Carbon dioxide emissions in US drop to 20 year low. Why?

I mentioned this article from Slate.com briefly yesterday, but it’s worth putting on here as well as it does rather poke a bit of stick into the ribs of the local environMENTALists currently going nuts over the SA Government moratorium on fracking being lifted.

Carbon-dioxide emissions in the United States have dropped to their lowest level in 20 years. Estimating on the basis of data from the US Energy Information Agency from the first five months of 2012, this year’s expected CO2 emissions have declined by more than 800 million tons, or 14 percent from their peak in 2007.

The cause is an unprecedented switch to natural gas, which emits 45 percent less carbon per energy unit. The U.S. used to generate about half its electricity from coal, and roughly 20 percent from gas. Over the past five years, those numbers have changed, first slowly and now dramatically: In April of this year, coal’s share in power generation plummeted to just 32 percent, on par with gas.

It is tempting to believe that renewable energy sources are responsible for emissions reductions, but the numbers clearly say otherwise. Accounting for a reduction of 50 Mt of CO2 per year, America’s 30,000 wind turbines reduce emissions by just one-10 the amount that natural gas does. Biofuels reduce emissions by only 10 megatons, and solar panels by a paltry three megatons.

All of which further demonstrates the benefits of shale gas, not just for the South African economy, but also for the environment. And with Eskom currently building the  largest dry-cooled coal fired power station in the world at Medupi in Limpopo, which will burn through almost 15 million tonnes of coal each year for the next 40 years, it would be nice to have a safer, cleaner, more efficient yet viable alternative.

When Fracking Goes Wrong…

Saw this on twitter and had to share…

When fracking goes wrong the environmental impacts aren’t as severe as when coal mining goes right.

— Francois Fourie (@FrancoisFourie) March 5, 2012

This after an Econometrix report suggested that if estimates of the amount of shale gas under the Karoo were confirmed:

 …it could provide the equivalent of 400 years’ worth of energy consumption in South Africa.

Economist Tony Twine described it thus:

This is a big chicken; she is a big puppy.

And he doesn’t chuck his animal comparisons around lightly.

The decision on fracking in the Karoo isn’t going to be made any time soon, but while the (poorly put and misleading) environmental argument has been stated for some time now, the economic benefits of South Africa’s shale gas resources could literally turn the fortunes of this country around.
Much like the UK, I’m not sure that we – or the Government – can ignore that for very much longer.

That Biased Cover

The Big Issue isn’t a magazine that I read very often. Our political standpoints are far from aligned and while I’m obviously aware of the good work that they do in assisting the homeless, I’m rarely interested in the content and politics of their articles.

This month was different, however.  This month featured opposing columns on fracking in the Karoo (see 6000 miles… passim) from rationalist Ivo Vegter and greenie Andreas Spath. Probably nothing they haven’t already shared in tens of thousands of words on the subject online, but you never know. And so I bought, and I made a Big Issue seller smile. Which was nice.

But oh dear. The progressive stance of allowing a pro-fracking column within their esteemed pages was tempered almost completely by the fact that they chose  put it behind this cover:

Described by Editor Melany Bendix on their website thus:

The illustrated cover features a gas mask-wearing meerkat and his sheepish friends in an imagined post-fracking Karoo setting. “Although this is, of course, a very serious topic, we decided to go with an illustrated and rather ‘cute’ cover to lighten the topic somewhat”

Some of you who may be inactive on the internet over weekends may have missed the fact that I disagreed, and that I tweeted so over the weekend:

But apparently, I was wrong as I got a reply to my tweet from @BigIssue SA:

Ah – the old “making light of the fracking ‘hysteria'” defence, beautifully employed there. And while I agree that people reading the articles will have the chance to make up their own minds, there will be literally millions of others passing through intersections all over the country who will merely see the word “FRACKING” in glorious red graffiti, together with a meerkat in a gas mask, all set against a “post-fracking Karoo” backdrop, for the next four weeks. It’s pretty impressive propaganda, as far as I’m concerned.

And so, dear readers, I have assembled some of the greatest minds worldwide and I am asking them to apply themselves to this issue (NPI). Those minds are yours, my friends. Is this cover biased or is it merely “making light of the fracking ‘hysteria’?

I’d love to hear your opinions.

Christine’s Brilliant Idea

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The letters pages of local newspapers are the places to go if you want something to blog about. This morning, I didn’t particularly want something to blog about, but because I read the letters page of a local newspaper, I now have something to blog about. That thing is a letter from Christine Durell (no relation) from Montagu – and most specifically her brilliant idea.

Christine has written an open letter to Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, the President of the Republic of South Africa, about Shell and their plans to explore for natural gas in the Karoo (see this blog and every bunnyhugger (sorry) site in SA, ad nauseum). JZ probably won’t read her letter, because he’s flying to China today and they’re not big on people writing letters to the media in China.

Anyway, Ladies and Gentlespoons; without further ado, I give you Christine Durell (no relation)!
[smattering of applause from assembled readers]

Dear Mr Zuma,

The more I hear and read about the diabolical things Shell has planned for our beloved Karoo, the more worrisome it becomes.

If I might just interject here, Christine?
Sorry – that was lovely so far: passionate, full of emotion, lovely.

I can’t help but notice, though, that you used the word “diabolical” there, after the latin root diabolus, “pertaining to, of, or characteristic of the Devil; Satanic”. Do you really mean this? It begs questions regarding the things you’ve heard and read.
What Satanic plans do you think Shell have in mind, exactly? Sacrificing virgins within a pentacle? Calling forth the demons of Hades and then asking them if they smelt any methane on the way up? Because I thought that the exploratory work in question was more about digging a few holes and having a quick look around 6km down. It sounds like you might have Shell confused with Hell.
Or… something.

Not only the process itself, but the fact that our country could be sold piecemeal to the highest bidder for a filthy short-term project which will make some people very rich indeed, is worrying.

Sorry, Christine. Me again. Are you perhaps suggesting that you would be appeased if we sold our country piecemeal to one of the lower bidders, thus making some people slightly less rich? Would that cause you less worry? I’m just asking because I can’t help but think that your approach would cause chaos in the property and general retail sectors. Have you considered this rather concerning side-effect?

It would be my dearest wish that our president could just stand up, be a man…

Hang on a sec, Chrissy love. You’re talking about a bloke who has 3 wives, 2 ex-wives, 20 kids and sings about wanting his machine gun. I think he’s “man” enough already thank you very much.

…and be remembered as the best president this country would ever have had, by just saying: “No.”

So, putting this in perspective, Christine, you think that if Jacob Zuma says “No.” to Shell, then he would automatically overtake, say… just for example, Nelson Mandela, as “the best president this country would ever have had”?
Has anyone told JZ about this?

Come to think of it, has anyone told Mandela about this?

I also noticed that you “would have had” used the past perfect conditional tense (or some form of it) there as well, Christine. Are you perhaps holding out for a future president to say “No.” to some other company and therefore leapfrog JZ into top spot.
I’m thinking that you’re thinking Julius Malema, right? Yes?
Meaning that the Christine Durell (no relation) list of all-time great South African presidents (post-Apartheid obviously, because none of them were that great before 1994) would read like this:

  1. Julius Malema
  2. Jacob Zuma
  3. Nelson Mandela

That looks awesome. But haven’t we forgotten someone…?
No. No, I don’t think we have.

Moving on – what if JZ does say “No.” to Shell and does become the best president this country would ever have had?

After that, he could probably get away with almost anything.

Once again, Christine, I am left wondering what you have heard and read. I don’t think that your conditional promise will cut much ice with Mr Zuma, because, you see, he already kinda does have those privileges. You’re offering him nothing new here. You’re essentially wanting something for nothing. Is this somehow related to your “don’t sell to the highest bidder” plan? Can you now see the confusion that it’s causing already?

But I have been so very disparaging about your letter thus far when really, all it has been is a lead up to the best and most original brilliant idea ever. Ever ever. An idea so brilliant that if it was ever to become president of South Africa, it would make Julius settle for silver and knock Madiba right out of the medals. Boom.

Bring it, Christine. Bring your brilliant idea on:

And in the meantime, to all those who continually use the four letter “F” word, let’s change it to the five letter one. As in, “frack off”, “no fracking way”, etc.

I’m lost. Incredulous. Bewildered. Blown. Away. Because if they say that the simplest ideas are the best ideas, then this is Sheer “fracking” Genius! (see what I did there?).

How – and I ask this question from my current position seated on the floor, because I was unsure that my legs would still hold me given the effect that your brilliantly simple, brilliantly original, brilliantly brilliant plan would have has had on me – how has no-one come up with this before?

I, for one, Christine, think that rather than placing that sort of idea in an open letter to the president of the republic in a regional newspaper, you should perhaps get some sort of trademark on it and use this as a filthy short-term project to make yourself very rich indeed.  Maybe get some placards and posters made up with “Frack off, Shell” or “Not in my fracking Karoo”.
Perhaps charge journalists a royalty each time they used it in a headline – I have a feeling that if they had thought of your brilliant idea, they’d probably use it as a headline in most (if not all) of the stories they wrote on this issue. Probably.

But these are just my humble suggestions – I recognise that a great mind such as yours will probably have some other brilliant ideas in mind for your brilliant idea.

If nothing else, when Shell see what you have done here, they will surely be forced to immediately shelve their plans to explore the Karoo for natural gas and go and find some other remote wilderness to destroy.

Christine Durell (no relation), we salute you.

Time on Shale Gas

Another sensible article on shale gas, its value in the energy demands of the modern world and the environmental dangers of its extraction? Surely not.

But yes, it is.

Bryan Walsh gives us a few thousand words on the natural gas boom (poor choice of word, I guess), the need for alternative energy sources, the benefits and the difficulties that it has brought to the communities where drilling is taking place and the the awkward balancing act between powering and protecting our lifestyles.

Along with the Scientific American article I pointed to here, this has to rate as one of the most balanced pieces of reporting I have read on this often hyped and unnecessarily emotive subject.
Walsh takes in both sides and, importantly, doesn’t conclude by coming down on either. After all, that’s not for a journalist to do: that’s the politicians’ decision based on the evidence set down before them.

And, once again, I must stress that I am not fighting for the oil companies here – merely for people to have all the information laid out objectively in front of them before they choose sides in this debate.

“The gas is out there, and it can be accessed,” says Dean Oskvig, president and CEO of Black & Veatch’s energy business. “But we do need to solve the environmental issues surrounding that extraction.”

If that can be done right, shale gas really could change the way we use energy for the better. But even if it does, the industry will still fundamentally remake parts of the U.S., and of the world, in ways we won’t always like. But that’s the price of extreme energy, and it’s one we’ll continue to pay until we can curb our hunger for fossil fuels or find a cheap, reliable and clean alternative to them.

Opponents of fracking will pay heed to the 1,218 violations issued the Pennsylvanian Department of Environment “for offences ranging from littering to spills on oil sites” last year, but what this article emphasised to me was that fracking is as safe as any other industrial process if it is done properly. The vast majority of issues around pollution stem not from wells exploding or aquifers being polluted (a “huge concern” for the Karoo groups, but as Walsh mentions, there are actually no proven instances of the latter), but from the mismanagement of waste water. That such a simple part of such a complex process can be the cause of so many problems is inexcusable, but it should also be easy to remedy.

Walsh also compares the localised pollution from fracking with the more generalised pollution of coal-powered electricity generation: a methodology which is especially relevant while the problems at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant continue.

The economic benefits are also taken into account – from both sides. Obviously, while there is profit for the comapnies doing the drilling (otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it, durr) there have been both positive and negative economic effects on local communities:

“I think it’s been a good thing overall,” says John Sullivan, a commissioner for Bradford County. “But I just wish we could keep the economic benefit and minimize everything else.”

As Walsh says: “Good luck with that”.

Sullivan’s pipe dream is an ironic parallel to those who feel that we can produce enough energy through renewable sources such as wind and solar to bypass the need for fracking – either here in SA or anywhere else in the world. Yes, of course, I agree that that would be the ideal solution, but it really isn’t possible given the demands of our society. And yes, of course, I agree that it would be ideal if we could radically alter those demands, but as Eskom’s call for saving electricity back in 2008 proves, you’re smoking your socks (an environmentally damaging activity, incidentally) if you think that’s going to happen, as well.

Anyway – despite Time’s horrible habits of linking to other articles in big red letters every two lines, putting adverts everywhere and breaking it up into five pages – this is an informative article which weighs up both sides of the fracking debate and is well worth a read, either as a first introduction to the subject or for those seeking more facts and figures and further questions posed by our need for alternative energy sources.