Stuck in the 1960's: Power Grid Evolution Remains Elusive

Nearly half of all electricity generated in the world today comes from power plants that use steam turbines built in the days of rotary telephones and manual typewriters, operating at thermal efficiencies of around thirty-percent and thereby discarding seventy percent of the energy in the fuel they consume.

How did the electric power industry miss out on the technological revolution of the past 50-years, and what can be done to bring the industry in-line with telecommunications, transportation, computing and countless other industries that have evolved so dramatically over the same time frame? read more, open the PDF by clicking here.



Waldorf Commencement Address

I was honored to give the commencement address to the Santa Fe Waldorf School's 2013 graduating class. The full text of my speech is here.



Kent Cravens Promotes Hydraulic Fracturing


Kent Cravens, who resigned his post in the New Mexico Senate 2011 so that he could become the state’s top oil and gas lobbyist, assured the Senate Conservation Committee last month that hydraulic fracturing was safe, clean and necessary. Here are highlights of the rebuttal testimony he gave after I spoke on the dangers of hydraulic fracturing.

No Documented Cases of Contamination

 “Just for the committee’s information, there’s not been a single documented groundwater contamination from fracking. 

This is a favorite mantra of the industry, although they usually say there are no “proven” cases of contamination. (Watch the video to see Kent struggle to remember the agreed upon language.)

The statement is misleading for two reasons. First, proof is in the eye of the beholder.  Outside of mathematics, things are rarely proven. The mountain of evidence correlating shale gas operations with water contamination will never convince the industry to admit that they are contaminating water. But any reasonable person, given the same evidence, can easily see it.

The second reason this statement is misleading is that it only addresses the fracking process, rather than from all the other processes that accompany fracking. This deception is expertly delivered by Lisa Jackson:

“I am not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water…”.

In New Mexico during 2011 and 2012, an estimated 3.7 million gallons of fracking chemicals were transported to well sites, pumped into wells at high pressure, pumped back out of the wells, transported to disposal sites, and then dumped – often underground. During this time, the industry self-reported nearly 1500 spill events, including 30 affecting waterways or groundwater and 17 involving fracking fluids. So, proven or not, the odds that water in New Mexico has not been contaminated by fracking fluid are essentially zero.

Coffee is a Chemical

“You know, chemicals are all over. A Styrofoam cup, a paper cup, coffee – everything has got a chemical structure to it. And so, when we say ‘chemicals’ we’ve got to just make sure we keep it in perspective."

So, chemicals are chemicals? Coffee and fracking fluid are on par with one another? It’s hard to imagine anyone making an argument so inane, let alone in testimony to a lawmaking body. Better yet, Energy Secretary John Bemis stood up right after this and had the nerve to assert that my presentation wasn’t academic enough, and that I needed to get better educated about fracking. Cream and sugar, Mr. Secretary?

The chemicals in fracking fluid are far more dangerous than those in coffee. Some are known to disrupt the endocrine system, which controls human development. For these chemicals, there is no safe dosage -- they are toxic in concentrations so small they must be measured in parts-per-billion. And yet, about five-thousand gallons are pumped down each and every fracked well.

Water Use is Insignificant

“Of the 4 million acre-feet of water consumed in New Mexico, 14,000 acre-feet in the last year were consumed by hydraulic fracturing. That’s less than four-tenths of one percent of the total water usage…”

When is water usage more than mere water usage? Answer: When you contaminate the water in a way that it can never be remediated, and then pump it underground into deep injection wells, removing it from the hydrological cycle. Comparing such “usage” to agricultural usage, in which clean water is used to nurture plants into food, is perverse at best.

Despite industry claims that they are moving away from using water for fracking, the data in New Mexico tell a different story. Reported water consumption by fracking operations more than doubled last year, from 221 million gallons in 2011 to 518 million gallons in 2012.

Induced Seismicity is a Fallacy

“…the idea that they can cause seismic activity – that’s been absolutely proven to be a fallacy.”

After hanging his hat on the impossibility of proving that fracking is contaminating groundwater, here Kent asserts that it has been “absolutely proven” that fracking doesn’t cause earthquakes. Evidently he hasn’t read the current issue of Mother Jones, which shows a correlation so strong that one seismologist commented, “You’d need Powerball odds for that to be a coincidence.”

Communities Want Fracking

“Oddly enough, there are counties out there that are really asking for us to help them craft ordinances that would support the creation of an industry in their counties.”

Odd indeed, especially if it were true. I never believe any claim that comes after the word "really." This one came in response to a senator asking whether local authorities had the ability to limit or prohibit hydraulic fracturing within their communities. There have been expensive and highly contentious battles all across the nation as communities struggle to find the legal means to keep out the destructive power of oil and gas. Santa Fe County, Mora County, San Miguel County and the City of Las Vegas, New Mexico have all waged such battles, with varying degrees of success. Passing our bill would have saved them all the trouble, while protecting the state's revenues by allowing fracking to continue in the two main basins where it is already occurring.


The only remaining question for me on the dangers of fracking is this:  Do they know? If they do, and they are covering it up by playing stupid, would it constitute the greatest environmental crime in history? Sadly, I believe it would. Our planet is on the line this time. Really.


Ban Hydraulic Fracturing in New Mexico

A formatted copy of this post is available here. (PDF - 483kB)

Photo by Katherine Minott

I recently provided expert witness testimony to the New Mexico Senate Conservation Committee for a bill to ban the spread of a controversial method of oil and gas extraction known as high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

New Mexico is still highly reliant on revenues from its oil and gas operations, so the bill would have allowed hydraulic fracturing to continue in the two main shale basins where it is already occurring, while banning it throughout the rest of the state.

The bill was resoundingly defeated in committee, gaining only the support of the committee chairman, Senator Peter Wirth, and the sponsor, Senator William Soules.

In my testimony, I cited five reasons to ban the spread of fracking in New Mexico:

Reason #1: Encroachment into Pristine Lands
New Mexico’s oil and gas operations are primarily taking place in the Permian and San Juan Basins, located in the southeast and northwest corners of the state, respectively. But new regions of New Mexico, including our most pristine watersheds and agricultural lands, are beginning to open up to oil and gas production as a result of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies.

The encroachment of oil and gas operations into the center of the state poses significant risk to New Mexico's limited water supplies. Some of the chemicals being used for hydraulic fracturing are so toxic that even small releases in watersheds, reservoirs or rivers would inflict significant damage. The worst offenders are endocrine disruptors, for which there is no safe dosage. A few molecules present in a glass of water can be harmful, meaning that once water has been contaminated with an endocrine disrupting chemical, it cannot be reclaimed through purification.

Reason #2: Oilfield Spills On the Rise
Spills in New Mexico’s oil and gas fields set records in 2012, with nearly 700 self-reported accidents over the course of the year, according to the online database of spills posted by the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division. Causes ranged from the mundane, such as trucks running over pipes and workers falling asleep while tanks overflowed, to the extreme, including well blowouts, casing ruptures and pipeline bursts. The 2.7 million gallons of hazardous materials reportedly spilled in 2012 is a small fraction of what was actually released, because many spills are entered into the database with a zero typed in the “amount spilled” column. Furthermore, many spill events may be going unreported. One compliance inspector I spoke with remarked, “If we hear about 10 percent of them, we’re good.”

At least 17 spills during 2011 involved fracking fluids, which contain the most dangerous of the chemicals in use. By the time one leak was repaired in Eddy County, New Mexico, more than 8000 gallons of hydrochloric acid, water and fracking chemicals had spilled from a tank and seeped down into the ground.

At least thirty reported spills during 2011 and 2012 impacted a waterway or groundwater supply. In one example, an equipment failure at a well pad in San Juan County allowed 15,000 gallons of crude oil and water to spill, sending a toxic flow into Lewis Park Canyon a few miles upstream from Navajo Lake State Park.

Groundwater can also be contaminated due to a failure of well casing integrity, which often goes unnoticed. Despite claims that multiple layers of steel and cement prevent hydrocarbons from migrating into fresh-water aquifers, several studies show that about six-percent of all new wells have poor casing integrity. And a study published in Oilfield Review shows that half of all oil and gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico lack casing integrity after 15 years.

Reason #3: A Growing Consumption of Fresh Water
Data reported by industry to FracFocus show that usage of fresh water in New Mexico hydraulic fracturing operations more than doubled last year, rising from 221 million gallons in 2011 to 518 million gallons in 2012. The number of wells fracked grew 39 percent over that time, but the primary culprit is increased water usage per well, which rose from 485,000 per well in 2011 to more than 830,000 gallons the following year. If the trend continues, fracking in New Mexico will consume more than one-billion gallons of fresh water in 2013. Unlike water used in agriculture, the water consumed by fracking can never be reclaimed as drinking water, because it is first permanently contaminated by endocrine disrupting chemicals, and then it is pumped into deep injection wells, removing it from the hydrologic cycle.

Reason #4: A Frightening Contribution to Climate Change
When methane (natural gas) is burned it emits carbon dioxide, contributing to climate change, but if the methane is released directly to the atmosphere without first being burned, the impact on climate is many times worse. Hydraulic fracturing has been shown to significantly increase direct releases of methane. When fracking fluids are withdrawn from the well after a frack job, the “flowback” contains a significant amount of methane, which is often vented rather than flared. Further, occurrences of methane bubbling up in freshwater streams after nearby fracking operations suggests that fracturing can open direct pathways from underground hydrocarbon reservoirs to the atmosphere. These releases could be a game-ender for our efforts to stabilize the climate.

A straightforward calculation of reflected solar energy shows that the disappearance of summer ice in the Arctic will create a climate forcing roughly on par with the one humans created by burning fossil fuels. Estimating how long it will be before the summer Arctic ice is gone is also fairly straightforward, involving a simple forward projection of the ice-loss trend of the past ten years. My projection of the data suggests that the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer in 2019. On our current course, by 2020 the natural climate forcings will have surpassed the anthropogenic ones, and humankind will be powerless to stop the relentless onset of climate instability.

Reason #5: Risk of Continued Reliance on Oil and Gas
New Mexico’s economy continues to be strongly dependent on oil and gas revenues. It is prudent, therefore, to undertake a realistic assessment of how stable these industries are, and to determine how long the resources might last. And, there is cause for concern.

Gas production in New Mexico is down more than thirty percent since 2001, and the decline is certainly not for lack of drilling. More than a thousand new gas wells were brought online in 2007, and yet the amount of gas produced the following year fell by four percent. Another 856 new gas wells came online in 2008, and production fell once again – this time by more than five percent. Every year, even as hundreds of new gas wells were brought online, production continued to decline.

The decline of New Mexico gas production is not unexpected. With continued extraction, any finite resource will eventually go into decline. When drilling hundreds or even thousands of new wells each year fails to stem a decline in production, the resource is nearing its end days. It doesn't mean that the resource is running out – there is still plenty of gas underground. Rather, the effort required to find and produce the resource is rising to levels that cannot be sustained.

The rate of oil extraction in New Mexico, by contrast, is undergoing its most significant increase in fifty years. But it’s not because new “gusher wells” are being found, or vast, new reservoirs are being tapped. As a finite resource, oil is bound by the same laws of decline. The “easy” oil is long gone. Continuing to produce oil means drilling deeper, then drilling horizontally, and then injecting toxic chemicals at high volume and high pressure, requiring  diesel-powered pumps rated tens-of-thousands of horsepower, just to coax a little oil out of the ground. Even with all that effort, fracked wells are exceptionally short-lived and must be re-fracked in a few years. The decline of oil can already be seen in the rising consequences of extracting it, and a decline in the extraction rate will soon follow.

I concluded my testimony with the following statement:

"In 1923, an engineer from Standard Oil convinced the U.S. Surgeon General that it was safe to blend a known neurotoxin with gasoline. Subsequent studies showed that 68 million American children were exposed to toxic lead levels and 325,000 Americans died from exposure to leaded gasoline.

In 1970, electric utilities convinced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that coal-fired power plants posed no threat to public health. Subsequent studies showed that particulate pollution from coal-fired power plants was killing 30,000 Americans annually. The current best estimate is still around 13,000 deaths per year.

In 2005, the oil and gas industry convinced Congress that slickwater, multi-stage hydraulic fracturing in horizontal wells is so safe that it should be exempt from enforcement under the Safe Drinking Water Act. What is unfolding in the wake of that deception is arguably the most serious public health threat ever perpetrated by the energy industry."

I'll post the responses to my testimony shortly. A video of the hearing is available here.