Fracking and "energy independence": full-on propaganda push

Media have over the past week and change been full of voices plugging hydro-fracking as the key to finally achieving US "energy independence." Forbes on April 17 cites its own survey of "more than 100 energy executives" (no doubt a very objective group) finding that "fully 70% of energy executives believe that, given a true national commitment, the US could achieve a high degree of energy independence within 15 years." This exercise in industry self-promotion disguised as a study, "2012 US Energy Sector Outlook," wins the headline "US Energy Independence in 15 Years?" Forbes does concede: "Admittedly, energy executives are hardly a disinterested group, but they should have a good sense of their own industry's capabilities." (Gee, thank you.) And the "fly in the ointment" of the fracking future—i.e. environmental concerns—is mentioned. But: "The vast majority of energy executives (88%) believe either that fracking is safe or that it will become safe as the kinks get worked out." The saturation use of the "energy independence" catch-phrase smells like a coordinated campaign. Here's a still worse example...

DC's The Hill blog runs a piece entitled "Fracking Innovations Enhancing Energy Independence" by one Bonner Cohen of the National Center for Public Policy Research(never trust think-tanks with bogus "neutral" names like that). It pops up on Google News as if it were a legitimate "news" story. It isn't. We are only informed in small print at the very bottom of the page: "This article appeared in a special advertising section for The Hill." Shame. Here's how this pseudo-journalism begins:

"Energy independence," long an empty promise gladly served up by crafty politicians eager to curry favor with unwitting voters, might be a lot closer than even the most starry-eyed dreamer could have imagined only a short time ago.

The country is in the grip of what has rightly been called the "shale energy revolution." It is a revolution because it overthrows the existing order and casts aside long-standing assumptions about America's energy future. It's all about shale — fine-grained sedentary rock composed of mud, clay and silt — and our newfound ability to convert it to affordable energy.

In the space of a few short years, the United States has become the world’s largest producer of natural gas. In 2000, shale accounted for just 1 percent of U.S. natural-gas supply. By 2011, it was 25 percent, and by 2030 it could easily be 50 percent or more. Once burdened with some of the highest natural-gas prices in the world, the United States is now a low-cost producer of a fuel that provides Americans with roughly 25 percent of their electricity.

We are treated to this vile glib utopianism about the ecological concerns:

More than a million wells have been "fracked" since the technology was introduced more than six decades ago. Fracking takes place a mile or more below drinking-water aquifers and is separated from them by thick layers of impermeable rock. While concerns have been raised about the water that flows back to the surface after fracking has taken place, here, too, experience and innovation are leading the way in dealing with "flow back." Additives containing the BTEX-family of chemicals have been eliminated from the product lines used in fracking. BTEX — benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes — are the volatile organic compounds found in petroleum. And diesel, once a staple in fracking, has been replaced by much more environmentally friendly mineral oil. Technology doesn't stand still. Today’s innovations, which are making fracking cleaner and safer, will be superseded by tomorrow's breakthroughs.

Contrast that with this account from Colorado's Glenwood Springs Post-Independence, in one of the fracking-targeted areas:

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado — Two recently released reports appear to add weight to fears that the natural gas extraction process of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," can contaminate aquifers and other sources of fresh water for homes and towns...

Both reports...were prepared by independent hydrologist Tom Myers, Ph.D., of Reno, Nev., whose clients include government agencies and environmental groups.

One report, issued April 30, summed up Myers' assessment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) investigation into water well contamination in 2010 and 2011 in the area around Pavillion, Wyo., a region of extensive natural gas drilling activity.

The EPA, in a report issued in December 2011, found that groundwater in the region probably was contaminated by fracking, or hydraulic fracturing activities at nearby natural-gas drilling sites...

Fracking is used for practically all of the gas wells drilled in Garfield County and elsewhere in Colorado, and has been the subject of criticism from some area residents who claim their water supplies and air have been poisoned by drilling activities...

A second report, commissioned by the National Ground Water Association, concludes that chemicals used in the fracking process would migrate upward toward drinking supplies much more quickly than earlier believed.

The association is a nonprofit group that represents scientists, engineers and businesses in the groundwater industry.

The study, published in the April-May edition of the journal "Ground Water" concludes that scientists have incorrectly theorized that rock layers between the deep gas-bearing zones and the shallower aquifer zones are essentially "impermeable" and protect against migration of chemicals from one zone to the other.

Mitt Romney in a Pittsburgh pit stop meanwhile baits Barack Obama as standing in the way of fracking. Here's the quote as brought to us by WICZ in Binghamton, NY, in another fracking-targeted part of the country: "We have extraordinary energy resources in this country that are low cost. But somehow the president doesn't like them very much. He sure doesn't like coal. He's making it harder for the people to mine coal and harder for enterprises to use it. He doesn't like oil. He's made it harder for us to drill off shore and on the outer Continental Shelf and in places like Virginia. He sure as heck doesn't like going after the natural gas we have in abundance."

And how is Obama bottlenecking America's march towards energy independence? By (in the words of Reuters) requiring "companies to reveal chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing after they complete the process." Did you get that? They will have to actually tell us what they are polluting our groundwater and soil with—but only after the fact! How onerous! Reuters tells us: "In the past, drilling companies had resisted calls to fully disclose the chemicals they use in fracking, which they regarded as proprietary information. The industry also believes it should be regulated by states instead of the federal government." But these new Interior Department regulations only apply to federal lands! The Chicago Tribune makes clear the regs have effect only on the "750 million acres managed by the Bureau of Land Management and Indian tribes." Now, that's a lot of land (although there are no BLM lands in the eastern half of the country, where the frackers also have designs), but do the gas companies really think the feds shouldn't have the right to regulate federal lands?! How do you square that one, guys?

The Environmental Protection Agency is also promulgating the first national regulations on air emissions at fracking sites. (PhysOrg, April 17) This is what's got Mitt's knickers in a twist!? As we have had the depressing duty to point out, Obama is actually backing fracking, in a betrayal of farmers and rural communities across the country.

The (modest) federal regulatory extension is doubtless one reason for the propaganda push. Another is that dropping oil prices may result in a lag in pro-fracking frenzy. AP tells us May 4 that oil this week dropped below $100 per barrel for the first time since February "following a disappointing US jobs report and warnings of a weakening world economy... Government data shows that US oil consumption dropped 5.3 percent in the first quarter..."

Well, two final points. One is that, despite all the "energy independence" talk, we can't run our cars on natural gas. Unless we do a crash conversion to natural gas vehicles (NGVs) or electric cars to be powered by gas-fired plants. And we could, with the same degree of effort, instead rebuild our dismantled inter-city mass transit systems, and overhaul the electrical grid to maximize efficiency, and redesign our cities and buildings to maximize conservation—and get the energy by saving energy already generated instead of risking our future with fracking. Perish the thought.

The second point is the inevitable reality that the continuing crisis of capitalism is good news in ecological terms, even as it imposes economic suffering. Which just demonstrates, again, that there are no real solutions under capitalism. Regulation is better than no regulation, but the real challenge is ultimately to seize the means of production.

See our last posts on petro-oligarchical rule and the global energy wars.

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Environmental classism in New York state fracking plan

The New York Times reported June 13 on a fracking compromise apparently in the works by the administration of New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The plan would protect the Catskill watershed that supplies New York City, and limit fracking to a swath of the Southern Tier—primarily Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Steuben and Tioga counties—and only in towns that approve it. The logic is that this is the deepest area of the "Marcellus Shale" formation, so the risk to groundwater would be minimized. (See this map from the New York Times, which fails to show the larger Utica Shale formation, that the frackers also want to tap; compare this map showing New York counties.) But as Grist points out, this also just happens to be one of the poorest parts of the state—meaning that municipalities will be under greater pressure to sell out to the frackers. How convenient that geology is so obliging to social realities!

Federal judge strikes down fracking regulations

Those BLM regs on fracking that we called out above as inadequate? They've just been halted entirely, in a case brought by Independent Petroleum Association of America and the Western Energy Alliance. A federal district judge in Wyoming issued the injunction, finding that Congress did not explicitly grant the BLM the power to regulate fracking on lands it administrates. (Jurist, Oct. 1)