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“All of the Above” Energy Means More Fracking, Renewables, Nukes and Clean Coal

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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ernest-monizThere is no technical issue with fracking, the controversial technique of fracturing shale rock with high-pressure, chemically treated water to release natural gas. But there is clearly a political one, judging by the multiple interruptions to a talk at Columbia University by new Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz. The affable former M.I.T. professor and Scientific American advisor could chuckle about these gas-related outbursts, but the endurance of the fracking moratorium in New York State—six years and counting—points to the volatility of the issue in some parts of the country.

Six years is about the same amount of time Moniz spent on building up the Energy Initiative at M.I.T., a bid to make the energy debate more inclusive. And more inclusive it has become, thanks to fracking, though Moniz might wish for more of that passion be channeled into efforts to combat climate change. After all, the CO2 already in the atmosphere is enough to ensure that the U.S. will endure more scenes of climate disruption, whether it’s Hurricane Sandy here in New York City or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. “We are building for a low-carbon future, but a low-carbon future in which we have to expect suffering some of the consequences of climate change,” Moniz told the crowd gathered by Columbia’s new Center on Global Energy Policy. “Eighty-four percent of carbon emissions are power-related. Mother Nature seems to be returning the favor with a long-term toll on energy infrastructure.”

As examples of such a toll, Moniz cited wildfires that threatened power lines to San Francisco despite being nearly 200 kilometers away and, last summer, a nuclear power plant near Braidwood, Ill., that needed special permission to continue to operate when hot weather warmed the water in its cooling pool to 39 degrees Celsius, well above the standard operating temperature. “When the electricity goes out,” Moniz added, “getting fuel gets kind of tough,” pointing to the long gasoline lines and rationing that hit the Northeast in the wake of Sandy.

To reduce this threat in the future while in a void of Congressional action, President Barack Obama has decided to act to combat climate change using the “substantial resources and authorities of the executive branch,” as Moniz put it. That includes everything from new energy efficiency standards for appliances such as microwaves to mandatory cuts in CO2 pollution from coal-fired power plants.

That “directive has been derided by some as tantamount to a war on coal,” Moniz stated. On the contrary, the Obama administration wants to make a future for burning the copious quantities of dirty coal in the U.S., only cleanly via technologies like chemical looping that capture and store pollutants. The Obama administration has offered $8 billion in loan guarantees for such coal-related projects—enough to cover about 8 projects, which represents a bid to resuscitate flagging carbon capture and storage (CCS) efforts, set back by events like the closure of the pioneering CCS effort at the Mountaineer coal-fired power plant in West Virginia. The goal this time around is to learn more about the storage part of CCS, Moniz said, including long-term monitoring of the CO2 underground. “You don’t want any seismic events,” he added.

Of course, seismic rumbles are exactly the events that wastewater from fracking has touched off in places such as Youngstown, Ohio.

Besides earthquakes, fracking has also been linked to increased concentrations of methane and toxic heavy metals in water wells as well as economic bonanzas for some rural locales.

Over the shouted questions of one anti-fracking protester, Moniz cited the decline in U.S. CO2 emissions brought about by more generation from burning natural gas and less from burning coal (a trend currently reversing thanks to relatively higher natural gas prices). “In the near-term and for some years out, this substitution of natural gas for coal would be a major contributor to reducing carbon emissions,” Moniz said, though he added that at some point natural gas too would require CCS technology.

Natural gas then would serve as a “bridge” to a low-carbon future, full of electricity from fission, sunshine and wind as well as fossil fuels outfitted with CCS technology under the Obama administration’s “all of the above” energy strategy. Already, renewable resources have become the fastest growing part of new U.S. electricity generation. “The future may not always be 10 years away,” Moniz said, also citing the progress in efficient LED lightbulbs and better batteries for electric vehicles.

Then there’s big nuclear power plants, the future of which in the U.S. apparently rests on the construction of two new reactors in Vogtle, Georgia. “If they have a very bad budget performance, as did some in Europe, I think it will seriously cloud the future for some gigawatt plants,” Moniz said, though that financial peril doesn’t necessarily extend to so-called small modular reactors. “There is some promise,” Moniz added of these smaller reactors, “and I emphasize that it is only a promise” given that none has actually been built yet and likely will not be before 2022.

That means for the next decade or so, the fact that the U.S. gets 80 percent of its energy from fossil fuels is unlikely to change much, though the relative balance of coal, oil and natural gas will change. And if natural gas, the least polluting of the fossil fuels, is to play a bigger role, then fracking wells, gas pipelines and wastewater management will all have to be done correctly. “It’s not magic,” Moniz said.

The real challenge is that the problem with fracking isn’t technical at all and therefore isn’t amenable to technical solutions. Fracking can be done right but often is not, given economic incentives for companies that promote a rush to drill wells. “Issues being manageable is not the same as being managed,” Moniz admitted. “We need a consistent application of best standards through regulation and other approaches.” Moniz and his colleagues in the federal family at the Environmental Protection Agency and Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, will need to figure out how to make that change happen before the natural gas industry completely poisons the well of societal good will and permission to operate.

Moniz has dealt with these kinds of politics before, serving as one of three DOE undersecretaries at the end of the Clinton administration after serving as a Presidential advisor in the Office of Science and Technology Policy. As one Columbia professor whispered to another in the audience: “he really knows Washington,” possibly unlike his predecessor and fellow physicist Steven Chu, who came out of the national labs and pure research science.

Moniz, though, may have a lot of learning to do about regional energy details. He declined to answer a question about the future of nuclear power, in particular, the Indian Point nuclear power plant near New York City. “I probably don’t know enough about the specifics of the Indian Point plant,” he admitted. Moniz may know Washington, D.C., but the more pertinent question may be: how fast can a Secretary of Energy get to know the rest of the country?

About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. rkipling 12:01 pm 08/27/2013

    I’m not sure how well he pulls off the George Washington haircut, but we will see how he does.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Owl905 12:21 pm 08/27/2013

    This isn’t even close to balanced or legit. The claim of reduced CO2 through natgas isn’t even supported by his own link – it’s just reflecting the Great Recession and forecasting a return to upsurge in a few years. There’s also an elephant in the room – the price-performance of cleaner coal is so bad, it’s fallen down every time any experiment (US, Australia, China) has checked it out (and again, the cited graph doesn’t reflect the surge in American exports of coal). Well-drilling has a 5% leak-rate that grows to 15% in long-abandoned wells – what the drilling originally went after is immaterial to the discussion.
    If you want to put some things down that help, start with better drilling and closure technology – build an escrow fund for cleaning up old-well leaks; mandate heavy fines for pipe leaks from any fuel transport; and do something about the growth-rate of methane before someone claims it’s free fertilizer and essential to life.

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  3. 3. rkipling 12:44 pm 08/27/2013

    Mr. Biello,

    I thought this was balanced by SciAm standards. So, that probably means you will be branded as a counter revolutionary cad. A Counter Revolutionary Cad just like the foul murderers of Harry Pollitt. You are probably too young to have heard the ballad of Harry Pollitt by The Limeliters. Here’s a link if you want the lyrics.

    http://lyricworld.com/index.php?id=1867777ab416

    Link to this
  4. 4. rkipling 12:51 pm 08/27/2013

    Here’s the YouTube Harry Pollitt song.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIaRyaQw4N0

    Link to this
  5. 5. M Tucker 1:02 pm 08/27/2013

    “Obama administration wants to make a future for burning the copious quantities of dirty coal in the U.S., only cleanly via technologies like chemical looping that capture and store pollutants.”

    Technologies that do not exist, arm waving and platitudes, that’s all we are going to get for about the next 30 to 40 years. How can we, the Democrats, sound like we are interested in addressing this world changing issue and at the same time continue to support the fossil fuel industry? With arm waving and platitudes!

    The EIA projects coal to still be the dominant fuel into 2040. Chu was a believer in ‘all of the above’ Moniz is a believer, it was Obama’s idea. The only ones opposed are the Republicans who hate renewables. So it is just a difference between rapid CO2 increase and a slightly slower CO2 increase.

    “We are building for a low-carbon future, but a low-carbon future in which we have to expect suffering some of the consequences of climate change,”

    Like wildfires, droughts, shrinking water reservoirs, heat waves, excessive rain, floods, cooling water too warm to cool power plants, just those “consequences of climate change.” Nothing we haven’t seen already, just more.

    Link to this
  6. 6. curiouswavefunction 1:41 pm 08/27/2013

    I am definitely in favor of fracking as a bridge to a stable energy future based on nuclear and renewables, and especially like The Economist’s balanced take on it. The Economist acknowledges that there are some technical problems but also realizes that these are minor and can be solved, and that the real solution is regulation, not abolition of the technology.

    From the Aug 19, 2013 issue:

    “Careful regulation can reduce risks by ensuring that well-shafts are leak-proof and that regurgitated gunk is safely collected. (The International Energy Agency reckons that proper regulation would add about 7% to the cost of each shale-gas well.) So far, safety breaches seem to be the exception: a report from MIT found that only a handful of some 20,000 wells drilled in the previous decade had caused contamination, mostly from surface spills of fluids. There are also reasons for greens to support fracking. Natural gas is cleaner than fuels such as coal: America’s carbon emissions fell by 450m tonnes in the five years to 2012, partly because coal was swapped for the gas made available by fracking. In Europe, where expensive gas has led to greater reliance on coal-fired power stations, emissions have not fallen by much. Fracking can be done safely—banning it seems like an overreaction.”

    Link to this
  7. 7. David Biello in reply to David Biello 1:59 pm 08/27/2013

    I can see it now: my time as a counter-revolutionary cad… Thanks!

    Link to this
  8. 8. rkipling 2:23 pm 08/27/2013

    Yup, you are beyond redemption now.

    Link to this
  9. 9. sault 2:24 pm 08/27/2013

    We need to repeal the special exemptions to the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts that “fracking” activities enjoy. There is absolutely zero reason for the government to pick winners by preferentially exempting certain industrial processes from environmental law, especially when those exemptions endanger the health and well being of millions of people.

    The fact that certain unscrupulous drillers would put people’s property and health in daner to save the extra 7% in costs they would have to spend to minimize leaks means that the incentives aren’t aligned properly. Since many drilling companies can operate without spreading contamination, why can’t we get industry best practices standardized? We don’t have to reinvent the wheel here. And why don’t we require independent groundwater testing before an area gets “fracked” anyway? This just lets the dirty drillers off the hook and makes it much easier for them to skip accountability for their actions. And when we do detect contamination, we should be able to stop a driller from conducting more business until they get their stuff together and the potential fines from spreading contamination should provide enough incentive to dissuade would-be hucksters from putting others in danger.

    Finally, a modest carbon tax that fairly incorporates some of the current and future costs of climate change into the price of fossil fuels would lower coal consumption even more and provide the regulatory certainty to develop cleaner alternative even further. Incorporating methane leakage into carbon tax assessments would probably put most natural gas drillers out of business though.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Trafalgar 2:52 pm 08/27/2013

    http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/aug/11/texas-tragedy-ample-oil-no-water

    It really won’t matter if fracking cuts CO2 emissions if this is repeated nationwide.

    Link to this
  11. 11. sault 3:10 pm 08/27/2013

    Tucker,

    You’ve got to read between the lines here. Everybody knows that “clean coal” is vaporware and will continue to be that way for at least a decade or two. However, coal companies are very influential in several key states and with many key lawmakers. And just look at how long-overdue air quality regulation updates taken by the Obama Administration were construed into a “war on coal” by the industry’s astroturf groups! Acknowledging the truth would be a direct attack upon power fossil fuel companies and the lawmakers they’ve bought off, so you need to tread lightly.

    Supporting the idea of “clean coal” keeps the coal barons placated somewhat and prevents their survival instincts from kicking in. Everybody knows that coal is not viable in a carbon constrained world, so carbon sequestration is the only viable future for the industry. And since carbon sequestration is not all that promising, supporting it with nominal, uninthusiastic support still doesn’t undermine the efforts to support real clean energy technologies all that much.

    What’s sad is that, given all the misinformation polluters put out concerning climate and environmetal science combined with the dysfunction of Congress and the importance of money in elections, this is about the best approach that can be taken. Instead of having an informed public conducting a fact-based debate about climate change, the fossil fuel companies have succeeded in dragging climate change into the political realm. This is because they’ve clearly lost on the science and it is only through confusing a lay public that they can buy more time to postpone action to mitigate climate change and keep their massive profits coming in. Now, we will be forced to act too late and we will have to suffer several “Climate Pearl Harbors” before we start taking the necessary action. Just think, all that additional human suffering and property damage just so fossil fuel companies can make a few extra bucks…

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  12. 12. Burnerjack 4:36 pm 08/27/2013

    While fracking can help address the geopolitical implications of energy importation, it is NOT a clean fuel. It IS however a cleanER fuel. The latest iteration of Nukes are viable but like anything, have their Achilles’ Heel as well. The Elephant in the Room is Geothermal energy. We are sitting on a 4 billion year old heating system which to a greater and lesser extent is EVERYWHERE. That being said, this fact means that supply can be located in relatively close proximity to demand, mitigating much of the transmission costs and issues currently causing contention.

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  13. 13. cbsimkins 5:10 pm 08/27/2013

    Fracking makes no sense if it imperils water supplies or triggers seismic activity that can cause significant damage. But the first part of that is something which drillers can avoid, but only in some places by not fracking at all. Geothermal, as currently done, tends to release dissolved solids which come with the steam. This can be an environmental problem even if the source can provide significant amounts of steam. But the real problem is population in the third world, and even the second world, which wants cheap energy and will continue to develop those sources regardless of what the US does.

    Link to this
  14. 14. sault 6:06 pm 08/27/2013

    Touched on a nerve, did I, Shoshin? Thanks for another fact-free rant that contributed NOTHING to the discussion.

    But to answer the ONE real question you brought up, since average temperatures are 1C higher than they would be without human emissions, and humidity levels are likewise 4% higher, EVERY weather-related disaster has a climate change component of some sort. To get specific, water temperatures were unusually high right before Hurricane Sandy made landfall.

    Public opinion on the validity of climate change shifted markedly after Sandy made landfall. However, there are still enough people like you who deny the solid science behind climate change, and senators representing 12% of the U.S. population can indefinitely stall legislation that the other 88% wants due to the filibuster, so nothing gets done. Again, we are currently looking at major droughts, floods and storms as climate change gets worse. Our inaction for the past 20+ years when we KNEW climate change was going to be a problem has set us up for more severe “Climate Pear Harbors” as time goes on. However, the longer we fail to act to mitigate climate change, the more suffering future generations will experience from the more common and intense “Climate Pearl Harbors” we’re baking into the cake for them. It’s the biggest intergenerational theft mankind has ever pulled off unless we start reducing emissions NOW.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Sisko 7:28 pm 08/27/2013

    If the choice is whether a developing country should not provide electricity to their citizens or use a coal fired faciility, is it better to keep people without power or emit the additional CO2?

    Link to this
  16. 16. rkipling 8:36 pm 08/27/2013

    Power to the people!

    Link to this
  17. 17. rkipling 9:01 pm 08/27/2013

    An interesting energy site the editors don’t want you to know about.
    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunction/

    Link to this
  18. 18. sault 10:24 pm 08/27/2013

    Sisko,

    India is quickly discovering that it can install solar power and battery storage in villages not already hooked up to the grid for much cheaper than running wires out to them. I’d say, locking developing countries into the centralized and costly electricity grid model used in developed countries actually deprives more people of access to electricity than a distributed model.

    Link to this
  19. 19. David Biello in reply to David Biello 12:56 pm 08/28/2013

    You did note that it’s on our site, right?

    Link to this
  20. 20. rkipling 1:03 pm 08/28/2013

    I did. Thanks. I’ll back off on the torches and pitchforks.

    I don’t actually think it was a conspiracy. It’s a good blog, and I thought that might be a way to get people to check it out.

    You folks do good work. As my business expands, I want to work out a way to help support your efforts beyond just subscribing. I don’t have to agree with every blog post to see that it is worthwhile.

    Link to this
  21. 21. David Biello in reply to David Biello 6:11 pm 08/28/2013

    Good! We appreciate it.

    Link to this
  22. 22. rkipling 10:57 am 08/30/2013

    Mr. Biello,

    Please consider filtering out the nutters. I recognize this request may put me somewhat in danger, but I hope to make the cut.

    Link to this
  23. 23. David Biello in reply to David Biello 3:20 pm 09/20/2013

    It’s so hard! So very, very hard…

    Link to this
  24. 24. ABlack 6:01 am 01/29/2014

    I don’t understand why fracking has gotten such a bad rep.

    Logged in as : https://www.facebook.com/buysteroids

    Link to this

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