Natural Gas

As Obama Visits Upstate New York, the Fracking Debate Takes Center Stage

President Obama is planning to tout his education plan when he visits upstate New York this week, beginning with an appearance in Buffalo today—but much of his audience is likely to be interested in only one subject: fracking. Obama has, for the most part, been in favor of using fracking—more properly known as hydraulic fracturing—to exploit the country’s huge resources of shale natural gas. In his 2012 State of the Union speech, Obama pledged to “take every possible action to safely develop” natural gas, promising that shale gas would add hundreds of thousands of jobs to the economy. And he’s been true to his word—the U.S. produced in 2012 8.13 trillion cubic ft. of natural gas from shale deposits, which requires fracking, nearly double the total from 2010, and the Energy Information Administration projects that by 2030 that figure could pass 14 trillion cubic ft. While the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department are working on possibly stronger new national regulations of fracking, for the most part the natural gas industry has had its way under Obama. He may not have intended it when he entered the White House in 2009, but Obama really has been America’s “driller-in-chief.“ That’s exactly why protesters are likely to be out in force tomorrow in Buffalo, and even more so when Obama continues his visit to Binghamton, NY. Fracking remains controversial throughout the U.S., thanks to concerns over potential water contamination and pollution from wells, as well as fears that the new supplies of natural gas will bind the country more permanently to carbon-heavy fossil fuels. Ground zero for that emotional debate is New York state, which has both a massive potential reserve of shale gas and a determined community of environmentalists and activists working to ensure that fracking never happens in the Empire State. “We’re going to be present in Binghamton by the hundreds, if not the thousands,” Walter Hang, the head of Ithaca-based Toxic Targeting, told WNYC. (MORE: The War Over Fracking Comes to the English Countryside) In New York so far, environmentalists have

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

Amid Economic and Safety Concerns, Nuclear Advocates Pin Their Hopes on New Designs

For 28-year-old Leslie Dewan — and for a growing number of other young scientists interested in energy — nuclear energy isn’t about meltdowns and catastrophe. They see atomic power not as an existential threat to the planet but instead as the best way to save it, and they’re trying to revive the stalled industry with next-generation reactor designs that could change the way a skeptical public views atomic energy. Dewan just finished her doctorate* in nuclear engineering at MIT, and in her spare time she co-founded a start-up called Transatomic Power, which has plans to build a safer and cheaper nuclear reactor, one that couldn’t melt down like the older plants at Chernobyl or Fukushima. “I’ve always been concerned about global warming,” she says. “It seemed to me like working in nuclear power was a logical way to do something to help the environment.” But the nuclear industry today faces major challenges. Yes, there are scores of nuclear reactors being built around the world — including in the U.S., where new construction ceased for more than three decades beginning in the mid-1970s. But existing nuclear plants are being shut down out of concern for safety and cost. Germany has already announced that it will be phasing out all of its atomic plants over the next decade, and the U.S. has seen plants close early — including the San Onofre nuclear plant in southern California, which is being decommissioned because of equipment failure. The Fukushima disaster — while unlikely to have a measurable health effect — could cost more than $100 billion to clean up. This past weekend brought news of a scandal in South Korea over faked safety tests and bribes at nuclear plants. Last week Duke Energy shelved a planned new plant in Florida because of licensing problems and concerns about cost recovery. With fracking keeping the cost of natural gas so low, any new nuclear plant faces both economic and safety headwinds. (MORE: Nuclear Energy Is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap?) So if nuclear is going

Deep Disposal Wells from Oil and Gas Drilling Linked to Earthquakes

The headlines were clear: fracking causes earthquakes. Yesterday an important study came out in Science that found a strong link between the injection of wastewater into deep underground wells and nearby earthquakes. Hydraulic fracturing—used in the process of developing shale gas and oil wells—also involves pumping millions of gallons of water and chemicals underground, in an effort to essentially pry fossil fuels out of tight layers of rock. Therefore, fracking causes quakes. Right? Not exactly. The Science study, led by researchers from Columbia University’s Earth Institute, looked at deep wastewater disposal wells, which are different than the shale gas wells where fracking actually takes place in the way that a landfill is different from a garbage can. Injection wells are designed to hold the wastewater created by drilling many wells—for that reason, far more water goes into a deep injection well than into a fracked gas or oil well. The researchers found that the pressure created by pumping millions upon millions of gallons underground seemed to put extra pressure on nearby fault lines—so much so that when major quakes struck  thousands of miles away, like the March 2011 quake in northern Japan that caused an epic tsunami, the resulting seismic waves could trigger swarms of small quakes near the injection sites. It’s the injection wells—not the fracking per se—that are specifically linked to those temblors in this study. Does that mean fracking is off the hook? Not really. Many of the fluid-injection wells studied by the Science researchers—in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arkansas and Ohio—have been in operation much longer than shale gas and oil fracking has been active. But each shale gas well can produce several million gallons of wastewater, and in much of the country, that wastewater is disposed by being pumped into one of the more than 30,000 deep disposal wells around the country. As the oil and gas industry likes to point out, underground disposal wells are an accepted way to dispose of wastewater, and they’ve been used for decades. But as the shale gas and oil boom ramps up, the industry will be

The Unintended Consequences of Exporting Natural Gas

The best intentions during an election campaign have a habit of twisting beyond recognition once a candidate is in power. I doubt when Barack Obama was teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago he thought that, once in the White House, his Administration would be responsible for one of the most chilling crackdowns on the freedom of the press in recent American history. And yet, after the revelation of the Department of Justice’s wide-ranging move to seize phone records of Associated Press reporters and a deeply disturbing investigation of the Fox News reporter James Rosen — seriously, read this — Obama’s legacy has been permanently altered. I also doubt that the candidate who in 2008 ran on a cap-and-trade plan and promised to make climate change a top priority thought he would go down as the driller in chief. And yet — without taking anything away from Obama’s very real accomplishments in supporting renewable energy and efficiency — that’s exactly what’s happening. Domestic oil and natural gas production have boomed under Obama’s watch, and even though he was hardly the cause (most of the new fracking is happening on private land largely outside federal regulation), neither had Obama done much to stand in the way, at least according to his increasingly frustrated environmental allies. Greens want Obama to stop the proposed Keystone pipeline and halt the expansion of fracked oil and natural gas, but as Obama begins his second term in earnest, that seems unlikely. (MORE: Why the Shale-Gas Industry Needs Regulations for Fracking) Take natural gas. For some time, gas companies have been pushing the federal government to make it easier to export natural gas in liquefied form to foreign countries. This is itself a huge turnaround. Less than a decade ago, domestic production of natural gas was so low that facilities were being built in U.S. ports to import foreign natural gas. The shale-gas revolution, made possible by fracking, changed all that. Now the U.S. literally has more natural gas than it knows what to do with, and the