Hydrofracking frenzy: Penn State forum on the future of US energy policy

November 19, 2010

by Lindsay Brown

Penn State University hosted a forum today at the National Press Club on sustainable energy. Researchers, think tanks, and federal agency personnel convened to discuss the economic and environmental issues surrounding hydrofracking, a process which some argue could transform Pennsylvania into a major international energy exporter. The Marcellus Shale rock formation in western Pennsylvania is laden with natural gas reserves soon to be “fracked” by Royal Dutch Shell.

Marcellus Rally in Washington County, Pennsylvania on September 7, 2010/Photo courtesy MarcellusProtest.org


The process of hydrofracking, formally known as hydrolic fracturing, involves horizontal drilling and the injection of millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into underwater shale formations. After the shale breaks apart, the gas–in combination with the involved chemicals– is leaked to the surface.

Public concern over the health and environmental hazards caused by hydrofracking has grown in the past two years. This year’s release of the film, Gas Land, has heightened awareness of the controversy. According to Kim Sandum, director of the Community Alliance for Preservation in Pennsylvania, the process creates great potential for contamination of drinking water. Due to the marine origin of the Marcellus Shale, the fluid that flows out of the producing gas contains high levels of total dissolved solids (TDS), commonly referred to as “salts.”

“Although it puts salt in the water, its creating jobs,” said Brian Dempsey, Professor of Environmental Engineering at Penn State. “Mercellus is not the only company putting salt in the drinking water.” 

Salt could be removed by crystallization, concentration, or deep well injection, but Dempsey favors reusing it for future fracking jobs.

Tom Murphy is Co-director of the Marcellus Shale Center for Outreach and Research and the Associate Extension Educator at Penn State. When faced with a question from the audience, Murphy said, “The water industry is not opposed to rules and regulations.” He speculated one such regulation could entail well casing standards, yet the newly elected leadership in Washington would determine whether or not oversight policies will be made. Washington is contending with the demand to fix the economy and the pressure to protect the environment.

Hydrofracking extracts natural gas, which is the source for 23.9% of America’s energy. According to the Department of Energy, America uses petroleum-based sources for 37.4 % of its energy, coal for 22.4%, nuclear for 8.5%, and renewable sources for 7.7% of its overall energy usage. Environmentalists are pushing for policies to promote clean and safe energy.

At today’s forum, Tom Richard of the Penn State Institute for Energy and Transportation described renewable biofuels as efficient, clean energy for transportation. “People have been making ethanol with yeast for years,” he said. Other sustainable strategies being developed include the use of organic wastes, perennial crops, and 21st century forestry. He described aspects of multifunctional agriculture, including biodiesel made from algae, fibrous woodchips, grass and trees. He also trumphed Sweden’s use of bio-DME produced from black liquor.

 “Politicians use religious terminology and zeal to describe energy issues,” said David Biegel, who runs an energy agency within the State Department. “We need an actual energy policy in the USA.”

Justice from Crisis: Paisley Meeting Calls for Climate Change


October 23, 2009

by Lindsay Brown

Green-minded charities and politicians across the country are revving for December’s Klimaforum ’09, the climate change conference in Copenhagen.

It was also the topic that Douglas Alexander, MP and Secretary of State for International Development, emphatically addressed in today’s Justice from Crisis meeting in Paisley, organised by Oxfam Scotland and SCIAF, the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund.


Ice melting in Paradise Bay, Antarctica/Photo by Lindsay Brown
Ice melting in Paradise Bay, Antarctica/Photo by Lindsay Brown

“Carbons emissions is a global crisis,“ he said, “and Britain is the only country that put a number on the table months ahead of Copenhagen.”

Alexander will attend the summit meeting with Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling. A key point they want to hammer into the deal at Copenhagen is carbon emissions reduction, actually setting goals for beyond 2050.

“Can we convince any countries that we’ve been close with to have any number at all?” Alexander said while describing Britain’s summit goals in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. “If you take a country like the US, we’ve just lost 10 years with an administration that didn’t even accept the concept of the carbon emissions crisis.”

 Today he displayed optimism about the upcoming role of the United States.  “I struggle to see how we will not reach an agreement with the democrats being the majority in Congress.”

Copenhagen officials will discuss the creation of a successor climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol which was enacted on 16 February 2005 by 184 parties of the UN Climate Convention, but not the US.

Also on the platform at today’s meeting were Judith Robertson, Head of Oxfam Scotland, Malcolm Fleming, the SNP candidate for Glasgow South MP, and Stephen Boyd, the Assistant Secretary at the Scottish Trades Union Congress.

Robertson’s experiences through Oxfam reinforce the platform’s message that climate control is crucial. “Oxfam works with populations dealing with severe droughts and flooding.  If we [the UK] stick to our 2050 goals, we will have lifted millions of people out of debt, most of them women,” she said.

Discussion after the Justice from Crisis meeting in Paisley/Photo by Lindsay Brown
Discussion after the Justice from Crisis meeting in Paisley/Photo by Lindsay Brown

Britain’s G20 goals for 2050 include an 80% emissions reduction target, a figure agreed upon by the other G8 industrialized nations in this past July’s Copenhagen environmental summit.

Robertson discussed the need for global accountability on climate control and the dichotomy between wealthy nations and poorer ones. “On the rich countries of the North rests the responsibility. The devastating effects rest on the poorer countries of the South.”

Robertson mentioned concern about the role played by the range of countries that lie in between.

“We’re not seeing developing countries working toward carbon reduction because they simply don’t have the resources.”

India and China are among these developing and threshold nations, known as the “Group of 77.”

Alexander said, “The US set in India’s psyche ‘it’s okay to wait, a better deal is down the road,’ but it’s not.”

Stephen Boyd of STUC talked about how joblessness affects the climate crisis.

“Climate change is a sign of the biggest market failure. We talk about creating green jobs, we’ve got to talk about creating all jobs.”

Alexander commented on this dilemma. “Forty-one thousand jobs were lost in Scotland in the past year. Politicians need to ask themselves, ‘How do I deliver gross domestic product growth for my local population and do it at a low price?’ The challenge is in balancing economic crises with climate ones.”

Green Jobs to Spring in Scotland

February 26, 2010
by Lindsay Brown
In 2009 thousands of jobs ceased to exist in Scotland. Increased unemployment is trouble for any society, but where one door closes, another opens. Scotland is one place on the globe that is atypically packed with a combination of ecological resources which can, and in fact, will engender a compelling renewable energy industry. Policy-makers, scientists, and entrepreneurs are already striding forward to gracefully harness the country’s mighty natural resources, including her wind and waves.

Photo courtesy of REUK Photo courtesy of REUK

Solar and geothermal forces will also be used to generate economic and environmental benefits for the people of Scotland and for entrepreneurs around the globe, as the shortage of energy is a worldwide dilemma. The ebb and flow of the North Sea tide is just one type of power found off the coast of the Orkney Islands. Scotland has 25% of the estimated total capacity of tidal power in all of the European Union.
 “Last year Scotland passed a Climate Change Act which has been lauded around the world as being one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in connection with climate change,“ says Shirley-Anne Somerville, a Member of the Scottish Parliament’s Climate Change Committee.

In correlation with the Climate Change Act, the Economic Recovery Programme strives to create jobs and save households and businesses money all the while remaining green-minded. Up to 16,000 energy-related jobs may be created over the next ten years.

Bringing it home

The people of Edinburgh will not have to travel far to encounter the facilities which will harness natural energy.

To synchronize with upcoming Scottish and European legislation, the City of Edinburgh and Midlothian councils have established the Zero Waste project, which aims to decrease household waste. This spring, it began to look at private contractors’ proposals to build a regenerative waste treatment facility in Midlothian.

“The plant’s construction will start no sooner than 2015, yet it is estimated that 300 jobs in construction will be created at that time, and then an estimated 40 long-term operational jobs will follow,” says Kelly Murphy, the Communications Manager for the project.

In January, the Crown Estate granted rights to SeaGreen Wind Energy, a consortium made up by the companies Airtricity and Fluor, to construct nearly 1000 wind turbines in Moray Firth and the Firth of Forth, off the coast of Fife. The project will create up to 4.7 gigawatts of power, and could create roughly 2000 green jobs in Fife alone by 2020.

From greasy to squeaky clean
A similarly-named company, SeaEnergy Renewables, is expected to partake in the building of a windfarm on the Moray Firth site. The company is a subsidiary of SeaEnergy PLC, which is based in Aberdeen. Formally known as Ramco Energy PLS, the company decided to shift its investments away from oil and gas in order to focus solely on the offshore wind business.

Aberdeen has been nicknamed the ‘energy capital of Europe.’ With a population of roughly 210,000, it has been a central hub for oil exploration and production companies such as Shell, ExxonMobile, Total and British Gas. Until recently, it enjoyed a very strong economy. The non-government organisation, Transform Scotland, warns that world oil supply is nearing its peak, and that after the peak, oil will no longer be reliable as a source of energy. The group continues to urge the Scottish and UK governments to set up greater measures to reduce dependence on oil-fuelled modes of transport.

Calum Cashley, a Parliamentary researcher, explains Scotland’s involvement: “We’re looking at how we develop green alternatives to our oil industry. One of the initiatives that Scotland brought forward is the Saltire prize, which is a 10 million pound prize, to anyone who can bring the best renewable project to the market.”

Aberdeen’s newly-named SeaEnergy PLC is a company ahead of the curve in transitioning to renewable energy. The oil and gas industries have taken on a bad rap over the years. Environmental and wildlife activists have admonished them for their role in damaging the North Sea over the course of nearly 50 years of oil exploitation. Everyday operations have included setting off underwater explosions, dumping drill cuttings onto the sea bed, submerging chemical-coated rigs and pipelines into the sea, and flaring noise and light pollution into wildlife habitats. These offenses are in addition to the occasional accidental catastrophe which claimed human lives, as well.

Holyrood set a pioneering national goal to obtain 31% of its power from renewable resources by 2011. By 2020, Scotland will aim to tap 50% of its gross electricity from green energy. In comparison, the UK as a whole has set their 2020 goal at just 15%.

“Arnold Schwarzenegger said that Scotland is encouraging other nations to step up to the plate,” boasts Cashley.

On Facebook this past winter, a group called “Put a windfarm in my backyard if you like, because I’m not an idiot” grew to almost 40,000 members by February. The group’s description includes a reproach to people who object to the sight of windfarms. It wryly remarks, “Oh no, we don’t want those turbines out there, they make a slight swishing noise which disrupts the sound of the main road and ruins the view of the landfill site.” The emergence of green industries has succeeded in gathering immense public support. Politicians are on board with the people, too, as the Climate Change Act of 2009 was passed unanimously. Clean energy is proving to be an attractive, unifying force for Scotland and beyond.

Magazine feature for Buzz

Video: 8000 Wave Through Glasgow

December 5, 2009

Despite looming clouds, Glasgow’s Wave demonstration had a record-breaking turn-out.  Thousands of people flowed through the streets calling for politicians to take action on caring for the poor and implementing climate reform.  Reporter Lindsay Brown has more.

Video: G20 Rally on the Beach

November 7, 2009

Leaders from the world’s richest 20 countries have reached new agreements in striking a balance between financial stability and a greener climate. This decision came as activists rallied nearby at the Put People First demonstration at a beach in St. Andrews. Correspondent Lindsay Brown was there.