This article was originally published on the indispensable climate and energy blog Climate Progress.
By Joe Romm
If you liked the Oscar-nominated fracking exposé “Gasland” by Josh Fox, you’ll love the sequel Gasland, Part II, which is being broadcast on HBO Monday night.
I think it’s a better movie, more entertaining and even more compelling in making a case that we are headed on a bridge to nowhere — a metaphorical gangplank — with our hydraulic fracturing feeding frenzy.
Future generations living in a climate-ruined world will be stunned that we drilled hundreds of thousands of fracking and reinjection wells:
- Even though we knew that fossil fuels destroy the climate and accelerate drought and water shortages;
- Even though we knew that leaks of heat-trapping methane from fracking may well be vitiating much of the climate benefits of replacing coal with gas; and
- Even though each fracked well consumes staggering amounts of water, much of which is rendered permanently unfit for human use and reinjected into the ground where it can taint even more ground water in the coming decades.
Perhaps you have been persuaded fracking is a good idea by the multi-million-dollar industry campaign for fracking and against Fox — which includes backing a counter-documentary by two anti-science filmmaker’s best known for a film smearing Al Gore. If so, I’d urge you to read the Propublica exposé in Scientific American, “Are Fracking Wastewater Wells Poisoning the Ground beneath Our Feet?”
After fracking — injecting a generally toxic brew into the earth to release natural gas (or oil) — wastewater wells are used to reinject the resulting brine deep underground. Here’s the bad news:
There are more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells nationwide, more than 150,000 of which shoot industrial fluids thousands of feet below the surface. Scientists and federal regulators acknowledge they do not know how many of the sites are leaking.
… in interviews, several key experts acknowledged that the idea that injection is safe rests on science that has not kept pace with reality, and on oversight that doesn’t always work.
“In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted,” said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the EPA’s underground injection program in Washington. “A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die.”
… A ProPublica review of well records, case histories and government summaries of more than 220,000 well inspections found that structural failures inside injection wells are routine. From late 2007 to late 2010, one well integrity violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined — more than 17,000 violations nationally. More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking. Records also show wells are frequently operated in violation of safety regulations and under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid leakage and the threat of water contamination.
The documentary does explore the climate impacts of methane leaks from fracking (see below). And it also presents the clean energy solutions that we can use instead of fracking, such as the recent Stanford study that New York State can eliminate fossil fuels from its energy mix entirely by 2050.
But the film’s primary focus is the immediate impact on water and people:
Fox makes a very compelling case. As the New York Times TV reviewer explains, the movie “paints a convincing picture: homeowners at the mercy of the oil and gas industry wait while government agencies make tentative moves toward regulation that eventually come to nothing or are reversed.”
The review makes clear that while “there are questions, large and small, that can nag at you”:
Most of Mr. Fox’s material isn’t open to question, however. Recordings of a gas industry conference at which public relations managers are told to study the Army’s counterinsurgency manual — because “we are dealing with an insurgency” when it comes to protesters and angry homeowners — are both hilarious and horrifying. Mr. Fox’s account of the Pennsylvania government’s hiring of a private company to monitor fracking protesters, an episode not widely covered outside the state, is particularly valuable.
It’s hard to take issue with Mr. Fox’s resigned conclusion that economic and political forces will soon spread fracking around the world, no matter how harmful critics say it may be to the environment and our health.
I’m not entirely sure Fox is completely resigned to that conclusion. I was able to interview him last month and he is committed to spreading the word, fighting this fracked future, and pushing clean energy alternatives.
The movie also covers methane leakage in the context of global warming. Recent research continues to vindicate those who have warned that fracking has a high leakage rate of methane, which is up to 105 times as effective at trapping heat than CO2 over a 20-year period. See my January post, “Bridge To Nowhere? NOAA Confirms High Methane Leakage Rate Up To 9% From Gas Fields, Gutting Climate Benefit.” See also the the recent Christian Science Monitor piece “Methane leaks of shale gas may undermine its climate benefits,” which explains “If methane leak rates are more than 3 percent of output, fracking of shale gas formations may be boosting greenhouse gas emissions rather than lowering them.”
What is so frustrating about the frenzy to frack is that even ignoring the leakage issue, we must stop building new fossil fuel infrastructure the middle of this decade to have a realistic chance of crossing climate tipping points that will ruin our children’s future.
To get beyond all the hand-waving analysis asserting “gas is better than coal for the climate,” you need a comprehensive energy and climate model — and an emissions or temperature target.
If your goal is 2°C or 3.6°F total warming, then we’ve just about finished building every hydrocarbon-burning power plant we can. That is the conclusion of two of the (very few) groups that have such models — the International Energy Agency and Climate Interactive, which has done climate and energy modeling for everyone from the State Department and the Chinese government.
Climate Interactive used their En-ROADS global energy model to explore “the goal of the Copenhagen Accord – to limit temperature increase to 2°C is still in reach.” They found:
Even if the world also has sustained success eliminating deforestation, reducing emissions of non-CO2 greenhouse gasses and improving energy efficiency, new investment in fossil fuel infrastructure can’t occur much beyond 2015 in order to maintain a 50% chance of limiting temperature increase to 2°C in 2100. Having a higher probability of achieving the 2°C goal or keeping these even odds of meeting the goal but delaying the end of the era of fossil fuel investment would require additional measures such as shutting down already-constructed fossil-fuel-using infrastructure before the end of its useful lifetime, further reducing energy demand, or achieving so called negative emissions, where CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and sequestered.
In this thought experiment using the global energy system model En-ROADS, there is no new investment in fossil fuel using infrastructure after 2015, but the long lifetime of the existing infrastructure means that fossil fuel use continues well into the century.
The concept of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” was pushed by the American Gas Association as far back as 1981. It’s the longest bridge in history!
Averting catastrophic warming means it makes little sense to invest tens of billions of dollars in gas infrastructure and gas-fired power plants over the next few years — unless you plan to shut it down within two decades.
This is very similar to the conclusion that the IEA reached with its energy model.
The IEA made clear that natural gas isn’t the “solution” if your goal is staying far from 7°F warming — see IEA’s “Golden Age of Gas Scenario” Leads to More Than 6°F Warming and Out-of-Control Climate Change. It must be noted that even that IEA gas scenario, which results in too much warming, assumes that not only does global oil consumption peak around 2020 — but so does coal! So if one or both of those peaks don’t happen — and they wouldn’t without a high price of carbon and aggressively clean energy deployment starting now — then the Golden Age of Gas is just the “devastating” scenario laid out in last years’s World Bank report, a “world marked by extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise.”
And remember, neither the IEA nor En-ROADS models the impact of methane leakage.
Tragically, just about the time we wake up to the reality that fracking isn’t the solution to climate change, we’re probably going to wake up and find that we’ve poisoned billions of gallons of water — much of which will be in regions of the country that are turning into a permanent Dust Bowl thanks to climate change.
Or we could wake up now and start getting off fossil fuels immediately. A very good wake up call is Gasland, Part II. You can see it on HBO Monday.
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