On a weekend trip near Monticello, N.Y., during the summer of 2010, my family and I visited some friends of ours, a married couple we’ve known for years. Over lunch, I mentioned that we had passed by several anti-fracking signs on our way to their home. Gasland had recently aired on HBO and I was curious what our friends thought about fracking (aka high-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing), so I asked them. There was a pause; our friends looked at each other uneasily. Long story short, in 2009, they had leased some land they own in Pennsylvania to a gas drilling company.
To their credit, our friends, both of whom are environmentally conscious, considered the potential impacts to the community and environment before they signed. Of course at that time, the gas industry’s greenwashing campaign had successfully convinced many people that this domestically produced fuel would help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, since natural gas burns more cleanly than coal. (A claim that has increasingly been called into question.)
The Obama administration has learned from history, it seems. They're not going to sit passively by as their opponents demagogue gas prices. This week they've gone on the offensive, with the president giving a series of interviews and speeches, including a major address today at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md.
Most of the details from today's speech were familiar from previous speeches. Obama argued that his administration has substantially increased oil and gas drilling, but that drilling will never be enough to reduce gas prices or make America independent of imported energy. Thus, America needs to invent and build new technologies to produce clean energy and use less energy.
That's all been said before (though obviously nothing's wrong with repeating it). There was, however, a new theme in the speech, tying all these points together. I don't know if it's entirely new, but I've never heard it emphasized as much. And since it's a theme I've been pushing for years (clearly Obama is reading my blog), I was quite gratified to see it.
It's simply this: the past vs. the future. In his prepared remarks, he said a state of constant vulnerability to events overseas is ...
About a year ago, when the last episode of Gas Price Mania was gearing up, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) gave an extraordinary speech on the floor of the Senate. He explained that the price of gasoline is tied to the price of oil, the price of oil is tied to events outside America's control, and the only way to reduce vulnerability to gasoline and oil prices is to use less gasoline and oil. It's a simple truth, rarely spoken among national politicians.
Last week, Bingaman did it again, using handy charts blown up on poster board. First, he explained that the U.S. has very little control over oil and gasoline prices:
It’s ba-aack -- the Keystone XL pipeline, that is. The Senate is set to vote tomorrow on an amendment created by Big Oil wearing a Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) mask. The amendment would revive everyone’s favorite pipeline -- and, while it was at it, greenlight all the other oil-hungry environmental ruination that Republicans go in for.
The Senate defeated Keystone yet again last week, but Sen. Roberts included the pipeline in amendment #1826 of the Senate transportation bill (S. 1813). And that’s not the only Big Oil party favor he stuck in this grab bag of evil:
It would mandate drilling off of every coast in our nation and in the Arctic Refuge, allow oil shale development on millions of acres in America’s west, and allow the already-rejected Keystone XL pipeline to go forward.
Right now the fossil fuel industry, utility execs, pundits, and politicians from both parties would like us to believe that natural gas will solve our chronic energy woes. But they all suffer from short memories. For years, natural gas has been known in the field as the "crack cocaine of the power industry." As one energy company official famously put it: "They get you hooked and then they raise the price."
Natural gas earned this reputation because its prices have fluctuated dramatically over the years. When prices are low (like now), lawmakers, power utilities, and consumers eagerly embrace natural gas. Then the price rockets up and they all suffer the consequences.
All this matters because Washington may be making long-term policy decisions for us based on false, or at least shaky, assumptions. When federal regulators take an overly optimistic natural gas industry at their word, they risk upping this country's fossil fuel addiction and ensure that in due time we're left stranded again in only a few short years without a realistic solution to our energy and climate change woes.
Energy markets as a whole swing like a pendulum, but we can still attempt to untangle the mechanisms that have anointed natural gas as energy-savior-du-jour once again -- mechanisms that can be as tough to pin down as the odorless, colorless gas itself.
Yesterday, I wrote about a new peer-reviewed paper from inventor Nathan Myhrvold and climate scientist Ken Caldeira. It found that, if there is to be any hope of staying in the zone of climate safety (or at least semi-safety), the transition to carbon-free energy must begin immediately and cannot include any merely "low carbon" sources like natural gas.
I sent Myhrvold a few follow-up questions. Here are his responses, lightly edited.
Alaska's been coasting on its stores of easy-access oil, but a new report from the U.S. Geological Survey shows that the state has a motherlode of shale oil and natural gas. You know what means -- here come the frackers.
The numbers are impressive: as much as 80 trillion cubic feet of frackable natural gas and up to 2 billion barrels of shale oil. To put that in perspective, the natural gas resources are smaller than the Marcellus Shale, which underlays Pennsylvania and New York, and smaller than Texas' Haynesville and Eagle Ford shale formations -- but it's still the fourth biggest parcel in the U.S. The oil shale is the second biggest deposit in the country; only North Dakota's Bakken Formation has more.
Ohio is the latest state hit by fracking mania. The process, which requires pushing millions of gallons of water, sand, and industrial chemicals into shale wells to fracture rock and push out oil and gas, took off after the discovery of massive natural gas deposits in the Utica shale underlying eastern Ohio last July.
Gov. John Kasich (R) sent the message that Ohio was open for business, writing to energy company CEOs around the country, inviting them to partner with the state to make fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a major component of his economic plan. Until last year, there were just a few wells operating in Ohio. There are now 40, and the governor’s spokesperson said next year there could be five times as many.
Kasich says environmental protections and regulations are important to him, but the free-for-all so far has meant people and the environment have suffered. Not only has the process been linked to earthquakes and water contamination in the state, but the industry’s deceptive leasing practices are increasingly causing alarm among Ohioans.
As part of the fiscal year 2013 budget [PDF] released on Feb. 13, President Obama proposed to eliminate $40 billion in tax breaks for oil and gas producers over the next 10 years. Yesterday, the Yale Project on Climate Change reiterated its recent finding that Americans of all political stripes oppose subsidies for “coal, oil, and natural gas companies.” They oppose these subsidies by 70 percent to 30 percent -- better than two to one. Republicans oppose these subsidies by 67 percent to 34 percent (reflects rounding of percentages).