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Enough with the fear-mongering, fracking edition

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


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Okay, environmental movement, Time Out. Your latest anti-fracking video, shared in an Upworthy post titled “In Case You Missed It, A Seriously Scary Thing Is Scheduled To Happen To New York City This November” is scaring and confusing people and it’s hurting your mission.

The video has been making the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve seen posts from friends in New York City who can’t believe something like this could happen. I mean, “an explosion… in the West Village?” because of not just any natural gas, but fracked gas that is “laced with radon” and prone to explode AT ANY MINUTE.

But natural gas from a hydraulic fracturing process doesn’t equal exploding pipelines, and this one is hardly the first one in the New York metropolitan area. According to the U.S. EIA (link), there are several natural gas pipelines running beneath the streets. Here are a few:

“The Algonquin Gas Transmission Company system (1,100 miles) has the capability to move 1.5 Bcf per day of its 3.3 Bcf per day system capacity from New Jersey into the New York metropolitan area.”

And: “In late 2008, the long-delayed 0.5 Bcf per day Millennium Pipeline was finally completed. This 182-mile natural gas pipeline system begins at an interconnect with the Empire Pipeline system in southwest central New York State and terminates in the New York City metropolitan area. It is part of an overall regional effort involving expansion of the existing Empire, Algonquin and Iroquois Pipelines, which will be among its major supply sources.”

And another: “The Iroquois Gas Transmission Company system, completed in 1991, draws just over one Bcf per day off the TransCanada Pipeline Ltd system in Ontario, Canada, a large portion of which is delivered to the New York City metropolitan area.”

And here is a handy map that shows the northeastern United States natural gas pipeline network:

The northeastern natural gas pipeline network. Credit: U.S. EIA

You get the point.

The “seriously scary thing” is scaring people in to thinking their favorite coffee shop is going to go up in flames the next time they boil a pot of ramen through misinformation and fear campaigns.

Edited for clarity – David.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

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





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  1. 1. marclevesque 7:16 pm 05/5/2013

    The video was a bit over the top, but I am seriously concerned about how the pipeline’s capacity compares to other high pressure pipelines running under densely populated areas areas –if there was a major leak, and an explosion, what can we expect as consequences?

    And though the video does use rhetorical devices to make their point –so does this article, and consider the kind of statements we get from the pipeline builders, Spectra Energy : “the most important piece of new natural gas infrastructure under construction in North America today”, “This *vital* new link”, “constructed to *exacting* federal regulations and industry standards”, “to deliver new, *critically* needed natural gas supplies” and so on. In that light it is hard to fault the video.

    Link to this
  2. 2. syzygyygyzys 8:10 pm 05/5/2013

    marclevesque,

    Natural gas extracted by fracking mixes with all other natural gas. You can’t tell the difference. So, to be sure, you probably want to freeze in the dark so you don’t use any.

    Link to this
  3. 3. marclevesque 8:17 pm 05/5/2013

    syzygyygyzys,

    Whut ?

    Link to this
  4. 4. sjn 8:37 pm 05/5/2013

    If Hansen is even remotely correct about the proportion of fossil fuel reserves we can burn and avoid the worst scenarios of global warming, then the above article may be correct while being completely irrelevant

    Link to this
  5. 5. Grizz 8:51 pm 05/5/2013

    Yeah, I get your point. And, I still don’t like fracking. Its potential for messing up the environment even worse precludes any “reasonable” defense of it.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Ourania 9:08 pm 05/5/2013

    I second Grizz’s opinion.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Carlyle 9:39 pm 05/5/2013

    David, rational articles are a breath of fresh air on this site.
    Fracking is nothing new. Oil drillers have been using various methods to fracture the rock around their wells for generations. They used to lower nitro-glycerine down the well & set off the explosive charges.
    The scare campaign is right up there with chemtrails. No doubt another hive of drones will scare up some nice lecture fees.

    Link to this
  8. 8. jtdwyer 7:10 am 05/6/2013

    Carlyle, are you suggesting that, since it’s been done in the past the practice can be expanded without producing ill effects? They used to just vent methane from oil wells into the atmosphere, too – or just burn it off…

    Link to this
  9. 9. Carlyle 7:33 am 05/6/2013

    There is practically nothing that can be done without some side effects but fracking causes no more harm than a free flowing gas well that does not require fracking. Then there are the alternative options. What are they? Apart from nuclear there is nothing even on the distant horizon that can provide a cleaner reliable around the clock energy source at an affordable price. If the developed world decides to turn its back on nuclear as well as this gas resource you can be sure that China, India plus Japan with its developing methane hydrate extraction will avail themselves of their shale gas & hydrate resources & the west will go into further decline. What is more we will deserve it. My preference would be to see nuclear providing the bulk of the worlds power generation & process heat requirements with hydrocarbon fuels being reserved for the uses that only they can provide.

    Link to this
  10. 10. ronwagn 9:03 am 05/6/2013

    Natural gas is the future of energy. It is replacing dirty old coal plants, and dangerous expensive nuclear plants. It will fuel cars, trucks, vans, buses, locomotives, aircraft, ships, tractors, engines of all kinds. It costs far less. It will help keep us out of more useless wars, where we shed our blood and money. Natural gas is the future of energy. It is replacing dirty old coal plants, and dangerous expensive nuclear plants. It will fuel cars, trucks, vans, buses, locomotives, aircraft, ships, tractors, engines of all kinds. It costs far less. It will help keep us out of more useless wars, where we shed our blood and money. It is used to make many products, and will bring jobs that boost our economy. It lowers CO2 emissions, and pollution.
    Over 6,200 select natural gas story links on my free blog. An annotated and illustrated bibliography of live links, updated daily. The worldwide picture of natural gas. Read in 79 nations. ronwagnersrants . blogspot . com

    101+ Useful references on natural gas: https://docs.google.com/document/d/19Yf0MWpo91vrlu-mmJtjB1ERukjJo5W41oi4RZVQBug/edit

    Link to this
  11. 11. N a g n o s t i c 9:35 am 05/6/2013

    I didn’t know T. Boone Pickens was majority shareholder in SA’s parent company.

    Link to this
  12. 12. sault 10:06 am 05/6/2013

    Oh here we go again…”ronwagon”‘s radar caught the words “natural gas” or “fracking” or whatever and he zoomed in here to post his usual rant. Look, he’s either a spambot or a paid shill. Either way, SciAm should delete his account and keep him from spamming up these boards.

    Link to this
  13. 13. rocky770 10:13 am 05/6/2013

    well at least that atom bomb sized gas storage tank along the LIE in Maspeth is gone, thanks to pipelines. I suppose we could cover all of LI Sound and the south shore with wind power farms or cut down all the trees in the Catskills and Delaware water gap for biomass fuel. At least I hope chefs against fracking stop using gas to cook and those cute propane tanks at outdoor events- back to New Jersey charcoal!!

    Link to this
  14. 14. sault 10:17 am 05/6/2013

    “…fracking causes no more harm than a free flowing gas well that does not require fracking.”

    Are you kidding me? First of all, you have to drill many times more wells when you frack compared to a “free-flowing” gas well. So you have hundreds or thousands of trucks clogging up the roads heading back and forth to the drilling sites and much more drilling activity than with older extraction methods. This releases lots of pollution and in some rural areas, 98% of the smog-forming emissions in the air is from fracking operations. Plus you have the much higher leak rate of fugitive methane emissions from fracking as well.

    How about the small earthquakes caused by fracking? How about the reports of people living some place for decades without a problem and then when fracking operations move in, they can light their well water on fire? And drilling companies have still not proven whether their well casings can last forever (hint: they can’t) so gas, fracking wastewater and all the nasty compounds dissolved from the rock are going to find their way into local aquifers, people’s homes, etc eventually. Too bad for them, the drilling companies will have ran away with the profits long ago and the American People will be saddled with dealing with their mess. This process of privitizing the profits and socializing the losses has happened many times before, with Superfund sites, leaded gasoline, acid rain and continues even today with the $100B – $500B in yearly damages that coal pollution inflicts on the US Economy every year. This is just history repeating itself.

    Link to this
  15. 15. sault 10:37 am 05/6/2013

    Carlyle,

    I’m also waiting on your proof that shows nuclear power is a superior energy source. Since it takes around a decade to build a reactor properly, how can this power source scale in time to be helpful in the fight against climate change? And considering that new reactors are coming in at $8B a pop (only AFTER the stealth feed-in tariff of Cost Recovery, Price Anderson Act benefits, billions in R&D from the government on top of shouldering the burden of waste disposal for the industry), nuclear power is a mighty expensive proposition. Oh, and considering the industry’s HORRIBLE track record in sticking to budgets and schedules, that $8B is probably the price floor (or even the basement!) while the ceiling is as high as the industry’s bought-off lawmakers are willing to saddle the public with!

    And do you honestly think that after Fukushima, a lot of people are still going to want a reactor near their town? Maybe you can get away with building them in places desperate for jobs like Georgia and South Carolina, but then again, electricity demand in such places is not going to be growing all that fast anyway. But ask the average person if they would want a wind / solar farm or a nuclear reactor near their town and renewable energy would come out on top way more often than not.

    It’s unfortunate. If nuclear power could get its cost and construction time down, it would be promising. Having a massive build-out of reactors would require a huge change to the USA’s industrial base and workforce training, things that can’t happen overnight either. I never see you advocating for job training and industrial policy that would facilitate a large increase in reactor building in the USA, though. In fact, you complain about federal spending a lot, especially anything related to energy, so I don’t know how serious you really are about your nuclear advocacy or how much you’ve actually looked into the issue.

    Link to this
  16. 16. alallerton 11:58 am 05/6/2013

    This weekend there were at least 3 MAJOR FRACK GAS PIPELINE BREAKS in the Midwest in just over 24 hours!…

    Saturday, 5.4.13 (2:18 am) – 20 Inch FRACK GAS PIPELINE BREAK!
    City: Bushnell, Nebraska
    Damages: YES!
    Estimated Release Duration: 4 HOURS!
    Cause: UNKNOWN
    http://www.nrc.uscg.mil/reports/rwservlet?standard_web+inc_seq=1046014

    Saturday, 5.4.13 (2:50 pm) -
    City: Wichata, Kansas
    Fire Involved: YES!
    Damages: YES!
    Estimated Release Duration: UNKNOWN!
    Incident Cause: OPERATOR ERROR!
    http://www.nrc.uscg.mil/reports/rwservlet?standard_web+inc_seq=1046039

    Friday 5.3.13 (11:45 am) -
    City: TOLEDO State: OH
    INJURIES: YES! (1 Hospitalized)
    Estimated Release Duration: UNKNOWN!
    Cause: EQUIPMENT FAILURE
    http://www.nrc.uscg.mil/reports/rwservlet?standard_web+inc_seq=1045929

    FRACK GAS pipeline breaks are usually so vague and are almost never picked up by mainstream media, unless there’s associated fireballs, leveled buildings and death. Released FRACK GAS contributes to global warming many more times than if the same amount was burned into CO2! With current CO2 levels expected FOR THE FIRST TIME IN HUMAN HISTORY to break 400 ppm this very month, they’re surely NOT anything we currently need!
    Another reason FRACK GAS IS A DANGEROUS AND DESTRUCTIVE PRODUCT TO ALL LIFEFORMS!

    Link to this
  17. 17. syzygyygyzys 1:07 pm 05/6/2013

    It is a source of continuing amazement how people with no understand of geology or the real issues involved with fracking still believe they have valid arguments against it. It is yet another leftist religious belief with no basis in fact.

    Link to this
  18. 18. Carlyle 1:44 pm 05/6/2013

    syzygyygyzys: They hate any viable development that hinders their desire to impose their ideology on all of us. This development has crushed their scare campaign about running out of options. It brings closer the demise of their illogical mantra. The public are growing tired of continuous calls for yet more billions for schemes when not one industrial scale alternative energy scheme capable of providing 24 hour reliable industrial power can be pointed to after tens of billions in expenditure.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Carlyle 1:55 pm 05/6/2013

    sault. Your ideology & facts are incompatible.

    Link to this
  20. 20. RobinBP 2:22 pm 05/6/2013

    The earthquake in Virginia was NOT caused by fracking! It is NOT the first time Virginia has had an earthquake! It is NOT the first time the Northeast has had an earthquake! Earthquakes in the Northeast has been going on for decades. Before you talk out your butt on this subject do some investigating! This video is a shock video and nothing more! If you want to know about fracking, drive to Towanda Pennsylvania

    http://www.decodedscience.com/how-unusual-was-the-virginia-earthquake-of-august-2011/2649

    Link to this
  21. 21. sault 4:31 pm 05/6/2013

    RobinBP,

    Does the BP stand for the oil company “BP” or something? Sounds like I hit a nerve that prompted you to use foul language and a lot of exclamation marks…Anyway, I’m more concerned about the earthquakes happening in Oklahoma and Texas:

    “The culprit of earthquakes near fracking sites is not believed to be the act of drilling and fracturing the shale itself, but rather the disposal wells. Disposal wells are the final resting place for used drilling fluid. These waste wells are located thousands of feet underground, encased in layers of concrete. They usually store the waste from several different wells.There are more than 50,000 disposal wells in Texas servicing more than 216,000 active drilling wells, according the the Railroad Commission. Each well uses about 4.5 million gallons of chemical-laced water, according to hydrolicfracturing.com

    Art McGarr, of the US Geological Survey’s Earthquake Science Center, has been looking at whether the amount of fluid stored in a disposal well affects the strength of an earthquake. The question is that as wastewater stays in the disposal wells longer and more and more fluids are added, will the quakes become stronger?

    His answer: they will.”

    Link to this
  22. 22. TheBartBarton 4:37 pm 05/6/2013

    I would propose that all on the extreme left go to live in the forest (or somewhere) in a safe zone. Grow your veggies and drink from the streams. The rest of us will continue blowing each other up in the name of human achievement. And peace will rein over all the land.

    Link to this
  23. 23. syzygyygyzys 4:54 pm 05/6/2013

    The BartBarton,

    You mean, “Then peace will guide the planets
    And love will steer the stars.”

    and ” No more falsehoods or derisions
    Golden living dreams of visions.”

    It sounds great. All except for the living in the woods part and drinking untreated water.

    Maybe if they partake of enough “Mystic crystal revelation”, they wouldn’t mind it too much.

    Link to this
  24. 24. rocbusinessman 5:28 pm 05/6/2013

    yeah… so http://www.austinenergy.com/ No bias there at all.

    Link to this
  25. 25. savetheplanet 7:02 pm 05/6/2013

    look on youtube for “josh fox the sky is pink”… also “cointelpro 101″ Wake up! Industry is hiring the same PR firms that told us smoking was safe! They want pollute the water so they can privatize!… Protect the West Village & NYC! STOP SPECTRA, BLOOMBERG & CUOMO from supporting this!

    Link to this
  26. 26. leaf6 8:14 pm 05/6/2013

    I sense more danger coming from people who forget to turn off the gas when they’re not using it than from the fracking industry itself. I guess fracking will go the way nuclear went: a great power source that is feared because of a couple of well publicized disasters or mess-ups. We should overcome those fears because we can–with science and innovation; or we can keep those fears in a Pandora’s box.

    Link to this
  27. 27. PuTmYkUsHiNyOu 8:59 pm 05/6/2013

    waste to argue for fracking or against but we don’t need it at all.solar all the way.

    Link to this
  28. 28. singing flea 4:05 am 05/7/2013

    It’s sad that those people who understand the least about our energy future are all conservative politically. So many of them have the economic means to lead the industry, but the fog of quarterly profits have them all hopelessly blinded. Conservatives (of the political kind) are about half the population. That is one half the population that just don’t get it. The other half don’t see it coming either or they would abandon a lot of self destructive practices too.

    I suppose it is all about perpetuating the military industrial based economy where waste is profit and conservation is a goal for economic losers. How ironic. The real truth is that capitalism will eventually be forced to embrace conservation but it will not be until common sense is forced on us all by our own greed or in other words, when we have nothing left but a polluted planet and unmanageably high fuel prices in every sector. We are already feeling the economic ill winds because of rising fuel prices. It won’t be nuclear or natural gas that is the economic engine of the future. It will be the conservation of energy that will become the mantra of the future conservatives. High tech appliances and transportation that runs on a tiny percentage of today’s wasted fuel will someday be the economic engine that tomorrows conservatives will invest in. Alternative fuel will by default trump them all. Visionaries that can see it coming are already reaping huge profits by developing energy efficient devices which can be used without the grid mentality.

    I case you are wondering, this is no liberal rant. Save your snide remarks for someone who doesn’t know the difference. This is a prophecy based on common sense, something poorly lacking in both sides of the political circus tent these days.

    Link to this
  29. 29. singing flea 4:18 am 05/7/2013

    @ronwagn You are myopic, lack originality and facts and are flogging a dead horse to make another dollar. Congratulations, you and Rushbo can both scratch your heads together and wonder why the world left you behind.

    Link to this
  30. 30. David Marjanović 10:39 am 05/9/2013

    Read this.

    The companies are allowed to keep it a trade secret what exactly they’re pumping into the groundwater, so the EPA is not allowed to control that. They’re allowed not to care what other than gas the water brings to the surface. They’ve got exemptions from the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Drinking Water Act, and Superfund Act. If that’s not outrageous, I don’t know what is.

    Nookular… either invest a few dozen billion per year into R&D, so that a thorium reactor or whatever becomes viable, or consider that we’ll simply run out of uranium in a few decades. It’s not a renewable resource, and it’s still not clear where to store the waste for the next thirty thousand years.

    Link to this
  31. 31. David Marjanović 11:05 am 05/9/2013

    The companies are allowed to keep it a trade secret what exactly they’re pumping into the groundwater, so the EPA is not allowed to control that.

    And that’s not just a theoretical problem. Denton County, TX, has a problem with its air (!) from chromium(VI) compounds used as anticorrosives in oil drilling.

    Link to this
  32. 32. Rachel in California 11:09 am 05/9/2013

    Definitely do not “boil a pot of ramen through misinformation and fear campaigns.” That is seriously dangerous.

    Soberly, let’s remember that exaggerated rhetoric doesn’t mean the underlying concern is wrong. It just means that PR people have got hold of the megaphone.

    Link to this
  33. 33. marclevesque 11:39 am 05/9/2013

    Addendum.

    1) The video, the article, the industry, me, we are all advancing view points. Each have their relative means. It’s a complex continuum of many variables. I can feel just as annoyed with a larger distortion of reality told by a group with little authority to 1000 people than with a smaller distortion of reality told by a group with a lot of authority to 1,000,000 people. 2) I love technology. I want to see it put in context. Size of pipeline, pressure, depth, construction methods. I love people. I want to see them seriously considered. Public security, breach risks, response plans, and similar concerns.

    Fracking.

    The technique is awesome, and prone to problems like toxic fluids, bad drilling locations, lack of enforceable responsibility for abandoned wells, volume of leakages, etc –regulations don’t seem adequate, and industry and government transparency seem to be lacking.

    “In 2012 Ingraffea and colleagues read through 16,017 inspection reports filed over the last four years. What they found was a significant and steady rate of methane leaks at the wellbore or what is known in industry jargon as “bubbling in the cellar … Moreover, the seven per cent figure only includes leaks at the wellhead. It does not include leaks that sprouted up in stream beds, water wells, or ponds often 2,000 feet away from the well site after steady fracking operations.”

    Industry agrees “Since the earliest gas wells, uncontrolled migration of hydrocarbons to the surface has challenged the oil and gas industry”. http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-01-10/shale-gas-how-often-do-fracked-wells-leak

    “In December 2010, in Bradford Township, McKean County, a house exploded, injuring the residents. Two and a half months later and two and a half miles away, another house blew up, while its owner was shoveling snow in the driveway. And then, in the summer of 2012, a 30-foot geyser spouted water and gas for more than a week in Tioga County, in northeastern Pennsylvania, like a whale that had been stirred out of its deep, ancient sleep. Dozens of similar cases were recorded by the DEP, even if not all as dramatic. Many of them, it was determined, were related to stray gas migration from old unplugged or poorly-plugged wells that had suddenly become active, gas building up under land and houses like an invisible bomb waiting for the casual strike of the match.” http://pulitzercenter.org/reporting/pennsylvania-abandoned-wells-shale-gas-oil-horizontal-drilling-hydraulic-fracturing-climate-change

    Link to this
  34. 34. novadust 12:32 pm 05/9/2013

    environmental impact of fracking waste turns supposedly clean gas into dirtier energy than coal. that waste from PA is now getting dumped in NY state. evidence indicates disposal wells lead to quakes.

    check out how PR firm hill & knowlton orchestrates disinformation campaigns to protect oil/gas industry as it did for big tobacco n BCCI, as well as to get us into gulf war.

    Link to this
  35. 35. Gale Hawk 4:18 pm 05/12/2013

    Fracking as a technique has been around since just after the Civil War. The first patent on fracking was taken out on April 25, 1865 by Civil War veteran Col. Edward A.L. Roberts.

    This technique is not new but the propaganda campaign against it is.

    If you want to know why Solar and Wind has industry/banker support it is very simple they are MONEY MAKERS. And the politicians do what the Bankers and corporations want and the heck with how much it hurts the little guy.

    Wind and solar destabilizes the power grid as the amount of power from those sources increases. Poland and the Czech Republic are moving to stop Germany from shunting their ‘Green Power’ to them for this reason.
    SEE: http://www.ceskapozice.cz/en/news/czech-numbers/czech-electricity-grid-company-ready-block-german-wind-power

    The solution is a ‘Smart Grid’ that allows industry uninterrupted power while providing homeowners with rolling blackouts.

    The Department of Energy Report 2009
    http://www.smartgrid.gov/sites/default/files/resources/systems_report.pdf

    “….A smart grid is needed at the distribution level to manage voltage levels, reactive power, potential reverse power flows, and power conditioning, all critical to running grid-connected DG systems, particularly with high penetrations of solar and wind power and PHEVs…. Designing and retrofitting household appliances, such as washers, dryers, and water heaters with technology to communicate and respond to market signals and user preferences via home automation technology will be a significant challenge. Substantial investment will be required…”

    Notice the last “…Substantial investment will be required…”

    This is what Wall Street thinks of the idea:

    “….We see an attractive long-term secular trend for investors to capitalize on over the coming 20–30 years as today’s underinvested and technologically challenged power grid is modernized to a technology-enabled smart grid. In particular, we see an attractive opportunity over the next three to five years to invest in companies that are enabling this transformation of the power grid…..”
    http://downloads.lightreading.com/internetevolution/Thomas_Weisel_Demand_Response.pdf

    It is called the Broken Window Fallacy. Wall Street is all for smashing the present power system so they can reap tax payer subsidies for ‘Green Power’ and the $$$ from forcing people to buy new appliances they would not other wise buy.

    They really do not care if they are killing off old age pensioners with fuel poverty. They do not care if people can no longer afford what they used to as long as THEY are the ones grabbing the profit.

    Link to this
  36. 36. PaulRoden 7:10 am 05/16/2013

    Radioactive radon which is a part of the gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale in PA, has a half life of 3.8 days. Regular natural gas from regular gas fields in Texas takes longer to travel via the pipelines and has radioactive radon as well. Piping gas from the Marcellus Shale will travel faster to NYC. There are fewer storage tanks and people don’t like seeing them. So it is prudent to do a health study of radioactive radon in the gas. The decay product of radioactive radon is radioactive lead which is an alpha emitter, which is what causes cancers and mutations. I haven’t heard of solar, wind, hydroelectric, conservation, fuel cell, tidal, and geothermal energy causing cancer. We don’t know the full costs of fracking. Just like with nuclear power, we have no solution to fracking or nuclear wastes.
    There is no way to clean fracking wastes and drill cuttings which are also radioactive. Lets have a moratorium until the health,environmental and economic costs are scientifically established. And why we are at it, lets look at the science and economic feasibility of Jacobson’s and Delucchi’s Nov. 2009 article in Scientific American. Lets end the tax subsidy to fossil and nuclear fuel and see which approach is the best for a sustainable and renewable energy future that has the least environmental impact. I am confident fracking, fossil fuel and nuclear power will not be the outcome of that feasibility study.

    Link to this

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