up that much.

(Related Quiz: “What You Don’t Know About Gas Prices“)

The  cost of your energy might not go up [even if the price goes up]?

Yes, what your cost of energy is at the end. So if you are in Texas, with an eight-cylinder big type of vehicle—you could [use] a diesel engine or a [natural] gas engine or a hybrid, I think they are as fast or as big, but they will be much more efficient, and therefore can actually absorb higher energy prices.

But globally, if you look at the demand picture globally, the energy prices will be going up just because the demand is?

Shooting up, yes. We have a billion cars at the moment in the world. We think this will go to 2 billion over the next 40 years. And as I said, we have still 1.5 billion people without access to electricity, and there’s 2 billion more to come. We have 1 to 1.5 billion poor people: no access to food, no access to many things. They will [improve] their [living] standards, and that will drive demand as well. So I think there is no way that we can provide the energy at the same price over the next 30 to 40 years.

What’s the most important thing that nations can be doing, or should be doing, to ensure that energy stays affordable?

There are three things:

I think nations need to drive energy efficiency . . .  housing construction standards, gallons per kilometer or per mile. There is plenty we can do on the energy efficiency side. Energy efficiency is key.

The second thing is that we need a price for CO2. This will help us to invest, actually, much more in the longer term. We need that certainty on how CO2 is priced because this will also help us to invest in different technologies in the longer term. It needs a global approach. You cannot have isolated approaches in terms of CO2 pricing. CO2 doesn’t recognize our borders. It’s as simple as that.

And the third thing—where governments are very important—governments should design energy policies and give us the framework of what they want to achieve. But governments should stay away from giving an energy policy that chooses the energy components. Because we don’t know yet in the world which energy component in the longer term will deliver lower carbon-footprint energy. And governments have a tendency to pick and choose, and that doesn’t let innovation and R&D actually develop the right policy for the longer term. So we’re developing today things like offshore wind, which is by far too expensive. It doesn’t make sense compared to some other forms with low-carbon footprint energy you can already do today. So what they should say, actually is how much carbon they want, how much CO2 they want in their energy policy, how much they want to have produced inside their country, for example, and how much they want to import, and then start to give us the framework. I think businesses and NGOs together—and academia—can actually work on the solutions. Today it’s too prescriptive, and we get nowhere.

You’d have to convince the politicians of the advantage of a CO2 price over subsidizing different types of energy.

I get this question a lot: “Where do you see a good energy policy in place?” I don’t see it in the West anywhere but if I go to China, I have a very good energy policy. I know what to do. So I think there’s also some learning for us in the West. If you can get agreement and can get a good energy policy, the industry will align and work for it. But the political dimension of agreeing on a policy—in your country, getting any alignment over the next 12 months—is probably going to be difficult.

In China, they have the imperative to produce energy, but do they have the protections in place?

Oh yes, they have 17 percent CO2 savings in their five-year plan. [Editors’ note: China’s 12thfive-year plan is to cut carbon intensity—the amount of emissions per unit of GDP—by 17 percent by 2015.] They double [natural] gas from 4 to 8 percent [of the nation’s energy mix], which contributes to that as well. Big drive for solar and wind development. They make the funds available. Big targets on energy efficiency. All these components are in their five-year plan. One thing you can’t accuse the Chinese of is that they are not delivering their five-year plans. They deliver it.

(Related Photos: “A Rare Look Inside China’s Energy Machine“)

 

Caribou gather on the coastal plain of the Beaufort Sea. (Photography by George F. Moblley, National Geographic)

 

I wanted to ask you about the Arctic. I’ve seen Shell’s plans, and the protections you plan to have in place, but I think people who are concerned about the Arctic wonder what can be done to make sure that the Arctic eventually doesn’t look like offshore Louisiana. There’s so much oil and gas potential there, they worry it will alter the Arctic in ways that we don’t want for that very special environment.

Indeed as you say, the expected resources in Alaska or in the Arctic, let’s use the Arctic because it’s not just Alaska, there’s Norway, Russia, et cetera. I think the resource potential is tremendous—oil and probably gas. My base assumption is these resources will be developed, because people will need it. And therefore, I think it is absolutely key that reliable operators with a sustainability track record actually develop these resources. I would see us as one [company] which takes a lot of care in terms of sustainability. It needs, clearly, the best preparation to actually develop these resources. We have spent a lot of time over the last few years to, for example, further develop our drilling ships. We have further developed potential containment systems. We have further developed our blowout preventers. We have learned out of Macondo [BP’s Gulf oil spill] how to apply that. So there’s a lot of preparation that has gone into this.

I think we need now to explore, because people do kind of forget from time to time that what we are doing now is to explore. To know what is there, in order then to design the right development plans. We are not yet in the development plan, to produce. We are exploring to find out how we will build the system in the longer term. We have taken great care so far. Let’s also be clear: this is shallow water, and it’s not high-pressure, compared to the Gulf. To take your Louisiana example, that’s deep-water and high-pressure in some parts. Therefore the risks involved in Alaska, from a pure technical point of view, are different. In terms of nature, I invite all the NGOs, local communities, to work with us in order to actually develop the right systems in the longer term.

We are a very transparent company. We have used a lot of time to work with communities and NGOs now. We can actually develop the best solutions for the longer term. So I think from that point of view, we do this in a very transparent way, we use our best technologies, we have a track record, we already build sub-Arctic in Russia, for example. We were first in Alaska . . . 1918, I think? It’s close to 100 years. So I think we’ve really prepared ourselves with a lot of local stakeholder engagement, a lot of work with the regulators in the [United States], improved the systems, and I’m confident that we can do this in a sustainably acceptable way.

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[ What’s Up With Fracking? ]

What's Up With Fracking?

Fracking

Fracking in the Marcellus Shale / Wikimedia Commons

Despite the fact that natural gas from hydraulic fracturing (commonly referred to as “fracking”)  is playing a newly prominent role in America’s energy mix, a recent study reported that 63% of Americans still don’t know what this process is.

We gathered the latest information on fracking to bring you up to speed:


What is fracking?

Hydraulic fracturing is a method of drilling for natural gas (and oil) that involves digging a deep well and pumping a mixture of water and chemicals at high pressure into the ground, “fracturing” the rock, to force the methane out.

Why am I just hearing about fracking now?

Fracking is a relatively new method of drilling that unlocks natural gas reserves that were previously inaccessible. In 2001, shale gas made up 2% of the natural gas supply in the U.S. It now constitutes 30%. As fracking is increasingly used as a method of extracting natural gas, more communities are paying attention to the impacts. Josh Fox’s 2010 film Gasland also raised public consciousness about fracking.

Where is fracking happening in the U.S.?

Much fracking is occurring in the rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale, which runs through northeastern states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, but fracking is happening in other shale deposits across the country from Texas to Utah and North Dakota, too. Here’s a map of shale gas deposits.

Why are people concerned about fracking?

Water Consumption and Pollution: The fracking process requires large amounts of water: 70 to 140 billion gallons in the US each year, competing with humans and agriculture for resources. The fracking waste water contains many chemicals that are toxic to humans and wildlife and has been known to reach the groundwater supply of nearby communities. Even if the wastewater is “properly” disposed of, through treatment, recycling or road application, it still presents a risk to living things. Surface gas spills have also been documented.  

Air Pollution and Climate Impacts: Natural gas is often touted as a cleaner fuel than oil or coal because it releases lower levels of harmful chemicals like CO2 and sulfur dioxide when burned. But the lifecycle costs of natural gas should also be considered. Methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming, is routinely flared from drilling sites and may also escape from storage tanks. The Environmental Defense Fund says that if these leaks aren’t contained, natural gas will be little better than coal when it comes to climate impacts.  

In some areas, fracking also produces ozone at ground level which causes health problems like asthma and lung damage. Pollution from the fracking production process is also a concern as many machines and vehicles that run on diesel service drilling sites.

What can be done?

Some environmental groups such as Earthworks, Clean Water Action, Food & Water Watch, Earthjustice and others say that the risk to communities and the environment from fracking is too great, industry safety records too lax, and that unsafe fracking should be stopped. The state of Vermont has recently banned fracking.

Organizations like Environmental Defense Fund and Rocky Mountain Institute think that fracked natural gas has a place in America’s energy supply and are working to ensure that the problems associated with fracking are reduced through better regulations and oversight.

All agree that the current situation is neither safe nor sustainable, and are giving the public a voice in the direction of the country’s energy future.

 

Learn more:

Hydraulic fracturing and the FRAC Act: Frequently Asked Questions, EarthWorks*

Natural Gas, Rocky Mountain Institute*

Science and the Fracking Boom: Missing Answers, NPR

Fracking, Food & Water Watch*

The Fracking Fuss, Natural Resources Defense Council*

The No Fracking Campaign, Center for Health, Environment, and Justice*

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[ America’s Great Outdoors Congressional Champions ]

Several members of Congress and Senators were honored as America’s Great Outdoors Congressional Champions during Great Outdoors America Week or GO America Week (June 26-June 28, 2012 in Washington DC).

In the heart of Great Outdoors Month, GO America Week brought outdoor enthusiasts from all walks of life — high school students and adults, active members of the military and veterans, conservationists and business leaders, hunters and anglers, bikers and boaters — together to celebrate America’s great outdoors, and ask their elected officials to protect our natural heritage. 

Great Outdoors America Week offered an opportunity for advocates to take direct action on a number of conservation issues, ranging from wilderness and national monument protection to reconnecting inner-city kids to the great outdoors. Great Outdoors America Week serves as another example of the long-standing, bipartisan tradition of conservation in the United States.

America’s Great Outdoors Congressional Champions

Senate

CA
• Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA)
• Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA)

CO
• Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) 
• Senator Mark Udall (D-CO)

CT
• Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT)

ME
• Senator Susan Collins (R-ME)
• Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME)

MT
• Senator Max Baucus (D-MT)
• Senator Jon Tester (D-MT)

NC
• Senator Richard Burr (R-NC)

NH
• Senator Jean Shaheen (D-NH)

NM
• Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM)

NV
• Senator Harry Reid (D-NV)

OR
• Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR)

RI
• Senator Jack Reed (D-RI)

TN
• Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN)

WA
• Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA)
• Senator Patty Murray (D-WA)

WV
• Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV)

House

AZ
• Representative Raul Grijalva (D-7th/AZ)

CA
• Representative Judy Chu (D-32nd/CA) 
• Representative Sam Farr (D-17th/CA)
• Representative John Garamendi (D-10th/CA)
• Representative Mike Thompson (D-1st/CA)

CO
• Representative Jared Polis (D-2nd/CO)

CT
• Representative Chris Murphy (D-5th/CT)

IL
• Representative Robert Dold (R-10th/IL)

MA
• Representative Edward Markey (D-7th/MA)
• Representative John Olver (D-1st/MA)

MD
• Representative John Sarbanes (D-3rd/MD)

ME
• Representative Mike Michaud (D-2nd/ME)

MI
• Representative Dale Kildee (D-5th/ MI)

MN
• Representative Betty McCollum (D-4th/MN)

NH
• Representative Charles Bass (R-2nd/NH)

NJ
• Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-11th/NJ)
• Representative Frank LoBiondo (R-2nd/NJ)

NM
• Representative Martin Heinrich (D-1st/NM)
• Representative Ben Ray Lujan (D-3rd/NM)

NY
• Representative Nan Hayworth (R-19th/NY)
• Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-22nd/NY)

OH
• Representative Steve LaTourette (R-14th/OH)

OR
• Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-3rd/OR)

PA
• Representative Charlie Dent (R-15th/PA)
• Representative Mike Fitzpatrick (R-8th/PA)

VA
• Representative Jim Moran (D-8th/VA)
• Representative Rob Wittman (R-1st/VA) 

WA
• Representative Norm Dicks (D-6th/WA)
• Representative Rick Larsen (D-2nd/WA)
• Representative Dave Reichert (R-8th/WA)

WI
• Representative Ron Kind (D-3rd/WI)
• Representative Tom Petri (R-6th/WI)

WV
• Representative Nick Rahall (D-3rd/WV)
 

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[ A Visit With Some Folks in Fracking Land ]

Part two — the view from the grassroots.

Last week I led a group of Nicholas School colleagues on an “eco fact-finding” trip to learn about fracking in Pennsylvania. We spent the first half of the trip (covered last week) touring facilities and getting a bird’s eye view of what’s going on with the landscape. Today I’m writing about the second half, which was devoted to hearing from people in the Keystone State.

What Do the Montrosians Have to Say?

Montrose, located about 40 miles north of Scranton, is the county seat of Susquehanna County. With a population under 2,000, the seemingly sleepy, former manufacturing borough is overwhelmingly high school-educated and white with a median household income in the neighborhood of $38,000 per year.

On our helicopter tour from Pittsburgh to Scranton, Montrose seemed like a good place to touch down, hop out, and stroll about to find folks to speak with. With no heliport in sight, we made an impromptu landing in a baseball field. Turned out to be a great strategy for engagement: as soon as we disembarked, a crowd gathered around to find out what were doing.

Fracking may be happening all around Montrose, but the people living there were generally nonplussed. They knew that fracking was controversial and divisive — that people were strongly opposed to or strongly in favor of it — but virtually all the Montrosians we heard from thought fracking was, to quote one resident, “probably a good thing.” They mentioned the economy, jobs, and out-of-town workers eating in their restaurants.

Of the few voices of concern, two stood out. One woman talked about gas company people coming into town and grabbing the good places to live, forcing others out, but she didn’t resent their success. Another woman said her daughter, who lived outside Montrose and was having her well water tested, was worried.

The blasé attitude of the people of Montrose surprised me. We got a very different vibe from the next group.

Group from Northern Wayne County

Moving east to neighboring Wayne County, which borders the Delaware River to the east and New York State beyond, we dined with some residents who belong to the Northern Wayne County Property Owners Alliance.

The alliance came about because property owners in Wayne and Susquehanna Counties decided to join forces before signing leases to ensure they got the best deal possible while also protecting their land. According to its website, the group has more than 1,300 members and represents more than 100,000 acres of land. Eventually the alliance signed a contract to go forward on fracking but not before doing their homework. This is how it’s put on the group’s website:

“Over the course of more than four years, [we] collected data and experiences from across the country; … took tours of active drilling sites; and listened carefully to the arguments presented by drilling opponents. This cumulative research equated to over 10 years and several 1,000’s of emails of in-depth education on geology, natural gas, gas drilling, and leasing. Our members committed to signing a lease if surface waters and the aquifer were protected. We have concluded that gas drilling could be conducted safely with a responsible energy company as our partner.”

We dined with a group of about 20 from the alliance. And they were upset and angry. They said the contract they signed is a model for partnering with gas companies drilling on private land. Among other things, it allows for continuous water testing and other environmental safeguards.

But their plans were frustrated by a temporary fracking moratorium in the Delaware River watershed by the Delaware River Basin Commission while it studies the impacts, a move the alliance is none too happy about. According to our dinner guests, they felt they were being deprived of much needed income by fracking opponents who were, at best, “uninformed.”

The group’s website claims that “the safety of hydraulic fracturing is well documented, with zero confirmed cases of groundwater contamination in 1 million applications over 60 years.” I guess the accuracy of that statement depends upon what you mean by “confirmed.” More on that later, but that attitude set up an interesting dynamic at dinner. You see, some of our faculty, including one in our group, had recently published a paper on groundwater contamination near fracking sites in Pennsylvania. The folks from the alliance knew about the Duke study (one even brought a copy with him) and they were none too happy about it. One of the folks at the dinner opined that the paper was an affront to their community and before we published papers like it we should first consider its impact on people. Another allowed that that was all water under the bridge but he hoped that we would be more responsible about what we write in our future science papers.

I can tell you that I bristled at this as well as the notion that anyone who opposed fracking is “uninformed” and I am sure I was not the only one. But our mantra on these kinds of trips is that we come to listen and not debate. We let it be.

The alliance’s fundamental position is that it’s their land, they did their due diligence to protect themselves and the environment, they’re in line to earn significant amounts of money, and no one should be allowed to prevent them from going ahead. It’s a position with merit, after all it is their land. But property rights only go so far. If fracking on their land pollutes the Delaware, which a whole lot of people downriver depend upon, then I’d say they don’t have the right to frack.

Next up: discussions with some of those supposedly uninformed folks.

A Failing Dairy Farm

Until recently, the Fallon family dairy farm, located in the town of Kingsley in Susquehanna County, was a 300-cow operation. Shortly after drilling began in the area, a black sediment appeared in their well water. Tests showed the stuff to be manganese oxide, produced when dissolved manganese comes into contact with the air and forms an insoluble oxide.

Apparently something happened at the same time the drilling began that caused a huge spike in the well water’s manganese levels. And this didn’t happen to just the Fallons. Many neighbors experienced similar problems at about the same time.

Shortly after the black sediment arrived, people and animals at the Fallons’ farm began to get sick. Bringing in outside drinking water solved the people part of the problem, but buying water for the animals was not affordable. Eventually the family was forced to sell their cows and shutter operations. Without income from the farm, the family is in danger of losing the land they’ve lived on for generations.

Despite rumors that the gas company working in the area had been cited twice for violations (in the casings used to prevent contamination and improper preparation for drilling through the aquifer), nothing can be done for the Fallons or their neighbors according to state officials since manganese is a natural component of groundwater. (Actually, I suspect drilling could still be at fault as it’s possible that that’s what opened pathways that allowed elevated concentrations of the manganese to move into the aquifer.) Pauline Fallon said her neighbors have banded together to sue the gas company, but she and her husband have decided not to sue.

Methane in Silver Creek

About 10 miles north of the Fallons is a property in Franklin Forks with a chicken coop in the back and a creek running along its edge. This is the Mannings’ home near Salt Springs where methane naturally bubbles to the surface.

Around the time that drilling began around Franklin Forks, the Mannings and their neighbors began experiencing water troubles — gray water issuing from taps, water faucets blowing off their stems, and ultimately water spewing out the well pump tops. (See video.) The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) began monitoring the Mannings’ well water, and over the course of about a week found an alarming rise in methane concentrations in the head space. Fearing an explosion, the DEP disconnected and vented their well, installed a “water buffalo” beside their house for washing, and advised them to purchase or get water for drinking and cooking.

What caused the methane contamination? According to Tammy Manning, DEP said that the salt spring had apparently migrated. Did local drilling cause the migration? The DEP says there’s no way of knowing, and the gas company says it is not responsible — although it is supplying water for the Mannings’ water buffalo.

In this case, the Mannings have a lawyer and are suing the gas company. Their neighbors are not.

A Dinner Back in Montrose

We spent our last night in Pennsylvania having dinner with some people from Dimock — most were unhappy with the fracking rush, but one couple supported it.

Many of the unhappy folks had experiences similar to the Fallons’ and Mannings’. Others expressed disappointment with the appropriation of their land for the gas companies’ noisy compressor stations and crisscrossing pipelines. Even the supporters of fracking at the dinner complained about venting compressors sounding like a jet engine in the middle of the night and ever increasing feet of pipelines installed on their property.

However, even the unhappy and upset folks were not necessarily anti-fracking. If fracking is in the cards, so be it, they said, but the companies need to be responsible and accountable, and that in far too many cases they have not been and that the state government was not stepping in as it should.

Path Forward?

My own opinion is that we have a lot to learn about fracking. Since natural gas is not going anywhere, why not take the time needed to make sure that the environmental impacts are minimized and that really unacceptable impacts — such as polluting the watershed that serves New York City or Delaware — never happen.

As for those who claim that you just cannot document that drilling and fracking have contaminated people’s well water, I maintain that they’re either intentionally or unknowingly sticking their heads in the sand. I have a hard time believing that all the water problems I heard about during my visit were either coincidence with nothing to do with drilling or were made up by people trying to make a fraudulent buck. It’s pretty clear to me that at least sometimes — perhaps because of mistakes and/or carelessness — fracking leads to water contamination that can really set a family or a community back.

Imagine what life would be like, having, like the Mannings, to bring your drinking water into the house daily by the jug-full. Imagine the effects to your property value and your economic well-being.

Whether you believe in big government or small government, free markets or regulated markets, what’s right is right. If we’re going to continue to move forward with fracking, there has to be some mechanism for making the people who get run over by the process whole.

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[ Great Outdoors America Week 2012 ]

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More than 200 people are pounding the pavement in Washington DC during Great Outdoors America Week or GO America Week.  As National Great Outdoors Month comes to a close, people from all walks of life – veterans, kids, business leaders, sportsmen – are in letting their lawmakers know how important it is to protect and reconnect people to the great outdoors.

The people coming to our nation’s capital are as diverse as the places they are trying to protect. It ranges from business leaders like Chris Miller from outdoor footwear company Vasque, whose company is part of the $650 billion outdoor recreation economy; to armed forces veterans group Vet Voice Foundation, which is bringing in veterans to support conservation efforts.

They will be joining many more people in urging Congress to act on more than two dozen bills that would protect open spaces that belong to all Americans.

This year’s annual Great Outdoors America Week runs from June 25-27 in Washington D.C., but that doesn’t mean that you can’t help be a champion for America’s wild places.

You can follow along our efforts to protect our America’s wild places and green spaces on our Flickr page – check out some of pictures, and share some of your own that show what your favorite part of America’s great outdoors is.  We’ll also be honoring lawmakers and agency officials that have stood up for America’s Great Outdoors and pushed to keep our wild places protected and open to all Americans.

Make sure to follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #GOAmericaWeek and check in our Facebook page for updates of what you can do to help protect America’s great outdoors!

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[ At Rio, Corporations Pledge While Nations Demur on Climate Action. But Is It Enough? ]

Delegates gathered this week in Rio de Janeiro at the 20th anniversary of the historic Earth Summit  affirmed that climate change “requires urgent and ambitious action,” in an agreement that commits them to no new steps toward meeting that goal. But while nations are as far as ever from putting a global price on carbon emissions, software giant Microsoft is doing just that, and pledging to make its  operations carbon neutral in the next year.

Microsoft is one of more than 200 corporations and organizations that have made commitments on energy, the environment, or climate change as part of the Rio+20 conference, in support of the goals that have been articulated these past 20 years by the United Nations—goals on which the nations themselves have fallen short.

Here are the details of just a few examples of the pledges so far on energy and climate:

Microsoft, the largest software company in the world, pledges to be carbon neutral by the end of fiscal year 2013 (which begins in July.) The Redmond, Washington company plans both to sign long-term renewable energy contracts, and to invest its own capital in renewable energy, and to connect its data centers to “innovative energy sources” such as methane-powered fuel cells.  The company create accountability by internally setting a price on carbon. It will reflect the price that the company pays to offset carbon emissions associated with electricity use, or with airplane flights (with a goal of reducing reliance on air travel.) Microsoft, which had 1.2 million tons in carbon emissions last year according to the Carbon Disclosure Project, detailed its plan on its blog in May.

ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steel producer with 185 million tons in CO2 emissions last year, pledged to reduce emissions 8 percent per ton of steel produced by 2020 (over a 2007 baseline) through process improvements to increase energy efficiency.

BMW Group, the German automobile company, committed to reducing its product CO2 emissions by 50 percent (compared to 1995) by 2010, and also to reduce the CO2 emissions of newly registered vehicles in Europe as measured by the new European driving cycle.

SABMiller, the international beer brewing company with 2.4 million tons in CO2 emissions last year, aims to reduce fossil fuel emissions from its on-site energy use by 50 percent for every 100 liters of lager produced by 2020 (compared to a 2008 baseline). In the last year, the company says its energy use has remained constant (138 megajoules per 100 liters of lager), but its carbon emissions have fallen 10 percent due to its moves to a cleaner energy mix.

All of these steps, most of them announced before Rio, have to be seen in context of where global emissions actually are heading. At Copenhagen in 2009, although nations could not agree on a course of action, they did agree that the scientific consensus is that global temperature change should kept below 2°C (3.6°F). Right now, worldwide carbon emissions are now increasing on trajectory that will lead to a long-term global temperature increase of more than 3.5°C (6.3°F.) And that projection is the International Energy Agency’s optimistic scenario, assuming nations will enact an array of new energy efficiency and climate policies that many of them have not taken any steps to enact. (For example, it assumes there will be the equivalent of a price for carbon guiding investment decisions in the United States after 2015.)

As Rio+20 drew to an end, many environmentalists, frustrated with the weak conference agreement, were placing their hope in such commitments from the private sector. “The greening of our economies will have to happen without the blessing of the world leaders,” said Lasse Gustavsson, executive director of the World Wildlife Fund.  The same message was sounded by business leaders who gathered in May in Rotterdam at a Shell* forum on global water, food and energy stresses.

Such commitments are important, because they show that some leading corporations (and carbon emitters) acknowledge the importance of addressing climate change, and they believe it is possible to move to cleaner and more efficient energy while advancing their business aims. But is it enough?

Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.

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[ Race to the Sun ]

President John F. Kennedy challenged the nation to be the global leader in space exploration in 1961. “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth,” he said at the time. The moon race was on and, decades later, it can be said that our victory provided knowledge that benefited the entire world. Today, it’s a race to the sun and, once again, the U.S. has issued a challenge to its countrymen in the form of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) SunShot Initiative.
The goal of SunShot is to have solar energy achieve cost parity with other forms of energy by the end of the decade. If the cost of installed solar systems can be reduced by up to 75%, it will ensure widespread adoption of this renewable energy and position the U.S. as a global leader in clean energy.
The Energy Department has issued a series of grants to facilitate its objective (PennFuture was the beneficiary of one such grant in 2011), focusing on photovoltaics and concentrating solar power, systems integration, and market transformation projects. These funding opportunities seek to foster collaboration among industry, universities, national laboratories, federal, state, and local governments and non-government agencies and advocacy groups.
This past week, the SunShot Summit and Technology Forum was held in Denver, Colorado. Over two days, leaders from government, academia and industry worked together to address the scientific, technological and market barriers facing renewable energy. Among the speakers at the summit was Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a champion of clean energy.
“The United States is in a fierce fight to be the leader in innovation and invention,” noted Chu. Even so, progress is being made. Solar modules, which were going for $4 per watt three years ago, are now averaging 85 cents per watt.
The next logical step is streamlining the solar permitting process, which is unwieldy, to say the least. More than half the cost of a solar system is related to permitting, and there are a staggering 18,000 jurisdictions with different zoning and permitting processes in the U.S. In Germany, a global leader in solar, the process is far simpler: sign a contract with an installer and follow it up with a fifteen-minute online registration process. Mused Chu, “Why can’t the installation of a rooftop PV system be handled like the installation of a gas water heater? guess which one is more dangerous?”
If SunShot’s goals are reached, says Chu, the cost of solar will be eight cents per kilowatt hour. Clearly, the race is on. One SunShot incubator was able to leverage $17.5 million into $32 billion in private investment. These programs are working and there’s no going back: halting Energy Department loan programs would cost taxpayers $250 million per year in returns on those loans.
Who knew the race to the sun could be such fun?
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[ Green Quiz Challenge: Fracking ]

Green Quiz Challenge: Fracking

Well

Laurie Barr/Wikimedia Commons

Hydraulic fracturing (otherwise known as “fracking”) is a method of drilling for natural gas (typically) that  involves digging a deep well and pumping a mixture of water and chemicals at high pressure into the ground to force the methane gas out.

Fracking has been used more frequently since 2005 after loopholes exempted the process from important federal environmental laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act. Many communities and environmental organizations are worried about the air and water pollution caused by the process. Fracking wastewater contains many unknown chemicals that have been known to contaminate groundwater supplies.

 

 

 

In this green quiz, we test your knowledge of the fracking process.

How is the wastewater used in fracking disposed of?

A. Stored in tanks above or underground indefinitely
B. Recycled for use in another fracking well
C. Returned to the water supply
D. Purchased by towns to de-ice roads
E. All of the above

The correct answer is E. All of the above. Congrats to our green quiz winners for guessing the correct answer.

From the Natural Resources Defense Council: "The most common management options currently in use are recycling for additional hydraulic fracturing, treatment and discharge to surface waters, underground injection, storage in impoundments and tanks, and land application (road spreading). All of these options present some risk of harm to health or the environment, so they are regulated by the federal government and the states. But many of the current regulatory programs are not adequate to keep people and ecosystems safe."

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[ America’s Great Outdoors Agency Champions ]

A diverse group of people from across the country came together to honor and celebrate America’s Great Outdoors Champions during Great Outdoors America Week (GO America Week).  These Agency champions were honored for their on-going work to protect America’s wild places and green spaces, and reconnect Americans to the great outdoors. 

Department of the Interior – Will Shafroth 

Will Shafroth, a land conservationist executive and founding director of the Colorado Conservation Trust and Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund is currently serving as Councilor to the Secretary for America’s Great Outdoors.

America’s Great Outdoors Accomplishments

  • DOI worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to designate 41 National Recreation Trails stretching across 17 states, adding 650 miles to the national trails system.
  • DOI and USACE worked together to designate three new National Water Trails including the Lake Michigan National Water Trail in Illinois and Indiana, the Quinebaug River Water Trail in Connecticut, and the Susquehanna River Water Trail in Pennsylvania.
  • Led by EPA, USDA, DOI and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 11 agencies came together to form the Federal Urban Waters Partnership, leveraging Federal funds to revitalize urban waters and surrounding communities through pilot projects in seven initial cities.
  • Released a 50-state progress report outlining 100 locally-supported outdoor initiatives aimed at reconnecting people to the great outdoors. 
     

Department of Agriculture (U.S. Forest Service) – Robert Bonnie

Robert Bonnie is a Senior Advisor to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack for environment and climate change.  At USDA, Bonnie works closely with the Farm Service Agency, Forest Service, and Natural Resources Conservation Service on a variety of natural resource and climate related issues.

America’s Great Outdoors Accomplishments

  • USDA announced $100 million in landowner agreements with farmers and ranchers to restore wetlands and permanently conserve nearly 24,000 acres of agricultural land in the Northern Everglades.
  • USDA improved access for hunting by enrolling eight additional states and one tribe in the “Open Fields” Voluntary Public Access Program, which works with states to provide landowners with incentives to expand lands available for hunting.
  • Led by EPA, USDA, DOI and the Department of Housing and Urban Developmen, 11 agencies came together to form the Federal Urban Waters Partnership, leveraging Federal funds to revitalize urban waters and surrounding communities through pilot projects in seven initial cities.
  • USDA worked with other Federal agencies to launch new landscape-scale projects in Saginaw Bay, Michigan; Monterey Bay, California; and the Lake Champlain area in New York and Vermont, investing $3.5 million to underwrite conservation activities on working lands based on extensive stakeholder input.
     

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Terrence “Rock” Salt

Terrence “Rock” Salt is the principal deputy assistant secretary of the Army. Salt was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota and graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army in June 1966. He is a graduate of the Army’s Airborne and Ranger Schools, the Army Command and General Staff College, and the National War College. 

America’s Great Outdoors Accomplishments

  • DOI worked with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to designate 41 National Recreation Trails stretching across 17 states, adding 650 miles to the national trails system.

Environmental Protection Agency – Bicky Corman

Bicky Corman is currently the Deputy Associate Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Policy. Corman has handled environmental litigation and policy at the state and federal levels, previously serving in EPA's New York office and in the Department of Justice's Environmental Enforcement Section, and in the District of Columbia's Department of the Environment, where she served as the General Counsel.

America’s Great Outdoors Accomplishments

  • EPA awarded nearly $30 million in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants, including funds to groom Chicago’s to 24 beaches on a daily basis and build a protective barrier to make swimming areas cleaner. These actions should result in fewer swimming bans and advisories due to contamination.
  • Led by EPA, USDA, DOI and the Department of Housing and Urban Developmen, 11 agencies came together to form the Federal Urban Waters Partnership, leveraging Federal funds to revitalize urban waters and surrounding communities through pilot projects in seven initial cities.

White House Council on Environmental Quality – Jay Jensen

Jay Jensen is the associate director for Land & Water Ecosystems at White House Council on Environmental Quality.

America’s Great Outdoors Accomplishments

  • Coordinated the efforts of the other agencies to ensure maximum success for Americans nationwide

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