Response to Professor Anthony Ingraffea’s “Gangplank to a Warm Future.”

In his excellent 7.28.13, New York Times Op-Ed,  Gangplank to a Warm Future – NYTimes.com, Cornell Profesoor Anthony Ingraffea argued that

MANY concerned about climate change, including President Obama, have embraced hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. In his recent climate speech, the president went so far as to lump gas with renewables as “clean energy.”

As a longtime oil and gas engineer who helped develop shale fracking techniques for the Energy Department, I can assure you that this gas is not “clean.” Because of leaks of methane, the main component of natural gas, the gas extracted from shale deposits is not a “bridge” to a renewable energy future — it’s a gangplank to more warming and away from clean energy investments.

Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, though it doesn’t last nearly as long in the atmosphere. Still, over a 20-year period, one pound of it traps as much heat as at least 72 pounds of carbon dioxide. Its potency declines, but even after a century, it is at least 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide. When burned, natural gas emits half the carbon dioxide of coal, but methane leakage eviscerates this advantage because of its heat-trapping power.

And methane is leaking, though there is significant uncertainty over the rate. But recent measurements by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at gas and oil fields in California, Colorado and Utah found leakage rates of 2.3 percent to 17 percent of annual production, in the range my colleagues at Cornell and I predicted some years ago. This is the gas that is released into the atmosphere unburned as part of the hydraulic fracturing process, and also from pipelines, compressors and processing units. Those findings raise questions about what is happening elsewhere. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued new rules to reduce these emissions, but the rules don’t take effect until 2015, and apply only to new wells.

A 2011 study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that unless leaks can be kept below 2 percent, gas lacks any climate advantage over coal. And a study released this May by Climate Central, a group of scientists and journalists studying climate change, concluded that the 50 percent climate advantage of natural gas over coal is unlikely to be achieved over the next three to four decades. Unfortunately, we don’t have that long to address climate change — the next two decades are crucial.

To its credit, the president’s plan recognizes that “curbing emissions of methane is critical.” However, the release of unburned gas in the production process is not the only problem. Gas and oil wells that lose their structural integrity also leak methane and other contaminants outside their casings and into the atmosphere and water wells. Multipleindustry studies show that about 5 percent of all oil and gas wells leak immediately because of integrity issues, with increasing rates of leakage over time. With hundreds of thousands of new wells expected, this problem is neither negligible nor preventable with current technology.

Why do so many wells leak this way? Pressures under the earth, temperature changes, ground movement from the drilling of nearby wells and shrinkage crack and damage the thin layer of brittle cement that is supposed to seal the wells. And getting the cement perfect as the drilling goes horizontally into shale is extremely challenging. Once the cement is damaged, repairing it thousands of feet underground is expensive and often unsuccessful. The gas and oil industries have been trying to solve this problem for decades.

The scientific community has been waiting for better data from the E.P.A. to assess the extent of the water contamination problem. That is why it is so discouraging that, in the face of industry complaints, the E.P.A. reportedly has closed or backed away from several investigations into the problem. Perhaps a full E.P.A. study of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water, due in 2014, will be more forthcoming. In addition, drafts of an Energy Department study suggest that there are huge problems finding enough water for fracturing future wells. The president should not include this technology in his energy policy until these studies are complete.

We have renewable wind, water, solar and energy-efficiency technology options now. We can scale these quickly and affordably, creating economic growth, jobs and a truly clean energy future to address climate change. Political will is the missing ingredient. Meaningful carbon reduction is impossible so long as the fossil fuel industry is allowed so much influence over our energy policies and regulatory agencies. Policy makers need to listen to the voices of independent scientists while there is still time.

Anthony R. Ingraffea is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University and the president of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy, a nonprofit group.

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The striking thing about Professor Ingraffea’s remarks is that, despite the fact that the science clearly shows the causal connection between methane emissions and climate change, there yet remain nay-sayers not only in the industry but among environmental organizations large and small and in the Obama administration.

It might be easy to describe this as an extreme form of denial, but as I argued recently in “Of Aristotle and Anadarko: Why Better Laws Will Never Be Enough” (Of Aristotle and Anadarko: Why “Better Laws” Will Never be Enough), it’s more:

To deny an obvious evil in the name of “moderation,” “compromise,” “maturity,” or even “compassion” is to at least concede to it.

To continue to deny, deflect, down-play, diminish that evil in the face of yet more and consistent evidence is to engage in collusion. 

To collude knowingly with that evil all the while claiming the mantle of reason is  a form of dishonesty worthy of contempt–and stalwart resistance.

It’s not surprising, of course, that Big Energy would ignore, deflect, and deny global warming. After all, their entire profit-driven gig depends on extracting every last bit of fossil energy from the shale–and apparently at virtually any cost–even into the bottom of the Arctic Ocean’s permafrost (Scientists Envision Fracking in Arctic and on Ocean Floor – WSJ.com).

It’s not even surprising (at least anymore) that government at every level has become corrupted by the lure of the money and the associated power of an industry whose legacy of environmental damage, community destruction, and grotesque economic exploitation of the world’s most vulnerable people seems to know no bounds (“Most Wanted” | Global Exchange). From the politics of a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that functions as nothing but a revolving door for industry aspirants (http://public-accountability.org/wp-content/uploads/Fracking-and-the-Revolving-Door-in-Pennsylvania.pdf), to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that’s clearly willing to exchange human health for industry access (Should frackers investigate themselves?), we have very little reason to believe that our elected representatives are watching our backs–or our water, or air, or soil. This was made starkly clear at Penn College, July 26th, 2013 at the “Bipartisan Natural Gas Caucus'” “field hearing” during which elected representatives took advantage of the opportunity to question natural gas representatives and business-persons from associated industries.

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Except that the questions were clearly intended only to highlight the “jobs” argument for continuing natural gas development. There was no provision for public comment–in plain violation of the PA-State Sunshine Act (http://www.lgc.state.pa.us/deskbook06/Issues_Citizens_Rights_02_Pa_Sunshine_Act.pdf), and there transpired not a word of critical inquiry in the day-long proceeding. Indeed, this was not a hearing at all. It was an orchestrated theatrical performance to propagandize for fracking and all of its associated industries under the guise of “good government,” and “public accountability.” I don’t know that I have ever witnessed a more cynical abuse of the public trust. But little surprises me these days–including the use of tax-payers dollars to make commercials for Big Global Gas.

Professor Ingraffea’s criticism of the Obama administration is right on the money. We have alternatives. With thoughtful planning, some creativity, and significant conservation, we can scale them to fulfill our energy needs. What we lack is political will. And no wonder given the privatizing and whole-sale corporatizing of government. As I argued in “Obama’s Big Fake Climate Change Speech and the Big Fake greens Who Loved It” (Obama’s Big Fake Climate Change Speech and the Big Fake Environmental Organizations Who Loved It), President Obama seems to have bought hook, line, and sinker the wholly specious “jobs argument.” Indeed, other than the fact that Obama is African American, he would have fit right in at the fake hearing at Penn College. And that is not a trivial point: white, male, affluent, Western. What we see reflected in the rhetoric of the Obama administration, in state government like Tom Corbett’s, and throughout state and federal congress is the worldview of what I have Called the “Good Old Boy Extraction Club,” a not-so-new patriarchy that rewards the same players at the expense of social justice and environmental integrity (YouTube: The Good Ole’ Boy Extraction Club: The Pseudo-Patriotic and Pervasively Patriarchal Culture of Hydraulic Fracturing (Why Breast Cancer is the Canary in the Fracking Coal Mine). My point, however, is not that Professor Ingraffea ought to have gone in this direction, but that regardless this history, regardless our absurdly distorted concession to “property rights” when they’re the industry’s, even regardless how easy or difficult it might be to make the transition to clean fuel sources, the writing is on the wall: methane emissions contribute substantially to climate change. That’s it. The end. We cannot even sort of afford this.

So, it’s not just striking that any environmental organization applauds President Obama’s industry-concilliatory tone on climate change, but that there’s anyone left who does not see that demanding anything other than a ban on all forms of extreme extraction–fracking, mountain top removal, and tar sands extraction, and all of their associated hydro-carbon emitting industries, is behaving in a fashion that is willfully daft. In light of the facts as Ingraffea lays them out, the very idea of “responsible drilling” is not merely oxymoronic, it must be interpreted as “pro-drilling.” As I spelled out in “Of Aristotle and Anadarko,” any organization that claims that so long as studies are done, “better laws” are crafted, “best practices” are observed and permits are granted only after review, drilling may then proceed is pro-drilling. And not just pro-drilling-under-the-right-circumstances. It is Pro. Drilling.

Why?

Because every one of these organizations knows that “better laws” and “best practices” is code for industry-drafted legislation like Act 13 (Act 13 | DEP > Oil and Gas), SB 258/HB1414 (http://legiscan.com/PA/text/SB259/id/868925/Pennsylvania-2013-SB259-Amended.pdf), SB 367 (The Industrialization of PASSHE: Where the Public Good, its Students, and its Faculty are Auctioned Off to the Extraction Profiteers (Or: Extortion by Extraction),  and SB 1047 (http://www.legis.state.pa.us/CFDOCS/Legis/PN/Public/btCheck.cfm?txtType=PDF&sessYr=2013&sessInd=0&billBody=S&billTyp=B&billNbr=1047&pn=1327)–just to name a tiny few.  We all know, in other words, that there is no way to frack better. More profitably, maybe. But the cost is precisely what Professor Ingraffea says is is: climate change–and a world of hurt that goes with it.

Because every one of these organizations knows that the effort to ameliorate the industry’s massive and growing damage is a bandaid on a gushing gut wound.

Because pretending to care about the future all the while pandering to the corporatist oligarchs of the present is hypocrisy.

Because “finding middle ground” with an enemy who understands you as naught but an inconvenience and an obstacle is not substantively different than the actions of the Vichy Government of France who tried to find “middle ground” with the NAZIs in a pathetic bid to save itself (The French Vichy Regime | Jewish Virtual Library). We all know how that turned out–a dark and embarrassing blight on French history. When Professor Ingraffea claims that “[t]he president should not include this technology [fracking] in his energy policy until these studies are complete,” he says it with the confidence that once complete, the studies will point clearly in the direction of a ban. In the mean time, he strongly defends the moratorium protecting New Yorkers from at least some of the environmental, health, and community devastation that’s converted Pennsylvania from a gorgeous destination for eco-tourists into Terry Engelder’s “sacrifice zone.” Hence, we must conclude that Professor Ingraffea is confident that such studies will only lend further credence to the argument for a ban.

And that’s it.

There is no negotiating over the surface rights for Anadarko in Loyalsock State Forest. There is no way to clean up the polluted wells in Dimock. There is no restoration of the Arboreal Forests lost to Alberta. There is no safe uranium mining in the Grand Canyon. There is no economic justice for Native Americans in the Dakotas. There is no making right the travesty of Riverdale. There is no return of the Northern Flying Squirrel once it’s driven out of Pennsylvania’s last contiguous forests now fragmented by truck roads and frack equipment parking lots. There is no fixing lost property values for farmers whose land and water is permanently destroyed. There is no fixing asthma. There is no fixing a breast cancer mastectomy.

Here’s my first crazy claim: human rights trump property rights.

Here’s my second crazy claim: the rights of living things to the conditions necessary to preserve life

and flourish in healthy ecological systems trump property rights too.

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There is no protecting the rights of human beings and other living organisms without the reasonable limitiation of the property rights. “Reasonable,” however, in the case of extreme industrialized extraction means “ban it now.” It means that the “property rights” of faux-persons called “corporations” must take a far back seat to the rights of  people, and their children, and the water, air and soil upon which it all depends.

Ban industrialized extraction now.

Anything else is subterfuge.

Wendy Lynne Lee.

1 Comment on Response to Professor Anthony Ingraffea’s “Gangplank to a Warm Future.”

  1. Wendy right on. There is NO way to do this responsibly. Simply NO WAY!! Professor Ingraffea has been on both sides of the coin and he knows first hand which side is the right side. And that is the side of a total ban and nothing less. Good going, Wendy

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