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When we talk about the future of food, we usually start with world population growth. Estimates say we’ll pass the 8 billion-people mark around the spring of 2024. The worry for decades has been if we will be able to feed all those hungry mouths.
The number of hungry mouths may not be the problem. A 2002 United Nations study showed that global agricultural production would exceed the population’s needs just six years after we hit the 8 billion mark. How we distribute and sell food in the future could be far more important – and more interesting.
“Oil isn’t cheap,” Katie Camden says when asked about the future of food distribution. “Plus, over the next 10 to 20 years, it’s not going to get any cheaper.”
Camden started her career in neuroscience, but then she moved into the food business. She and her husband, Micah, have a string of successful and unique restaurants in the Pacific Northwest. He’s the chef; she’s the brains. She refines and iterates each operation like a ruthless engineer, optimizing each step in the production and the distribution chain.
Camden is the go-to person when it comes to the future of food. She’s all business. Her no-nonsense perspectives always provide a clear vision for where she sees things going. She has strong opinions.
“The cost of just moving food – especially over long distances – is always going to be expensive,” she explains. “It’s really the limiting factor. It’s not a food problem. It’s not even a farm problem. It’s an oil problem.”
Even with the recent shale gas boom in the U.S., the long-term cost for oil is not projected to drop. On the contrary, it has risen from around $25 a barrel in 2002 to $100 in 2013. The race to renewable and alternative energy will continue over the next few decades.
So if oil and transportation are the real limiting factors, then what should we do? What are the opportunities?
“More food retailers and restaurants will look to local farms and food producers,” Camden believes. “I don’t just mean small farms but all farms that are nearby. Retailers will base their operations on what’s available locally,” she says.
One of her most popular chains is Little Big Burger, a series of purposely small take-out restaurants that serve high-quality hamburgers from only locally sourced beef. “We’ve looked at opening our hamburger restaurants in Texas and Colorado because of their amazing local beef,” she says.
In Camden’s view, the next 10 years will see more local businesses working with local farmers to source food. She says it will go beyond that to the very issue of what’s available from those producers. “That will drive those businesses,” she predicts.
The business of food retailing is just plain hard, with notoriously low profit margins and stiff competition. Retailers are always looking for the newest innovation that will differentiate them. Because of this, hints to the future can be found in the aisles of your local market, as well as in your email in-box, in your smartphone, and in the mass of data being created.
Affinity card programs are nothing new. Those little cards are scanned at supermarket checkouts to get special discounts. Soon, those cards will be paired with high-tech data analytics and real-time shopper tracking. Something really different is emerging: a hyperpersonalized shopping experience.
It isn’t complicated. With your permission, an affinity card tracks everything you purchase. The store offers up coupons that fit your habits. The deals land in an in-box or smartphone app, giving automatic savings at checkout.
It gets interesting when stores cross their data with other information about you. They not only can give discounts on what you are about to purchase but also can make suggestions based on other activity. You might be tracked in real time as you move through a store and are offered suggestions based on health history, social network, and your favorite movies.
Tomorrow Belongs to the Shopper
Most of us don’t realize the power we have when we make those seemingly mundane decisions in stores. Long before crop shortages plague the global supply chain, consumers will vote with their purchases. That sentiment will drive the future, and the real opportunity lies in the imaginations and aspirations of average people all over the world. The interesting question is how can farmers start to participate in that conversation?
In his State of the Union, President Obama added to the conventional wisdom that supplanting coal with natural gas will act as a bridge toward a climate solution. Unfortunately, gas is more of a gateway drug than a bridge to a clean energy future.
1) It’s still a major greenhouse gas. Sure, natural gas is cleaner than coal, but that’s setting a pretty low bar. Even if my shit smells sweeter than most, it’s still shit.
Natural gas powered electricity still pours 1.22 lbs of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every kilowatt-hour of electricity it produces. That’s 6 tons of CO2 per year from every household in America if its electricity were completely generated with natural gas.
And that’s the emissions from the stuff that actually gets to the power plant. The EPA has collected industry-reported data suggested that leakage from the drilling, production, and pipeline process runs close to 1.5%. Other studies show much higher leakage rates. At a 2.7% leakage rate, gas is no better than coal for the climate.
2) Gas for electricity competes with gas for heating (and gas for transportation). The recent “polar vortex” events have meant spikes in home heating costs. As Forbes notes, “The cold affected electricity generation systems, particularly natural gas, in the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast such that supply weakened and prices skyrocketed. In New England, natural gas faltered so much that regional grid administrator ISO-New England had to bring up dirtier coal and oil plants to try to make up the difference.”
With gas prices as volatile as history shows (data below from EIA), increasing gas reliance in sectors other than home heating (e.g. electricity, transportation) is just asking for Oil Crisis v2.
3) In electricity and transportation, we have much cleaner options. If you want a cleaner way to heat your home than natural gas, you’re going to have to pay a lot more. Solar hot water, geothermal, and other renewable options are not yet cost competitive.
But in the electricity market, renewables are more cost-effective than natural gas. Wind power is routinely the lowest cost wholesale power, as the following cost comparison from investment bank Lazard (from 2011) illustrates.
Solar power plants are competitive in a different way. They tend to deliver power right when natural gas power plants operate, at periods of peak demand (which is, in part, why a judge recently told a Minnesota utility to buy solar instead of building new natural gas power plants). Even back in 2011, California utilities were buying energy from solar on long-term contracts for less than the cost of energy from natural gas power plants.
Furthermore, because they have zero fuel cost, wind and other renewables tend to exert downward pressure on wholesale electricity costs, as shown in the following graphic.
In transportation, natural gas loses to electric vehicles. Natural gas vehicles can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20-30% over gasoline vehicles, but electric vehicles would lower emissions by 50-75% in most regions of the country, and they get better as grid electricity gets cleaner. And electric vehicles cost less per mile driven (5¢ compared to 6.7¢ for natural gas). Additionally, why build an entirely new refueling network for natural gas vehicles when every gas station and home in America already has a power outlet?
4) Building natural gas infrastructure chains us to a carbon-based energy future for 50 years. Electric utilities build power plants with 50 year life expectancies, same for gas companies and pipelines. Every dollar invested in dirty gas infrastructure is a dollar not spent building solar and wind farms, not spent researching battery technologies, and not spent helping communities capture the most of their local energy dollar. And it’s committing us to burn more natural gas for decades, during a time which greenhouse gas emissions must fall precipitously to avoid the major consequences of climate chaos.
Expanding natural gas use in electricity and transportation is risky, it’s dirty, and – most of all – it’s unnecessary.
The electricity sector is already undergoing a rapid transformation to a carbon-free system, driven by renewable energy standards and rapidly falling costs for wind and solar power. Converting coal plants to natural gas makes short-term sense, but building new fossil fuel infrastructure when we have free-fuel renewables is inane.
The transportation sector has already identified a low-carbon alternative to gasoline vehicles with an in-place fuel network. Electric vehicles will only get more efficient and cleaner as they grow in numbers and as the grid gets greener.
Americans are finally on a course to wean ourselves from an unhealthy addiction to fossil fuels in two major sectors of our economy. Natural gas isn’t a bridge, it’s a relapse. And it’s time we admit it.
Intermittent renewables–wind and solar photovoltaic panels–have been hailed as an answer to all our energy problems. Certainly, politicians need something to provide hope, especially in countries that are obviously losing their supply of oil, such as the United Kingdom. Unfortunately, the more I look into the situation, the less intermittent renewables have to offer. (Please note that I am not talking about solar hot water heaters. I am talking about intermittent renewables added to the electric grid.)
1. It is doubtful that intermittent renewables actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
It is devilishly difficult to figure out whether on not any particular energy source has a favorable impact on carbon dioxide emissions. The obvious first way of looking at emissions is to look at the fuel burned on a day-to-day basis. Intermittent renewables don’t seem to burn fossil fuel on day-to-day basis, while those using fossil fuels do, so wind and…
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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 Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Wyoming. 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?