The Future of Fracking in California

I attended an interesting forum at UC San Diego on Thursday, and this post is based on that. It was titled, “The Future of Fracking in California: Energy, Environment and Economics,” and the speakers included: Taiga Takahashi, Associate in the San Diego office of Latham & Watkins; Mark Ellis, Chief of Corporate Strategy for San Diego-based Sempra Energy; and Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. I’ll just summarize some of the more important points people made (based on my incomplete notes), and you can decide what you think of them.

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Taiga Takahashi described the legal situation in California vis-à-vis hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Governor Jerry Brown supports “science-based fracking” that is protective of the environment. Brown also touts the economic benefits, including the creation of 2.8 million jobs (though this figure was disputed). In contrast, the CA Democratic party supports a moratorium on fracking. The bill SB 4 on well stimulation was passed in September requires the state Department of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) to adopt regulations regarding water well testing and other tests of air and water pollution. New regulations will be developed by January 2015 while an environmental impact study will be completed six months afterward (my emphasis). Fracking restrictions are mostly similar to those in Colorado and much better than those in Pennsylvania. Takahashi argued that a “consensus approach” on fracking regulation in CA could be reached, which would include nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the state, and industry.

Mark Ellis is a representative of industry. Sempra Energy is a major natural gas utility that owns San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas. Ellis argued that the “shale revolution” (his term) has made gas cheap relative to oil and thereby reduced prices. Gas is used mostly for power, since many are making a switch from coal to gas, as well as in industry and residential areas. There are also opportunities for using gas in transportation, such as with compressed/liquefied natural gas (LNG). Sempra is expanding production and building pipelines from Texas and Arizona to Mexico. Ellis argued that the “shale revolution” is being or could be replicated in other places, such as the UK, Australia, Brazil, and Russia.

Andrew Rosenberg spoke about a couple recent Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) reports: “The Curious Case of Fracking: Engaging to Empower Citizens with Information” and “Toward an Evidence-Based Fracking Debate,” written by Pallavi Phartiyal, him, and others. He brought up many issues, such as the use of pipeline infrastructure vs trains and the relation between fracking, chemical plants, and oil. Importantly, fracking is a many-step process (as you can see in the figure at the top of this post), which includes water acquisition, chemical transport and mixing, well drilling and injection, a wastewater pit, onsite fuel processing and pipelines, nearby community residences and residential water wells, and waste transport and wastewater injection. The most important point he made is that we as a society must decide when particular actions are worth the risks, and to what extent those risks can be mitigated with regulations. There should be as much transparency as possible and plenty of opportunities for public comment. It’s important to close loopholes in federal environmental legislation; disclose the chemical composition, volume, and concentration of fracking fluids and wastewater; we require baseline and monitoring requirements for air water, and soil quality; make data publicly accessible; and engage citizens and address their concerns. (My views were mostly in agreement with Rosenberg’s. Full disclosure: I am an active member of UCS.)

After the speakers, there were a few comments and questions. I was surprised that this was the only time during the forum that climate change issues were raised. The issue of water usage was discussed as well, because of our ongoing drought. (In related news, Gov. Brown and the state Legislature just passed a drought relief package.) It also was clear that Sempra and other companies wouldn’t voluntarily make changes unless industry-wide regulations were applied; Ellis argued that singling out particular companies is counter-productive. It’s possible that there will be new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations on water and air pollution in the future.

The fracking debates in California continue. For example, the Los Angeles City Council is taking steps toward a fracking ban, and a rally against fracking is being organized at the Capitol in Sacramento in two weeks.

More from the AAAS meeting

The second half of the AAAS meeting in Chicago was interesting too. (I wrote about the first half in my previous post.)

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Probably the best and most popular event at the meeting was Alan Alda’s presentation. You’ll know Alan Alda as the actor from M*A*S*H (and recently, 30 Rock), but he’s also a visiting professor at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. He gave an inspiring talk to a few thousand people about how to communicate science clearly and effectively in a way that people can understand. He talked about how one should avoid or be careful about using jargon. Interaction with the audience is important, and one can do that by telling a personalized story (with a hero, goal, and an obstacle, which develops an emotional connection), or by engaging with the audience so that they become participants. It’s also important to communicate what is most interesting or exciting or curiosity-piquing about the science, but in the end, the words you use don’t matter as much as your body language and tone of voice. It’s also good to develop improvisation skills, so when a particular explanation or analogy doesn’t appear to work well with the audience, you can adapt to the situation. He referred to the “curse of knowledge”, such that as scientists we forget what it’s like not to be experts in our particular field of research. That can be an obstacle when interacting with most segments of the public, Congress members and other politicians (most of whom aren’t scientists or haven’t the time to become familiar with the science), and even with scientists in other fields. Most of all, one needs to be clear, engaged, and connected with one’s audience. Finally, Alda told us about the “flame challenge
–challenging scientists to explain flames and other concepts for 11-year olds to understand. (The kids are also the judges of the competition.) If the video of Alda’s talk becomes available online, I’ll link to it here for you.

I attended an interesting session on climate change and whether/how it’s possible to reduce 80% of greenhouse gas emissions from energy by 2050. As pointed out by the chair, Jane Long (who is one of the authors of this report), our energy needs will likely double or even triple by then, while we must be simultaneously reducing carbon emissions. Peter Loftus discussed this issue as well, and showed the primary energy demand as well as energy intensity (energy used per unit GDP) have been rapidly increasing over the past twenty years, partly due to China. But to obtain substantial carbon reductions, the intensity needs to drop below what we’ve had for the past 40 years! We need to massively add to power generation capacity (10 times more rapidly than our previous rates), and it might not be feasible to exclude both nuclear and “carbon capture” in the process. Karen Palmer gave an interesting talk about the importance of energy efficiency as part of the solution, but she says that one problem is that it’s still hard to evaluate which policies best promote energy efficiency as well as ultimately energy savings and carbon emission reductions. Richard Lester made strong arguments about the need for nuclear power, since renewables might not be up for the task of meeting rising energy demands in the near future. This was disputed by Mark Jacobson, who pointed out that nuclear power has 9-25 times more pollution per kW-hour than wind (due to mining and refining) and it takes longer to construct a plant than the 2-5 years it takes to build wind or solar farms. Jacobson also discussed state-by-state plans: California benefits from many solar devices, for example, while some places in the northeast could use offshore wind farms. In addition, such offshore arrays could withstand and dissipate hurricanes (depending on their strength), and WWS (wind, water, solar) could generate about 1.5 million new jobs in the U.S. in construction alone. Different countries have very different economic situations and carbon footprints, so different solutions may be needed.
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I caught part of a session on “citizen science” (see my previous post). Chris Lintott spoke about the history of citizen science and about how the internet has allowed for unprecedented growth and breadth of projects, including the numerous Zooniverse projects. Caren Cooper discussed social benefits of citizen science, and Carsten Østerlund discussed what motivates the citizen scientists themselves and how they learn as they participate. Lastly, Stuart Lynn spoke about how the next generation of citizen science systems can be developed, so that they can accommodate larger communities and larger amounts of data and so that people can classify billions of galaxies with the upcoming Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, for example.

Finally, there was another interesting session on how scientists can work with Congress and on the challenges they face, but more on that later…

Jevons paradox: a problem for energy efficiency?

I’d like to discuss an issue that probably isn’t sufficiently studied or addressed. If the Jevons paradox is relevant for today’s energy consumption and efficiency problems (or to other resources), then it is certainly worth further investigation.

The “Jevons paradox” (which I briefly mentioned in a previous post) is the idea that improved energy (and other material-resource) efficiency ultimately tends to lead not to conservation but to increased consumption. It’s named after the English economist William Stanley Jevons, who in his book The Coal Question (1865) observed that the coal-powered steam engine made coal a more cost-effective power source, leading to the increased use of the steam engine in a wide range of industries. This in turn increased total coal consumption and depleted reserves, even as the amount of coal required for any particular application fell. He argued that increased efficiency in the use of coal as an energy source only generated increased demand for that resource, not decreased demand, as one might expect. This was because improvement in efficiency led to further economic expansion.

Jevons was wrong about a few points: he failed to foresee the development of energy substitutes for coal, such as petroleum and hydroelectric power, or that coal supplies would take a long time to be exhausted. But the “Jevons paradox” appears to be a very important insight that has lately become a popular issue again (see for example, this New Yorker piece). In addition, some consider it an extreme version of the “rebound effect”, in which there is a rebound of more than 100% of “engineering savings,” resulting in an increase rather than decrease in the consumption of a given resource. In other words, savings from efficiency are used for additional consumption, thus cancelling the savings. In light of recent efforts to improve energy efficiency, the significance of Jevons paradox effects has understandably generated considerable debate (such as here and here).

If the Jevons paradox and rebound effect are real, then this has important policy implications. It does not mean that efforts for improving efficiency in homes, businesses, and vehicles are wasted, but it does mean that those efforts by themselves won’t reduce energy consumption and carbon emission. Major environmental problems like climate change cannot be solved by purely technological methods in a “free market”. In addition, cap-and-trade systems might not be as successful as hoped in terms of reducing emissions (for example, see this critique of California’s cap-and-trade program, which allows carbon offsets). There is no simple solution, but energy efficiency goals should be combined with other strategies and policies for reducing demand for fossil fuels, such as a carbon tax, requiring utilities to generate a higher fraction of their electricity from renewables, requiring automakers to increase fuel economy standards, etc. Some of these would be less popular with particular industries because it would be a bigger break from business-as-usual, but business-as-usual is clearly worsening climate change (and other resource-related environmental problems, such as involving water resources and pollution). Any effective strategy must cut carbon emissions deeply enough to avoid the worst effects of climate change, which means at least 80% below 2000 levels by 2050. The transition to a low-carbon economy will be a difficult one.

US Energy Policy (part 2)

Since President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address on Tuesday, I’d like to write a bit more about energy policy, which may come up during the address in the context of the Climate Action Plan that was initiated last summer (when the picture below was taken). In addition, some new energy policies that are being advocated would create new jobs, especially in manufacturing and government sectors, whose employment rates haven’t improved much yet during the recovery from the economic recession.

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The president can call on Congress to do its part to pass laws that will complement his Climate Action Plan. Some of the recommendations below would be difficult to achieve in the current political climate, but it’s important to at least demonstrate the political will and public commitment to improve energy and climate policies.

1. President Obama could urge Congress to extend tax incentives for renewable energy technologies, in particular for solar electricity and wind power, which have already expired for the latter. These could at least be extended to 2020. This may be politically feasible, considering that some conservatives are now in support of renewable energy. This is also popular: wind and solar power increased nearly four-fold in the US over the past five years, and nine states currently generate 10% or more of their electricity from wind and solar power. The technology already exists to have dynamic electricity grids that are designed to handle variability in supply (such as due to unexpected weather) and demand, making it possible to transition to an increasing reliance on renewables and less on fossil fuels. (See this report for more info.)

2. President Obama could lay the ground for eventually rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline (see also our earlier post). He said last year that it would be approved “only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.” We have to wait for a supplemental Environmental Impact Statement before a final decision will be made.

3. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed a carbon pollution standard for new power plants. These limits, which are required under the Clean Air Act, could be applied to existing plants as well. In order to meet the carbon pollution reductions outlined in the Climate Action Plan, 25% cuts in carbon pollution will be required.

4. The president could outline new energy efficiency policies for homes, automobiles, businesses, and industries. For example, the industrial sector is responsible for about 1/3 of all U.S. energy use. Energy-efficient building designs and investment in high-efficiency combined heat and power systems can reduce these energy demands. For cars and trucks, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards should be enforced by the EPA and Department of Transportation. In addition, a June 2012 study by the Blue Green Alliance finds that the new round of CAFE standards will create an estimated 570,000 full-time jobs throughout the US economy by 2030. The president could also urge Congress to expand investment in public transportation infrastructure that was begun in the The Recovery Act; this too would create thousands of new jobs.

Environmental Justice

I’m a little late, but in honor of Martin Luther King Day, I want to write a short post on “environmental justice”.  U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in a speech at the Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “plant[ed] the seeds of the environmental justice movement” and that environmental justice is “a civil rights issue.”

If you haven’t heard of the term, the EPA defines environmental justice (EJ) as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” EJ often refers to the water and air pollution, landfills, toxic waste, power plants, industrial facilities, environmental degradation, etc. that preferentially affect people of a particular race or ethnicity. It also refers to social movements that have, with some success, attempted to rectify this.

Environmental justice (and injustice) is something that should be discussed and addressed more often in the media and in politics. If you’re interested, there are a few good books about EJ out there (such as Dumping in Dixie by Robert Bullard). EJ became an important issue during the heyday of the civil rights and environmental movements, and the most successful EJ lawsuits have been based on violations of civil rights laws.

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EJ returned to the news in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in the New Orleans region. (For example, see these articles/programs in the Huffington Post and Democracy Now.) Katrina disproportionately affected communities of color (as well as poor whites), and some people argue that the reconstruction efforts should have better reflected and involved the needs and concerns of these communities. Some have made similar claims in the aftermath of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

As we see new environmental problems and issues in the future, it’s very important for us to consider race and class when addressing them. Now we’re already seeing that climate change due to carbon emissions of people in wealthy nations appears to be preferentially affecting the poor and communities of color, especially those in coastal and island regions.

US Energy Policy (part 1)

After traveling for a few weeks, I’m back in San Diego, and I’d like to discuss US energy policies.

Currently, about 85% of our energy in the US comes from fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas; a similar proportion of energy comes from fossil fuels worldwide. Most of the rest of the energy in the US comes from nuclear power, while only a negligible contribution is drawn from renewable sources. Energy consumption is continuing to grow (though not as rapidly during the economic recession), and this growing demand is primarily being supplied by fossil fuel production.

Smoke rises from chimneys of a factory during sunset in the Siberian town of Achinsk

While we’ve talked about the relation between energy policy and climate change in previous posts, note that it’s also related to water policy. With the current drought in the US, it’s critically important to reduce water consumption. However, conventional coal power plants consume massive amounts of water, while natural gas and nuclear power also require significant amounts. The best are wind turbines and solar panels, which require almost no water at all.

There has been some opposition to US energy policies. For example, environmental groups (including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and Natural Resources Defense Council) announced in a letter a few days ago that is breaking with President Obama and opposes his “all of the above” energy policy: “With record-high atmospheric carbon concentrations and the rising threat of extreme heat, drought, wildfires and super storms, America’s energy policies must reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, not simply reduce our dependence on foreign oil…[A]n ‘all of the above’ approach that places virtually no limits on whether, when, where or how fossil fuels are extracted ignores the impacts of carbon-intense fuels and is wrong for America’s future.”

Current fossil fuel-focused energy policies involve many contentious issues. For example, hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” technologies have made it possible to extract oil and gas from shale and other tight rock formations, but they involve blasting large amounts of water and chemicals into the ground and they create more environmental degradation, especially water and air pollution, than other energy sources. The extraction of oil from tar sands in Canada has also been criticized, and the Keystone pipeline, which would transport this oil through the US, has faced massive protests. In addition, the coal industry has advocated for so-called “clean coal” technologies, but these do not appear to be as clean or viable as they’re touted to be.

Perhaps most importantly, it is clear that we need to focus on demand, not just supply, and to increase energy efficiency. Many strides can be made to improve energy efficiency in industry, power plants, homes, and automobiles (and more investment in public transportation infrastructure would help too). With expanding economies, rising standards of living, and population growth, it will become increasingly important to reduce energy consumption whenever possible. For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists has a list of energy efficiency policies that are being or can be implemented. (However, energy efficiency also raises the issue of the Jevons paradox, but we can discuss that later.)

In the future, for energy policies to be more sustainable, we will have to
decrease reliance on oil and gas and shift to cleaner renewable energy sources, especially wind and solar power. However, we also want to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as soon as possible (with larger reductions in the future) so as to minimize the effects of climate change. In order to build renewable energy infrastructure, energy will be required, raising questions about how we can achieve sustainable energy policies nationally and internationally without consuming too many fossil fuels in the process. These questions don’t have easy answers, but it does seem clear that in the short term, we should focus on energy efficient technologies and on making wind and solar energy economically competitive with fossil fuels.

Climate change: part 1

I’d like to say a bit about climate change. It’s an issue that I’m passionate about, as it’s one of the most important global crises facing us today, and there will be plenty more to write about in later posts.

As a possible future for our own planet, it’s useful to think of Venus.  Although there are no Venusians to ask about it, we can infer what happened to Venus based on observations of its surface and atmosphere.  Venus and Earth likely had similar early atmospheric compositions, but on Earth the carbon is mostly in the crust.  In Venus’s case, its atmosphere is mostly CO2, and it appears to have suffered a “runaway” greenhouse gas effect.  Venus’s surface temperature of nearly 500° C is due to its atmosphere’s depth and CO2 content.  In order to reach Venus-like conditions on Earth, massive amounts of CO2 would need to accumulate and would need to get rid of its oceans via escape of hydrogen to space, which would take at least hundreds of millions of years.

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Nonetheless, it only takes much smaller amounts of CO2 emissions and much less time to change the biosphere and harm human and other life on earth.  It is already happening.  And because the climate responds slowly, so far we’ve only felt about half of the effect of the greenhouse gases that are already in the air.

According to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography (which is a few blocks from here at UCSD), the daily mean concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere surpassed 400 parts per million (ppm) in May this year.  The Keeling curve below documents the dramatic rise of this potent greenhouse gas over the last half century.

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More CO2 in the atmosphere means that more of it is absorbing and trapping the infrared radiation of sunlight near the Earth’s surface, gradually raising the temperature.  There are many effects and evidence of climate change, but one key one is that surface temperatures on Earth are increasing.  Last year was the hottest year on record and this year is the seventh hottest. According to climate scientists, 350 ppm should be our goal in order to prevent runaway climate change, but it will require concerted international efforts to substantially reduce carbon emissions to safe levels.

A global problem requires global solutions.  But what can be done and is being done about climate change (including at the UN and by US policies) will be the subject of “part 2”.

Finally, for those of you who’d like more eloquent writing about these issues, check out this essay from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.