Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Here's a paper on the economic potential for gas drilling in New York's Marcellus shale region, prepared by an economist, Dr.Janette Barth, who's really done her homework. She urges that officials take the time now to look beyond the gas industry's  projections of prosperity at some hard, cold statistics that point in another direction. These come both from New York's own history with natural gas exploitation and from the recent experiences of other states with deep-shale drilling using the hydraulic fracturing techniques to be used here.

None of this comes as a surprise to me.  The only surprise is that no one in government seems willing even to  verify the economic realities before setting our ship of state on such a dangerous course.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


It seems that, of all Obama’s appointments, the EPA’s Lisa Jackson is emerging as the best friend of the people who elected him –  albeit under considerable pressure from Congress and demonstrators.  Lately the agency has not only undertaken to review the environmental effects of hydraulic fracture gas drilling nationwide, but, in West Virginia, has proposed to veto a permit that the Army Corps of engineers had already approved for a large mountaintop-removal coal mine.  This is a big reprieve for poor West Virginia.  In recent years it has had to endure the despoliation of its land and communities by both Granddaddy Coal and its fat and gassy stepchild, which is now drilling in southern edge of the Marcellus shale.  Of course, that’s in part because West Virginia is ... poor.  But the fact of politics is that this kind of large-scale despoliation happens in rich states, too.

    I listened this morning to a WBAI interview with Jeff Biggers, author of a new  book about coal, Reckoning at Eagle Creek.  A journalist and the grandson of a coal miner, Biggers outlined the deceptive mantras of the coal industry which, together with massive political contributions, successfully kept legislators and regulators off its back for generations.  Jimmy Carter, having promised to ban strip mining during his campaign, apparently learned how difficult it was push back against such a powerful industry, and never acted on his promise.

    Coal was cheap as long as no one tallied its environmental and health consequences or gave any thought to cleaning up its messes, and it’s been long embedded in our national culture as the principal source of electric energy.  The “jobs” mantra has played a substantial role in the schmeer effort by Big Coal even though it has turned out that jobs have considerably shrunk over time, owing in part to the mechanization of the strip mining process. Over the same time, the governmental response to coal issues, Biggers says,-- even where the causal connection between strip mining and environmental or health damage was demonstrated -- has been a predictable compromise:   to minimize the environmental damage rather than to curtail the particular practice that perpetuates it.

    Now, Coal has convinced many, including Obama himself, that it can be “clean”. The industry has spent not one dime, says Biggers, to develop clean coal, but it claims that underground sequestration of carbon will curb the emissions that contribute to global warming.  The industry doesn’t mention that the sequestration process in itself requires considerable energy,  and thus more coal to burn and more money in Coal pockets.

    Here in New York’s portion of the Marcellus region, the not-so-flush southern tier, West Virginia history seems about to repeat itself with natural gas. Gas may be cleaner than coal, but not while it’s being produced.  The promise of tax revenues and other income to the state from gas drilling, and the deceptive promises of local community revival which I have reviled in previous posts, have blinded officials to the vast environmental damage that will result if anything like the officially projected quantity of deep shale wells is ever realized.  Our New York regulator is firmly rooted to the compromise strategy of minimizing environmental damage from natural gas drilling by, e.g., providing setbacks measured in 100 or fewer feet (your pond must be at least 50 feet downstream of a gas well), and resolutely ignoring the compounding of negative impacts where more than one well is sited in a particular environment. The spills, methane migrations, and illegal dumpings across the border in Pennsylvania and in other gas-rich states, the unusual concentrations of disease symptoms within drilling communities, the economic ill health of many post-drilling communities – none of these things is leading toward any official determination in New York that drilling should be banned or limited.  It seems instead to have brought on one-upmanship – Hey, our guys (all sixteen of them) can do this better than you!

    We can hope that the EPA’s promised new study of “hydrofracking” won’t be too little and too late to avert serious toxic disaster. It is an entirely new EPA from the one under the Bush administration which simply cleared the path for whatever industry wanted to do. The agency’s 2004 study of the process, which concluded that hydraulic fracturing posed “little or no threat to drinking water”, did not even involve
water testing.  It is that flawed conclusion that the gas industry touts every time it fears that state officials will wise up to the true facts.

    If you are a New Yorker, be sure to sign the  petition to the DEC demanding that it wait for the EPA study results before issuing any permits for hydraulic fracture drilling.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Renewable energy sources are a long time in developing, and some of them already have their critics. Windmills are unsightly, some say. Solar just isn’t powerful enough. Geothermal isn’t right for everyone’s needs. Meanwhile, we’ve got great quantities of mile-deep natural gas (“Cleaner than coal!” “Cleaner than oil!”) to keep our nation’s busy engines churning.  Why not just grab what there is and face up to our energy problems when it runs out?

Well, lots of reasons, most of which have been thoughtfully enumerated. Aside from fossil fuel emissions that contribute to global warming, Americans need to reconsider the profligacy with which we have come to consume energy, which is out of whack with our awareness that we have only a diminishing supply of fossil fuel  to use to perpetuate the consumption.

 Natural gas is being seen, especially by that wheeler-dealer, Mr Pickens, as the replacement for oil, not just for preparing the way for renewables but for heating and so that trucks can continue criss-crossing the country to deliver food and other products from remote centers to places where they could just as easily have been produced.  As long as we keep thinking this way, we will continue turning up the thermostat to keep our leaky houses warm. The availability of gas, in other words, allows us to ignore both reality and common sense. It’s time to think both smaller and smarter.

Harvesting gas is not clean, as many commentators have noted.  Nor is it economical, broadly speaking.  It clearly pays off for the industry itself, or players would not be darkening the sky above shale formations like crows over a cornfield.  They, of course, need not live with the dirty consequences of their work;  when their feast is over, they can fly home.  Newly rich land lessors, also, can take their money and run.  I think many of the rest of us have wised up to the seductive promises of prosperity and have come to realize that the economic costs of coping and cleanup can equal or exceed the income to be realized.  Last month, Calvin Tillman, mayor of Dish, Texas, told  listeners in Callicoon, New York that his initial hopes of economic benefit for his little town were quickly dashed, that the tax base had dropped, and that he couldn’t blame anyone for not wanting to live in a place where breathing is a health hazard.  The economic calculation does not begin to address the health and environmental consequences that simply can’t be cleaned up.

One of these days, clean and  green technology will take hold.  But if Mr. Pickens has his way, it will be too late for it to restore quality of life to the shale regions that will have given their all to the energy market. The money and the jobs will have moved away, leaving a sad landscape which a photographer from Syracuse, Laura Brazak,  has envisioned as the dystopian  future of the Marcellus:

         “All the money is gone.  We're living in an industrial wasteland that used to be our pristine environment.   We're waiting for the first of many water treatment facilities to come online and in the meantime we're drinking bottled water.  Somewhere down the road, we're trying to fix the roads which got ruined from the truck traffic.  There are clusters of cancers and respiratory issues and skins rashes.  The air smells funny.  And there is no money to even begin cleaning up the mess.  Mortgage companies cancel your mortgage insurance because your well water has become contaminated. People start to move away.  Agriculture suffers and the vineyards and wineries close.  Tourism tanks.  Rich people stop sending their kids to Syracuse University and our other fine colleges until the "water situation" is rectified.  The organic farmers have left and what was beginning to be a slow food movement dies on the vine. The plan to revitalize downtown gets put on hold again and all the money goes to clean up the sites of old drill pads and to try to find companies capable of dealing with environmental disasters of this magnitude--but they are all busy in Pennsylvania....”

What a shame not to have slowed down and concentrated on renewables in the first place.  These may ultimately include different technologies we haven’t heard so much about, such as....algae farms.  I  read 
 that the chemical composition of at least some algae is identical to that of gasoline.  Apparently algae as potential fuel is quite efficient, besides being eminently cultivable.  Who could find this objectionable? There is something deeply satisfying about the notion of being able to apply what has been regarded as a pestilence to the solution of a major worldwide problem.  And the best part?  The wastes can be fed to cows!

Stay tuned.