the bridge to a hotter future

December 10, 2012

Conference speakers and participants want a fracking moratorium in Maryland.
Holding the banner are, from left, Mike Tidwell, Dana Shimrock,
Heather Mizeur, Joe Romm and CCAN organizers Megan Jenny and Kelly Trout.
//photo from Delegate Mizeur’s facebook page.

The fossil fuels economy is a Ponzi scheme, author and blogger Joe Romm said Saturday at Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s statewide Conference on Fracking Risks and Action in Maryland. Instead of the typical Ponzi scheme, in which we stay rich by fooling the next guy, “we are staying rich by taking and destroying resources our kids would depend on. … We are hurting our kids … so this is much worse than other Ponzi schemes.” We are depleting the water, air and land, he said – behavior that has to collapse eventually. And natural gas, once thought to be the bridge fuel to the future, is instead a “bridge to nowhere” and just a part of this Ponzi scheme. “We have to stop building fossil fuels infrastructure this decade,” he said.

Romm was one of four speakers on a morning panel at the all-day conference at the University of Baltimore that examined the risks of hydraulic fracturing and laid out the case for a moratorium on the drilling process in Maryland unless it can be shown to be safe.

Mike Tidwell, executive director of CCAN, said the gas industry always points to winners but overlooks the losers. “How many losers? We don’t know.” That’s why Maryland first needs a thorough study of the economic, environmental and health effects, from tourism to tap water to truck traffic, he said.

Delegate Heather Mizeur, who delivered a keynote address at the conference, emphasized that Maryland is the only state that sits on top of Marcellus Shale but hasn’t rushed into fracking. “We have the opportunity to act first,” she said, instead of having to clean up an environmental mess afterward. “We will not drill first and ask questions later.”

Fracking involves drilling about a mile underground and then turning the drill and heading another mile or so sideways through shale rock. Drillers use explosives to begin shattering the rock, then send a mixture of water, silica sand and a top secret combination of toxic and often carcinogenic chemicals under high pressure to crack open the rock and release bubbles of methane trapped there. The gas and some of the toxic brew comes back up the pipe, along with radium that had been locked safely underground. Sometimes that waste is injected into underground wells, a practice linked to earthquakes. Other times it sits in wastewater pits or is spread on roads. It also has been sent through waste-treatment plants and returned in questionable condition to drinking water sources.

An executive order by Gov. Martin O’Malley stands in the way of drilling in Maryland, for now. He set up a commission to study fracking and recommend regulations, but natural gas industry lobbyists have successfully argued against a fee on land leased for drilling that would have funded a comprehensive study. Mizeur called the executive order a “temporary reprieve.”

A legislative moratorium “will not happen without you,” she told the more than 200 people attending the conference. “I’m asking each of you to make this fight your own.”

“We can keep something bad from ever happening,” she said.

In the afternoon, those at the conference could attend two of three breakout sessions: how to make the fracking moratorium happen; debunking fracking myths; and fracking’s cost to the environment and clean energy alternatives.

(At least half a dozen CCICH members attended the conference, so I hope others will include comments about the sessions they attended or any other parts of the conference. I attended the latter two sessions.)

The morning panel members, as well as those during afternoon sessions, talked about the health, climate, community and legal ramifications of fracking. Others spoke of advances in renewable energy, such as solar and wind. Emma’s Revolution made an unscheduled appearance, singing “Feel the Wind,” a song the two musicians wrote to encourage Maryland legislators to pass offshore wind legislation.

Several speakers talked of the folly of building the infrastructure for a global natural gas economy that, according to the International Energy Agency, will warm the planet a catastrophic 6 degrees C (for those of us in the U.S., that’s about 11 degrees F). Ted Glick, national program coordinator of CCAN, called natural gas a “bridge fuel to worldwide climate catastrophe.” (During a Mitt Romney campaign stop in Virginia shortly after Hurricane Sandy, Glick hoisted a banner that said “End Climate Silence” and yelled, “What about climate? That’s what caused this monster storm,” before being drowned out by audience boos and chants of “USA! USA!” and hauled out of the area.) Glick said that if fracking expands worldwide, the atmosphere would be headed for 650 parts per million of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by the end of the century, far above the 350 ppm that made civilization possible. Although the burning of natural gas emits less CO2 than coal or oil, it emits methane during drilling and venting, from compressor stations and along leaking pipelines. Shorter-lived methane is about 20 times more efficient at trapping heat than CO2, but averaged over 20 years, it is 72 times worse for the climate, Glick said.

Suzanne Jacobson, a nurse at Frederick MemorialHospital, and Veronica Coptis, a community organizer for Mountain Watershed Association in southwest Pennsylvania outlined the health problems in communities living with fracking. Doug Shields, the former Pittsburgh councilman, talked about leading that city’s efforts to pass a ban on fracking based on community rights rather than zoning. So far, no company has sued. He said the nation needs political leadership similar to that shown by President Kennedy, who set a timeframe for getting to the moon.

Panel member Dana Shimrock leased 50 acres of her land in Western Maryland, a decision she now regrets. For a year, she resisted industry representatives, but as her neighbors signed leases, she eventually relented, thinking that fracking would be similar to conventional gas drilling. When she asked what was in the fluid used to frack wells, she was told water and sand. No mention was made of the hazardous chemicals. She also was told the drilling footprint would be about an acre. In reality, the footprint of Pennsylvania drill pads is six to 10 acres, she said. She received $5 an acre, but the lease was eventually flipped for $10,000 an acre. The CEO of Chief Oil & Gas is very wealthy, she said, but he made his money from flipping leases, not from extracting natural gas. She has also learned much about those harmed by fracking in Pennsylvania, including an organic farmer whose land is now nearly worthless. “Banks don’t want to have anything to do with land with leases,” she said, or even adjacent properties.

Paul Roberts, a farmer and winery owner in GarrettCounty and founder of Citizen Shale, has not leased his family’s land, but the narrow road that runs in front of his house would be filled with diesel trucks hauling millions of gallons of water and fracking waste. The nearby land would be covered with well pads, each with eight or so wells, along with compressor stations and pipelines. “You’re probably thinking this is a personal thing,” he said, “We’re over it being personal. … If we go down this road and subject another generation to fossil fuels, it’s game over for the planet.”

Invoking Bill Clinton, he said the arithmetic of shale gas doesn’t add up. To produce enough natural gas to fill half the energy needs of the nation by 2035, as the industry plans to do, 35,000 to 40,000 wells would have to be drilled every year. In 2012, however, 18,000 to 20,000 were drilled, far short of the goal. Yet those wells already have brought environmental degradation to Pennsylvania, West Virginia and states in the southwest United States. He said we would have to fell every fifth tree in Pennsylvania to meet the goal. Also, because natural gas is not easily stored, the industry has to increase demand by promoting gas for vehicles, even though this would require an enormous investment in infrastructure, and try to set up ports for export. At the same time, however, the Energy Information Administration has drastically lowered estimates of how much gas is contained in the Marcellus Shale.

Because of low gas prices, many drillers have let leases lapse in Western Maryland. Chevron is the lone company remaining, he said. “We have time to make the right decision,” Roberts said.

Diana Dascalu-Joffe, the senior general counsel of CCAN, discussed the myth that the industry is highly regulated. The so-called Halliburton loophole, for example, exempts the gas industry from oversight provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and others. In addition, Maryland regulations for the oil and gas industry haven’t been amended since 1993, so they don’t even address fracking. Maryland also has trade secret exemptions that would fail to protect workers or communities. Under existing laws, she said, the Maryland Department of the Environment has the “discretion” to allow drilling permits within 1,000 feet of water sources, streams, schools, populations. She said MDE should not have the ability to allow drilling so close to those areas. “An unregulated industry is a dangerous industry,” she said.

Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, seemed sharp but also a bit weary on what he said was his 1,867th talk—a factoid he knows because he’s working on an autobiography. “We talk about saving the planet, but it’s our civilization that’s in danger,” he said. The environmental trends show trouble on many fronts, from aquifer depletion, deforestation, climate change and overpopulation.

Food, he said, is the weak link. The combination of population growth and people “moving up the food chain” to diets high in meat, milk and eggs has put extreme pressure on earth’s resources, particularly water. Many countries are overpumping aquifers, so water will be the main constraint for more food.

Farmers also face climate change. As a former farmer, Brown said, he always faced the variability of weather. Eventually normal would return. “Now there’s no normal to go back to. Farmers don’t know how to plan,” he said. For each 1 degree C rise in average global temperatures, grain yields decline 10 percent. Agriculture evolved during 11,000 years of climate stability, he said. “That climate system is no more.” Soil erosion, a byproduct of overplowing and overgrazing, will be another constraint on food production. Grain prices are already rising, and families in Ethiopia, India, Nigeria and other nations plan for foodless days.

We need to stabilize the climate, but cutting carbon and other greenhouse emissions 80 percent by 2050 is too late, he said. Instead we need a massive mobilization to cut emissions 80 percent by 2020. He sees hope in many places: coal plants are closing, auto sizes peaked in 2007 and cities are instituting bike sharing programs. Wind farms provide 40 to 50 percent of the energy in three German states and 20 percent of the electricity in Iowa and South Dakota. He said wind energy can “scale up” like no other energy form, from 100 megawatts to 10,000 megawatts. “We are now in the early phase of what I call the great transition” from fossil fuels, he said, and he’s confident that wind energy will “become the centerpiece of the new energy economy.”

He said we will need a massive restructuring similar to 1942, when this nation shifted to a wartime footing. “If we could restructure the U.S. industrial economy in 1942 … then certainly we can restructure the energy economy today.”

“Time is our scarcest resource,” he said, because we need to shift to this new energy economy “before climate change spirals out of control.” He urged everyone to have a stake in future civilization. “We can’t sit around and hope someone will save the future for us.”

Read a Washington Post article about the conference here.

–elisabeth hoffman