Fossil Fuels


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A recent study by the Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences at Duke University showed high concentrations of chloride, bromide, strontium, and radium in wastewater from hydraulic fracturing in Western Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale Formation, after undergoing wastewater treatment.

226Ra levels in stream sediments (544−8759 Bq/kg) at the point of discharge were ∼200 times greater than upstream and background sediments (22−44 Bq/kg) and above radioactive waste disposal threshold regulations, posing potential environmental risks of radium bioaccumulation in localized areas of shale gas wastewater disposal.

These potentially dangerous, high levels of sometimes radioactive pollutants were discovered in fracking water that had already been treated at a wastewater treatment plant. This poses serious concerns for treated fracking wastewater, let alone water from hydraulic fracturing that has been documented being dumped into nearby water supplies without first being treated.

The study is Impacts of Shale Gas Wastewater Disposal on Water Quality in Western Pennsylvania. Abstract below. 

Abstract: 

The safe disposal of liquid wastes associated with oil and gas production in the United States is a major challenge given their large volumes and typically high levels of contaminants. In Pennsylvania, oil and gas wastewater is sometimes treated at brine treatment facilities and discharged to local streams. This study examined the water quality and isotopic compositions of discharged effluents, surface waters, and stream sediments associated with a treatment facility site in western Pennsylvania. The elevated levels of chloride and bromide, combined with the strontium, radium, oxygen, and hydrogen isotopic compositions of the effluents reflect the composition of Marcellus Shale produced waters. The discharge of the effluent from the treatment facility increased downstream concentrations of chloride and bromide above background levels. Barium and radium were substantially (>90%) reduced in the treated effluents compared to concentrations in Marcellus Shale produced waters. Nonetheless, 226Ra levels in stream sediments (544−8759 Bq/kg) at the point of discharge were ∼200 times greater than upstream and background sediments (22−44 Bq/kg) and above radioactive waste disposal threshold regulations, posing potential environmental risks of radium bioaccumulation in localized areas of shale gas wastewater
disposal.

I admit I’m a little behind the curve on this one, but it was just too ridiculous to pass up.

 

Wind Turbine, Tower in a Corn Field

Image Credit: Sebastian Celis via Creative Commons

Last week, Governor Romney’s presidential campaign announced in Iowa that if he is elected president, he will allow the Production Tax Credit (referred to below as the “wind credit”) to expire.

According to The Des Moines Register,

Shawn McCoy, a spokesman for Romney’s Iowa campaign, told The Des Moines Register, “He will allow the wind credit to expire, end the stimulus boondoggles, and create a level playing field on which all sources of energy can compete on their merits.”

It the Romney campaign actually wanted to get rid of all energy subsidies, I’d be 100 percent for it because energy subsidies create market distortions. But of course the Romney campaign continues to support oil subsidies; because of course they don’t create an uneven playing field.

Besides, if Romney wanted to do away with oil subsidies, you can bet the Koch brothers et. al. wouldn’t be bankrolling his campaign anymore.

That aside, Romney really needs to work on his swing-state strategy. Iowa has more wind energy jobs than any other state, and Iowa Republicans were quick to point out just how misguided his notion was.

As Republican Rep. Tom Latham pointed out, this proposal demonstrates “a lack of full understanding of how important the wind energy tax credit is for Iowa and our nation.”

This isn’t just turning heads in Iowa, either. Green energy jobs are so important here in Colorado that only one Republican representative, Doug Lamborn, supported Romney’s notion. Even Birther lunatic Rep. Mike “Obama’s not an American” Coffman opposed Romney’s proposal. (This clown is my representative, sadly.)

Lest we forget, the wind energy tax credit was originally signed by George H. W. Bush in 1992 and renewed in 2005 by a Republican Congress and signed by George W. Bush.

The bottom line is Romney’s wacky proposal to do away with the PTC and the wind energy tax credit is so ridiculously off-the-wall that even his own party is disavowing his statements.

I seriously doubt Romney ever expected this to be good policy. He’s just doing the pandering he needs to do to appease the Tea Party and his oil billionaire donors.

He never needed Colorado and Iowa’s 15 electoral votes, anyway.

This morning, I had CNN’s Starting Point on in the background as I got ready for work. On it was an interview between CNN’s Soledad O’Brien and one of Mitt Romney’s top surrogates, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin.

I usually tune interviews like this out, because of the nuttiness that is increasingly common from those on the political right. But in this interview, Johnson said something so absurd that I couldn’t help but pay attention.

He said, “President Obama simply doesn’t understand that it’s the free enterprise systems, the private sector, the productive sector, not the government sector that creates long-term self-sustaining jobs. Take a look at the Soviet Union, Venezuela’s economic basket case, and is anybody moving to the island paradise of Cuba?”

O’Brien, visibly perturbed, asked Johnson if this was indeed what he meant. She asked, “You’re surely not suggesting that the idea and the concept behind Solyndra and other green energies like Solyndra is comparable to the Soviet Union and Cuba, right?”

Johnson replied, “No, I am suggesting that, because when you take taxpayer money and you invest that into business, that’s the taxpayer money put at risk. And let’s face it; the lesson of the Soviet Union and other socialist nations is that governments are very poor allocators of capital. It’s an economic model that doesn’t work.”

There are so many things wrong with this that I’m not even sure where to start. For example, one of the biggest problems we face is that private industry isn’t “creating long-term self-sustaining jobs.”

Those arguments aside, my real question for Senator Johnson is, if government subsidizing green energy companies is communist, what does that make government subsidies to fossil fuel companies? What about government subsidies the agriculture industry?

What about the LA Times article detailing evidence that Mitt Romney benefited from government subsidies while he was head of Bain Capital? Or when, as Governor of Massachusetts, he offered subsidies to attract businesses to his state? Does that make Romney a communist?

Of course it doesn’t. Government subsidies to green energy companies aren’t communist either. Subsidies are common practice at the federal and state level, and are given to companies in nearly every industry.

That Romney and his surrogates are making claims this absurd, not to mention categorically false, is evidence of how little they think of the American public.

Here’s the video:

Credit: Tod Baker via Creative Commons

I read in the Denver Post earlier that the head of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Dan Arvizu, said at a conference recently, “if we don’t start phasing out even a scale-up of natural gas by 2040, 2050, we will not achieve any of the carbon loading goals we have set for ourselves.

On a related note, Think Progress reports that the “International Energy Agency Finds Safe Gas Fracking Would Destroy A Livable Climate,” based on the conclusions drawn by the IEA in its recent Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas report.

They’re right, of course. Natural gas alone is not the solution to climate change or to our reliance on other, dirtier, fossil fuels. It may be better than coal or oil, but it should never be viewed as more than an intermediate step.

Besides, if we allow the gas industry to become as powerful as the oil and coal industries, we’ll probably have to fight the gas industry in 2040 in much the same way that we’re fighting coal and oil now.

So is there any place for natural gas in a renewable energy economy?

Some argue that there is no place at all for natural gas; while it may generate lower carbon emissions than coal, it is still a fossil fuel and therefore must be phased out as quickly as possible.

It’s hard to argue with that, but the problem remains that we still don’t have a fully viable alternative to energy generated using fossil fuels or nuclear power.

Don’t get me wrong: wind, solar, wave, and geothermal energy are fantastic. I have every confidence that these forms of energy production will reach the point where they provide all the energy we need.

But they’re not there yet. There are still some problems with these forms of energy that have not been fully addressed. The wind isn’t always blowing, the sun isn’t always shining, geothermal and tidal power are only available in certain regions, and the U.S. power grid isn’t nearly efficient enough to transport energy from one region to another. Unfortunately, that means that electricity from those sources is currently not as reliable as energy produced from coal, nuclear, or natural gas power plants.

It’s true that a diverse energy grid drawing from of a variety of renewable sources can easily provide base load power. However, due to the intermittent nature of most varieties of renewable energy, renewables can’t produce power in a way that effectively meets peak energy demand.

Coal and nuclear power plants are also much more efficient at providing base load than peak load, because these power plants rely on turbines powered by steam. Once a coal or nuclear plant is ‘turned on’, it often takes days before it is operating at full efficiency.

Battery technology hasn’t yet reached the point where excess energy generated using renewable sources can be stored and then released later to address peak demand, so what do we do until it reaches that point?

That’s where natural gas comes in. In natural gas turbine power plants the combustion of the gas itself spins the turbine, so gas power plants don’t take nearly as long as coal or nuclear to reach peak efficiency. This makes power from gas turbines the ideal candidate to handle peak load. In fact, that’s exactly how they’re used today.

Even though the primary methods of producing natural gas are oil wells and fracking, these are not the only options. Natural gas can also be captured from ranches and landfills, or created with fermentation. When produced using these options, natural gas is much cleaner than when produced with fracking.

So yes, natural gas does have a place in a renewable energy economy, but only when used responsibly – as a complement to, not a replacement of, renewable energy.

Until better battery technology arrives, we don’t really have another option.

The Gallup annual environmental survey, released March 29, 2012, shows that 49% of Americans prioritize economic growth over environmental protection, while 41% of Americans value protection over growth. That’s an 8-point margin in favor of growth, down from last year’s 18-point margin.

During times of economic hardship it’s understandable that people, especially those that are having trouble paying their bills or are in danger of losing their jobs, would prioritize economic growth over protection of the environment.

But there’s something funny going on with this poll. Let’s take a look at the question:

With which one of these statements about the environment and the economy do you most agree – [ROTATED: protection of the environment should be given priority, even at the risk of curbing economic growth (or) economic growth should be given priority, even if the environment suffers to some extent]?

This question strikes me as a little misleading. They seem to suggest that environmental protection and economic growth cannot occur simultaneously. Perhaps the phrasing of the question is a reflection of the common misconception that environmental protection comes at the cost of economic growth.

So what this poll has actually discovered is that 49% of Americans favor the economy over the environment when protecting the environment curbs economic growth.

Economic growth and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive; economic growth can spur innovation in renewable energy and energy efficient technologies, and investment in such technologies can promote economic growth.

As Robert and Edward Ayres report in Crossing the Energy Divide, American steelmaker ArcelorMittal has a program called “cokenergy”, where excess heat from blast furnaces is used to generate electricity and heat their facilities. The program generates enough electricity to power their entire Chicago plant, at about half the cost of electricity from the local utility. This saves ArcelorMittal money that can then be used elsewhere, like hiring workers, buying equipment, or R&D.

Some estimates say the US gained over 9 million jobs in the renewable and energy efficiency industry in 2007 alone. This might be an optimistic estimate, but even if only a fraction of that number of jobs have been created, implying that environmental protection cannot occur at the same time as economic growth is simply incorrect.

And then there are all the jobs from natural gas development. Granted, natural gas isn’t as environmentally friendly as solar or wind, but I think an argument can be made that the expansion in natural gas exploration (and subsequent job creation) was at least partly influenced by the push toward lower-carbon energy sources.

But I digress. The point is that the wording of the question above from Gallup’s annual environmental survey appears somewhat misleading, which may affect the results of the survey.

That’s not to say that Gallup’s results are invalid, just that the results may not accurately reflect Americans’ attitudes toward the importance of environmental protection. It’s possible that, if the phrases “even at the risk of curbing economic growth” and “even if the environment suffers to some extent” were removed from the survey, the results would reflect a different trend among Americans.

That doesn’t mean that changing the language would necessarily show that more Americans are concerned about the environment. Maybe environmentalists would be more willing to choose the economic development option if they didn’t think it reduced environmental protections. Or maybe others would be more inclined to promote environmental protection if it wasn’t portrayed as reducing economic growth.

There is no doubt that the pollsters at Gallup are very careful to write questions that are unbiased. It’s possible that they’ve considered all of this already, and have decided that the effects are negligible.

One last thing. The chart below shows a decent correlation between the recessions in ’81,’90,’01, and ’07 and a narrowing of the gap between those who support environmental protection and those who support economic growth.

Image Credit: Gallup

Image Credit US Coast Guard

In 2011, the top five oil companies (BP, Chevron, Conoco, Shell, Exxon Mobil) posted a combined profit of $137 billion. In the first quarter of 2012, these companies earned a combined $33.5 billion.

These windfall profits were enough to put Exxon and Chevron in the first and second spots, respectively, of the Fortune 500 most profitable list.

Last year, fossil fuel companies got $11 billion in government subsidies.

How can we justify giving these companies our tax dollars when budget cuts have forced the de-funding of social programs and the layoffs of over 100,000 teachers nationwide?

Last week, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) announced they will introduce the End Polluter Welfare Act to Congress.

“People are sick and tired,” said Sanders, “of seeing the same folks who want to cut nutrition programs for hungry children fight tooth and nail to preserve federal tax breaks that go to Exxon Mobil – one of the most profitable corporations in history.”

This legislation will save the Federal government (and taxpayers) over $11 billion annually by doing away with fossil fuel subsidies, such as tax breaks, special financing, and taxpayer funded research and development.

According to 350.org, getting rid of fossil fuel subsidies will put $807 per year back into the pockets of US taxpayers.

The fossil fuel industry receives nearly six times more in government subsidies than the renewable energy industry. This creates significant entry barriers (see oligopoly) for the renewable energy industry and stifles competition.

A fact sheet hosted on Senator Sanders’ website shows how doing away with fossil fuel subsidies will save money in the years to come. I’ve listed some of the highlights below:

– $14 billion saved by eliminating the intangible drilling deduction, which allows oil and gas companies to deduct up to 80 percent of the costs of drilling.

– $12 billion saved by repealing a law passed in 2004 that allows oil companies to claim manufacturing tax credits.

– $6.8 billion saved by closing the loophole that allows corporations like BP to deduct costs incurred from cleaning up spills and paying damages. How can we expect oil companies to prevent spills if they can rely on taxpayers to pay for cleanup?

– $10.6 billion saved by recouping lost royalties for offshore drilling in public waters.

The End Polluter Welfare Act is good for the economy because it will reduce market distortions, put money back in the pockets of taxpayers, and promote green job creation.

Senator Sanders is asking citizens to speak out against corporate welfare by calling and emailing their senators and representatives, or by signing the petition.