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Protests temporarily delay opening Alabama forests to drilling

If you enjoyed the reasoned debate over opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to fossil fuel extraction, you'll likely be happy to learn that a similar debate may be coming to your own neighborhood.

For years Forest Service land in the East was considered irrelevant when it came to oil and gas leasing. But in the last year and a half, the federal government has leased or scheduled for auction more than 384,000 acres at the request of private bidders, more than 10 times as much land as it had leased in the previous two years.

The agency responsible for such auctions, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), had intended to auction another 90,000 acres in four southern states next week, but protests in Alabama prompted that state's auctions to be postponed.

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North Dakota’s fossil fuel boom: Messy

Via Lindsey GeePhoto by Lindsey Gee.

The fossil fuels boom has brought jobs to North Dakota. And several other things!

Like much higher rents.

[School superintendent Kelly] Koppinger said every new teacher he's tried to recruit asks about housing. Most can't afford it. There's a new apartment building across from the high school, but it's too expensive.

"Right now for a two-bedroom, one-bath you're looking at $1,800-a-month rent," he said. "A teacher's take home pay is right around that $2,000 mark and for them to spend $1,800 a month on just rent, we couldn't recruit or retain some of the staff we did have, so we needed to get it to where housing was somewhat affordable."

To remedy that, the school district is building several apartment units and will charge $500 a month for rent.

And crime.

Within the last few months, a Watford City pharmacy was robbed of $16,000 in narcotics, four people were stabbed at a local strip club in Williston, a semi truck crashed into an RV full of people sleeping and the first prostitution ring in decades was busted.

Last year, the number of criminal incidents reported to the Williston Police Department nearly tripled to 16,495. But that's only a fraction of the lawlessness the police have seen this year.

And, this, just released today:

According to data obtained by ProPublica, oil companies in North Dakota reported more than 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater or other fluids in 2011, about as many as in the previous two years combined. Many more illicit releases went unreported, state regulators acknowledge, when companies dumped truckloads of toxic fluid along the road or drained waste pits illegally.

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Halliburton gets tripped up by Indian bean farmers*

Economics 101: supply and demand. The more supply in the market, the price of a product drops. The more demand, prices rise. Demand leads to sales, which reduces supply and forces prices higher and higher until either 1) supply runs out or 2) prices drop demand.

This isn't a theoretical or arcane concept. Here's how that process played out just this week.

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The dirt on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s environmental record

Scott Walker "Obey" SignPhoto by ky_olsen.

Wisconsin is a proud state, with a unique political legacy. Its track record of progressive independence and long-standing commitment to political comity make today's recall election an aberration, a rare example of a Wisconsin turned against itself -- and a rare national example of political turmoil.

The last recall election of a governor in the United States was California's in 2003, a campaign I worked on. A friend from those days, Clark Williams, is today in his home state of Wisconsin working to turn out voters to recall Walker. I asked him how the two elections compared. "Night and day," he responded, noting the "venom" that has polluted any rational conversation about the election. It's a common refrain: A recent poll found that one in three Wisconsinites had stopped talking about politics with someone because of their disagreement. There are reports of physical altercations between supporters of either side. This is not exactly the ebullient, cheese-loving Wisconsin we picture.

Neither are the decisions being made by the governor the ones many state residents expected. The fuse for the recall was lit with Gov. Walker's move to cut collective bargaining rights for the state's public sector unions, but that's not the only gripe state residents have with the governor.

The environmental community has its own (good) reasons for complaint. The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters is very engaged in the recall, with lawn signs opposing Walker throughout the state and a robust collection of "Failure Files" online outlining Walker's anti-environment policies. And I mean robust. They're worth a perusal.

For those pressed for time, or on the way to the polling booth, here's an overview we assembled: Scott Walker's Murky, Polluted Environmental Record.

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International Energy Agency: ‘Safe’ fracking cheap, but would destroy a livable climate

A version of this article originally appeared on Climate Progress.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has a new report out, "Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas" [PDF]. Unfortunately, the IEA buried the lede -- the Golden Age of Gas scenario destroys a livable climate -- so the coverage of the report was off target.

For instance, The New York Times opines, “Energy Agency Finds Safe Gas Drilling is Cheap.” And the Council on Foreign Relations headline is similar: “Safe Fracking Looks Cheap.”

That’s true only if a ruined climate, widespread Dust Bowlification, an acidified ocean, and rapidly rising sea levels constitute your idea of “safe.”

Still, the IEA deserves much of the blame for this miscoverage. It’s not until page 91 (!) of the full report [PDF] that the agency explains that adopting its “Golden Rules” for developing shale gas doesn’t stop catastrophe:

The Golden Rules Case puts CO2 emissions on a long-term trajectory consistent with stabilizing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse-gas emissions at around 650 parts per million, a trajectory consistent with a probable temperature rise of more than 3.5 degrees C [6.3 degrees F] in the long term, well above the widely accepted 2 degrees C [3.6 degrees F] target. This finding reinforces a central conclusion from the WEO special report on a Golden Age of Gas (IEA, 2011b), that, while a greater role for natural gas in the global energy mix does bring environmental benefits where it substitutes for other fossil fuels, natural gas cannot on its own provide the answer to the challenge of climate change.

D’oh! Or is that duh?

Read more: Natural Gas

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Against the grain: Fracking companies mine rural Wisconsin for sand

A version of this article originally appeared on TomDispatch.

A sand mine near Chippewa Falls, Wis. (Photo by Jim Tittle/The Price of Sand.)

If the world can be seen in a grain of sand, watch out. As Wisconsinites are learning, there’s money (and misery) in sand -- and if you’ve got the right kind, an oil company may soon be at your doorstep.

March in Wisconsin used to mean snow on the ground, temperatures so cold that farmers worried about their cows freezing to death. But as I traveled around rural townships and villages in early March to interview people about frac-sand mining, a little-known cousin of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” daytime temperatures soared to nearly 80 degrees -- bizarre weather that seemed to be sending a meteorological message.

In this troubling spring, Wisconsin’s prairies and farmland fanned out to undulating hills that cradled the land and its people. Within their embrace, the rackety calls of geese echoed from ice-free ponds, bald eagles wheeled in the sky, and deer leaped in the brush. And for the first time in my life, I heard the thrilling warble of sandhill cranes.

Yet this peaceful rural landscape is swiftly becoming part of a vast assembly line in the corporate race for the last fossil fuels on the planet. The target: the sand in the land of the cranes.

Five hundred million years ago, an ocean surged here, shaping a unique wealth of hills and bluffs that, under mantles of greenery and trees, are sandstone. That sandstone contains a particularly pure form of crystalline silica. Its grains, perfectly rounded, are strong enough to resist the extreme pressures of the technology called hydraulic fracturing, which pumps vast quantities of that sand, as well as water and chemicals, into ancient shale formations to force out methane and other forms of “natural gas.”

That sand, which props open fractures in the shale, has to come from somewhere. Without it, the fracking industry would grind to a halt. So big multinational corporations are descending on this bucolic region to cart off its prehistoric sand, which will later be forcefully injected into the earth elsewhere across the country to produce more natural gas. Geology that has taken millions of years to form is now being transformed into part of a system, a machine, helping to drive global climate change.

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Wisconsin hospital is powered by beer and cheese

Gundersen Lutheran Hospital, in La Crosse, Wis., aims to be energy independent by 2014. Hospitals use a ton of energy, so that's a tough goal to meet. But Gundersen is getting there by piggybacking on Wisconsin’s best-known industries: beer and cheese.

Beer and cheese, while delicious, both slough off a lot of gas while they're being made. (Not to mention after they’re consumed.) The hospital system has been sourcing biogas from a local brewery and from a dairy farm that makes mascarpone and fresh mozzarella cheese. And recently the system started getting gas from a La Crosse landfill, as well.

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Brooklynites: Don’t frack our beer! [VIDEO]

Does worrying about fracking make you thirst for a drink? Before you raise that pint of ale to your lips, consider the source.

The brewmeister of Brooklyn Brewery says toxic fracking chemicals like methanol, benzene, and ethylene glycol (found in antifreeze) could contaminate his beer by leaking into New York's water supply. Unlike neighboring Pennsylvania, New York state has promised to ban high-volume fracking from the city's watershed. But environmentalists say the draft fracking regulations are weak and leave the largest unfiltered water supply in the U.S. -- not to mention the beer that is made from it -- vulnerable.

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Good news: Americans are using a lot less coal

Here is a bit of energy-use news to feel good about: Americans are using a lot less coal.

In the first quarter of this year, the portion of the country's electricity that came from coal was almost 20 percent less than in the same period last year. And overall, the Energy Information Administration predicts, coal consumption in the electric sector will decrease by 14 percent this year.

Of course, there's a reason for this, as Stephen Lacey explains at Climate Progress, and the reason is natural gas. Natural gas is cheap, cheap, cheap, so now we're burning that instead of coal.

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BLM announces draft of ‘common sense’ rules for fracking

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) just released a draft [PDF] of its new rules for hydraulic fracturing on public lands. These rules were last revised in 1988, and they're being updated to deal with the current fracking boom (the BLM says 90 percent of new wells going in on public land are using fracking). The rule update is also meant to show some smidgen of federal leadership on questions like "Should natural gas companies reveal what's in fracking fluid?" and "How are we going to at least try and prevent this stuff from contaminating the water?"

The BLM's answers right now are:

  • Yes, companies have to share what's in fracking fluid, but only after they pour it into the ground.
  • We're going to require some tests to make sure the well is pretty solid. But not any tests the industry wasn't using already.