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The Archdruid Report: The Steampunk Future

The Archdruid Report: The Steampunk Future.

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 05, 2014

The Steampunk Future

For those of us who’ve been watching the course of industrial civilization’s decline and fall, the last few weeks have been a bit of a wild ride.  To begin with, as noted in last week’s post, the specter of peak oil has once again risen from the tomb to which the mass media keeps trying to consign it, and stalks the shadows of contemporary life, scaring the bejesus out of everyone who wants to believe that infinite economic growth on a finite planet isn’t a self-defeating absurdity.
Then, of course, it started seeping out into the media that the big petroleum companies have lost a very large amount of money in recent quarters, and a significant part of those losses were due to their heavy investments in the fracking boom in the United States—you know, the fracking boom that was certain to bring us renewed prosperity and limitless cheap fuel into the foreseeable future?  That turned out to a speculative bubble, as readers of this blog were warned a year ago. The overseas investors whose misspent funds kept the whole circus going are now bailing out, and the bubble has nowhere to go but down. How far down? That’s a very good question that very few people want to answer.
The fracking bubble is not, however, the only thing that’s falling. What the financial press likes to call “emerging markets”—I suspect that “submerging markets” might be a better label at the moment—have had a very bad time of late, with stock markets all over the Third World racking up impressive losses, and some nasty downside action spilled over onto Wall Street, Tokyo and the big European exchanges as well. Meanwhile, the financial world has been roiled by the apparent suicides of four important bankers. If any of them left notes behind, nobody’s saying what those notes might contain; speculation, in several senses of that word, abounds.
Thus it’s probably worth being aware of the possibility that in the weeks and months ahead, we’ll see another crash like the one that hit in 2008-2009: another milestone passed on the road down from the summits of industrial civilization to the deindustrial dark ages of the future. No doubt, if we get such a crash, it’ll be accompanied by a flurry of predictions that the whole global economy will come to a sudden stop. There were plenty of predictions along those lines during the 2008-2009 crash; they were wrong then, and they’ll be wrong this time, too, but it’ll be few months before that becomes apparent.
In the meantime, while we wait to see whether the market crashes and another round of fast-crash predictions follows suit, I’d like to talk about something many of my readers may find whimsical, even irrelevant. It’s neither, but that, too, may not become apparent for a while.
Toward the middle of last month, as regular readers will recall, I posted an essay here suggesting seven sustainable technologies that could be taken up, practiced, and passed down to the societies that will emerge out of the wreckage of ours. One of those was computer-free mathematics, using slide rules and the other tools people used to crunch numbers before they handed over that chunk of their mental capacity to machines. In the discussion that followed, one of my readers—a college professor in the green-technology end of things—commented with some amusement on the horrified response he’d likely get if he suggested to his students that they use a slide rule for their number-crunching activities.
Not at all, I replied; all he needed to do was stand in front of them, brandish the slide rule in front of their beady eyes, and say, “This, my friends, is a steampunk calculator.”
It occurs to me that those of my readers who don’t track the contemporary avant-garde may have no idea what that next to last word means;  like so many labels these days, it contains too much history to have a transparent meaning. Doubtless, though, all my readers have at least heard of punk rock.  During the 1980s, a mostly forgettable literary movement in science fiction got labeled “cyberpunk;” the first half of the moniker referenced the way it fetishized the behavioral tics of 1980s hacker culture, and the second was given it because it made a great show, as punk rockers did, of being brash and belligerent.  The phrase caught on, and during the next decade or so, every subset of science fiction that hadn’t been around since Heinleins roamed the earth got labeled fill-in-the-blankpunk by somebody or other.
Steampunk got its moniker during those years, and that’s where the “-punk” came from. The “steam” is another matter. There was an alternative-history novel, The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, set in a world in which Victorian computer pioneer Charles Babbage launched the cybernetic revolution a century in advance with steam-powered mechanical computers.  There was also a roleplaying game called Space 1889—take a second look at those numbers if you think that has anything to do with the 1970s TV show about Moonbase Alpha—that had Thomas Edison devising a means of spaceflight, and putting the Victorian earth in contact with alternate versions of Mars, Venus and the Moon straight out of Edgar Rice Burroughs-era space fantasy.
Those and a few other sources of inspiration like them got artists, craftspeople, writers, and the like  thinking about what an advanced technology might look like if the revolutions triggered by petroleum and electronics had never happened, and Victorian steam-powered technology had evolved along its own course.  The result is steampunk:  part esthetic pose, part artistic and literary movement, part subculture, part excuse for roleplaying and assorted dress-up games, and part—though I’m far from sure how widespread this latter dimension is, or how conscious—a collection of sweeping questions about some of the most basic presuppositions undergirding modern technology and the modern world.
It’s very nearly an article of faith in contemporary industrial society that any advanced technology—at least until it gets so advanced that it zooms off into pure fantasy—must by definition look much like ours. I’m thinking here of such otherwise impressive works of alternate history as Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt. Novels of this kind portray the scientific and industrial revolution happening somewhere other than western Europe, but inevitably it’s the same scientific and industrial revolution, producing much the same technologies and many of the same social and cultural changes. This reflects the same myopia of the imagination that insists on seeing societies that don’t use industrial technologies as “stuck in the Middle Ages” or “still in the Stone Age,” or what have you:  the insistence that all human history is a straight line of progress that leads unstoppably to us.
Steampunk challenges that on at least two fronts. First, by asking what technology would look like if the petroleum and electronics revolutions had never happened, it undercuts the common triumphalist notion that of course an advanced technology must look like ours, function like ours, and—ahem—support the same poorly concealed economic, political, and cultural agendas hardwired into the technology we currently happen to have. Despite such thoughtful works as John Ellis’ The Social History of the Machine Gun, the role of such agendas in defining what counts for progress remains a taboo subject, and the idea that shifts in historical happenstance might have given rise to wholly different “advanced technologies” rarely finds its way even into the wilder ends of speculative fiction.
If I may be permitted a personal reflection here, this is something I watched during the four years when my novel Star’s Reach was appearing as a monthly blog post. 25th-century Meriga—yes, that’s “America” after four centuries—doesn’t fit anywhere on that imaginary line of progress running from the caves to the stars; it’s got its own cultural forms, its own bricolage of old and new technologies, and its own way of understanding history in which, with some deliberate irony, I assigned today’s industrial civilization most of the same straw-man roles that we assign to the societies of the preindustrial past.
As I wrote the monthly episodes of Star’s Reach, though, I fielded any number of suggestions about what I should do with the story and the setting, and a good any of those amounted to requests that I decrease the distance separating 25th-century Meriga from the modern world, or from some corner of the known past.  Some insisted that some bit of modern technology had to find a place in Merigan society, some urged me to find room somewhere in the 25th-century world for enclaves where a modern industrial society had survived, some objected to a plot twist that required the disproof of a core element of today’s scientific worldview—well, the list is long, and I think my readers will already have gotten the point.
C.S. Lewis was once asked by a reporter whether he thought he’d influenced the writings of his friend J.R.R. Tolkien. If I recall correctly, he said, “Influence Tolkien? You might as well try to influence a bandersnatch.” While I wouldn’t dream of claiming to be Tolkien’s equal as a writer, I share with him—and with bandersnatches, for that matter—a certain resistance to external pressures, and so Meriga succeeded to some extent in keeping its distance from more familiar futures. The manuscript’s now at the publisher, and I hope to have a release date to announce before too long; what kind of reception the book will get when it’s published is another question and, at least to me, an interesting one.
Outside of the realms of imaginative fiction, though, it’s rare to see any mention of the possibility that the technology we ended up with might not be the inevitable outcome of a scientific revolution. The boldest step in that direction I’ve seen so far comes from a school of historians who pointed out that the scientific revolution depended, in a very real sense, on the weather in the English Channel during a few weeks in 1688.  It so happened that the winds in those weeks kept the English fleet stuck in port while William of Orange carried out the last successful invasion (so far) of England by a foreign army.
As a direct result, the reign of James II gave way to that of William III, and Britain dodged the absolute monarchy, religious intolerance, and technological stasis that Louis XIV was imposing in France just then, a model which most of the rest of Europe promptly copied. Because Britain took a different path—a path defined by limited monarchy, broad religious and intellectual tolerance, and the emergence of a new class of proto-industrial magnates whose wealth was not promptly siphoned off into the existing order, but accumulated the masses of capital needed to build the world’s first industrial economy—the scientific revolution of the late 17th and early 18th century was not simply a flash in the pan. Had James II remained on the throne, it’s argued, none of those things would have happened.
It shows just how thoroughly the mythology of progress has its claws buried in our imaginations that many people respond to that suggestion in an utterly predictable way—by insisting that the scientific and industrial revolutions would surely have taken place somewhere else, and given rise to some close equivalent of today’s technology anyway. (As previously noted, that’s the underlying assumption of the Kim Stanley Robinson novel cited above, and many other works along the same lines.)  At most, those who get past this notion of industrial society’s Manifest Destiny imagine a world in which the industrial revolution never happened:  where, say, European technology peaked around 1700 with waterwheels, windmills, square-rigged ships, and muskets, and Europe went from there to follow the same sort of historical trajectory as the Roman Empire or T’ang-dynasty China.
Further extrapolations along those lines can be left to the writers of alternative history. The point being made by the writers, craftspeople, and fans of steampunk, though, cuts in a different direction. What the partly imaginary neo-Victorian tech of steampunk suggests is that another kind of advanced technology is possible: one that depends on steam and mechanics instead of petroleum and electronics, that accomplishes some of the same things our technology does by different means, and that also does different things—things that our technologies don’t do, and in some cases quite possibly can’t do.
It’s here that steampunk levels its second and arguably more serious challenge against the ideology that sees modern industrial society as the zenith, so far, of the march of progress. While it drew its original inspiration from science fiction and roleplaying games, what shaped steampunk as an esthetic and cultural movement was a sense of the difference between the elegant craftsmanship of the Victorian era and the shoddy plastic junk that fills today’s supposedly more advanced culture. It’s a sense that was already clear to social critics such as Theodore Roszak many decades ago. Here’s Roszak’s cold vision of the future awaiting industrial society, from his must-read book Where the Wasteland Ends:
“Glowing advertisements of undiminished progress will continue to rain down upon us from official quarters; there will always be well-researched predictions of light at the end of every tunnel. There will be dazzling forecasts of limitless affluence; there will even be muchreal affluence. But nothing will ever quite work the way the salesmen promised; the abundance will be mired in organizational confusion and bureaucratic malaise, constant environmental emergency, off-schedule policy, a chaos of crossed circuits, clogged pipelines, breakdowns in communication, overburdened social services. The data banks will become a jungle of misinformation, the computers will suffer from chronic electropsychosis. The scene will be indefinably sad and shoddy despite the veneer of orthodox optimism. It will be rather like a world’s fair in its final days, when things start to sag and disintegrate behind the futuristic façades, when the rubble begins to accumulate in the corners, the chromium to grow tarnished, the neon lights to burn out, all the switches and buttons to stop working. Everything will take on that vile tackiness which only plastic can assume, the look of things decaying that were never supposed to grow old, or stop gleaming, never to cease being gay and sleek and perfect.”
As prophecies go, you must admit, this one was square on the mark. Roszak’s nightmare vision has duly become the advanced, progressive, cutting-edge modern society in which we live today.  That’s what the steampunk movement is rejecting in its own way, by pointing out the difference between the handcrafted gorgeousness of an older generation of technology and the “vile tackiness which only plastic can assume” that dominates contemporary products and, indeed, contemporary life. It’s an increasingly widespread recognition, and helps explain why so many people these days are into some form of reenactment.
Whether it’s the new Middle Ages of the Society for Creative Anachronism, the frontier culture of buckskinners and the rendezvous scene, the military-reenactment groups recreating the technologies and ambience of any number of of long-ago wars, the primitive-technology enthusiasts getting together to make flint arrowheads and compete at throwing spears with atlatls, or what have you:  has any other society seen so many people turn their backs on the latest modern conveniences to take pleasure in the technologies and habits of earlier times? Behind this interest in bygone technologies, I suggest, lies a concept that’s even more unmentionable in polite company than the one I discussed above: the recognition that most of the time, these days, progress no longer means improvement.
By and large, the latest new, advanced, cutting-edge products of modern industrial society are shoddier, flimsier, and more thickly frosted with bugs, problems, and unwanted side effects than whatever they replaced. It’s becoming painfully clear that we’re no longer progressing toward some shiny Jetsons future, if we ever were, nor are we progressing over a cliff into a bigger and brighter apocalypse than anyone ever had before. Instead, we’re progressing steadily along the downward curve of Roszak’s dystopia of slow failure, into a crumbling and dilapidated world of spiraling dysfunctions hurriedly patched over, of systems that don’t really work any more but are never quite allowed to fail, in which more and more people every year find themselves shut out of a narrowing circle of paper prosperity but in which no public figure ever has the courage to mention that fact.
Set beside that bleak prospect, it’s not surprising that the gritty but honest hands-on technologies and lifeways of earlier times have a significant appeal.  There’s also a distinct sense of security that comes from the discovery that one can actually get by, and even manage some degree of comfort, without having a gargantuan fossil-fueled technostructure on hand to meet one’s every need. What intrigues me about the steampunk movement, though, is that it’s gone beyond that kind of retro-tech to think about a different way in which technology could have developed—and in the process, it’s thrown open the door to a reevaluation of the technologies we’ve got, and thus to the political, economic, and cultural agendas which the technologies we’ve got embody, and thus inevitably further.
Well, that’s part of my interest, at any rate. Another part is based on the recognition that Victorian technology functioned quite effectively on a very small fraction of the energy that today’s industrial societies consume. Estimates vary, but even the most industrialized countries in the world in 1860 got by on something like ten per cent of the energy per capita that’s thrown around in industrial nations today.  The possibility therefore exists that something like a Victorian technology, or even something like the neo-Victorian extrapolations of the steampunk scene, might be viable in a future on the far side of peak oil, when the much more diffuse, intermittent, and limited energy available from renewable sources will be what we have left to work with for the rest of our species’ time on this planet.
For the time being, I want to let that suggestion percolate through the crawlspaces of my readers’ imaginations.  Those who want to pick up a steampunk calculator and start learning how to crunch numbers with it—hint:  it’s easy to learn, useful in practice, and slide rules come cheap these days—may just have a head start on the future, but that’s a theme for a later series of posts. Well before we get to that, it’s important to consider a far less pleasant kind of blast from the past, one that bids fair to play a significant role in the future immediately ahead.

That is to say, it’s time to talk about the role of fascism in the deindustrial future. We’ll begin that discussion next week.

No pipe dream: Is fracking about to arrive on your doorstep?

No pipe dream: Is fracking about to arrive on your doorstep?.

by Ellen Cantarow, originally published by TomDispatch  | TODAY

For the past several years, I’ve been writing about what happens when big oil and gas corporations drill where people live. “Fracking” — high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which extracts oil and methane from deep shale — has become my beat. My interviewees live in Pennsylvania’s shale-gas fields; among Wisconsin’s hills, where corporations have been mining silica, an essential fracking ingredient; and in New York, where one of the most powerful grassroots movements in the state’s long history of dissent has become ground zero for anti-fracking activism across the country. Some of the people I’ve met have become friends. We email, talk by phone, and visit. But until recently I’d always felt at a remove from the dangers they face: contaminated water wells, poisoned air, sick and dying animals, industry-related illnesses. Under Massachusetts, where I live, lie no methane- or oil-rich shale deposits, so there’s no drilling.

But this past September, I learned that Spectra Energy, one of the largest natural gas infrastructure companies in North America, had proposed changes in a pipeline it owns, the Algonquin, which runs from Texas into my hometown, Boston. The expanded Algonquin would carry unconventional gas — gas extracted from deep rock formations like shale — into Massachusetts from the great Marcellus formation that sprawls along the Appalachian basin from West Virginia to New York.  Suddenly, I’m in the crosshairs of the fracking industry, too.

We all are.

Gas fracked from shale formations goes by several names (“unconventional gas,” “natural gas,” “shale gas”), but whatever it’s called, it’s mainly methane. Though we may not know it, fracked gas increasingly fuels our stoves and furnaces. It also helps to fuel the floods, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and ever-hotter summers that are engulfing the planet. The industry’s global-warming footprint is actually greater than that of coal. (A Cornell University study that established this in 2011 has been reconfirmed since.) Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2) and an ecological nightmare due to its potential for dangerous leaks.

According to former Mobil Oil executive Lou Allstadt, the greatest danger of fracking is the methane it adds to the atmosphere through leaks from wells, pipelines, and other associated infrastructure. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has found leakage rates of 2.3% to 17% of annual production at gas and oil fields in California, Colorado, and Utah. Moreover, no technology can guarantee long-term safety decades into the future when it comes to well casings (there are hundreds of thousands of frack wells in the U.S. to date) or in the millions of miles of pipelines that crisscross this country.

The energy industry boasts that fracking is a “bridge” to renewable energies, but a 2012 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study found that shale gas development could end up crowding out alternative energies. That’s because as fracking spreads, it drives natural gas prices down, spurring greater consumer use, and so more fracking. In a country deficient in regulations and high in corporate pressures on government, this cascade effect creates enormous disincentives for investment in large alternative energy programs.

The sorry state of U.S. renewable energy development proves the case. As the fracking industry has surged, the country continues to lag far behind Germany and Denmark, the world’s renewable-energy leaders. A quarter-century after the world’s leading climate change scientist, James Hansen, first warned Congressabout global warming, Americans have only bad options: coal, shale gas, oil, or nuclear power.

Living in Gasland

There’s been a great deal of reporting about “the drilling part” of fracking — the moment when drills penetrate shale and millions of gallons of chemical-and-sand-laced water are pumped down at high pressure to fracture the rock. Not so much has been written about all that follows. It’s the “everything else” that has turned a drilling technology into a land-and-water-devouring industry so vast that it’s arguably one of the most pervasive extractive adventures in history.

According to Cornell University’s Anthony Ingraffea, the co-author of a study that established the global warming footprint of the industry, fracking “involves much more than drill-the-well-frack-the-well-connect-the-pipeline-and-go-away.” Almost all other industries “occur in a zoned industrial area, inside of buildings, separated from home and farm, separated from schools.” By contrast, the industry spawned by fracking “permits the oil and gas industries to establish [their infrastructures] next to where we live. They are imposing on us the requirement to locate our homes, hospitals, and schools inside their industrial space.”

Wells, flanked by batteries of vats, tanks, and diesel trucks, often stand less than a mile from homes. So do compressor stations that condense gas for its long journey through pipelines, and which are known to emit carcinogens and neurotoxins.  Radioactive waste (spewed up in fracking flow-back and drill cuttings) gets dumped on roads and in ordinary waste sites. Liquified natural gas (LNG) terminals that move this energy source for export are a constant danger due to explosions, fires, spills, and leaks. Every part of the fracking colossus, it seems, has its rap sheet of potential environmental and public health harms.

Of all these, pipelines are the industry’s most ubiquitous feature. U.S. Energy Information Administration maps show landscapes so densely veined by pipelines that they look like smashed windshields. There are more than 350,000 miles of gas pipelines in the U.S. These are for the transmission of gas from region to region. Not included are more than two million miles of distribution and service pipelines, which run through thousands of cities and towns with new branches under constant construction.  All these pipelines mean countless Americans — even those living far from gas fields, compressor stations, and terminals — find themselves on the frontlines of fracking.

Danger Zone

The letter arrived in the spring of 2011. It offered Leona Briggs $10,400 to give a group of companies the right to run a pipeline with an all-American name — the Constitution — through her land. For 50 years Briggs has lived in the town of Davenport, just south of the Susquehanna River in New York’s Western Catskills. Maybe she seemed like an easy mark. After all, her house’s clapboard exterior needs a paint job and she’s living on a meager Social Security check every month. But she refused.

She treasures her land, her apple trees, the wildlife that surrounds her. She points toward a tree, a home to an American kestrel. “There was a whole nest of them in this pine tree out here.” Her voice trembles with emotion. “My son was born here, my daughter was raised here, my granddaughter was raised here. It’s home. And they’re gonna take it from us?”

Company representatives began bullying her, she says. If she didn’t accept, they claimed, they’d reduce the price to $7,100. And if she kept on being stubborn, they’d finally take what they needed by eminent domain. But Briggs didn’t budge. “It’s not a money thing. This is our home. I’m sixty-five years old. And if that pipeline goes through I can’t live here.”

The Constitution Pipeline would carry shale gas more than 120 miles from Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna County through New York’s Schoharie County. This would be the first interstate transmission pipeline in the region, and at 30 inches in diameter, a big one. Four corporations — Williams, a Tulsa-based energy infrastructure company, Cabot Oil & Gas, Piedmont Natural Gas, and WGL Holdings — are the partners. Williams claims the pipeline “is not designed to facilitate natural gas drilling in New York.” But it would connect with two others — the Iroquois, running from the Long Island shore to Canada, and the Tennessee, extending from the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast into Pennsylvania’s frack fields. This link-up, opponents believe, means that the Constitution would be able to export fracked gas from New York, the only Marcellus state to have resisted drilling so far.

In 2010, a high-pressure pipeline owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Company exploded in San Bruno, California, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes. It was the same size as the proposed Constitution pipeline. What makes that distant tragedy personal to Briggs is her memory of two local pipeline explosions. In the town of Blenheim, 22 miles east of her home, 10 houses were destroyed in 1990 in what a news report called “a cauldron of fire.” Another pipeline erupted in 2004 right in the village of Davenport. From her front porch, Briggs could see the flames that destroyed a house and forced the evacuation of neighbors within a half-mile radius. “That was an 8-inch pipe,” she says. “What would a 30-inch gas line do out here?”

Carl Weimer, executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust, a non-profit watchdog organization, says that, on average, there is “a significant incident — somewhere — about every other day. And someone ends up in the hospital or dead about every nine or ten days.” This begs the question: are pipelines carrying shale gas different in their explosive potential than other pipelines?

“There isn’t any database that allows you to get at that,” says Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety expert and consultant of 40 years’ experience. “If it’s a steel pipeline and it has enough gas in it under enough pressure, it can leak or rupture.” Many pipelines, says Kuprewicz, aren’t bound by any safety regulations, and even when they are, enforcement can often be lax. Where regulations exist, he continues, corporate compliance is uneven. “Some companies comply with and exceed regulations, others don’t.  If I want to find out about what’s going on, I may [have to] get additional information via subpoena.”

In 2013 alone, Williams, one of the partners in the Constitution pipeline, had fiveincidentsincluding two major explosions in New Jersey and Louisiana. These were just the latest in what an online publication, Natural Gas Watch, calls “a lengthy record of pipeline safety violations.” As for Cabot, its name has become synonymous with water contamination in Dimock, Pennsylvania. Even that state’s Department of Environmental Protection, historically joined at the hip to gas companies, imposed sanctions on Cabot in 2010. (The corporation later settledwith 32 of 36 Dimock families who claimed contamination of their water supplies.)

About 40 miles northeast of Davenport lies the town of Schoharie, where James and Margaret Bixby live on a well-tended, 150-year-old farm. The day I visited, their 19-acre pond glimmered in the early fall sunlight. As we talked, Bixby listed all the wildlife in the area: bear, raccoon, beavers, muskrats, wood ducks, mallards, mergansers, cranes, skunks, and Canadian geese.  He began telling me about the last of these.  “Pretty soon they’re going to come in by the hundreds, migrating north. A dozen will stay, hatching their young. We have wild turkeys, just about everything. I don’t care to live no place else.”

The Bixbys were offered more money than Briggs — more than $62,000 — for a pipeline right of way and they, too, turned it down. He and his wife are holding fast and so, he says, are 60 neighbors. “They don’t want it to bust up this little valley.”  Pointing, he added, “There’s gonna be a path up our woods there as far as you can see, [and] there’s gonna be another one over there. That’s nothing nice to look at.”

Driving around New York and Pennsylvania you’ll spot odd, denuded stretches running down hillsides like ski jumps. On the crests of the hills, the remains of tree lines look like Mohawk haircuts on either side of shaved pipeline slopes. This is only the most obvious sign of pipeline environmental degradation. The Constitution pipeline would also impact 37 Catskills trout streams, endangering aquatic life. According to Kate Hudson, Watershed Program Director atRiverkeeper, one of the state’s most venerable environmental watchdog organizations, the pipeline would “cross hundreds of streams and wetlands by literally digging a hole through them… Any project that jeopardizes multiple water resources in two states is clearly against the public’s interest.”

Holding the Line

Longtime residents aren’t alone in opposing the building of the Constitution pipeline. This tranquil region has been attracting retirees like Bob Stack, a former electrical engineer. In 2004, he and his wife, Anne, bought 97 acres near Leona Briggs’s home. Their dream: to build a straw bale house, a sustainable structure that uses straw for insulation. No sooner had engineers visited the land to start planning than the couple got a letter from Constitution Pipeline LLC. “We were absolutely clueless. We knew nothing about fracking or about pipelines. Fracking was about as remote from us as oil in Iraq or someplace else,” says Anne. “We just looked at each other and said, ‘What an outrage!’” The Stacks, who moved east from Nevada, are now living in limbo.

“Once you have this pulsing fossil fuel energy coming through, it will… industrialize the Susquehanna River valley,” says Anne Marie Garti, who in June 2012 co-founded a local activist group, Stop the Pipeline. (“The unConstitutional Pipeline” reads the organization’s website banner.) “They’re going to start building factories. There’s an interstate, a railroad, there’s cheap labor, and there’s a river to dump the toxins in.”

Garti, a small, quietly assertive former interactive computer software designer, is now a lawyer; her aim: helping people like Briggs and the Bixbys. She grew up in the town of Delhi, near Briggs’s home. In 2008, she found herself among a small group of activists who convinced New York’s then-Governor David Paterson to impose a moratorium on fracking. Under the measure’s shelter a powerful grassroots anti-fracking movement grew, using zoning ordinances to ban drilling in municipalities.

Mark Pezzati, a graphic designer, helped get his town, Andes, in New York’s Delaware County to enact a fracking ban. “Pipeline news wasn’t high on the radar [then],” he says. “Most people were concerned about drilling.” In 2010, Pezzati was shocked to discover that a pipeline called the Millennium had penetrated his state.

It turned out that local land use laws govern only drilling. Under the 1938 Natural Gas Act, pipelines and compressor stations represent interstate commerce. “Suddenly there was this frantic flurry of emails, where people were saying, ‘We’ve got to meet and make people aware.’” (The meeting took place and 200 people flocked to listen to Garti.) “As time went on,” adds Pezzati, “it became apparent that you really can’t frack without a pipeline. There’s no point in drilling if there’s nowhere for the gas to go. So a light bulb went on. If you could stop pipelines you could stop fracking.”

That was when Pezzati and his friends, used to arguing for bans at town board meetings, came up against the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which, among other responsibilities, regulates interstate natural gas transmission. It tilts to corporations, and even Garti found the bureaucratic hurdles it posed daunting.  “I have some experience and training in environmental law and it took me a month to figure out the intricacies of FERC’s process,” she told me.

Because FERC refused to disclose the names of landowners in the pipeline’s path, Garti, Pezzati and about a dozen other volunteers had to pore over county tax databases, matching names and addresses to the proposed route. “First we sent letters, then we did door-to-door outreach,” says Garti. Her basic message to landowners along the right of way: “Just say no.”

“People are kind of impressed that you came all the way to their house,” Pezzati points out. “There’s not that many landowners in favor.”

Garti attributes local resentment against the pipeline corporations and their threats to exercise eminent domain to a “fierce” regional “independence” dating back to the anti-rent struggles of tenant farmers against wealthy landlords in the nineteenth century. “People don’t like the idea of somebody coming on their land and taking it from them.”

The activists drafted a letter refusing entry to corporate representatives and circulated it to local landowners. By October 2012, Stop the Pipeline was able to marshal a crowd of 800 for a public hearing called by FERC — “a big crowd for a sparsely populated rural area,” Garti recalls.  The vast majority opposed the pipeline’s construction. By January 2013, 1,000 people had sent in statements of opposition.

The organization has created a website with instructions about FERC procedures and handouts for local organizing, as well as a list of organizations opposing the pipeline. These include the Clean Air Council and Trout Unlimited. Among state and federal agencies expressing concerns to FERC have been the Army Corps of Engineers and New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation, known in earlier fracking battles for its collusion with the gas industry.

“Just like we have a fracking story that’s different in New York State, we have a pipeline story that’s different,” says Garti. “The force of the opposition to pipelines is in New York State. And we have a shot at winning this thing.”

Coming Home

Having covered the environmental degradation of Pennsylvania’s shale gas fields, the wastelands that were Wisconsin’s silica-rich hills, and tiny New York towns where grassroots fracking battles are ongoing, I now have a sense of what it means to be in the crosshairs of the fracking industry. But it was nothing compared to how I felt when I learned Spectra Energy had its sights set on my hometown, Boston.

Fracking isn’t just about drilling and wells and extracting a difficult energy source at a painful cost to the environment.  Corporations like Spectra have designs on spreading their pipelines through state after state, through thousands of backyards and farm fields and forests and watersheds.  That means thousands of miles of pipe that may leave ravaged landscapes, produce methane leaks, and even, perhaps, lead to catastrophic explosions — and odds are those pipelines are coming to a town near you.

Spectra’s website explains that the Algonquin pipeline “will provide the Northeast with a unique opportunity to secure a… domestically produced source of energy to support its current demand, as well as its future growth.“ Translation: Spectra aims to expand fracking as long as that’s possible. And a glance at any industry source like Oil & Gas Journal shows other corporations hotly pursuing the same goal. (A new New-York-based group, Stop the Algonquin Pipeline Expansion, is the center of opposition to this project.)

It remains to be seen whether the people of Massachusetts will undertake the same type of grassroots efforts, exhibit the same fortitude as Bob and Anne Stack and Leona Briggs, or demonstrate the same organizing acumen as Anne Marie Garti and Mark Pezzati. But Massachusetts citizens had better get organized if they want to stop Spectra Energy and halt its plans to run the Algonquin all the way from Texas northward to Boston and beyond. Fracking is on its way to my doorstep — and yours.  Who’s going to hold the line in your town?

Tom Dispatch regular Ellen Cantarow reported on Israel and the West Bank from 1979 to 2009 for the Village VoiceMother JonesInquiry, and Grand Street, among other publications. For the past four years she has been writing about the toll the oil and gas industries are taking on the environment.

Copyright 2014 Ellen Cantarow

America’s Energy Revolution Transforms International Relations  |  Peak Oil News and Message Boards

America’s Energy Revolution Transforms International Relations  |  Peak Oil News and Message Boards.

North America’s energy revolution is remaking all aspects of the global economy and international relations in what has turned out to be the most profound shift in the second decade of the 21st century.

Policymakers and climate scientists prefer to talk about the transformational potential of clean technologies like wind, solar and electric vehicles.

But in reality the biggest shifts in economic relations and the balance of power at present stem from changes in the production of decidedly old-fashioned and polluting fossil fuels such as oil and gas.

Hydraulic fracturing, coupled with tougher fuel-economy standards and increased use of biofuels, has reversed the growing dependence of the United States on energy imports in less than 10 years.

If fracking has not yet made the United States “energy independent”, it has certainly created a crucial source of competitive advantage and given policymakers much more room to manoeuvre.

Trade Transformed

By the start of the century, the cost of importing energy was one of the largest burdens on the U.S. trade balance, and threatening to worsen in the medium term.

Crude oil and refined petroleum products such as gasoline accounted for most of the imported energy, but there was growing concern that the country would also become a big net importer of natural gas within a few years.

In 2008, the United States ran a net energy trade deficit with the rest of the world amounting to $411 billion, 2.8 percent of GDP.

Crude petroleum and refined products accounted for around one-third of the record trade deficits which the United States ran between 2004 and 2008.

But 2008 proved to be the high-water mark for the net cost of energy imports.

Since 2008, net energy imports have almost halved, to just $217 billion in the first 11 months of 2013.

There is no mystery about the cause of the U.S. energy revolution.

The quadrupling of oil prices between 2000 and 2008 was directly responsible for the biofuel-blending mandates and fuel efficiency standards contained in the 2005 Energy Policy Act and 2007 Energy Independence Security Act passed by the U.S. Congress.

It also indirectly supported the swift rollout of fracking technology, first in natural gas and from 2008 onwards in oil, as well.

But the consequences of the energy revolution are only now being felt fully.

Rippling Outward

For years, policymakers and commentators have played down the revolution’s impact, or even denied there is a revolution at all, because it clashes with climate policies and threatens to re-arrange international relations in ways that are uncomfortable to many of those concerned.

Sceptics first suggested the upsurge in energy production would prove temporary, then that it would be limited to gas, and now that it will be contained by restrictions on U.S. oil exports or environmental campaigns to keep fossil fuels underground unburned.

Doubters say it cannot be repeated in other countries because of their very different geological conditions as well as political and commercial environments.

But the revolution’s impact has spread far beyond the United States.

The United States is set to become a significant exporter of natural gas. It is already the world’s fastest-growing exporter of gas liquids such as propane.

Coal exports have risen as the country’s own power stations turn to cheaper gas. And U.S. refiners are becoming increasingly important exporters of diesel.

Energy trade is already finding ways around the patchwork of antiquated restrictions on exports of oil, gas and condensates.

Comparative Advantage

At the same time, the United States depends less and less on imported energy, especially from outside North America.

In 2013, the country is expected to have imported the fewest barrels of crude oil since 1994.

Even that probably understates the speed of the transformation and its impact on the trade deficit. In real terms, the trade deficit in petroleum and related items in November 2013 was the narrowest for well over two decades.

The economic impact has been profound. Abundant supplies of cheap domestic energy are now a crucial source of competitive advantage compared with rival economies in Europe and Asia.

A decade ago, U.S. policymakers and commentators were worrying about the loss of manufacturing to China based on cheap labour.

Now cheap energy is encouraging talk of bringing some of that manufacturing back. By contrast, expensive energy and inefficient fuel consumption are a seen as a growing threat to China’s competitiveness.

European manufacturers, too, worry they will be significantly disadvantaged by more expensive energy bills.

Loosening Ties

The energy revolution’s impact on international relations has been even greater, and nowhere is it more visible than in the Middle East.

For years, the foreign policy establishments in both the United States and in capitals around the Gulf have insisted shale production will not loosen the close ties between Washington and its regional allies, especially Saudi Arabia.

But the scale of the shift has become too obvious to deny.

Speaking to a security conference in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, Israel’s outspoken Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon complained that the United States is “detaching” itself from the Middle East, according to reports carried in the Jerusalem Post.

Saudi Arabia’s leaders clearly fear their own alliance with Washington is being downgraded as the Obama Administration pursues detente with Iran.

Tensions between Washington and Riyadh erupted into the open last year when Saudi Arabia declined to take up its seat on the UN Security Council and undertook a series of other carefully calculated diplomatic moves to signal its displeasure with the White House.

Such an open breach between the two close allies would have been unthinkable in 2005 or 1995 let alone 1985 or even 1975, when the United States felt its dependence on Saudi oil exports keenly.

Even more remarkably, U.S. foreign policymakers have largely ignored the protests coming from Tel Aviv and Riyadh, and forged ahead regardless.

Ultimately, it is the energy revolution that has emboldened U.S. policymakers to pursue a very different course in the Middle East.

The idea of the United States exporting fossil fuels to the Persian Gulf would have laughable five years ago. But in what has to be the supreme irony, the United Arab Emirates is now openly talking about importing cheap shale gas from the United States to meet its surging electricity demand.

Energy Insecurity

Middle East oil producers are not the only countries that have been disconcerted by the shale revolution. It is also altering the relationship between China and the United States.

In effect, the two superpowers have swapped places. In 1973, the United States perceived its growing reliance on imported crude from the Middle East was a key strategic weakness, while China’s rapidly developing Daqing super-giant oil field promised greater energy independence.

Now U.S. reliance on the Middle East is loosening, while China is increasingly aware of the risks of relying on importing oil from unstable parts of the Middle East and Africa via long supply routes through the straits of Hormuz and Malacca and the South China Sea.

Once again, shale, and the energy revolution more broadly, lies at the heart of the fundamental shift in the balance of power.

China’s own policymakers attach the highest strategic priorities to developing their own domestic energy production (including from shale), cutting energy consumption through improvements in energy efficiency, and protecting foreign supplies by projecting diplomatic and military power into key supply regions and along supply routes.

Just like the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in the 1850s and the Middle East between the 1920s and 1950s, the North American energy revolution is remaking the world order.

RIGZONE

Drought Emergency Declared in California as Residents Urge Halt to Fracking

Drought Emergency Declared in California as Residents Urge Halt to Fracking.

The state of California formally declared a drought emergency today due to a lack of winter rainfall and water reserves at only 20 percent of normal levels. This is the third year of dry conditions across California, which poses a threat to the state’s economy and environment.

cadroughts

In addition to concerns about having an adequate water supply for food production, Californians are worried about Gov. Brown’s plan to increase fracking as oil companies are gearing up to frack large reservoirs of unconventional shale oil in the Monterey Shale. Photo credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Last year was declared the driest year in recorded history in California and Gov. Jerry Brown recently described the state’s current condition as “a mega-drought.”

“The current historically dry weather is a bellwether of what is to come in California, with increasing periods of drought expected with climate change,” said Juliet Christian-Smith, climate scientist in the California office of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Because increasing demand and drought are straining our water resources, we need to adopt policies that address both the causes and consequences of climate change.”

With the drought declaration in place, the state can ease certain environmental protections and create more flexibility within the system to allow for changes in water diversions based on critical needs. The declaration also raises public awareness about the urgent need to conserve water.

“The entire Southwest U.S. is gripped in an extended drought, including Southern California, all of which depends on flows from the Colorado River,” said Gary Wockner at Save the Colorado River Campaign. “If this is the ‘new normal’ of climate change, then we need to develop a likewise ‘new normal’ of water conservation and efficiency that also focuses on keeping our rivers—as well as our communities—healthy and thriving.”

This week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) designated portions of 11 western and central states as primary natural disaster areas because of a drought, including 27 California counties. The disaster designation allows eligible farmers to qualify for low-interest emergency loans from the USDA.

In addition to concerns about having an adequate water supply for food production, Californians are worried about Gov. Brown’s plan to increase fracking as oil companies are gearing up to frack large reservoirs of unconventional shale oil in the Monterey Shale.

“The Governor’s drought declaration should be the final straw for fracking in the state. To frack for oil in California is to deny the facts of climate change, which tell us we have to leave this oil in the ground if we want a safe future,” said David Turnbull, campaigns director for Oil Change International and the BigOilBrown.orgcampaign. ”Our state cannot afford to waste more water digging up oil causing the very climate changes that will lead to more droughts like these in the future.”

Fracking wells generally consume between 2 and 10 million gallons of water in their lifetime. If every potential well in California identified by the U.S. Energy Information Agency were to be fracked, some 5 billion gallons of water would be required, according to Oil Change International.

Polls show Californians oppose expanded fracking in the Golden State and 65 percent of Californians say the state should act immediately to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“While Governor Brown cannot make it rain, he can prevent wasteful and harmful use of our water by placing an immediate moratorium on fracking and other extreme methods of oil and gas extraction,” said Adam Scow, Food & Water Watch California campaign director.

Shale gas, peak oil and our future

Shale gas, peak oil and our future.

The following interview with Richard Heinberg was originally published in Flemish at the Belgian website De Wereld Morgen. The interview was given in conjunction with the release of the Dutch translation of Richard’s Book Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future. The Dutch title is Schaliegas, piekolie & onze toekomst.

Selma Franssen: Considering the shale gas and oil reserves in Europe, is there any sense in fracking here, all other objections aside?
Richard Heinberg: Until test wells are drilled, it’s very difficult to know what the actual shale gas and oil production potential is for Europe. All sorts of numbers have been cited, but they are simply guesses. Back in 2011, the US Energy Information Administration estimated that Poland’s shale gas reserves were 187 trillion cubic feet, but a little on-the-ground exploration led the Polish Geological Institute to downgrade that figure to a mere 27 TCF—a number that may still be overly optimistic. My institute’s research suggests that US future production of shale oil and gas has been wildly over-estimated too. So, without attempting to put a specific number to it, I think it would be wise to assume that Europe’s actual reserves are much, much smaller than the drilling companies are saying. We do know that the geology in Europe is not as favorable as it is in some of the US formations, so even in cases where gas or oil is present, production potential may be low—that is, it may not be possible to get much of that resource out of the ground profitably. That being the case, governments should undertake a realistic cost-risk-benefit analysis using very conservative assumptions about likely production potential.
One argument often heard in Europe is that fracking companies have gained knowledge and experience from extraction in the US and will cause less pollution and leaks when they start operating in Europe. Is there such a thing as safe fracking?
The petroleum industry has certainly been trying to clean up its act, and it’s true that progress has been made in improving operational safety. However it’s also true that the industry has systematically hidden evidence of pollution, and of environmental and human health impacts. The industry has often claimed that there are no documented instances of such impacts, and that’s arrant nonsense. Where environmental and health harms are clear, the industry typically offers a cash payment to the parties affected, but that is tied to a non-disclosure agreement, so that no one else will ever find out what happened. The industry also points to studies showing low methane emissions and no groundwater contamination. These studies tend to describe operations where everything is working perfectly, with no mistakes or malfunctions. But of course in the real world well casings fail, equipment breaks, pipes leak, and operators cut corners or make simple human errors. Take a look at regions of the US where fracking is happening right now, presumably with state-of-the-art equipment: have all the bugs really been worked out? Evidently not, because there is still a steady stream of reports of bad water and bad air.
Are unconventional gas and oil, as ‘transition fuels’, buying us extra time in the face of peak oil, or actually halting investments in renewables?
Unconventional oil and gas require enormous financial investments. The petroleum industry as a whole has doubled its rate of investment in exploration and production in the past decade. That’s because companies have run out of conventional production prospects—onshore fields of oil or gas that is easy and cheap to extract. The trend is clear: if we continue increasing our dependence on oil and gas, the levels of required investment will grow exponentially. Where will the money come from to develop renewable energy sources? Available energy investment capital will all have been spoken for. This is not hypothetical: it is exactly what we see in the US. A few years ago, it was understood that the nation had to transition away from fossil fuels, and there was a nascent effort to divert energy investment capital away from coal, oil, and gas and toward the renewables sector. But as shale gas and tight oil came into view, that effort largely stalled as private investors piled onto the shale bubble and government renewable energy programs were sidelined. Once the brief current shale boom is over (well before the end of this decade), America will be in a fix—it will have lost a decade in which it could have pursued the energy transition vigorously and insulated itself against a fossil energy supply crisis that is inevitable and entirely predictable.
Josh Fox, director of the Gasland documentaries, recently said that the fossil fuel industry is so powerful that “democracy in the 21st century is impossible as long as we rely on fossil fuels”. What are your thoughts?
I think there is some sense to Fox’s comment, though I would have to add that there are plenty of other threats to democracy in this century. It’s true that the fossil fuel industry represents an enormous concentration of capital, and money is power. The industry buys political advantage, tax breaks, advertising, public relations, foreign policy, and more. But at a more basic level it controls all of society. That’s because everything we do requires energy. No exceptions. Fossil fuels supply roughly 85 percent of the energy we use, so whoever controls those energy sources exerts a subtle but very real influence on nearly everything that happens in society. That’s why America is a nation of highways, a country designed and built for the convenience of petroleum-fueled automobiles. If, hypothetically, the US had spent the last century getting most of its energy from sunlight, you can bet it would be a very different place today.
Is it possible that fracking has a silver lining to it, in the sense that it is highly visible, comes very close to home and causes a lot of debate among locals, engaging more people in the energy debate and raising awareness around peak oil and the need to transition to renewables?
Possibly so, especially in Europe. There are at least three important factors that might limit fracking socially and politically in the European context. First is the number of wells needed. Because production rates in shale gas and tight oil wells tend to decline very rapidly, petroleum companies have to drill many wells in order to keep overall production levels up. In the US, the current total is over 80,000 horizontal wells drilled and fracked. If Europe says yes to shale gas, prepare for an onslaught of drilling.
The second factor is population density: Europe, of course, has a much higher population density than the US. So taking these first two factors into account, Europeans face a significant likelihood of living in close proximity to one of these future shale gas or oil wells.
The third factor is the legal status of ownership of subsurface mineral rights. In most of the US, landowners control mineral rights; therefore if a company wants to drill on your land, it must obtain your agreement, pay you an initial fee, and also pay a subsequent royalty for the oil or gas actually extracted. (Gas and oil companies actually avoid paying royalties in many instances, but that’s another story.) As a result, citizens have a financial stake in resource extraction, and they therefore have an incentive to overlook or even help cover up environmental and health impacts from fracking. This is especially true in poor communities, where a little lease or royalty money can go a long way. In Europe, national governments control mineral rights. Therefore there is no incentive for local citizens to take the industry’s side if there are disputes over pollution. There has been a strong citizen backlash to fracking in the US; in Europe it is likely to be overwhelming.
The message ‘peakists’ bring, namely that the party’s over, as you put it, is not popular with corporate backed media, for obvious reasons. Is there a media blackout on peak oil?
There is no formal blackout, but there is indeed an informal one. Peak oil is one of the defining issues of our time, yet it is treated as if it were either an esoteric controversy among petroleum engineers, or a conspiracy theory. This much is axiomatic: fossil fuels are finite resources, and we are extracting them using the “best-first” principle. We have bet our future on the continued availability of cheap oil, gas, and coal, but that is quite obviously a very bad bet. So where are the in-depth television, radio, and newspaper discussions of this? Very few programs and articles appear. I think that’s partly because commercial media outlets depend on the fossil fuel industry for advertising, and partly because the peak oil message is threatening to people’s sense of social equilibrium—it makes them start to question the basic premises of consumerism, among other things.
In Snake Oil, you write that we must reduce our dependency on fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Which steps should be taken in this ‘project of the century’ and on what time scale? 
We really need a wartime level of mobilization, prioritization, and implementation. Obviously, one of the priorities must be to build renewable energy generation capacity. But we must also completely rethink transportation, agriculture, and building construction/maintenance. This isn’t just about how we get energy; it is also about how we use it. We have built entire societies to take advantage of the unique properties of energy sources that have no future. For example, oil is energy-dense and portable, making it a perfect transport fuel. Without oil, we will not have an airline industry in any recognizable form. Altogether, society will be less mobile. That means we have to start thinking about how to re-localize production of food and other basic necessities. We also need to redesign our cities so that people do not need cars in order to live. These are enormous projects, and we must accomplish them by mid-century. There is absolutely no time to waste.

The 4 Big Dangers of Fracking

The 4 Big Dangers of Fracking.

By now you’ve likely heard that the U.S. is expected to overtake Russia this year as the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas. The surge in production comes from a drilling boom enabled by using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, along with, in many places, horizontal drilling. These technologies have made previously inaccessible pockets of oil and gas in shale formations profitable.

But at what cost? Accidents, fatalities and health concerns are mounting. Here’s a look at what we’ve learned about the dangers of fracking in the last few weeks.

1. Exploding Trains

Another day, another oil train accident, it seems. On the night of January 7, a traincarrying crude oil and propane derailed near Plaster Rock in New Brunswick, Canada. A day later the fire continued as locals evacuated, unsure if they were being exposed to toxic fumes.

It’s a familiar story. 2013 went out with a bang in North Dakota when a train carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale derailed and exploded on Dec 30. The ensuing fireballs and toxic smoke caused the evacuation many of Casselton’s 2,300 residents.

Fracking has unleashed a firestorm of drilling in the Bakken (a rock formation under parts of North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan). The Casselton accident was the third rail accident in six months in North America involving oil trains from the Bakken (it’s unclear if the Plaster Rock train was carrying Bakken oil). The most horrific was the July derailment and explosion of a train that killed 47 people in the small town of Lac-Megantic in Quebec. The second occurred in Alabama in November.

All of this has grabbed the attention of the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “Crude oil produced in North America’s booming Bakken region may be more flammable and therefore more dangerous to ship by rail than crude from other areas, a U.S. regulator said after studying the question for four months,” wrote Angela Greiling Keane and Mark Drajem for Bloomberg.

That doesn’t mean shipments will stop, only that trains may be relabeled to say they are carrying a more hazardous cargo.

As Gordon Hoekstra wrote for the Vancouver Sun:

The significant increase in the transport of oil by rail, and the growing evidence that Bakken shale oil is proving itself to be a very explosive commodity, shows that regulations on both sides of the border are not adequate, said Mark Winfield, an associate professor at York University who researches public safety regulation.

Even Robert Harms, who heads North Dakota’s Republican party and consults with the industry, has called for a slowdown, according to Reuters.

2. Workers at Risk

Those who live along train routes aren’t the only ones facing safety risks from the oil and gas industry. NPR reports that accidents among workers in the industry are on the rise—bigtime. From 2009 to 2012 the industry added 23 percent more workers but “the hiring spree has come with a terrible price: Last year, 138 workers were killed on the job — an increase of more than 100 percent since 2009,” wrote Andrew Schneider and Marilyn Geewax for NPR . “In fact, the fatality rate among oil and gas workers is now nearly eight times higher than the all-industry rate of 3.2 deaths for every 100,000 workers.”

Last July, I visited a well pad in New Milton, West Virginia. The following day there was an explosion at the site injuring several workers, two of whom died from their injuries. In my time in West Virginia I met several workers on other sites who were bleary-eyed from long hours on the job.

Sure, jobs are good, but safe jobs should be a priority. Accidents happen in a dangerous industry, but they also increase when workers are kept on the job for too many hours or lack proper training or industry doesn’t follow safe practices.

3. The Accidents You Don’t Hear About

Trains bursting into flames usually (and rightfully) makes the national headlines—especially when fatalities occur. But smaller accidents happen daily that often fail to make it beyond local reporting, if that. Those who live in communities adjacent to the oilfields and gaslands keep their own tallies.

In Tyler County, West Virginia on January 2 an incident occurred on the Lisby natural gas well pad. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection press release said, “A tank ruptured and leaked fluids to surrounding grounds on the well site.”

“Ruptured and leaked” may be accurate, but more than an understatement. A tank filled with fracking fluid (although the WVDEP hasn’t been able to say for sure what exactly was in it) ignited and ended up across the well pad. “What we’ve been able to determine is that a tank ruptured during the flushing of frac lines,” said Thomas Aluise, spokesperson for the WVDEP. “Vapors formed from the fluids inside the tank and were somehow ignited, possibly by static electricity, but that has not been confirmed. As a result of the ignition and subsequent rupture, the tank was dislodged from its foundation.”

Does this photo look like the tank simply “dislodged?”

 

The tank held 50 barrels of fluid, some of which has leaked into soil, a neighboring property, and potentially into a nearby stream. The explosion happened 625 feet from the nearest house and one person at the site, a contractor who broke his ankle, was injured in the incident. The company, Jay-Bee Oil & Gas, is required to submit plans for soil and water sampling by January 14, which seems like quite a while to wait to take samples if chemicals are leaking into the ground or water sources.

Jay-Bee does not have a glowing corporate record. “The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has cited the company for 21 environmental violations since 2010, and the federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration has cited the company for 38 worker safety violations, “ wrote Gayathri Vaidyanathan for E&E. “The incident suggests that environmental and worker safety violations often go hand in hand.”

How many environmental and safety violations does it take before a company is shut down?

Accidents like this are common across oil and gas country. So are compressor station fires in PennsylvaniaNew YorkNew JerseyWyoming. Or truck accidents, as Food and Water Watch reports: “Heavy-truck crashes rose 7.2 percent in heavily fracked rural Pennsylvania counties (with at least one well for every 15 square miles) but fell 12.4 in unfracked rural counties after fracking began in 2005.”

The Centers for Disease Control reported that the top cause of fatalities in the oil and gas industry are motor vehicle accidents. “[W]orkers drive long distances on rural highways to travel to well sites. Often these roads lack firm shoulders and other safety features,” the agency reports. This puts not just workers at risk, but everyone on the road.

All these incidences won’t make national news, but collectively they add up for the residents who live nearby who may fear for their safety while on the roads or in their own homes.

4. Not So Good for Your Health

Findings presented at a recent meeting of the American Economic Association by researchers from Princeton University, Columbia University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have made headlines. The researchers “looked at Pennsylvania birth records from 2004 to 2011 to assess the health of infants born within a 2.5-kilometer radius of natural-gas fracking sites,” reports Mark Whitehouse for Bloomberg.

“They found that proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half, from about 5.6 percent to more than 9 percent,” writesWhitehouse. “The chances of a low Apgar score, a summary measure of the health of newborn children, roughly doubled, to more than 5 percent.”

The study has yet to be peer-reviewed, so let’s see how it fares. It does not implicate drinking water, however. The most likely culprit is air pollution. Oil and gas operations have been found to release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to ground-level ozone.

So far no communities where fracking is occurring have done a comprehensive health assessment to see how residents may be at risk from activities related to increased oil and gas drilling. Is it time yet?

French firm Total to join UK shale gas search | Environment | theguardian.com

French firm Total to join UK shale gas search | Environment | theguardian.com.

Fracking protesters

Fracking protesters in Balcombe last summer. Photograph: Rod Harbinson/Demotix/Corbis

The French energy company Total will become the first major international oil company to join the exploration for UK shale gas when it announces an investment package on Monday.

Total is to join a shale gas exploration project in Gainsborough Trough in Lincolnshire currently operated by Ecorp of the US, according to the Financial Times. The other partners in the project are Dart Energy and UK-listed Igas and Egdon Resources.

The coalition government has made the exploitation of Britain’s unconventional gas reserves a priority, offering tax breaks to shale developers and promising big benefits. This is in contrast to France where hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the process by which shale gas is released, is banned.

George Osborne, the chancellor, has argued that shale has the potential to reduce Britain’s reliance on increasing expensive gas imports and create thousands of jobs.

Exploration for shale gas and other unconventional hydrocarbons is taking place or is planned in Wales, Scotland, the south of England and the Midlands and the north.

Opposition from environmentalists has hindered the work. Protesters say the fracking process – injecting water, sand and chemicals underground at high pressure into shale rock to release the oil and gas trapped inside – can contaminate groundwater and cause earthquakes. The operation of rigs and attendant noise and truck movements can disrupt the local area.

Last summer Cuadrilla Resources faced protests in the Sussex village of Balcombe, and protesters are currently camped outside a drilling pad at Barton Moss in Salford where Igas plans to drill an exploratory well.

Geologists estimate there could be as much as 1,300tn cubic feet of shale gas lying under parts of the north and Midlands. One-tenth of that would equal around 51 years’ gas supply for the UK.

Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals Linked to Fracking Found in Colorado River – News Watch

Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals Linked to Fracking Found in Colorado River – News Watch.

The Colorado River flows through the town of Rifle in Garfield County, Colorado. Photo (taken 1972) by David Hiser,courtesy of U.S. National Archives, Flickr/Creative Commons.
The Colorado River flows through the town of Rifle in Garfield County, Colorado. Photo (taken 1972) by David Hiser, courtesy of U.S. National Archives, Flickr/Creative Commons.

This week, more evidence came in that hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) poses potentially serious risks to drinking water quality and human health.
A team of researchers from the University of Missouri found evidence of hormone-disrupting activity in water located near fracking sites – including samples taken from the Colorado River near a dense drilling region of western Colorado.
The Colorado River is a source of drinking water for more than 30 million people.
The peer-reviewed study was published this week in the journal Endocrinology.
Fracking is the controversial process of blasting water mixed with sand and chemicals deep underground at high pressure so as to fracture rock and release the oil and gas it holds. It has made previously inaccessible fossil fuel reserves economical to tap, and drilling operations have spread rapidly across the country.
The University of Missouri team found that 11 chemicals commonly used in the fracking process are “endocrine disrupters” – compounds that can affect the human hormonal system and have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and infertility.
“More than 700 chemicals are used in the fracking process, and many of them disturb hormone function,” said Dr. Susan Nagel, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and women’s health at the University of Missouri School of Medicine and a co-author of the study, in a news release.
“With fracking on the rise, populations may face greater health risks from increased endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure.”
The research team collected samples from ground water and surface water from sites in Garfield County, Colorado, where fracking fluids had accidentally spilled, as well as from the nearby Colorado River, into which local streams and groundwater drain. They also took samples from other areas of Garfield County where little drilling has taken place, as well as from a county in Missouri where there had been no drilling at all.
They found that the samples from the spill site had moderate-to-high levels of endocrine-disrupting activity, and the Colorado River samples had moderate levels.  The other two samples, taken from areas with little or no drilling activity, showed low levels of endocrine-disrupting activity.
The new findings add urgency to calls for moratoriums on fracking until the risks have been fully assessed and regulations and monitoring put in place to safeguard water supplies and public health.
Due to the so-called “Halliburton loophole,” the oil and gas industry is exempt from important requirements under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, and states have been slow to fill the regulatory gap.
Colorado, in particular, should exercise the utmost caution.
According to a report by Ceres, a Boston-based non-profit organization that educates investors about corporate environmental risks, 92 percent of Colorado’s shale gas and oil wells are located in “extremely high” water stress regions, defined as areas in which cities, industries and farms are already using 80 percent or more of available water.
Adding contamination risks to the high volume of water fracking wells require – typically 4-6 million gallons per well – argues strongly for a precautionary approach to future development and a pause in existing production until the full range of environmental health risks can be assessed.
But Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has said the state will sue any city that bans fracking within its borders.  Indeed, in July 2012, the state sued the front-range town of Longmont, which had issued such a ban.
A statement about the new findings of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in waters near fracking sites issued by Concerned Health Professionals of New York, and posted here, concludes with this warning:
“These results, which are based on validated cell cultures, demonstrate that public health concerns about fracking are well-founded and extend to our hormone systems. The stakes could not be higher. Exposure to EDCs has been variously linked to breast cancer, infertility, birth defects, and learning disabilities. Scientists have identified no safe threshold of exposure for EDCs, especially for pregnant women, infants, and children.”
And environmental health expert Sandra Steingraber writes in a letter posted at the same site:
“[I]t seems to me, the ethical response on the part of the environmental health community is to reissue a call that many have made already:  hit the pause button via a national moratorium on high volume, horizontal drilling and fracking and commence a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment with full public participation.”

 

Oil Price Volatility on the Way? – Our World

Oil Price Volatility on the Way? – Our World.

Oil Price Volatility on the Way

Photo: Domiriel

Predictive relationships appear to occur between large, rapid swings in oil price and recessions, stock market crashes and shifts in political polls, as I have previously discussed in articles published in 2010 and 2011. Given the economic disruptions that nearly always happen in the aftermath of oil shocks, it seems important to understand what is behind the timing of transient instabilities in the oil markets.

Last time, I examined whether repetitive patterns could be found in the ebb and flow of oil price changeability (volatility) between 2000 and 2010. To do this, I calculated rolling standard deviations (for explanation, please see Figure 2 in this post)  for a 120-month series of monthly oil prices starting from January 2000. A mathematical tool called Fast Fourier Transform then scanned for repeating patterns in this rolling 10-year sequence.

What I found was that from the mid-2000s, changes in oil price showed evidence of a multi-year oscillation. This pattern was marked by a single dominant frequency that peaked at 2.8 years (~32 months). In other words, during the first decade of the new millennium, volatility in the price of oil appeared to spike every two to three years.

Confirming the potential emergence of a long-term rhythmic pattern, oil price variance spiked again in April 2011, precisely 32 months after the last major round of volatility had topped out in July 2008.

It is coming up on 30 months since the now largely forgotten market turbulence of mid-2011. If oil price volatility is oscillating in a repeating two to three-year cycle, then can we expect to see another wave of instability in oil prices occur in late 2013 or early 2014.

Oil price has lately begun showing signs of increased twitchiness — although the increase in volatility is so far modest. Recently, a crisis triggered by the use of chemical weapons in Syria, is the cause du jour that is being blamed for oil prices ramping up from the mid US$90s to over US$110 per barrel — an explanation that I find doubtful, by the way.

It remains to be seen whether the oscillatory signal described in my 2011 article will continue into the future. However, I have used oil price data that has accumulated since my earlier articles to extend the analysis, presented below.

To improve resolution of changes in oil price volatility over the last 10 or so years, I used a slightly different approach. Instead of scanning through monthly averages, a rolling 3-day standard deviation was calculated using daily prices of West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude oil from 5 January 2004 to 30 July 2013.

The time series for the daily price of WTI oil (grey line) and its corresponding rolling 3-day standard deviation (orange line) for the period are shown in Figure 1. For those who follow oil prices, the grey line on the plot is all too familiar — distinguished as it is by the scary, vertiginous peak of 2008.

Oil-Price-Volatility

To scan for evidence of repeating signatures in the serrate orange line that traces oil price volatility on the figure, I again used Fast Fourier Transform. The results of this analysis are summarized in Figure 2. From this plot it can be seen that during the last 8 years price volatility has occurred roughly every 2.9 years (33 months).

FFT Power

This 2.9-year estimate for the period between spikes, based on daily oil prices, is in agreement with my 2011 estimate, calculated using monthly prices. Thus, the updated analysis accords with the previous finding — namely, that between 2004 and 2013, variance in the price of oil demonstrated a tendency to spike at a frequency of every two to three years.

Readers of my previous articles will know that I suspect that the “rinse and repeat” volatility cycle suggested by my analyses results from a global plateau in oil production being reached in 2005. I favor the hypothesis that an autonomous (e.g., like a heartbeat) oscillation in price volatility has emerged as a result of imbalances between supply and demand at this production plateau. Interestingly, similar oscillatory phenomena have been noted as an emergent property of predator-prey relationships in nature.

A major new development in the hunt for oil is the rise of “fracking” — the hydraulic fracturing extraction technology that has pushed the United States to the forefront as a major producer. It will be interesting to watch and see whether fracking alters the dynamics of oil price changeability in the next few years — perhaps temporarily damping the amplitude of its oscillatory behavior.

If a new spike in price variance does occur in coming months, then it would pay to keep an eye on stocks, given the tendency of the market to react to oil shocks. Also, if a new wave of instability in the oil market sweeps in, then the 2014 congressional elections could have surprises in store. Stay tuned to this frequency.

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Gregor Macdonald: What Happened to the Future? | Peak Prosperity

Gregor Macdonald: What Happened to the Future? | Peak Prosperity.

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What Happened to the Future?

Hopes dim as global net energy per capita declines
by Gregor Macdonald
Tuesday, November 19, 2013, 1:15 PM

Improbably, the global economy has returned to growth over the past four years despite the ravages of a deflationary debt collapse, a punishing oil shock, ongoing constraint from debt and deleveraging, and stagnant global wages.

The proof of this growth comes from the best indicator of all: the growth of global energy consumption. Halted in 2009, as global trade collapsed from the second half of 2008 into the first half of the following year, the global demand for energy inputs quickly returned to its long-term trend in 2010, growing at approximately 2% per year.

Ecological economics holds that human economies are subordinate to the availability of natural capital. Technology therefore does not create natural resources, nor does human innovation. Instead, technology and innovation mediate the utilization of existing natural resources. In other words, an improvement in the techniques of longwall coal mining (late 1700s), deepwater offshore oil drilling (late 1900s), and horizontal natural gas fracking (early 2000s) are all impressive. But these innovations only matter when the prize of dense energy deposits are actually on offer. No dense energy deposits = no value to innovation.

We are therefore obligated to acknowledge that when few natural resources exist or are too expensive to extract, very little economic activity is possible. Conversely, we are equally obligated to admit that when resources are available for consumption, then growth will likely result. And lo and behold, that is precisely the explanation for the world’s return to growth since the collapse of 2008: Despite the punishing repricing of oil from $25 earlier in the decade to $100, there was enough energy from other sources to get the global economy back to some kind of growth.

Of course, this is not the smooth and well-lubricated growth that many in the West had become accustomed to in the post-war era. The nature of today’s growth is highly asymmetric between East and West, and highly imbalanced between rich and poor. Today’s growth is also quite lumpy, or highly clustered, as certain domains and regions are benefiting while other populations are living in very stagnant conditions. We’ll get to these details shortly.

But first, let’s look at the longer-term chart of global energy consumption from all sources  oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear, solar, wind, hydro, and biomass  denominated in Mtoe (million tonnes oil equivalent):

This chart is bad news for the many observers on all sides of the macroeconomic equation who are trying to puzzle out the post-crisis era. The fact is, there is enough energy to fund traditional, industrial economic growth in the phase after Peak Oil. Yes, the end of cheap oil did indeed shock the system, and along with the previous credit bubble, it has cast a pall on the potential rate of global growth. But many of the forecasts about the absolute end of growth have yet to come true. This is important because while the global economic system was highly sensitive to an oil shock coming into 2007, it is actually less sensitive now to an oil shock. Those who, ten years ago, correctly predicted the tail risk that oil presented to the system should declare victory. Equally, forecasting a repeat of that experience is probably unwise.

The Oil Crash is Now Behind Us

Why? Simply put, whereas oil used to be the key commodity on which a fast, just-in-time, high-functioning global economy depended all too much, now a combination of coal, natural gas, and other inputs to the power grid have taken nearly all of the market share over the past decade. It is axiomatic, therefore, that if the global supply of oil has only increased from 74 mbpd (million barrels per day) in 2004 to 76 mbpd here at the end of 2013, but total energy consumption globally from all sources has risen over 20% in the same period, then nearly all the growth in the global economy is being funded by other forms of energy.

So you can abandon the idea there will be a future oil crash – because we already had it. The world has been busily starting to wean itself off oil for nearly ten years now. Oil use in Europe and the United States peaked in 2004-2005. The decline of oil consumption only accelerated after 2008, and in the OECD, it’s still declining. Will $125 or $150 oil crash the economies of Japan, the United States, or Europe at this point? Perhaps not. There is hardly any growth to crash in the OECD. It is as if the OECD economies are effectively bunkered, with no growth in wages, jobs, or construction, and nearly all progress is confined to asset prices, mainly the stock market. Perversely, this stagnation is the new strength.

Meanwhile, in the Non-OECD, where growth is actually taking place, the big drive that has taken world energy use higher since 2008 – from 11310 Mtoe in 2009 to this year’s projected 12726 Mtoe – continues to be funded by natural gas, various inputs to the power grid, and the world’s still fastest growing energy source: coal. Yes that’s right, coal, which grew 2.5% last year. Again, ecological economics informs us that there must be energy inputs to fund economic growth. Well, the world has plenty of energy inputs in the form of natural gas and coal. There is no Peak Natural Gas and there is no Peak Coal. No crash is coming in either of these resources in the foreseeable future, either.

To give a better sense of the decline of oil and the rise of other energy inputs, consider that in almost every European country now, bicycle sales now outnumber automobile salesLife After the Oil Crash, indeed! In the United States, oil demand has fallen to levels last seen over thirty years ago. The 5 mbpd of new demand in Asia, built over the past decade, has been supplied more from demand declines in the West than new global production. The real oil crash, now, the oil crash that matters most, is the decline of oil’s share in the total energy mix. A decade ago, oil provided nearly 39% of total global energy supply. Oil’s now down to 33%, and heading to 32% either this year, 2013, or by next year:

We would not say that the global economy is currently at high risk of losing its access to coal. So we should no longer be overly concerned that the global economy is going to lose its access to oil. It has already lost its access to cheap oil. And now coal, not oil, is in position to take the lead as the number one energy source, globally. But there is little room for complacency in this regard. Because there is little good news in this lower tail risk from oil and its lower-level threat to the global economy. Rather, the global economy is growing increasingly imbalanced.

The Grand Asymmetry

We can think of reflationary policy from Europe, the U.S., and especially Japan as an attempt to counter the West’s loss of access to cheap oil. Is that policy working? Not really.

The primary beneficiaries of this policy have largely been corporations, which derive most of their growth from the 5 billion people in the developing world but are located in the OECD. These corporations are sited in London, New York, Tokyo; the cash from worldwide operations rolls in, but they have little need for expensive, high-wage Western workers. Accordingly, stock markets in the West, composed of these corporations, continue to soar, while investment and growth in the OECD stagnates.

It’s bad enough that Western corporations do not hire domestic workers, do not raise wages, and have maintained capex (capital expenditures) at low levels for years. The huge cash piles stored in corporations represents their conversion, in some sense, to global utilities. Energy companies, technology companies, and infrastructure companies now operate at a very high level of efficiency. So high, and with the aid of information technology, that their need to invest in new capital equipment and especially human labor has fallen to very low levels. How low? A Standard-and-Poor’s report on global capex released just this summer showed that investment is, unsurprisingly, far lower in the post-2008 period than before. Recent commentary from the folks at FT Alphaville lays some color on this data point, because at current rates, U.S. capex has only recovered to the previous trough levels of prior recessions. Worse, whatever meager recovery in capex has taken place from the lows of 2009 is now stalling again. From the S&P Global Corporate Capital Expenditure Survey, July 2013:

The global capex cycle appears to be stalling even before it has fully got under way. In real terms, capex growth for our sample of nonfinancial companies slowed in 2012 to 6% from 8% in 2011. Current estimates suggest that capex growth will fall by 2% in 2013. Early indications for 2014 are even more pessimistic, with an expected decline in real terms of 5%…. Worldwide, capex growth has become increasingly reliant on investment in the energy and materials sectors. Together, these sectors account for 62% of capex in the past decade. This reliance creates risks. If the global commodity “super cycle” is fading, global capex will struggle to grow meaningfully in the near term. Sharp cutbacks in the materials sector are a key factor in the projected slowdown in capex for 2013 and 2014.

Notice that the total volume of global capex is increasingly reliant on investment in the very capital-intensiveenergy and materials sector. This is highly revealing. In the aftermath of oil’s repricing and the repricing of many other natural resources, the global natural resources sector now requires significantly more investment to extract the same units of oil, copper, iron ore, coal, natural gas, and potash, and requires more expensive technology and more human labor. This is the sector holding up the average spend of global capex, so we can conclude that beneath that average, the capex in typical post-war industries like media, finance, real estate, and even infrastructure is not only low, but historically low. The very poor level of employment growth confirms exactly this conclusion. Most poignant of all, this is a wildly strong confirmation of ecological economics, showing that a larger and larger proportion of total investment needs to be devoted now to natural resource extraction, leaving less investment to other areas. The net energy available to society is in decline.

But it’s not just the private sector that has stopped investing. Public sector levels of investment have been dropping as well. In fact, according to yet another dump of recent data, U.S. government investment in public infrastructure is at the lowest levels since WWII. The Financial Times covered this on November 3rd and produced a rather stunning chart. The Financial Times writes, “Public investment picked up at the start of Mr. Obama’s term – temporarily rising to its highest level since the early 1990s – because of his fiscal stimulus. But that has been more than reversed by subsequent cuts. The biggest falls are in infrastructure, especially construction of schools and highways by states and municipalities.”

Conclusion (to Part I)

When neither the private nor public sector is willing to invest in the future, it seems appropriate to ask, what happened to the future? Have corporations along with governments figured out that a return to slow growth does not necessary equal a return to normal growth? Why invest in new infrastructure, new workforces, new office space, equipment, highways, or even rail, when the demand necessary to provide a return on this investment may never materialize?

Many sectors in Western economies remain in oversupply or overcapacity. There is a surplus of labor and a surplus of office and industrial real estate, as well as airports, highways, and suburbs that are succumbing to a permanent decrease in throughput and traffic. Perhaps the private sector is not so unwise. Collectively, through its failure to invest, it is making a de facto forecast: No normal recovery is coming.

In Part II: Why Social & Environmental Imbalances Are Becoming the Biggest Risks, we explore how the misguided policies being pursued worldwide to return to the growth we’ve been accustomed to are resulting in a volatile mix of imbalances in both wealth and resource availability.

As we move further into a future defined by less per capita – not more, as we’ve become accustomed to dangerous rifts in our social fabric (both within and among countries) threaten to define the days ahead.

Click here to access Part II of this report (free executive summary; enrollment required for full access).

 

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