There 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?