climate change

The War Over Fracking Comes to the English Countryside

It may seem like an unlikely place, but the quintessentially English village of Balcombe in the southeastern county of Sussex, has become the scene of an emotional war over fracking. More than a thousand activists have descended on this rural community over the past few weeks, protesting against the exploratory oil drilling that is currently taking place in the lush green countryside on the outskirts of Balcombe. Fracking — or, as it is properly known, hydraulic fracturing — involves pumping a mix of water and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to fracture the rocks and release oil or natural gas that’s trapped inside. While fracking has become widespread in the U.S., where 25,000 new fracked wells are being drilled every year, it has become a major environmental controversy in Britain. Although British Prime Minister David Cameron has lauded its potential economic benefits — which he says will include lower energy bills and thousands of new jobs — environmentalists and activists have voiced worries about water contamination, seismic tremors and the industrialization of Britain’s venerable countryside. (MORE: Amid Economic and Safety Concerns, Nuclear Advocates Pin Their Hopes on New Designs) For all the noise, no shale gas has yet been commercially produced onshore in Britain, but exploratory drilling for gas and oil has been under way across the country since 2011, apart from an unofficial suspension between June 2011 and April 2012 after the process was widely blamed for triggering two minor earthquakes. The protests against fracking in Balcombe, which began on July 25, were given a renewed injection of energy over the weekend with the launch of a high-profile protest camp, initiated by U.K. environmental group No Dash for Gas. In addition to causing the energy firm Cuadrilla to temporarily suspend its test drilling program for six days (from Aug. 16 onward), the campaign culminated in direct action on Aug. 19, with 20 protesters blockading Cuadrilla’s headquarters in Staffordshire, six activists gluing themselves to the glass door of the central London offices of Cuadrilla’s p.r. company and 200

The Surprisingly Large Energy Footprint of the Digital Economy [UPDATE]

Which uses more electricity: the iPhone in your pocket, or the refrigerator humming in your kitchen? Hard as it might be to believe, the answer is probably the iPhone. As you can read in a post on a new report by Mark Mills — the CEO of the Digital Power Group, a tech- and investment-advisory firm — a medium-size refrigerator that qualifies for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star rating will use about 322 kW-h a year. The average iPhone, according to Mills’ calculations, uses about 361 kW-h a year once the wireless connections, data usage and battery charging are tallied up. And the iPhone — even the latest iteration — doesn’t even keep your beer cold. (Hat tip to the Breakthrough Institute for noting the report first.) [UPDATE: You can see the calculations behind the specific iPhone comparison, which was done by Max Luke of the Breakthrough Institute, at the bottom of the post. It's important to note that the amount of energy used by any smartphone will vary widely depending on how much wireless data the device is using, as well as the amount of power consumed in making those wireless connections—estimates for which vary. The above examples assumes a relatively heavy use of 1.58 GB a month—a figure taken from a survey of Verizon iPhone users last year. (Details at bottom of post.) That accounts for the high-end estimate of the total power the phone would be consuming over the course of a year. NPD Connected Intelligence, by contrast, estimates that the average smartphone is using about 1 GB of cellular data a month, and in the same survey that reported high data use from Verizon iPhone users, T-Mobile iPhone users reported just 0.19 GB of data use a month—though that's much lower than any other service. Beyond the amount of wireless data being streamed, total energy consumption also depends on estimates of how much energy is consumed per GB of data. The top example assumes that every GB burns through 19 kW of electricity. That would be close  to

Nuclear Energy Is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap?

Is it safe? That’s what most people — brought up on Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and The Simpsons — want to know about nuclear power. And for the most part, the answer is yes. Accidents are rare, and those that have occurred — including the partial meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 — have resulted in few deaths. On a megawatt-per-megawatt basis, nuclear kills fewer people than almost any other source of electricity — especially compared with air pollution from coal, the single biggest supplier of electricity in the U.S., which contributes to the deaths of 14,000 Americans each year. And nuclear energy, unlike every other form of electricity — save hydro and renewables, doesn’t contribute to man-made climate change. But while nuclear energy supplies about 13% of global electricity — and dozens of new reactors are being built in countries like China, India and Russia — in the U.S. and much of the rest of the developed world, nuclear energy is in retreat, with new reactors on hold and aging ones being retired. And while fears of accidents and radioactivity clearly play a role in that decline, cost is an even bigger factor. Existing nuclear reactors produce inexpensive electricity, but the price of a new nuclear plant keeps ballooning, with reactors running billions over budget, forcing some utilities to abandon projects in midconstruction. Nuclear plants — most of which are derived from Cold War–era designs — actually became more expensive as they scale up, with larger plants requiring bigger and stronger containment domes that used expensive concrete and steel. Outside of France, nuclear plants largely weren’t standardized, which meant that nearly every reactor was produced bespoke — much like buying a suit from a tailor instead of off the rack. Add in the fact that the economic costs of an accident could be enormous even if the human costs weren’t — the Fukushima meltdown, which killed no one, could cost more than $100 billion — and you have a very expensive way to generate electricity. With the fracking revolution

The IEA Says Peak Oil Is Dead. That’s Bad News for Climate Policy

No one—aside maybe from survivalists who’d stocked up on MREs and assault rifles—was really looking forward to a peak-oil world. Read this 2007 GQ piece by Benjamin Kunkel—while we’re discussing topics from the mid-2000s—that imagines what a world without oil would really be like. Think uncomfortable and violent. Oil is in nearly every modern product we use, and it’s still what gets us from point A to point B—especially if you need to get from A to B in a plane. If we were really to see the global oil supply peak and decline sharply, even as demand continued to go up, well, apocalyptic might not be too large a word. And for several years in the middle of the last decade, as oil prices climbed past $100 a barrel and analysts were betting it would break $200, that scenario seemed entirely plausible. But there was an upside to peak oil. Crude oil was responsible for a significant chunk of global carbon emissions, second only to coal. Only the shock of being severed from the main fuel of modernity would be enough to make us get serious about tackling climate change and shifting to an economy powered by renewable energy and efficiency. We’d have to because we’d have no other choice, save a future that might look something like Mad Max. We’d lose oil but save the world. Increasingly, though, that doesn’t seem likely to happen. New oil sources, many of them unlocked by new technology—the Canadian oil sands, tight oil in North Dakota and Texas, ultra-deepwater oil in the Atlantic—has helped keep the supply of oil growing, even as greater efficiency measures and other social shifts have helped blunt demand in rich countries like the U.S. Oil isn’t likely to be cheap—a barrel of Brent crude is $102—and getting it out of the ground isn’t going to get any easier. But it’s increasingly likely that we will have more than enough oil in the future to keep the global economy growing and stave off any Mel Gibson-esque apocalypses. Indeed, a new assessment released