To frack or not to frack? That is the question

After a year’s work between Texas and New York studying the science, politics, and ideology of natural gas development–my Master’s thesis is complete. The full text is available through the Bard Center for Environmental Policy and forthcoming for publication. In the meantime, here is the abstract:

To Frack or Not to Frack: The Ideological Roots of Support for and Resistance to Natural Gas Development

Abstract

The modern vision of the Good Life—indistinguishable from the idea of progress—is energy intensive. We go to extreme lengths to harness energy resources, conducting vast technological socio-environmental experiments to satiate the human demand for energy. But energy development is risk-laden, and people approach the risks of progress differently, which manifests as political contention.

Bookending the continuum of risk-related ideology, the precautionary and proactionary principles have become pillars of philosophic and political debate. Natural gas development—hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or “fracking”—is particularly risky and, in turn, the politics of fracking have become correspondingly controversial. On one hand, precautionaries about natural gas development spurn fracking as guaranteed disaster, while on the other, proactionaries hail natural gas development as an ideal energy opportunity.

But why are people precautionary and proactionary about natural gas development? To Frack or Not to Frack explores this question using an international survey instrument and statistical causal analysis. Evidence indicates that precautionary and proactionary regulatory preferences about natural gas development are a function of relevant knowledge, values, and beliefs.

Precautionaries about natural gas development tend to be knowledgeable of the risk-related scientific literature on fracking and to especially value environmental stewardship and public health and safety. Proactionaries, on the other hand, tend to principally value economic growth, believe that technology is generally trustworthy, and believe that either plenty of scientific research has already been
done on natural gas development orthat more science is still needed.

When determining specific permitting and operating requirements for natural gas development, policymakers should directly engage the relevant knowledge, values, and beliefs that drive the precautionary and proactionary regulatory preferences of their constituents via regular, open participatory policymaking procedures and statistical analysis of risk-related preference data gathered through public polling. Natural gas development policy should reflect the moral nuances of its constituency. Natural gas development policy should also reflect that developers are morally responsible for researching and internalizing the risks of harm related to development, including literal physical or environmental harm and exposure to risk of harm.

A prognosis of T. Boone Picken’s LNG vehicle future

I stumbled across this piece by Alan Krupnick this morning while browsing Real Clear Energy (one of my stops along my daily morning news adventure). Essentially, he offers us an evaluation of the state of play for T. Boone Picken’s vision of a LNG vehicle future. The prognosis, by Krupnick’s account, is still to uncertain to call, but I think we can make something of it.

Liquid Natural Gas is cheaper than gasoline or diesel because of its newly accessible abundance via hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, but it also has drawbacks. The vehicles themselves are more expensive than gasoline or hybrid alternatives (e.g. – Honda’s new LNG Civic as compared to its gasoline and hybrid counterparts) so the payback point takes longer to reach through savings on fuel costs alone. Of course there are subsidy programs that could bring down the cost, but they expired in 2010, and the prospect of getting Congress to agree on much of anything is, well…bleak, let’s say.

LNG vehicles also have significantly shorter range than gasoline or hybrid alternatives — and that’s before mentioning that LNG fuel tanks can take up to 50% more space than gasoline tanks or hybrid batteries, and even with severely reduced cargo or passenger space they still have shorter ranges (LNG: 218 miles per tank v. Gas: 383 mpt v. Hybrid: 504 mpt [looking again at different models of the Civic]). So, given the space issue, it may make more sense to focus on using LNG in large trucks, vans, and buses. But forecasts of the costs of maintenance are unclear, so fleets of LNG vehicles will have to struggle with uncertainty on that front for some time.

Finally, there is the question of infrastructure for LNG vehicles, which Krupnick frames as a ‘chicken or the egg’ conundrum. Infrastructure developers want there to be plenty of LNG vehicles on the road before taking on big projects, but consumers want infrastructure to be in place before they’ll be willing to take the risk of buying a non-gasoline or non-hybrid vehicle. Perhaps this gap can be bridged through commercial cooperation, where prospective LNG truck fleet purchasers coordinate with infrastructure developers to start building refueling stations in strategic locations along pre-established routes. Maybe if LNG starts showing up at Love’s or Buc-ee’s it’ll start making more sense for people to make the change (the same applies for electric vehicle plug-in stations, or even hydrogen powered vehicles), but until that happens most will probably see it as too risky, especially considering the reduced range of LNG vehicles.

Of course, there are still plenty of concerns worth raising about how we get our natural gas these days (fracking), the actual economic ripples of the industry, and the climate change/air pollution impacts of carbon dioxide and methane emissions associated with natural gas production. But T. Boone Pickens is convinced that LNG should be the future of transportation and Krupnick nods toward optimism, despite citing “uncertainties” about the environmental dimensions of such a transition.

So ask yourself — what is the real issue at hand? Cheap energy? Energy security? Environmental stewardship? Climate change mitigation? Energy independence? Economic growth?

At its core this represents one of the latest technological stabs at perpetuating our energy intensive standard of living while attempting to accommodate other competing values — but for all that it’s worth, we’re still talking about a short-term fix. And it’s one with many uncertainties surrounding it. Switching from oil to natural gas, at best, is like a first stitch in mending a deep wound. It may stop the bleeding a little, but we’re still lost in the woods if sustainable energy is our goal. Natural gas is, in many ways, desireable, questionable, risky, and perhaps inevitable (though not in some cases re: Longmont, Boulder, Yellow Springs, Broadview Heights, Meyers Lake, Cincinnati & the State of Ohio), so if we are going to use it, we ought to use it as best we can to pave the way for or to buy us time until sustainable, renewable energy technologies become competitive. In the meantime, I would still recommend going the Hybrid route or carpooling if you must drive — and even further, consider alternatives to personal automobiles like walking, biking, or public transit. Of course this isn’t always feasible, practical, or compatible with our established ways of life (especially living in places like North Central Texas) but small steps eventually traverse the world. We must, in this case and many others, take Ghandi’s advice and be the change we wish to see.

Cheers,

JM Kincaid

Science Progress publicizes study of beliefs about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas

http://scienceprogress.org/2012/12/technology-and-society-fracking-ideology/

As a follow up to the Science Progress article I co-authored with Dr. Adam Briggle earlier this July, we have written another short piece that again explains the subject of our study, Technology and Society: Fracking Ideology, and requests reader participation. You can find the article linked here and above.

Cheers!

JMK

To Frack or Not to Frack

The survey component of To Frack or Not to Frack is now closed–many thanks to all who participated. Results will be publicly available here and through Bard CEP. Stay tuned…

To Frack or Not to Frack

A survey of beliefs about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas

Dear energy consumers,

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas plays an important role in the debate about our energy future. As an energy consumer, you may have beliefs about, or beliefs that relate to, the use of hydraulic fracturing technology. Given the prominence of natural gas in today’s energy discourse, I am using my Master’s thesis at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy to study the political and ideological dimensions of hydraulic fracturing. My goal is to develop a more thorough understanding of the relationships between socioeconomics, political alignments, philosophical beliefs, and support or lack thereof for the use of hydraulic fracturing technology – but my research depends on your participation. Here and below you will find a link that directs you to a survey with questions related to the current debate about hydraulic fracturing and natural gas:

To Frack or Not to Frack

To help me with my research, I ask that you complete the survey and then share this message and link with your friends, family, colleagues, coworkers, and other contacts so that they might do the same. If you have any questions please email them to jmk.frackingideals@gmail.com and I will answer you promptly. Thank you for your participation.

Sincerely,

Jordan M. Kincaid

A letter to the Denton City Council

Denton is knee deep in revising its natural gas drilling ordinance. A draft of the revised ordinance was released for public comments on October 2, and I thought y’all might like to read the comment I submitted — it should give you a good picture of what it’s like on the ground down here.

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To the Denton City Council:

My name is Jordan Michael Kincaid. I live on S. Carroll Blvd in Denton, TX.

I have two comments regarding the draft of Denton’s natural gas drilling ordinance released on October 2, 2012.

1) Please extend the public comment period on this draft of the gas drilling ordinance. This is an extremely dense document. It takes far longer than 11 days to properly understand its intricacies. This is especially true for non-expert citizens. Public comment periods should last at least eight weeks so that each draft of the ordinance released can be fully assessed by the public, and so that the public can return constructive, informed comments to the Council. As it stands, extending public comment periods would require a revision of the current timeline for rewriting the ordinance, as well as an extension of the moratorium, but these actions are in the City’s best interest. Longer public comment periods would mean more informed and more useful comments. Additionally, the draft released on October 2 was only released in English. 20% of Denton speaks a primary language other than English; releasing the current draft only in English disenfranchises 20% of the Denton population. The public comment period should be extended and the draft should be released in both English and Spanish. Thirdly, the first attempt on October 2 to release the current draft of the ordinance was botched — the first release had indistinguishable MS Word Track Changes embedded in the text, meaning that old language was sitting jumbled amongst new language, making the document impossible to decipher. This problem was not remedied until October 3, thus effectively eliminating one of the already too few days for public comments. Because the first release of the current draft was botched, the public comment period should be extended. The three arguments in bold-face text above are why I believe the public comment period should be extended. I also believe that the draft should be released in both English and Spanish. This is especially true given the insufficient provisions of the current draft ordinance, which brings me to my second point:

2) The current draft does not accurately reflect the recommendations of the Task Force, nor does it reflect recommendations of the Task Force Minority Report, the EPA Natural Gas STAR program, or the Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group (DAG). The draft released on October 2 is insufficient to protect public health and safety. I will include 5 specific cases of insufficiency below:

a) Vapor Recovery Units (VRU). The Task Force and the DAG recommended that VRUs be installed at each gas well, but the draft ordinance currently exempts wells emitting up to 137 lbs of VOCs per day, as well as similar numbers for other pollutants including methane. This exemption compromises air quality, public health, and will exacerbate climate change.

b) Venting and flaring. The DAG and the Task Force recommended that venting and flaring be prohibited, but the draft ordinance only reasserts state regulations, which permit venting and flaring during all production activities and up to 10 days after production is complete. Denton’s drilling ordinance must prohibit venting and flaring in the city to protect air quality, public health, and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

c) Compressor stations. The DAG recommended banning compressor stations from the City and the Task Force recommended regulating them, but the draft ordinance contains no new provisions banning or regulating compressor stations.

d) Private water well testing. The Task Force and the DAG recommended that operators submit results of private water well testing to the City, but the draft ordinance doesn’t require operators to test private water wells or to report the results. This compromises water quality and public health.

e) Closed-loop systems. To avoid the environmental and public health hazards of open waste pits, the DAG recommended that the City ban open pits and require operators to use closed-loop systems when producing natural gas. The Task Force also recommended the use of closed-loop systems. Despite these recommendations, the draft ordinance allows for several kinds of open pits, and stipulates only a “close-loop mud system.” This provision is insufficient to protect public health and the environment from the hazards of production waste.

In sum, I submit to the Council two requests for reasons explained above and summarized below:
1) Please extend the public comment period to 8 weeks and release the draft in both English and Spanish.
2) Please revise the gas drilling ordinance so that it reflects the recommendations of the City appointed Task Force, the citizen-lead Denton Stakeholder Drilling Advisory Group, the Task Force Minority Report, and the EPA Natural Gas STAR Program.

Sincerely,
Jordan Michael Kincaid

Is Denton fracked?

At this point, one can surmise that natural gas drilling is a booming issue. This is especially true on big shale plays like the Barnett shale in North Central Texas. The challenge for municipalities, Denton among them, then, is to regulate this new gas drilling and production activity as best they can.

With this in mind, on February 7, 2012, the Denton City Council placed a 120-day moratorium on new natural gas well permitting applications so that it could revise the city’s gas drilling and production ordinance. In June, with the revisions still incomplete, the Council extended the moratorium ordinance another 120 days, setting it to expire on October 4, 2012.

But, not surprisingly, the ordinance is still in the works, so last night the Council gathered in City Hall to vote on another amendment to the moratorium ordinance. But last night’s vote wasn’t only on whether to extend the moratorium – the amendment also redefined three exemptions to the moratorium ordinance allowing applications already in progress when the moratorium was established, as well as applications filed prior to the moratorium, and applications for projects not using hydraulic fracturing, to move forward.

These exemptions are particularly contentious because they apply to four gas wells owned by EagleRidge Energy – a company known around the Denton community for poor environmental and public health and safety practices. The predominant citizens position represented at last night’s meeting was clear: strong support for extending the moratorium and strong opposition to the redefined exemptions.

But these two provisions of the amendment would either live or die together.

In a unanimous 6-0 vote, the Council passed the amendment to extend the moratorium until December 18, 2012, and redefine the exemptions. Despite being sympathetic to the views of the citizenry, the Council argued that these exemptions better reflect standing state laws of vested rights, which provide that moratoriums of this kind not affect permitting applications retroactively.

This is, I think, an important point – Texas municipalities cannot simply ban fracking, as some might believe. Texas state law prevents moratorium ordinances from having a retrospective effect. In other words, permitting applications already approved or already underway will be valid no matter what new ordinances the City Council passes. The Council’s power stops at halting new permitting applications, meaning old drilling projects are still happening, and after last night’s vote, so too will the four controversial EagleRidge wells.

So, these exemptions better accommodate state regulations, fine. Nevertheless, there’s reason to suspect that other motivating factors were at work in this decision; that is, to not pass the exemptions redefinition would have been very risky for the City Council. EagleRidge has been petitioning for “variance” from the moratorium on the four aforementioned wells for some time now, and if the Council had left the exemptions as they were, EagleRidge has likely been preparing to file a lawsuit against the City of Denton under current state vested rights law and the 5th amendment compensations clause, claiming that the moratorium is causing undue financial harm to the company without just compensation. For this issue to go to trial at all would set a dangerous precedent – one that the Council wants to avoid. So, in order to extend the moratorium, they had to redefine the exemptions. Call it losing a battle to win the war.

In either case, it was a tough spot to be in: the vote was either against extending the moratorium or in favor of the redefined exemptions. Both are politically sticky – painfully ironic, even – putting the Council between a rock and a hard place. But is Denton fracked? Not exactly. The priority is still getting a strong gas-drilling ordinance in place, a goal that remains, I think, entirely reasonable.

See this post also on the Bard CEP blog.

Cheers!

JM Kincaid

Fracked ideologies

Fresh off the press at Science Progress, my first publication during my time at UNT!

Social epistemologist Steve Fuller asserts that the use of technology in society will shift the ideological lines of our politics. Dr. Adam Briggle and I apply this assertion to the debate surround hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. Is Left v. Right becoming Precautionary v. Proactionary?

JM Kincaid