Monthly Archives: April 2014

The rush to frack ourselves

Perhaps the time has come for a pause in the natural gas boom until we know a little bit more about hydraulic fracturing and its impact on the environment and people.

I’m not tree-hugging environmentalist, but I’ve seen and read enough to know the rush to “fracking” may eventually see the evils outweigh the good.

The good is easy to see: A new source of energy less damaging to the atmosphere than traditional fossil fuels, plus fracking creates jobs and billions of dollars in profit. Natural gas has great potential for slowing, if not halting, global warming. But is there a trade-off on the production side that negates those positives?

Consider this recent story from the Columbus Dispatch in Ohio:

NEW MIDDLETOWN, Ohio — The first time Judy Pack felt the earth move, she was asleep in her house in rural Mahoning County, just a few houses from the Pennsylvania state line.

A natural-gas processing plant had recently been built across the street; Hilcorp Energy, a Texas oil company, had started drilling and fracking for gas about 3 miles away.

Judy and her husband, Ralph, had almost become used to the lights blazing from the plant and the trucks rumbling down their usually quiet road. This felt different.

Mrs. Pack awoke; their bed was shaking.

It was about 2:30 a.m. on March 10, and a magnitude 3 earthquake had just rolled through the area. The epicenter of that quake was near one of Hilcorp’s wells.

The follow-up was that Ohio officials made a link between the earthquakes and fracking. Perhaps this will help the cause of the folks in Azel, Texas, to get a little more attention out of the Texas Railroad Commission. And in Oklahoma, there’s a whole lot of shaking going on.

Some rattled nerves and a few nick-nacs bounced off the china cabinet might be the price we pay for progress. However, let’s consider the real China.

China, with its reliance on coal, is one of the world’s leading contributors to air pollution and global warming. Natural gas from fracturing may be the answer to a lot of China’s energy problems. Extraction is fraught with peril, though.

The shale deposits in China are about 13,000 feet below the surface, twice as deep as in the United States. And while it only takes weeks to drill a well here, the first well in China took 11 months. And then there’s the location of the drilling: the Sichuan basin in southwest China. The problem is this area also has some of the most active, and the most dangerous fault lines in China.

Sichuan, an area the size of Spain, lies on some of the world’s most active fault lines and has suffered two major earthquakes in the past five years, including the Wenzhou quake in 2008 that killed at least 70,000 people.

Sacrificing the sleep of folks in Azel or Oklahoma or Ohio is one thing, but would we really want to sacrifice the lives of tens of thousands of people as an up-front solution to global warming?

Unlike Ohio, Texas official so far have taken a head-in-the-sand approach to questions involving earthquakes and air pollution potentially caused by the hydraulic fracturing process. And today’s Austin American-Statesman has a disturbing example of that:

The Texas environmental agency has frozen funding for a San Antonio area governmental coalition’s air quality improvement work after an official there publicly shared modeling results that suggested fracking contributed pollution to the city.

Last summer the Alamo Area Council of Governments made public a report that found that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Eagle Ford shale field endangers air quality in the San Antonio area — and, to a milder extent, the Austin area.

It is understandable that the state agency may be upset that the Alamo Area Council of Governments released a report paid for by the state before giving it to the state. But, frankly, this looks like the state agency is doing more than just punishing the Alamo COG; it looks like the state doesn’t want the Alamo COG doing any more studies on hydraulic fracturing.

I’m not advocating a knee-jerk response to the problems of hydraulic fracturing. There is more than ample evidence, however, that the time has come for a true cost-benefit analysis of hydraulic fracturing and the production of natural gas.

Nuke dumps and repositories

The spokesman at the Department of Energy came to loath me.

One of my first beats as a Texas Capitol reporter in 1983 was to cover the debate surrounding DOE plans to bury high-level nuclear waste in a salt dome in Deaf Smith County. The DOE referred to it as a high level nuclear waste repository, but in asking questions about the latest twist or turn, I’d always call it “the dump.” The spokesman without fail, and often with an exasperated tone, would correct me, “It’s not a dump. It’s a scientifically designed facility that can safely serve as a repository for spent nuclear reactor rods.” But would it hold the waste safely for thousands of years? Even with that considered, the folks in Hereford saw economic opportunity.

“If we can put a man on the moon, I’m sure we could bury this radioactive waste safely,” says Wes Fisher, mayor of Hereford, the Deaf Smith County seat. “What bothers folks most is that it’s in the hands of the feds.”

Keep in mind, these were the days when everyone believed nuclear power was the devil’s tool. Nukes would result in the end of time for human civilization. The movie The China Syndrome had opened in 1979 just twelve days before the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor went wild and almost melted down. That was before Chernobyl or Fukushima captured global attention.

The Texas project was put on hold, in part because of widespread environmentalist opposition. If there was not place to store the spent fuel rods, then the expansion of nuclear power would be slowed. Environmentalists also helped block a low-level waste facility in Sierra Blanca, but once private enterprise took over with wheels greased by campaign contributions, the way was paved for a low level facility in Andrews County despite opposition from environmentalists.

Now, in the era of global warming, nuclear power is not looking so evil. And environmentalists are increasingly divided on the hazards of nuclear power against the growing concerns over global warming.

However, it appears that a fossil fuel is standing in the way: Hydraulic fracturing and the natural gas it produces has driven the cost of electricity production so low that nuclear expansion is on hold through most of the country. An expansion of the Comanche Peak nuclear facility in North Texas was suspended last year. Plans for the South Texas Project also have been hitting a bumpy road.

But here it is three decades after I sparred with that DOE spokesman over the words dump versus repository and the nation still has neither. And Gov. Rick Perry and House Speaker Joe Straus are interested once again in putting Texas on the table as the national dumping ground for those spent fuel rods.

“The citizens of Texas — and every other state currently storing radioactive waste — have been betrayed by their federal government,” Perry wrote in a letter reported on in today’s Austin American-Statesman.

Because the expansion of nuclear power is on hold in Texas, the state’s need for a high-level dump is hardly greater today than a year ago. At present, most spent fuel is stored in water-filled pools at reactor sites — 75,000 tons of spent fuel. The Fukushima disaster shows just how dangerous these storage pools are.

But does Texas really want to become the storage facility for the nation? How safe is the transportation of high-level waste to the facility? Is there a danger to the state’s underground water supplies? And ultimately, what is motivating the state’s leaders: need or greed?

Yucca Mountain in Nevada beat out the Deaf Smith site that I covered years ago. The Yucca Mountain dump has not been built now may never be built.

Nuclear power is an energy source that produces waste that is dangerous for 250,000 years. Think about it, that is all of human history from the time of the death of Jesus to now — multiplied by about 125 times. Scientists believe the first homo sapiens walked the land about 250,000 years ago. That’s a lot of time for our trash to be dangerous to us. All the same, nuclear power at the moment may be the answer to buying humanity another 250,000 years as a hedge against global warming.

To paraphrase Dr. Strangelove, perhaps it is time to stop worrying and love the nuclear waste. In the words of General “Buck” Turgidson, “Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!”

For today, that’s my look at the world of tomorrow.

R.G. Ratcliffe