Before I begin to tell you what brought me to tears this morning, I want to ask you what exactly you would be willing to sacrifice for cheap energy. Think about all the material goods that you buy with cheap energy, all of the disposable and replaceable goods. Think about all of the devices in your home that consume electricity, and all of the functions they provide for you. Now, consider what you would be willing to give up in order to ensure that the supply of cheap energy is unending. What if you learned that the water from your tap was no longer drinkable? What if you learned that you might have irreversible brain damage? What if you learned that you might lose your sense of taste and smell? Would that be worth it?
Well, this morning I watched the new documentary Gasland, which premiered on HBO last night. Immediately, my connection to the subject matter was visceral, because like the filmmaker, Josh Fox, I am a Pennsylvanian by birth. Fox owns a home on 19 acres of pristine forest that is part of the Marcellus Shale, a formation of sedimentary rock that stretches throughout the Appalachian Basin from New York, south to Virginia. Energy companies targeted the Marcellus Shale for its natural gas resources, along with other shale formations across the country. The Marcellus Shale alone was estimated in April 2009 by the Department of Energy to contain 262 Trillion Cubic Feet of Natural Gas. However, industry estimates exceed this amount. To extract natural gas from shale formations, energy companies use Halliburton-proprietary technology.
How is the natural gas extracted? A technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking is used. A well is drilled deep (typically about 8,000 feet) into the shale formation, and millions of gallons of water, sand, and proprietary chemicals are injected at high pressure into the well. The pressure fractures the shale and opens fissures, which allow the natural gas to flow freely out of the well. Sounds simple, right? Well, 596 chemicals are used in the fracking process. In 2005, the Bush/Cheney Energy Bill (known officially as the Energy Policy Act of 2005) exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act? Why was that legislation necessary? It exempted the energy companies from disclosing the chemicals used in the fracking process. For each frack, 80-300 tons of chemicals may be used. Scientists have identified volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene. Fracking produces wastewater, and the VOCs in the wastewater are evaporated into the air, where they produce ground level ozone, which can travel up to 250 miles.
The really disturbing part of this process is the contamination of drinking water. Fox travels across the country to Colorado, Wyoming, Arkansas, and Texas, where this technology has been deployed, and goes into homes where the tap water is now flammable. The scale of the development is extensive.
I urge you to watch this film, and spread the word about this ongoing environmental catastrophe. This technology raises the question of what lengths we as Americans will go to for cheap energy. Is our standard of living sustainable? What are the consequences of that cheap energy? Economists consider consequences that are not reflected in the cost of a product externalities. Right now the costs of our energy are not transparent, but purposely opaque. The 2005 Bush/Cheney exemption is a prime example of this. Clean natural gas is just as much of a misnomer as clean coal. There is no free lunch. Americans need to reconsider the sustainability of our economy, of our lifestyles. Permanent damage is occuring daily.
However, there is one thing that you can do now to help the communities affected, and help to increase the safety requirements in natural gas extraction: call your Senators and Representatives, and demand that the Frac Act be passed.
The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (H.R. 2766), (S. 1215)—was introduced to both houses of the United States Congress on June 9, 2009, and aims to repeal the exemption for hydraulic fracturing in the Safe Drinking Water Act. It would require the energy industry to disclose the chemicals it mixes with the water and sand it pumps underground in the hydraulic fracturing process, information that has largely been protected as trade secrets. The House bill was introduced by representatives Diana DeGette, D-Colo., Maurice Hinchey D-N.Y., and Jared Polis, D-Colo. The Senate version was introduced by senators Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Needless to say, the energy industry opposes this act. Gasland breaks my heart, because the Pennsylvania that I grew up in is at risk. So is the water supply of New York City and Philadelphia. Please see this important film, and take action.
On Thursday, Tony Hayward will appear before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and offer testimony about BP’s failures on the Deepwater Horizon Rig. These documents, released by the Committee in advance of the hearing, make it clear that BP cut corners. This e-mail, between BP engineers a week before the blowout, discusses BP’s choice of a faster, less expensive, and less protective casing for the well:
From: Morel, Brian P
Sent: Wednesday, April 14, 2010 1:31 PM
To: Miller, Richard A
Cc: Hafle, Mark E
Subject: Macondo APB
There is a chance we could run a production liner on Macondo instead of the planned long string. As this does not change much for APB based on the original design assumptions of a trapped annular, I don’t see any major effects, but wanted to confirm I am not missing something. Attached is the proposed schematic, please let me know if you have any questions. We could be running it in 2-3 days, so need a relative quick response. Sorry for the late notice, this has been nightmare well which has everyone all over the place.
Of course, among the documents are also approval e-mails from the Minerals Management Service. There are also e-mails from Halliburton, showing that BP went against the Halliburton recommendation for the number of centralizers, devices to keep the casing centered on the well while the cement was poured and set. Halliburton recommended 21, but BP went with only six, because the well was behind schedule.
BP and the British Government, are fighting American efforts to force BP to set up an escrow account to ensure claims settlement, and to cease payment of dividends. Of course, in Britain, BP dividends account for a large portion of retirement income:
‘BP’s position at the top of the London Stock Exchange and its previous reliability have made it a bedrock of almost every pension fund in the country, meaning its value is crucial to millions of workers. The firm’s dividend payments, which amount to more than £7 billion a year, account for £1 in every £6 paid out in dividends to British pension pots. BP is so concerned about Mr Obama’s power to affect share value that it has urged David Cameron to appeal to the White House on its behalf. Downing Street, however, has refused to get involved. “We need to ensure that BP is not unfairly treated – it is not some bloodless corporation,” said one of Britain’s top fund managers. “Hit BP and a lot of people get hit. UK pension money becomes a donation to the US government and the lawyers at the expense of Mrs Jones and other pension funds.”’
Now, did BP have British pensioners in mind when it opted for cheaper casing, and fewer centralizers? No, it opted for risky cost-cutting instead of safe, secure profit that pensioners would expect. Will blaming the President help the pensioners? Not quite. The pensioners are simply learning the same lesson that stockholders of Enron and Worldcom learned, that many corporations incentivize short term earnings without an eye to the long term.