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Tag Archives: politics
Fracking might come to New York next year. Is this calamitous or actually OK? I wrote a story about the controversial (to put it mildly) energy extraction practice for LearnVest. Let me know what you think in the comments!
It inspires vitriolic debate between environmentalists, businessmen and politicians. It’s a stunning scientific advance, economic savior or a looming menace, depending on who you ask. And it sounds like a curse word.
It’s fracking, a new method for extracting natural gas that has residents from New York to Colorado up in arms.
“Fracking” is the nickname for “hydraulic fracturing.” It’s a process where millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped as much as 10,000 feet underground at high pressure to break up the shale rock surrounding natural gas deposits, and allow the natural gas to flow up a well to the surface.
Proponents say natural gas could be the solution to America’s energy worries, and revitalize economically depressed towns across the country. Detractors say it is poisoning groundwater and could even be the reason for a surge in earthquakes in Ohio. Even celebrities like Alec Baldwin and Mark Ruffalo have publicly opposed it.
It’s a classic case of economy versus environment. Or is it? Today we look at the facts behind the fighting and tell you what you need to know about this new and contentious technology.
A Short History of Natural Gas
It used to be that we could only get to large pockets of gas deposits underground, but there was much, much more trapped in tiny bubbles within rock far below the surface that we couldn’t reach. So expensive natural gas remained a niche product, while we turned to oil and coal for our energy needs.
Only recently–in the past 15 years–has a technique emerged that could get at these enormous reserves affordably. Once energy companies cracked the code of efficiently extracting natural gas, the fracking boom that followed dropped the price of natural gas from $15 per million British thermal units (Btu, or a way of measuring energy) at the end of 2005, to around $3.43 this week. And natural gas has been eating into coal’s territory: In 2005, half of all electricity in the U.S. was generated by coal and 17% by natural gas. Now coal accounts for only 34% of electricity generation in the U.S., and natural gas 30%.
Most of this natural gas comes from the Marcellus Shale, a giant layer of natural gas-rich rock that lies under Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. Though there are other, smaller deposits elsewhere–like in Texas and Colorado–the gas rush is most keenly felt in these northeastern states.
As a sign of things to come, Senator Rockefeller from West Virginia gave a game-changing speech this summer, revoking his support for the state’s coal industry and telling West Virginians they had to “face reality.” He has now thrown his support behind natural gas.
Meanwhile, New York City mayor, businessman and billionaire Michael Bloomberg has come out in support of natural gas, saying coal is too expensive and wind and solar energy aren’t viable options. What’s the big deal?
The Benefits of the Fracking Boom
It’s no wonder energy wonks are excited about fracking. It could prove to completely transform both local economies and the U.S. economy at large, plus solve some of the most pressing problems facing the U.S.
Jobs Get Created
In December 2010, the research and consulting company IHS Global Insight predicted that natural gas extraction would support 870,000 U.S. jobs and add $118 billion to the country’s economic growth through 2016. A study released in February of this year, commissioned by an Ohio business group and conducted by an academic team, says that fracking could add more than 65,000 jobs and provide an almost $4.9 billion investment just in Ohio’s economy by 2014. And these jobs are usually centered in rural areas that desperately need them.
Having more natural gas available is a boon in itself to the economy. The rapidly falling price of natural gas could keep inflation low, since high energy prices are often a key factor in inflation.
(On the other hand, the Federal Reserve’s recent action could raise inflation.)
With increasing concern about greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas has piqued the interest of environmentalists. Burning it emits much lower carbon emissions per energy unit than coal or oil. In fact, this is one reason–the mild winter being another–why first-quarter carbon emissions in the U.S. dropped to a shocking 20-year low last winter.
If the upward swing in natural gas production continues, the U.S. could get closer to energy independence. Within the next decade, we could start exporting more energy than we import.
Property Owners Get Paid
Gas companies have rushed to obtain the rights to extract gas on private property. This entails offering small property owners–often struggling farmers and ranchers–thousands of dollars upfront with the promise of continuing royalties that could go into the tens of thousands. In 2010, for example, gas companies paid out $1.6 billion in lease payments and bonuses just to Pennsylvania property owners.
So What’s the Problem?
It sounds like a perfect solution to everything that ails us: high energy prices, a weak economy, climate change and energy dependence on the Middle East. Apply natural gas and, bam! It all gets fixed.
But (you saw this coming) there are drawbacks–serious ones. And these drawbacks have only been revealed as energy companies move aggressively to start drilling, most notably in Pennsylvania.
As observers watched what was going on in Pennsylvania, they’ve started to raise the alarms across the country. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo looked poised to approve fracking, but bowed to pressure to continue studying it before letting it loose on upstate New York. And while New York decides, small towns and municipalities–about 100 of them–have enacted moratoriums on fracking or have banned it altogether. Here’s why:
Something in the Water
Energy companies have consistently maintained that the fracking process is environmentally safe, as the water and chemicals are injected into shale far below the water table, and can’t make their way into the water supply. But there is mounting evidence that this isn’t always the case.
The 2010 movie Gasland depicted residents living near natural gas wells lighting their taps on fire because it had such high levels of methane, which can leak out of the wells as a byproduct of drilling. Residents have sued energy extraction companies for poisoned wells, but documents related to the settlements have been sealed by the courts. The EPA has waffled on whether fracking poses a threat to drinking water sources, testing and retesting wells and revising their assessments under pressure from business and political groups.
Fracking also produces enormous amounts of wastewater that is brought up to the surface, which needs to be effectively treated or safely stored, and companies haven’t always been good about doing either. According to several private E.P.A. documents obtained by The New York Times, the treatment plants to which the wastewater is hauled are not equipped to handle removing all the contaminants and radioactivity, and dumping the wastewater into the rivers is not enough to dilute it. This is especially alarming since some of those rivers feed into our water supply.
An Economic Bust
Studies on the economic effects of the natural gas boom have revealed a more nuanced situation than simple job numbers would paint.
Drilling for non-renewable energy sources like oil and natural gas are usually done in boom and bust cycles. During extraction, people move to the region and there is modest growth in jobs, many of which go to outsiders who move in, instead of people native to the area. Prices for everything from goods to rent go up, impacting the cost of living for locals and forcing them out of affordable housing. (Like in this small town in North Dakota, where landlords are evicting tenants to rent to higher-paid natural gas workers.)
Local governments and infrastructure are unprepared for the influx of population and heavy trucks that damage roads and congest traffic. And then when the extraction stops, people and jobs leave the region again. Unfortunately, natural gas wells tap out faster than expected, but there’s not enough data yet on this new industry to know how long each drilling boom lasts.
While landowners were only too happy to receive windfalls for allowing companies to set up shop on their land, many found out too late that they were getting the raw end of the deal. According to The New York Times, many drilling companies have designed leases so that they can:
- Leave waste ponds full of toxic drilling sludge on the property
- Avoid compensating owners for livestock or crop damage
- Operate generators and floodlights near their homes through the night
- Extend said lease without permission from the landowners
- And according to some property owners, subtract the cost of shipping in drilling water and shipping out gas from the royalties they pay to owners so that they get paid less than expected
Even if a landowner decides not to lease, there’s no guarantee a neighbor won’t, devaluing their property by up to 25%. All of this has led to some sticky real estate situations. In the Catskills of upstate New York, real estate prices for once-coveted properties nestled in the wilderness are depressed, as skittish buyers wait for New York State to decide if and where fracking could proceed.
Mortgage lenders are also taking a second look at gas leasing, refusing to give mortgages to those who are buying property leased for drilling, requiring land buyers to agree not to lease the land to gas companies or requiring gas companies to pay for any damage to the property. This makes it even more difficult for property owners who leased to gas companies, but are now trying to sell or refinance their mortgage.
So What’s the Solution?
The fight over fracking has often been framed as an either/or proposition: Either allow fracking and its purported economic benefits, or ban it and protect our water supply. But it might just be a matter of careful and well-enforced rules. Those calling for better regulation (which includes supporter Bloomberg) of this nascent technology are asking for:
- Disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking (which aren’t fully disclosed right now because they are considered business secrets), but contain several known carcinogens
- Tighter oversight of drillers to make sure they are using best practices to prevent contamination of groundwater
- Clear and enforced guidelines for disposal of wastewater
- Reducing the release of methane, which can leak out of wells and contribute to global warming
- Protecting local ecosystems, roads and communities from the negative impacts of drilling
Whether these tighter regulations will happen remains to be seen. But if the epic battle over fracking happening in New York right now is any indication, regulators and governors seem to be proceeding a little more carefully than before.
What Do You Think?
Do you think fracking can be safely done and benefit the economy? Or do you think the risks are too great? Let us know in the comments!
Image credit: CREDO.fracking
Memorial Day Weekend: The first good beach weekend of the year. An opportunity, thanks to employers who give a half day or the whole day off on Friday, to escape the city and its 90-degree, gritty air for a fresh breeze and fresh seafood.
For this Clean Hippie, it was also an exercise in restraint.
For the weekend I was invited to Cape Cod by my friend John, along with five others. His parents have ramshackle house on a private beach in Orleans, surrounded by a few acres of woods. It was a perfect place for seven people to try to relive their college days. (That means being loud and inappropriate, in case you’re wondering.)
Anyway, knowing the people who were invited, I KNEW going in that I should avoid politics completely. I didn’t want a repeat of last year, when I got completely frustrated with John over his pro-big business views. Well, John is a Green Peace activist compared to some of the people who were there.
John gave me fair warning before I left. “Just to let you know, the three people you are riding up with are very conservative, and very un-pc,” he told me. The implication? Don’t rock the boat.
Friday I left work at 1 and took the train up to South Norwalk in Connecticut , where I was supposed to be picked up. When I came out of the station into the parking lot, I saw a red SUV come around the corner. “Alden!” yelled the passenger, leaning out the window. I waved and it pulled up in front of me. Drew, the driver and John’s friend from high school, got out to open the trunk for me. Drew would prove to be the quiet one of the bunch, a sort of observer to our rantings. In the front seat was Travis, Drew’s coworker. I couldn’t for the life of me remember his name, so I created the mnemonic “Travesty.” Let’s just call him large and in charge, and leave it at that. I climbed in the back seat with Travesty’s girlfriend Erin, a pretty brunette.
“We’ve been circling the parking lot for like ten minutes,” she told me. Every time we came around, Travis would yell ‘Alden! Alden? Alllden…’ to every girl that came out front. And then Drew was like, ‘Oh, I think I have her number. Let me call her.’ We were like ‘Oh, NOW you tell us.”
One thing I love about long weekends like this with a group of people, is that by the end of your time together, you have at least five inside jokes that get repeated over and over. One of them for Cape Cod was a sort of impromptu celebration of my name, where everyone would just start saying “Alden? Alllden. Alden!” Great ego boost.
So obviously I took John’s advice really seriously, and about an hour into our trip, I saw the news on my phone that BP’s Top Kill strategy might be working. (Of course it failed later.) I piped up with the news. “I don’t see what the big deal is,” Travesty said. It’s leaking, what, 4,000 barrels a day? I mean, that’s not much in the grand scheme of things.”
“Actually,” I said, “it’s about 40,000 barrels a day.”
“Yeah, she’s right, Travis,” Drew said.
“Ok, whatever. I mean, the Georgia Aquarium alone has over 3 million gallons just in its tanks.” (Actually it has 8 million. But who’s quibbling?) There’s so much water in the gulf, will it really affect anything?”
“Travis, honey,” Erin ventured. “It’s already washing up on the shores.”
“Yeah.” I sputtered. “It’s already coating birds and keeping them from flying.”
“Eh well. I mean it’s not that bad. They just showed a hippie cleaning a seal with a toothbrush on TV, and now everyone is all upset. Come on. You know how many seals there are out there?” Obviously Travis was not yet aware that I call myself a Clean Hippie. Well, he would find out.
We all offered some more feeble explanations of how bad it is, but in the end it degenerated into jokes about how God seems to hate New Orleans.I mean, how hard did I want to fight Travesty about this? He obviously has his mind made up about how he wants to view the world, and that is through the lens of “Me is important. Other, not so much.” That includes seals and the Gulf of Mexico, apparently.
It was a nicely timed incident, coming on the heals of my reading a chapter in Happiness Hypothesis on how we have self serving biases. Apparently, when you are talking to people other than judges, they make decisions not rationally by considering all facts but by choosing a position that feels right and then casting around for facts to support that position. When they find a fact, they stop searching.
So how did I get through this weekend? I had to contend with perfect weather – a Cape record high of 75 and sunny, mojitos, free beer, a trip to a local favorite bar with a live band, and delicious seafood. It was hard, let me tell you.
It’s actually funny how little I have changed since my trip to the Cape last summer. Back then I lamented in my post about not sticking to my no-processed-food guns, and eating lobster rolls and fried seafood. Whoops, did it again!
Hey, I’m irrational just like anyone else. I know that factory farming sucks, both for me and the animal, yet when I see maple-drizzled little piggy sausages and bacon, how can I resist? I’m working on it. Are you tired of my guilt ridden posts on eating consciously yet?
When our little group got there on Friday, we were greeted by John, his friend TJ, and Ryan from W&L, both of whom I’ve metbefore. We packed a cooler with beer, threw it in the back of TJ’s huge SUV, and drove the half mile to the beach where we walked out over the dunes to the water. It was a cool, windy night, and Erin and I shivered as the boys tried to get the fire started. Their solution to the sputtering flames? Lots and lots of lighter fluid.
“I’m not going anywhere near those fumes y’all,” I said.
“Whatever, it’ll burn off,” one of the boys said.
I had found an old brown knit cap with a poof on the top and a brim and had pulled it on my head. “Boy, do you look like a hippie now,” John said. I gave him a grin as I wrapped my arms around myself and edged away from the petroleum scented smoke coming from the pit. But once the fire was good and roaring, we settled in for a couple hours of laughing and talking with only the sound of the waves as our soundtrack. I went to bed early that night when we got back, exhausted from the workweek and the long drive up. I could still hear the laughter and calls drifting up from the basement where everyone was playing beerpong, through the thin floor to me as I fell asleep.
The next morning I woke up at nine feeling rested and refreshed. I poured myself a glass of water and wandered out onto the back porch, where the sun rose in a yellow orb above the dunes. I was greeted by a chorus of birdsong and a soft breeze. Inspired, I popped inside for a beach towel and laid it down on the porch. I stood at the edge facing east, and went through the first yoga series, appropriately called “Sun Salutation.” I was stiff, but I quickly loosened in cool air as I stretched and moved through my positions. I never do yoga by myself, but it was a perfect hour for it. By the time I heard people moving around and talking inside I was feeling limber so I joined everyone for a breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast.
We spent the day at the beach, naturally. The water in Cape Cod is numbingly cold, but I’m a big believer in the therapeutic properties of salt water, so I finally screwed up the courage, let out a banshee yell and sprinted into the water, plunging headfirst into the waves. I was numb when I emerged, but feeling good. We actually saw little groups of seals pass by. “Someone should get Alden a toothbrush,” Travesty quipped. Thanks dude.
When the idea popped into our heads Saturday night that we should go to the bar, all of us were several beers in. The boys had been playing a frisbee game called Kan Jam in the fading light while the girls, including John’s cousin Anne who had just joined us, perched on the railing to watch. Every once in a while one of they guys would shout, “Nancy! Beer me!” and I would toss a Bud Light to them. (They called me Nancy after Nancy Pelosi.)
After yanking on some presentable clothing, we went to Land Ho, where we all ordered draught beers. That is, except for Travesty. He walked over to us carrying a martini with three olives with such a serious “I’m James Bond” look on his face I barely contained my laughter. Especially since just an hour before he had been wrestling with the other guys in a cross between a drunk bear and a sumo wrestler.
Someone ordered tequila shots for everyone. We tossed them back and I quickly bit down on my lime with a shudder. As I pulled it from my mouth, I heard a cough and felt a thick spray of tequila on my face.
I turned to see where it had come from, and there stood Travesty gazing at me with what only can be described as no expression at all. “What the hell is wrong with you??” I yelled at him, totally losing my zen.
“Woah, Alden,” Erin said. “He didn’t mean it.”
“Uh, can someone hand me a napkin?” an unfortunate bystander said. Behind me, another girl who the boys had been chatting up at the bar stormed off, yelling about tequila on her face.
Meanwhile, Erin and Travesty had exited the bar. I didn’t find out until later that Erin was outside bawling, she was so upset at my reaction. Whoops. Travesty came in later and apologized, and I accepted his apology. I didn’t dwell on it, instead launching myself onto the dance floor with Ryan for another hour.
When we got back to the house we heated up queso for some chips which we ate out on the back porch. Our conversation degenerated into an argument about whether Americans are too stupid to decide what to feed themselves.
If Travesty showed an enormous amount of ignorance, TJ boasted an enormous reservoir of facts and figures about the ridiculousness of unions, the percentage of crimes in Arizona that are attributed to Hispanics, the number of jobs lost versus gained by shifts to a greener economy, and on and on and on. Smart kid. His arguments were convincing, even if the logic seemed to be all off. I struggled, knowing my own biases, to give his arguments for Arizona’s new law a fair shake. TJ did not return the favor, instead he would all but stop up his ears and say “Lalala, I can’t hear liberals!”
One point of contention was the impending soda tax and the ban on salt in NYC restaurants. I think the ban on salt is stupid. The reason Americans eat too much sodium is that they eat too much processed foods. But anyway, even though I told TJ this over and over, “Yes, TJ, I agree with you. Yes, it’s stupid,” he still couldn’t get it through his skull that I’m not a crazy liberal who kowtows to every Democratic initiative. He also didn’t believe me when I told him that a cheeseburger is cheaper in this country than a head of broccoli. I tried to abbreviate Michael Pollan’s argument about corn subsidies, but I wasn’t getting anywhere with TJ. He literally said, “I don’t believe you.” My goodness.
John repeatedly entreated me to “Just let it go.” And Travesty stood up in anger and told me I should just move to Europe if I hate America so much. (The next day he would argue that landfills are good because they create jobs.) Drew just shook his head at me, Don’t bother. I looked down at the chip dripping with yellow fake cheese in my hand, set it down, and retreated inside to a corner of the living room. I sat, reading another chapter of Happiness Hypothesis about the Buddhist exhortation to break worldly attachments. That nothing is really that important. Man, that book is good. As I read I felt my heart rate slow, I relaxed into the old crocheted chair. The book also extolls the wonderful effects of meditation on happiness, so I decided I needed to meditate as soon as possible. Finally, with my calm restored, I got up and went to bed. I still had the icky, hypocritical taste of chips and queso in my mouth though.
The next morning I got up with a new resolve. I set myself up on the back porch again to do yoga, and when I finished, I sat cross-legged and meditated for 15 minutes, listening to bird song, feeling the warm sun on my face, and repeating the words “Gratitude” to myself. What shouldn’t I be grateful for? How could I let a couple of die-hard conservatives ruin such a beautiful weekend? At the end of my meditation, I felt completely reset and refreshed, and ready for a day at the beach, with or without political rants. Most everyone else went to get a huge breakfast at a diner, but I opted to stay behind, having discovered all the ingredients for a smoothie were already in the fridge and freezer. Score!
We spent another day at the beach, getting nice and brown/red under the warm Cape sun and dunking ourselves in the water. I just wanted to wash the tequila out of my hair, to be honest. At one point, as I laid on the beach with TJ, Erin, Ryan, and Drew, and Ryan, the political debate started up again. I engaged for a couple minutes, then just gave up. TJ continued to cite examples of democratic stupidity. “He’s still going, isn’t he?” I mumbled to Ryan 15 minutes later.
“I heard that,” TJ said from his beach chair. He went back to ranting to Erin and Drew. I just sighed and flipped over, staring at the blue sky above.
For dinner we went to Arnold’s, a fried seafood mecca. I opted for steamers, fried Maryland Oysters, and a diet soda. I took three sips of the soda and dumped it. It didn’t even taste good to me anymore. Despite that small moment of lucidity, by the time I was done stuffing my face with fried food, I felt sick. Everyone was so lethargic when we got back, we all passed out by 10 pm.
The next day I woke up at 6:30 in the morning. Ryan joined me on the porch, quietly sipping coffee and gazing out at the shore while I went through my Sun Salutation, and then he good-naturedly agreed to meditate with me for ten minutes. I thought that was really nice of him. I completed my perfect morning with another homemade smoothie, and a refreshing shower in the outdoors in a little wooden and slate stall John’s dad built.
Overall I would say it was a good weekend, despite all the contention. I feel rested and restored, and – most importantly – brown from the sun. I shook hands with Travesty when he left, though I wouldn’t say we are going to be friends. I gave Erin and Drew a hug goodbye, and I’m now finally Facebook friends with TJ. My opinion of Ryan and John soared, as they seemed to be sane voices among the crazy. They may not be liberals, but at least they seemed to have brains.
And that, my friends, is how I survived a weekend among the enemy.
Bonus: the funniest video ever that was our weekend soundtrack. You better believe we did the Fork in the Garbage Disposal over and over.