A small New York town prevailed Thursday in a court battle against the energy industry, which wants to frack the ground beneath the townsfolk's feet despite a local law that forbids the practice.
A moratorium is in place on fracking in New York, but Dryden and dozens of other municipalities around the state have passed local ordinances banning the practice in case the state prohibition is lifted. Drillers argued in court that the town's fracking ban violated state law (a law unrelated to the moratorium), and that they should be allowed to drill for gas there despite the locals' wishes.
A state trial court judge ruled last year in favor of Dryden. That ruling was appealed, and, on Thursday, Dryden, with the support of public-interest law firm Earthjustice, prevailed again in a state appeals court. Attorneys for Norwegian company Norse Energy Corp. vowed to appeal the latest ruling to a higher state court. That means the dozens of local fracking bans in New York aren't safe just yet -- but the two legal victories so far are a promising sign.
As the great research ship Chikyu left Shimizu in January to mine the explosive ice beneath the Philippine Sea, chances are good that not one of the scientists aboard realized they might be closing the door on Winston Churchill’s world. Their lack of knowledge is unsurprising; beyond the ranks of petroleum-industry historians, Churchill’s outsize role in the history of energy is insufficiently appreciated.
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in 1911. With characteristic vigor and verve, he set about modernizing the Royal Navy, jewel of the empire. The revamped fleet, he proclaimed, should be fueled with oil, rather than coal -- a decision that continues to reverberate in the present. Burning a pound of fuel oil produces about twice as much energy as burning a pound of coal. Because of this greater energy density, oil could push ships faster and farther than coal could.
Churchill’s proposal led to emphatic dispute. The United Kingdom had lots of coal but next to no oil. At the time, the United States produced almost two-thirds of the world’s petroleum; Russia produced another fifth. Both were allies of Great Britain. Nonetheless, Whitehall was uneasy about the prospect of the Navy’s falling under the thumb of foreign entities, even if friendly. The solution, Churchill told Parliament in 1913, was for Britons to become “the owners, or at any rate, the controllers at the source of at least a proportion of the supply of natural oil which we require.” Spurred by the Admiralty, the U.K. soon bought 51 percent of what is now British Petroleum, which had rights to oil “at the source”: Iran (then known as Persia). The concessions' terms were so unpopular in Iran that they helped spark a revolution. London worked to suppress it. Then, to prevent further disruptions, Britain enmeshed itself ever more deeply in the Middle East, working to install new shahs in Iran and carve Iraq out of the collapsing Ottoman Empire.
Churchill fired the starting gun, but all of the Western powers joined the race to control Middle Eastern oil. Britain clawed past France, Germany, and the Netherlands, only to be overtaken by the United States, which secured oil concessions in Turkey, Iraq, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. The struggle created a long-lasting intercontinental snarl of need and resentment. Even as oil-consuming nations intervened in the affairs of oil-producing nations, they seethed at their powerlessness; oil producers exacted huge sums from oil consumers but chafed at having to submit to them. Decades of turmoil -- oil shocks in 1973 and 1979, failed programs for “energy independence,” two wars in Iraq -- have left unchanged this fundamental, Churchillian dynamic, a toxic mash of anger and dependence that often seems as basic to global relations as the rotation of the sun.
All of this was called into question by the voyage of the Chikyu (“Earth”), a $540 million Japanese deep-sea drilling vessel that looks like a billionaire’s yacht with a 30-story oil derrick screwed into its back. The Chikyu, a floating barrage of superlatives, is the biggest, glitziest, most sophisticated research vessel ever constructed, and surely the only one with a landing pad for a 30-person helicopter. The central derrick houses an enormous floating drill with a six-mile “string” that has let the Chikyu delve deeper beneath the ocean floor than any other ship.
The Chikyu, which first set out in 2005, was initially intended to probe earthquake-generating zones in the planet’s mantle, a subject of obvious interest to seismically unstable Japan. Its present undertaking was, if possible, of even greater importance: trying to develop an energy source that could free not just Japan but much of the world from the dependence on Middle Eastern oil that has bedeviled politicians since Churchill’s day.
The United States and 140 other countries have signed or otherwise associated with the Copenhagen Accord, in which it is agreed that the nations of the world should "hold the increase in global temperature below 2°C, and take action to meet this objective consistent with science and on the basis of equity." For there to be a chance -- even just a 50/50 chance -- of limiting temperature rise to 2°C, global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2020 (earlier for the developed world) and fall by 9 or 10 percent a year every year thereafter.
Nothing like that has ever been done. Not even close. No major energy transition has ever moved that quickly. Carbon emissions have never fallen that fast, not even during the economic collapse brought on by the demise of the USSR. Getting to change of that scale and speed is not a matter of nudging along a natural economic shift, as clean energy cost curves come down and fossil fuels get more expensive. That scale and speed seem to demand something like wartime mobilization.
That metaphor gets used a lot. I've used it many times myself. But is it apt? And what would it mean to take it seriously? There's been lots of academic attention to the technology side of rapid, large-scale mitigation, but little attention to the governance side. How could a country engineer such a transition? What powers and institutions would be necessary?
On Tuesday, Rep. Ed Markey handily won the Democratic primary for Massachusetts’ special election to fill the Senate seat recently vacated by Secretary of State John Kerry. In June’s general election, Markey will go up against Republican candidate Gabriel Gomez, an ex-Navy SEAL, son of Colombian immigrants, successful businessman, and political outsider who has never held office.
Markey, one of the most passionate environmentalists in Congress, coauthored the big climate bill that passed the House in 2009 but failed in the Senate. A 20-term House veteran, he ran on his long liberal track record, but he also got a boost from green backers. The League of Conservation Voters spent nearly $850,000 in support of his campaign. Meanwhile, San Francisco rich-guy do-gooder Tom Steyer spent more than $400,000 on “online ads and microtargeting,” according to Mother Jones; many of those ads attacked Markey’s primary opponent, South Boston “conservative” Democratic Rep. Stephen Lynch, for his support of the Keystone XL pipeline. And it doesn’t look like Steyer plans on closing his pocketbook after this early victory, MoJo reports:
Mora County, N.M., has a message for the oil and gas industry: "You're not welcome here."
County commissioners voted 2-1 on Monday to ban all oil and gas extraction in their drought-ravaged county near Santa Fe, home to fewer than 5,000 people. A temporary drilling moratorium is already in place in neighboring San Miguel County, but it is believed that Mora County is the first in the nation to impose an outright ban on all oil and gas drilling.
Could California put a halt to fracking? Some lawmakers are pushing legislation that would do just that.
On Monday, the state Assembly’s Natural Resources Committee approved no fewer than three bills calling for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing until its environmental and health effects are thoroughly studied by the state. Meanwhile, another bill pending in the state Senate would allow fracking to continue for now but would impose a moratorium if the state fails to complete a comprehensive review by January 2015.
David Roberts recently offered a list of reasons why a California fracking frenzy is a bad idea, one of which is the lack of oversight from state regulators so far. The new proposed bills aim to address this problem. From The Sacramento Bee: