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NPR's Robert Krulwich circled this bright spot on a night-time satellite image of the United States. As Krulwich points out, this cluster of lights is new — it wasn't there in 2005. And it's not a city.
Instead, that bright spot is a shining reminder of the natural gas boom. What you're seeing are the lights from drilling rigs and flares burning gas.
Yoko Ono and Sean Ono Lennon launched "Artists Against Fracking" earlier this year, and have received no response from NY gov. Andrew Cuomo to their request to meet and talk about the idea of a ban of fracking in New York. Now, Ono and Lennon have launched a billboard campaign on a route where the governor often passes. “Governor Cuomo: Imagine there’s no fracking,” the sign reads.
BURN: An Energy Journal, the radio documentary series hosted by former NPR journalist Alex Chadwick, has a 2-hour election special out. It's the most powerful piece of radio journalism I've listened to since—well, since the last episode they put out. You really must do yourself a favor and set aside some time this weekend to listen to “The Power of One.”
Energy policy, defining how we use energy to power our economy and our lives, is among the most pressing issues for the next four years. In this special two-hour edition of BURN, stories about the power of one: how, in this election season, a single person, place, policy or idea can — with a boost from science — affect the nation’s search for greater energy independence.
The documentary examines how "individuals, new scientific ideas, grassroots initiatives and potentially game-changing inventions are informing the energy debate in this Presidential Election year, and redefining America’s quest for greater energy independence." It was completed and hit the air before Hurricane Sandy, but the energy issues illuminated by that disaster (blackouts, gas shortage, grid failure, backup power failure at hospitals) further underscore the urgency.
Natural gas has been sold as clean energy. But when the gas comes from fracturing bedrock with about five million gallons of toxic water per well, the word “clean” takes on a disturbingly Orwellian tone. Don’t be fooled. Fracking for shale gas is in truth dirty energy. It inevitably leaks toxic chemicals into the air and water. Industry studies show that 5 percent of wells can leak immediately, and 60 percent over 30 years. There is no such thing as pipes and concrete that won’t eventually break down. It releases a cocktail of chemicals from a menu of more than 600 toxic substances, climate-changing methane, radium and, of course, uranium.
The National Research Council published a report today, reviewing and analyzing peer-reviewed literature, federal and state documents, data requested from private companies, and more ... all in an effort to better understand the link between earthquakes and natural gas fracking techniques.
Because this is the National Research Council, you can read the whole thing online for free. But here are the three key takeaways:
First: The actual process of hydraulic fracturing—injecting fluid into the ground to break rocks and release trapped natural gas—doesn't seem to come with a serious seismic risk. This process has been definitively linked to small earthquakes—no greater than 2.8 magnitude—at one location.
Second: Injecting wastewater from fracking back into the ground has a much more noticeable seismic effect. What's more, this effect goes far beyond fracking. Injecting liquids into the ground is part of advanced recovery for oil, conventional drilling for oil and gas, carbon capture and storage, and geothermal electricity generation. This should not be a surprise. We've known that human can induce small earthquakes since the 1920s and injecting large amounts of liquids into a space that previously didn't hold much liquid—what the NRC calls a fluid imbalance—is part of that.
Veteran muckraker Mark Ebner of "Hollywood, Interrupted" has a knack for producing beautiful writing from ugly subjects. Scientology, pit bull fighting, celebrity scandals, scam artists... you name it, he's investigated it.
Now, Ebner travels to a town several hundred miles north of Deadwood, South Dakota. In a state wracked by joblessness, this little enclave is home to a new gold rush: Fracking.
Human activities can cause earthquakes. It sounds a little crazy to say, but it's something we've known about for a while. For instance, seismologists say that a 6.3 magnitude quake that struck India's Maharashtra state in 1967 was directly caused by the 1963 construction of a major dam and reservoir project in that region.
Basically, fault lines exist. When we start messing with them—applying very heavy weights, taking very heavy weights away, or lubricating the fault line with various liquids—we can trigger movement. Usually, these are not large earthquakes. But they can be felt. And they are something we want to avoid.
Now, a study done by the Ohio State Department of Natural Resources has concluded that a series of small quakes in that state were directly caused by improper disposal of wastewater from a natural gas fracking operation.
Fracking, as a reminder, is a process of freeing up trapped natural gas by injecting liquid into the Earth. The force of the water cracks rocks so the gas can flow through. This is not the part of the process that's been implicated in the Ohio earthquakes, however. Instead, it's about what happens to that liquid once the fracking is done.
Fracking liquid is called "brine" and it's often referred to as being water, but it's actually water mixed with a lot of other stuff, some of it toxic. Wastewater treatment plants aren't set up to deal with this kind of contamination, so the standard way of disposing of this liquid is to pump it into the ground. In Ohio, regulators say, the site chosen for wastewater disposal wasn't vetted carefully enough. Instead of being geologically inert, it turned out to be the site of a fault line. The liquid lubricated the fault line and helped it move. The result: Earthquakes.
Now, according to the Associated Press, fracking operations disposing of wastewater in Ohio are going to have to follow much more stringent rules and provide a lot more geologic data to the regulators before they'll be allowed to pump any more liquid into the ground. The report states that this process can be done safely. It just wasn't being done that way.
Image: A Dimock, Pennsylvania resident who did not want to be identified pours a glass of water taken from his well after the start of natural gas drilling in Dimock, Pennsylvania, March 7, 2009. Dimock is one of hundreds of sites in Pennsylvania where energy companies have raced to tap the massive Marcellus Shale natural gas formation. Residents say the drilling has clouded their drinking water, sickened people and animals and made their wells flammable. Picture taken March 7, 2009.
Over the weekend, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reversed a commitment to deliver safe water to residents of Dimock, PA, a small village where natural gas drilling operations have poisoned water supplies. Why? So far, federal officials won't explain why.
Only 24 hours after promising them water, EPA officials informed residents of Dimock that a tanker truck wouldn't be coming after all. The about-face left residents furious, confused and let down — and, once again, scrambling for water for bathing, washing dishes and flushing toilets.
In ProPublica's extensive reporting series on fracking in America, Dimock has been mentioned often. Christopher Bateman's 2010 Vanity Fair piece on fracking in rural Pennsylvania is another good read, and focuses on Dimock.