March 28, 2012

Wind energy stalling in the U.S.?

Is $180 Million a sufficient kick in the pants?

Offshore wind is an enormous potential resource for the United States, with strong, consistent winds located in the Atlantic (especially off Virginia), Pacific, the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. Estimated at more than 4,000 gigawatts, this renewable energy source should be part of the "all of the above" energy policy that we hear mentioned so often. And we'll hear more of it before the November elections.

So it's welcome news that the Energy Department will make up to $180 million available over six years to support up to four offshore wind demonstation projects, subject to congressional appropriations, including an initial commitment of $20 million in fiscal year 2012.

The Department will focus this latest research and demonstration initiative on highly innovative technologies that will achieve large cost reductions over existing offshore wind technologies. The demonstrations will help address key challenges associated with installing utility-scale offshore wind turbines, connecting offshore turbines to the power grid, and navigating new permitting and approval processes.

Letters of intent are due on March 30 and applications are due on May 31, 2012. Will Virginia apply for a bit of this incentive?

Yesterday's announcement about a major wine turbine prototype in the Chesapeake Bay is promising. Click here for the whole story in the Daily Press. If this partnership between Newport News Shipbuilding and Spanish firm Gamesa is really operational by late 2013, I'll be the first to cheer. But I'm still waiting for the mega-wind project Cape Wind off Cape Cod.

March 27, 2012

100+ coal plants retired, but a NEW one in Virginia?

By the end of February, many of us were celebrating the announcement that ancient coal-fired power plants in Chicago were scheduled for retirement--as well as additional old coal plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania. It was a feather in the cap for Sierra Club and their Beyond Coal campaign that began in January 2010.

But sadly, in the small town of Dendron, Virginia, the elected officials and planning commission approved the largest coal-fired power plant to be built in Virginia--in spite of approximately 350 people, many holding signs demanding “NO COAL PLANT!” at the public hearing.
The proposed 1500 megawatt Old Dominion Electric Cooperative (ODEC) plant looks like more of a "done deal," but factors may change.

A 2011 report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation concluded that air pollution from the ODEC plant would cause 442 asthma attacks and 26 premature deaths a year, worsen ozone air pollution across the region, and add up to 44 pounds a year of toxic mercury pollution and 921 pounds of lead to the environment annually.

Now the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have to approve permits for the plant, for which ODEC has not yet re-applied, although they say they will in 2013.

ODEC has already purchased the 1,336 acres of land -- now zoned for agriculture, and next to homes -- for the proposed project in Dendron. If the project moves ahead, ODEC promises about 3,000 construction workers finding work with the project, and about 200 full time employees at the plant.
$5 billion invested in dirty coal??? That could go far toward wind, solar or tidal energy. Or, at the very least, consider burning natural gas in this power plant. I'm no fan of fracking, but gas is a cleaner energy source than coal. But some Virginians want to return to the Dickens era.

This week, the EPA is finally expected to issue its rule governing climate pollution at new power plants. It is likely to prompt a fusillade of bogus political attacks.

Toilet paper in the news

Just a bit of trivia that caught my eye:

We are now using more "virgin wood" for our toilet paper than our newspapers. That is indeed news. Most likely due to more "paperless" offices, so less recycled paper.

There is even more to know about Pink Slime Meat

The helpful folks at Food Safety News dug up a United Stated Department of Agriculture document that lists dozens of chemicals that processors can apply to meat without any labeling requirement.

Yikes. It's amazing that calcium hypochlorite (also used to bleach cotton and clean swimming pools), hypobromous acid (also used as a germicide in hot tubs), DBDMH (or 1,3-dibromo-5,5-dimethylhydantoin, which is also used in water treatment), and chlorine dioxide (also used to bleach wood pulp), can be added to our ground beef. And you will NOT see it on the label.
Why? The USDA requires processors to label certain approved antimicrobials, such as salt, spices, and even lemon as ingredients. Why not their harder-to-pronounce buddies? Perhaps because it might disgust consumers to know how thoroughly their meat must be chemically disinfected before it can be sold.

There's more: Look at this list of "additives" that can be added to meat and poultry (from the FDA welsite):

ANTIOXIDANT - substances added to foods to prevent the oxygen present in the air from causing undesirable changes in flavor or color. BHA, BHT, and tocopherols are examples of antioxidants.

BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene), BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), TOCOPHEROLS (VITAMIN E) - antioxidants that help maintain the appeal and wholesome qualities of food by retarding rancidity in fats, sausages, and dried meats, as well as helping to protect some of the natural nutrients in foods, such as vitamin A.

BINDER - a substance that may be added to foods to thicken or improve texture.

BROMELIN - an enzyme that can dissolve or degrade the proteins collagen and elastin to soften meat and poultry tissue. It is derived from pineapple fruit and leaves, and is used as a meat tenderizer.

CARRAGEENAN - seaweed is the source of this additive. It may be used in products as binder.

CITRIC ACID - widely distributed in nature in both plants and animals. It can be used as an additive to protect the fresh color of meat cuts during storage. Citric acid also helps protect flavor and increases the effectiveness of antioxidants.

CORN SYRUP - sugar that is derived from the hydrolysis of corn starch. Uses include flavoring agent and sweetener in meat and poultry products.

EMULSIFIER - substance added to products, such as meat spreads, to prevent separation of product components to ensure consistency. Examples of these types of additives include lecithin, and mono- and di-glycerides.

FICIN - enzyme derived from fig trees that is used as a meat tenderizer.

GELATIN - thickener from collagen which is derived from the skin, tendons, ligaments, or bones of livestock. It may be used in canned hams or jellied meat products.

HUMECTANT - substance added to foods to help retain moisture and soft texture. An example is glycerine, which may be used in dried meat snacks.

HYDROLYZED (SOURCE) PROTEIN - flavor enhancers that can be used in meat and poultry products. They are made from protein obtained from a plant source such as soy or wheat, or from an animal source, such as milk. The source used must be identified on the label.

MODIFIED FOOD STARCH - starch that has been chemically altered to improve its thickening properties. Before the starch is modified, it is separated from the protein through isolation techniques; therefore, the source of the starch used is not required on the label.

MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE (MSG) - MSG is a flavor enhancer. It comes from a common amino acid, glutamic acid, and must be declared as monosodium glutamate on meat and poultry labels.

PAPAIN - an enzyme that can dissolve or degrade the proteins collagen and elastin to soften meat and poultry tissue. It is derived from the tropical papaya tree and is used as a meat tenderizer.

PHOSPHATES - the two beneficial effects of phosphates in meat and poultry products are moisture retention and flavor protection. An example is the use of phosphates in the curing of ham where approved additives are sodium or potassium salts of tripolyphosphate, hexametaphosphate, acid pyrophosphate, or orthophosphates, declared as "phosphates" on labels.

PROPYL GALLATE - used as an antioxidant to prevent rancidity in products such as rendered fats or pork sausage. It can be used in combination with antioxidants such as BHA and BHT.

RANCID/RANCIDITY - oxidation/breakdown of fat that occurs naturally causing undesirable smell and taste. BHA/BHT and tocopherols are used to keep fats from becoming rancid.

SODIUM CASEINATE - used as a binder in products such as frankfurters and stews.

SODIUM ERYTHORBATE - is the sodium salt of erythorbic acid, a highly refined food-grade chemical closely related to vitamin C, synthesized from sugar, and used as a color fixative in preparing cured meats. (Note: Erythorbate is NOT earthworms. Perhaps the spelling or pronunciation has contributed to this misconception because the Hotline receives many calls related to this concern.)

SODIUM NITRITE - used alone or in conjunction with sodium nitrate as a color fixative in cured meat and poultry products (bologna, hot dogs, bacon). Helps prevent growth of Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism in humans.

SUGAR (SUCROSE) - used as sweetener in an endless list of food products.
TEXTURIZERS/STABILIZERS/THICKENERS - used in foods to help maintain uniform texture or consistency. These are substances that are commonly called binders. Examples are gelatin and carrageenan.

WHEY, DRIED - the dried form of a component of milk that remains after cheese making. Can be used as a binder or extender in various meat products, such as sausage and stews.

STILL HUNGRY? Pink slime meat is also in many hot dogs, lunch meats, chili, sausages, pepperoni, retail frozen entrees, roast beef and canned foods. Geez, it's hard to know what you're eating in the 21st century. Glad that farmers markets are opening soon!

Agent Orange on our food crops?

Another food threat coming our way?

Grist reported in January that the USDA is considering approval of a new variety of genetically engineered corn from Dow Chemical that is resistant to 2,4-D, one of the most commonly used herbicides in the U.S. — and one of the main ingredients in Agent Orange.
If approved, it will increase the use of 2,4-D, which has been associated with cancer, nerve damage, hormone disruption and other health effects. Some are also concerned that more 2,4-D could lead to a new breed of “superweed,” the fast-growing weeds that have developed resistance to the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) since Monsanto introduced its genetically engineered Roundup Ready crops.

Check out this fact sheet from the Center for Food Safety [PDF].

What can YOU do? Contact the USDA before the public comment period ends on April 27 to tell them what you think.

GMO Foods: Do you know what you are eating?

The Food Democracy Now folks say "It's time to Label GMOs!" 

Most Americans have no idea that an estimated 80 percent of processed food sold in the U.S. contain ingredients, known as GMOs (genetically modified organisms), that have been engineered or altered in high-tech laboratories, specifically at Monsanto. 40 countries around the world require labeling of GMO foods, including the European Union, Russia and even China--and we're clueless!

The U.S. government hasn’t required labeling because it does not want to suggest or imply that GMO foods are in any way different from other foods. Some brands have started to put the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label on their packaging, but that’s a voluntary effort.
Last year a Canadian study discovered that insecticide toxins from genetically engineered crops were found in the blood of 93% of blood samples taken from pregnant women and 80% umbilical cords tested. Monsanto has maintained that these toxins in their crops would never affect the food supply or affect humans, Hmmm. 

WHY? Because giant biotech and seed companies like Monsanto have helped write the rules for our governmental regulatory agencies and paid billions in lobbying, PR and campaign donations over the past two decades.

Click here to join the almost million Americans who have signed on to the "Just Label It" campaign. Americans just demanded less "pink slime" in their burgers, so there's hope for this cause now.
Click here for more info on "Farmers vs. Monsanto."
And stay informed about the breaking news on farm and food policy by clicking here for the Environmental Working Group's "Policy Plate" updates.

March 19, 2012

Know your farmer; know your food

The USDA has a dandy website at that is a good place to start. Check out their new Know Your Farmer; Know Your Food Compass too.

But isn't the USDA the agency in the line of fire for not requiring "pink slime" or beef trimmings to be on our ground beef labels? And for allowing 7 million pounds of ground beef containing pink slime to be in our National School Lunch Program?

Then the agency proclaimed that they'd "provide schools with a choice to order product either with or without Lean Finely Textured Beef." Talk about semantics, calling the additive Lean Finely Textured Beef doesn't make it a meat product in my mind.

Then there's the really gross mechanically separated chicken (see my November 2011 post on that topic) that looks like cotton candy. And it goes into most chicken nuggets. So NOT appetizing!

So the bottom line is that it's not sufficient to know your farmer--without knowing your meat processor. I'd prefer to know if ammonia has been sprayed on my "meat trimmings" ground beef. Even better, look for that "USDA Organic" label. Better yet, listen to good ole Mom and eat your vegetables.

And become a frequent shopper at your local farmers market. That season is right around the corner. Check out the Williamsburg Farmers Market schedule and list of local vendors.

By the way, last February, McDonalds joined Burger King and Taco Bell in discontinuing the use of boneless lean beef trimmings in their food. Now that's a happy meal. But it may remain in your school cafeterias for quite some time.

Speaking of pink slime — I found it quite ironic that the current top official of the FDA is Dr. Margaret Hamburg. I wonder if her diet includes hamburgers with beef trimmings treated with ammonia gas so they are safe to eat?

Are you confused about who is responsible for our food safety? The Food and Drug Agency or the U.S. Department of Agriculture?  You are not alone. The FDA is responsible for protecting public health by ensuring the safety and security of our nation’s food supply, and they have shifted their focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.

The USDA, through their Food Safety Inspection Service, is responsible for ensuring that the nation's commercial supply of egg products, poultry and meat (excluding game meats, such as venison) is safe and correctly labeled and packaged.

You can learn about almost daily recalls of foods on my blog. (See the top left of the welcome page.) It’s no wonder that 33 percent of Americans now eat meatless meals on a regular basis. Meatless Monday has been a huge success. As Michael Pollan says, “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Small farms — Make up 88 percent of all farms in the U.S., but only produce 34 percent of our food. How many local farmers do you know?
In addition to all the wonderful vendors at Williamsburg’s Farmers Market, Zina’s Produce (on Route 5 across from Governor’s Land entrance) is a great place to buy local foods. I’ve tried her hens’ eggs, York River oysters, Virginia ice cream and Charlottesville donuts recently. All winners!

You and your family can participate in her farm’s “Our Farm Is Your Farm Day” on April 21. It may be your best opportunity to plant, weed and harvest a row of veggies this year. Your family can keep half the harvest and donate half to Avalon Center for women and children. Put this date on your calendar; bring your seeds and garden tools.

March 6, 2012

How does fracking really work?

So many photos of fracking drill sites show you merely the site. Or a depiction of a well that appears to descend only a short distance.

Want to see a great interactive explanation of fracking--with the graphics in the right proportion?

I just found a super website from National Geographic that shows all the steps in fracking.

March 5, 2012

Who is regulating fracking?

What regulations are in the works? Or is it "Drill, baby, drill" unlimited?

Gas producers are generally left to police themselves when it comes to spills--as the top five companies reaped $13.7 billion profits in 2011. In Pennsylvania, regulators do not do unannounced inspections at this time. Gas producers report their own spills, write their own spill response plans, and lead their own spill cleanup work. So the proverbial fox is in the fracking henhouse.

One industry study admitted that 25 percent of fracked wells probably leak after 5 years and 40 percent after 8 years, so I’m not satisfied with self-regulation. Somebody else needs to be in the henhouse.
A number of nations have banned fracking until investigations are concluded, but the EPA has not yet found any reason to do so in the U.S.

The EPA studied hydrofracking in 2004, when Congress was considering whether the process should be fully regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act. An early draft of that study discussed potentially dangerous levels of contamination in hydrofracking fluids and mentioned “possible evidence” of contamination of an aquifer. The report’s final version excluded these points, concluding instead that hydrofracking “poses little or no threat to drinking water.” Shortly after the study was released, an EPA. whistle-blower said the agency had been strongly influenced by industry and political pressure.

Recently a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science suggests that drilling may contaminate drinking water wells, after all—but with methane, NOT hydrofracking fluids. Apparently, methane concentrations in drinking water wells near natural gas drilling sites in the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania and New York are 17 times higher, on average, than concentrations of this gas in drinking water wells in areas without any drillling. Coincidence? I think not.

The former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources described fracking in this pithy statement: “We’re burning the furniture to heat the house . . . and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste.”

At this time, the EPA is in the midst of a major investigation into the safety of groundwater near fracking sites. Unfortunately it is moving at government glacial speed. The investigation is due to last through 2012 with a report due in 2014.

But it’s far more complicated than simply deciding whether to ban or to regulate. According to a Quinnipiac poll in New York in December, 45 percent oppose hydraulic fracturing and 44 percent favor it. A majority thinks it would create jobs, but also that it would damage the environment.

The EPA had not been able to document any confirmed groundwater contamination from fracking operations—until last December. Then an EPA report confirmed dangerous levels of benzene in a an aquifer that supplied public drinking water to people in Pavillion, Wyoming. The gas industry responded that this was a probability, but NOT a conclusion.

Last Wednesday, the Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, told a congressional hearing that his department is going to issue new federal regulations to control hydraulic fracturing in federal lands. Some see this as a violation of state’s rights to regulate oil and gas development within their own borders.  But these regulations, created by the Department of the Interior, would apply only to fracking that takes place on federal lands, not to the fracking on private land, where most of the shale formations are found. But if the proposed regulations are successfully implemented, they could help bring parity to fracking regulations, which vary widely by state.

The gas industry states that, in most instances, the gas-bearing and water-bearing layers of shale are widely separated by thousands of vertical feet, as well as by rock. Thus, they attest that fracking is unlikely to contaminate drinking water. But the industry admits to a number of cases of contamination from accidental surface spills, saying they are similar to what we see from virtually every industry that transports and pumps liquids.

However, since January, Pennsylvania officials have found more than 530 violations at natural gas drilling sites across the state, ranging from spills and leaks to poor erosion and sediment controls.
But the government must protect public water from damage from hydraulic fracturing, no matter what you believe the role of government to be. The industry will NOT do it voluntarily. That is why Food and Water Watch is calling for Congress to pass the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act and to put a moratorium on further drilling until the EPA conducts a thorough review of the technology’s impacts on human health and the environment.

Want to do your own research?

Start out at for a good understanding of what this agency is doing.
Quite a few environmental groups are closely monitoring what's going in a number of states as accidents occur.
For the industry side of the issue, visit and their fracking-friendly links. 

Fracking outside the U.S.??

Not much fracking is taking place outside the U.S., but it’s coming. Some countries, however, are taking a good hard look at this controversial technique before jumping on the bandwagon. Or have put the brakes on as they further study possible threats to drinking water.

The UK has one fracking site near Blackpool, but it’s has been closed for the past few months, pending a government review, after two minor earth tremors were attributed, in an official report, to the drilling.

The National Assembly in Paris voted last spring to suspend fracking in France – at least for now, though some suspect it will resume.

Poland is the first country where companies would like to develop shale gas on a large scale 1) Poland may have more than a third of the natural gas resources in Europe, and 2) Poland is desperate to reduce its dependency on Russian oil. Sound familiar? Russia now supplies about 60 percent of Poland’s natural gas.

I know this sounds like the beginning of a bad joke about Polish scientists, but just last Friday, the Poland Geological Institute found the fracking process safe for surface and drinking water and not a cause of earth tremors. And our EPA has been researching it for years without this definitive finding?

Although Shell does not currently frack for oil or gas in the rocks of Europe and focuses most of its attention on North America, it has acquired “acreage” in Germany, the Ukraine and Turkey. Just last month, Shell’s chief executive announced that Shell would invest $6 b in 2012 as they accelerate that company’s use of the controversial technology. He also called on Europe for a less “emotional” response to fracking. And said he does not expect fracking in Europe to become anything like as big as in North America, in part because the continent is more densely populated.

Energy companies are using fracking technology in parts of Canada too, bringing jobs and wealth to gas-rich provinces like Alberta and British Columbia. But residents near drilling sites have complained that natural gas has seeped into their water wells making their tap water flammable. Drillers have denied responsibility.

And with the greatest water crisis in human history threatening, fracking injects mind-numbing quantities of chemical-laden fresh water into the Earth. Can we afford to use up trillions of gallons of water in this procedure? South African drilling officials set a moratorium on new licenses for exploration until February to allow the government to conduct more research.

South Africa, a country where drinking water is only available in bottles, is among the growing number of countries that want to unlock previously inaccessible natural gas reserves trapped in shale deep underground, but the government placed a moratorium on fracking last April and haven’t lifted it yet.

Shell and several other large energy companies want to drill thousands of natural gas wells in arid South Africa. Water needed for fracking may be brought in by rail from the coast, which is hundreds of miles away in some parts, or drawn from aquifers far below the ones that supply water for farmers. The company may even tap into the aquifers that farmers use if it can prove no adverse impact. How ethical is that? Many residents say they would prefer to see the government bring in wind or solar farms, not new drilling.

More than 30 countries, including China, India and Pakistan, are now considering fracking for natural gas or oil, and the surge in gas production has spurred interest in building pipelines and terminals that liquefy the fuel so it can be shipped to far-flung markets.

Indonesia is a major exporter of liquefied natural gas, but it struggles to meet domestic demand.So the Indonesian government is considering allowing drilling for shale gas in a part of Java where, in 2006, drilling led to the eruption of a mud volcano that killed at least 13 people, and displaced more than 30,000 residents from 12 villages.

Fracking in Virginia?

So far, so good in Virginia. The state already has 7700 natural gas wells operating, but none take gas from the natural gas rich Marcellus Shale deposit in Virginia.

In February 2012, the county's elected folks (majority Republicans!) in a small Blue Ridge Mountains town in western Virginia (only 8 miles from the West Virginia border) did not approve a special use permit to a drilling company to utlize the fracking technology there. Too many unanswered questions! Too much risk! Safety trumped speed (and jobs and money) in this case. This town sits over the natual gas-rich Marcellus Shale deposit.

Perhaps the earthquake in Virginia last August shook them up--even though geologists can't prove a connection between fracking and that quake.

Read the whole Washington Post story by clicking here.

Where is fracking taking place in the U.S.?

Lest you think that fracking is only accelerating in Pennsylvania, here's a brief look at just a few places it's occurring. It may be a case of  "speed trumps safety" as permits are approved in the blink of an eye.

Kansas: The burst of drilling pushed temporary water permits for oil and gas exploration in Kansas along the geologic formation called the Mississippian to a nearly 30-year high in 2011—600, and they approved all but two. Those were turned down only because of a lack of water in the area. One company in Kansas has about 1.4 million acres for drilling and expects to have at least 57 wells in the state by the end of the year, And this is in an area that had severe drought problems in 2011.

Ohio: In addition to MANY permits for disposal of fracking water and chemicals, new drilling activity was going strong in the Utica Shale deposit in Ohio. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources issued 18 permits to one Chesapeake Company to drill horizontal wells in ONE county alone. This same company has permits for another 50+ wells in Ohio, with 10 wells waiting to be fracked any day. In early January, Ohio joined Arkansas in imposing a moratorium on these wells after several minor earthquakes--11 since last March--in a state not known for seismic activity. As wastewater was injected into Ohio wells under pressure, some of it might have migrated into deeper rock formations, unclamping ancient faults and allowing the rock to slip. Scientists refer to this as induced seismicity. The Ohio Governor says he will introduce new energy legislation by mid-March that will impact Utica and Marcellus Shale drilling in his state. Stay tuned.

State records show that more than 5,500 oil and gas industry pollution complaints have been filed in Oklahoma since 2007, including reports of groundwater contamination, oil and gas leaks and spills of drilling water. Officials issued 380 violation orders with fines, but dismissed most of the complaints, a record that some environmentalists say shows the need for more federal oversight.

North Dakota: Their Bakken oil and gas fields are now booming with rigs. The fracking boom there was the subject of recent news specials as large numbers of unemployed from Florida have migrated to North Dakota, overwhelming the infastructure, but getting jobs.

Texas: The Big Oil state now has about 93,000 natural-gas wells, up from around 58,000 a dozen years ago. To get at the rich deposits of the13,000 square mile Barnett Shale deposit, geologists are frequently drilling right next to subdivisions and shopping centers. Fort Worth has more than 2,000 gas wells right in the city itself, most of that growth taking place within just the last five years. On the other hand, Pittsburgh, facing the prospect of urban drilling, forbade it last year by a vote of the City Council.

One hospital system near many fracked wells said in 2010 that it found a 25 percent asthma rate for young children, more than three times the state rate of about 7 percent. HMMMM?

But the drop in natural gas prices has put a damper on the drilling in the Barnett. Plus the record heat and drought in Texas in 2011 is making them take a hard look at the amount of water needed in fracking here.

Wyoming: The Cowboy State has seen hundreds of new gas wells drilled in the past 15 years, with 200 near the town of Pavillion alone. But residents started alleging a connection between the drilling and water contamination in their wells about ten years ago. The EPA began a review in 2009 and last December stated that harmful chemicals from fracking fluids were likely present in the Pavillion aquifer. The EPA was careful to note that its findings "are specific to Pavillion" and are not applicable to fracking projects all over the country. the aquifer in Pavillion will never be cleaned. The contamination there, for the foreseeable future, is permanent Hmmm.

Is fracking safe?

What are the big problems with fracking? Fracking emerged as a statewide issue in New York State in 2008, and they have had a moratorium against it for almost 4 years. Even Chefs for the Marcellus, a group headed by Food Network star Mario Batali, has urged current Governor Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking at the state level. Cuomo promises a decision within a few months. Or perhaps new regulations.

Since only the state can regulate the industry, six upstate New York counties have recently banned fracking through zoning changes. Now I understand why we saw so many “Anti-fracking” signs last summer on front lawns when we visited the Finger Lakes.

Environmental groups have a complicated history with natural gas. Several, particularly Sierra Club, have seen it as a bridge fuel toward renewable sources that was cleaner than coal and oil, and a preferred alternative to common mining practices.

However, some former advocates of gas see it not just as an alternative to oil and coal, but also as something crowding out renewable resources like wind and solar power. There has been a humongous increase in supply that has greatly dropped the price of natural gas. The glut of this commodity is deterring investment in renewable energy like wind, solar and tides. Nuclear power too.

In fact, a group called Frack Action started up in 2010 largely because some anti-fracking activists worried that established environmentalists seemed resigned to living with gas drilling.

But real media coverage about fracking began in the picturesque rural Pennsylvania village of Dimock, Pennsylvania, about halfway between Scranton, Pa., and Binghamton, N.Y., where at least 18 families' water wells were contaminated with methane and chemicals after fracking began in the area. By 2009, this town had become synonymous with fracking hell. The 2010 HBO documentay, Gasland, opened a lot of folks’ eyes by showing some drinking water in this town bursting into flame at the faucet. Some residents began experiencing bouts of dizziness and headaches; others developed sores after baths.
For a while, the drilling company trucked water to Dimock’s residents, but stopped when a judge declined to order the company to continue deliveries. Then the EPA even delivered water to the18 families until last November when state regulators said tap water standards were good enough for them to stop. So Sierra Club has arranged for trucks to deliver water since last December. Federal regulators are now considering retesting water supplies in Dimock.

Is fracking safe? If you Google that term, you will discover “truths” that totally contradict each other. After the documentary Gasland was released in 2010, fracking became a VERY emotional issue. The movie is clearly alarmist, but the drilling industry's own PR omits any frank acknowledgement of risks and ongoing investigations. They both have strong propaganda motives.

In addition to well-known environmental groups such as Sierra Club and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation that are opposing the gas industry lobbyists, there are many loosely connected anti-fracking grassroots groups in the Finger Lakes region in New York alone. Only one has paid staff.

The Gasland movie painted a horrifying and emotionally charged picture of conspiracy, profiteering, environmental ruin, and the reckless poisoning of people and animals by the drilling companies. The energy industry was quick to respond to the apparent slander, even posting a web page called "Debunking Gasland" that denied virtually all of the movie's claims. Whom should the average person on the street believe?

The EPA studied hydrofracking in 2004, when Congress was considering whether the process should be fully regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act. An early draft of the study discussed potentially dangerous levels of contamination in hydrofracking fluids and mentioned “possible evidence” of contamination of an aquifer. The report’s final version excluded these points, concluding instead that hydrofracking “poses little or no threat to drinking water.” Shortly after the study was released, an EPA. whistle-blower said the agency had been strongly influenced by industry and political pressure.

Gas drilling may contaminate drinking water wells, after all, a new study suggests—but with methane, not hydrofracking chemicals. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science concluded that methane concentrations in drinking water wells near natural gas drilling sites in the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania and New York are 17 times higher, on average, than concentrations of this gas in drinking water wells in areas without any drilling,

In late 2008, drilling and coal-mine waste released during a drought so overwhelmed the Monongahela River that local officials advised people in the Pittsburgh area to drink bottled water. EPA officials described the incident in an internal memorandum as “one of the largest failures in U.S. history to supply clean drinking water to the public.” Uhe U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found it would require five times the amount of water in their reservoirs to dilute the river. It took five months to clean it up.

On the other hand, Halliburton famously had an exec drink some of its fracking fluid at an industry conference.

“We’re burning the furniture to heat the house,” said John H. Quigley, the former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air, but we’re producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater with salts and naturally occurring radioactive materials, and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste.”

Another big OOPS. . . According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, 65 Marcellus wells drilled this year have been cited for faulty cement casings, which could result in leaks. And there are about half a million fracking gas wells in the U.S. at the moment, double the number in 1990. Shale gas represented just 1 percent of American natural gas supplies in 2000. Today, it is 30 percent and rising. Drilling companies were issued roughly 3,300 Marcellus gas-well permits in Pennsylvania last year, up from just 117 in 2007. Can you say “out of control”?

In his State of the Union, Obama echoed the recommendations for safe extraction made by an advisory panel that includes a reputable Stanford geophysicist, This panel made 20 recommendations for regulatory reform to guarantee its safety. We saw what lack of regulation and oversight did during the BP spill in the Gulf.

What chemicals are used in fracking?

In the United States, most drilling companies have been reluctant to reveal the chemicals they use in fracking, saying the information is proprietary. So it’s still a mystery—and you can thank Dick Cheney. While VP in 2005, Cheney spearheaded an amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act, which exempted hydraulic fracturing and allowed companies like Halliburton, of which Cheney was once the C.E.O., from disclosing to the EPA what chemicals are used in fracking fluids. That was a real mistake because it makes the public needlessly paranoid.

Will gas companies give up their fracking chemical secrets? Obama is attempting to force these companies to divulge these chemicals and the amount of chemicals used during fracking on federal lands. Canada may demand it soon too. The Secretary of Energy's advisory group has also called for such disclosure by shale gas operators on ALL lands. The advisory group further recommended that data on a well-by-well basis be posted on publicly available, searchable websites. So look for it to become another election issue!

What exactly is fracking?

Shale rock layers are often relatively thin—less than a hundred meters thick. Fracking allows a single well to descend 9,000 feet vertically and then bore horizontally through the shale layer up to distances of 1 1/2 miles.

After the boreholes are sealed with steel pipe, huge amounts of high pressure water (as in 5 to 7 million gallons per well) along with a plethora of chemicals and sand is rammed down this pipe. This force splits the shale apart, creating numerous small fractures usually about 1mm wide. The sand props these fractures open to allow the gas to escape.

Up comes the methane—along with about a million gallons of wastewater containing the original fracking chemicals, salts and other substances that were also in the shale, among them naturally occuring radioactive materials. Yes, anywhere from 10 to 40 percent of the water sent down the well during hyrofracking returns to the surface.

The industry acknowledges that the question of how to handle the flowback wastewater that comes from fracking is one of its most pressing problems. Some of it is “treated” before being dumped into nearby rivers, but they have not perfected gething the radioactive material out. Much of it is trucked to other states where it is injected into storage wells deep below the earth’s surface.

In Pennsylvania this problem is particularly acute. Pennsylvania now has about 71,000 active gas wells, up from about 36,000 in 2000. But the Quaker State only has less than 10 wells with geologic formations suitable for post-fracking wastewater storage. So they either send it to rivers after it goes to sewage treatment plants or they truck this dandy stuff to good neighbor, Ohio, that has permits for 194 storage wells. Thus, half of the water in Ohio’s injection storage wells come from Pennsylvania. In early January, Ohio joined Arkansas in imposing a moratorium on these wells after several minor earthquakes—11 since last March—in an area not known for seismic activity.

Scientists refer to this as “induced seismicity”-- kind of like “induced labor” I suppose. 2010 research at SMU found a link between injection wells in the Dallas Fort Worth area and nearby quakes.But the jury is still out on this.

The wells still only capture only about a quarter of the methane locked in the shale formations, although a higher recovery rate may be in the near future. Infrared video by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation last week shows that invisible methane emissions from drilling sites are not being adequately controlled. NOT a good thing for our atmosphere.

The Marcellus boom has brought a host of economic benefits to Western Pennsylvania — new jobs, booked motel rooms, busy food franchises, newly paved roads — and promises to bring more. According to a recent study by Pennsylvania State, the industry has already created 23,000 jobs, for construction workers, helicopter pilots, sign makers, Laundromat workers, electricians, caterers, chambermaids, office workers, water haulers and land surveyors. A recent report from MIT predicts the Marcellus could create nearly 200,000 new jobs in Pennsylvania.

Not to mention the usually happy landowners who receive bonuses and royalties when they lease their land to drillers. Many landowners have earned small fortunes. Last year, natural gas companies paid more than $1.6 billion in lease and bonus payments to Pennsylvania landowners, according to a report commissioned by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group. Another of the largest natural gas companies paid more than $183.8 million in royalties in Texas last year. What’s not to like about that? Unfortunately, fewer than half the leases require companies to compensate landowners for water contamination after drilling begins.

Is fracking a new technology? As Bill Clinton might say, it depends on how you define “new.” Although a simpler form of fracking (the VERTICAL kind) has been in use since about 1950, horizontal fracking has only been applied in a large scale to natural gas mining since about 2000. About 90 percent of natural gas mines in the United States access rock that has been fracked.

The old-style vertical fracking required considerably less water than horizontal fracking. A vertically fracked well would use about 10,000 to 50,000 gallons of water, compared to 2.7 million (yes MILLION) gallons of water in today’s vertical fracking.

The oil and gas industry argues that the fracking technique has been used safely for years and advances in the practice have set off a revolution that is creating jobs and boosting U.S. energy security.

Will Big Gas replace Big Oil?

I first posted something about fracking in June, 2010, and the topic is still controversial. I was asked to talk about fracking with Williamsburg's Middle Plantation Club and gathered a LOT of recent information. So I'm posting the beginning of my presentation here.

If you have been living on a deserted island . . .Hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" is the controversial technology that allows drilling companies to get natural gas out of shale rock. And an unprecedented gas drilling boom is taking place in the U.S. thanks to this technology. It promises either to provide Americans with a clean domestic energy source or to spoil rural areas while poisoning our drinking water, depending on whom you ask.
Fracking has been in weekly headlines for the past few months. The term can be seen in many anti-fracking headlines—such as “no fracking way”and “what the frack is going on.”

Is Natural Gas Our Energy Answer? It’s the “other fossil fuel.” It burns cleaner than coal, and it’s cheaper than oil  And there’s a LOT of it in OUR country, so much coming from our wells that its price is near a seven-year low.

So will Big Oil be replaced by Big Gas? Some would have you believe so, stating that the US has a 100 year supply of untapped natural gas and that the industry will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of this decade. Or are these claims exaggerated?

In his State of the Union address one month ago, President Obama praised the potential of the country's tremendous supply of natural gas buried in shale rock. Assuming that the United States continues to use about 24 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year, some determine that only an 11-year supply of natural gas is certain. The other 89 years’ worth has not yet been shown to exist or to be recoverable.

Chevron invested $4.3 billion in 2010 to buy up natural gas fields in the Northeast US and Exxon invested $30 billion, so they must see future major profits.

But natural-gas proponents (such as T. Boone Pickens) are NOT advocating CURRENT rates of consumption. They propose switching a substantial part of our power generation from coal to gas, in order to reduce carbon emissions. Click here to learn more about the Pickens Plan.

And Pickens wants to see more than 2 million 18-wheelers converted to natural gas, in order to reduce our dependence on oil imports from unfriendly countries. So the math changes if you factor these advances into the equation.

Some coal plants in Virginia are switching from coal to gas. Natural gas generated about 16 percent of our electricity a decade ago; and now it’s up to 23 percent.

As an aside, I’d drop my opposition to the proposed power plant across the James River from Williamsburg if they’d burn gas instead of coal. You probably read that the Surry County Planning Commission just reaffirmed their support for ODEC’s proposed coal-burning plant. However, they did recommend additional restrictions about the disposal of the coal ash that’s a byproduct of generating electricity and requiring the power company to address emergencies during the 4-year construction period. But we’ve seen how large companies like BP can allow gross negligence if it favors the bottom line, and that energy companies do not ALWAYS take reasonable steps to avert a disaster. Fukashima comes to mind. But that’s another topic.

You have probably heard of the vast, rocky netherworld called the Marcellus Shale deposit. Pennsylvania has been called the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas” because it sits atop Marcellus Shale. This rock formation, roughly the size of Greece, lies more than a mile beneath the Appalachian landscape, stretching from Virginia to the southern half of New York. The shale rock contains bubbles of methane, the remains of life from 400 million years ago.

Gas corporations have lusted for the methane in the Marcellus since at least 1967 when one of them plotted with the Atomic Energy Agency to explode a nuclear bomb to unleash it. SERIOUSLY! That idea died, but it’s been reborn in the form of a new technology—high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing—or “fracking” for short.