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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Things are Heating Up

Well, sorry to you wood burners out there, who are complaining that I haven't done more wood energy posts recently. Yes, I still love my wood stove...but my gas boiler and upstairs stove are so cozy, inexpensive, and easy, that, I admit it, I haven't yet starting burning wood. After Christmas I'll share more wood-energy stories with you.

Speaking of gas, I'll bet you've been a little befuddled by the controversy surrounding natural-gas production via hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The issue, like so many others these days, revolves around different tellings of the story about the same process.

The telling that seems to get the most press is similar to the one told by The Sierra Club...

Hmmm...sounds bad. But there's another way to tell the story, and that is from a perspective from those who actually perform the production process. For instance, Marathon Oil Company shares this video which looks amazingly like the Sierra Club video, but with a few different details. See what you think.

I think the videos illustrate the concept that the more familiar you become with a product or process, the less (or more) you tend to fear it, depending on whether the thing is an honest attempt to improve life on this planet, or an inherently evil deception of the public trust.

Since I'm a believer in the general concept of "the more energy, the better", I tend to lend a higher level of credibility to the producers, whether they be oil companies, wind turbine companies, or loggers. My experience is that all are working to improve their production and delivery processes in order to enable more and cheaper production. Sure, they're in it to make money, but their profits in the long run depend on their being able to provide a sustainable, safe product.

A great case in point was the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago. The company (or its sub-contractors) were apparently pushing the limits of safety and procedures, and a bad thing happened. There was an immediate outcry for more government regulation to ensure that it didn't happen again.

But my limited experience in the oil patch (and my more extensive experience in the timber industry) helped me understand that the incident would be studied intensively by BP and every other oil company in the world, because it cost the company billions of dollars. That alone is a far greater assurance of better, safer processes in the future. No company ever wants the environmental and public relations disaster that BP endured in the aftermath of that incident. Necessity naturally drives the invention of better production processes, at least in a competitive marketplace.

I understand that there is a general fear of the unknown, especially in these days when so much seems to be happening so quickly. But the solution to fear is education, so that the "fearful things" can be recognized and avoided. The opposing viewpoints represented in these two videos are both helpful in the educational process... and it should be our continuing resolution to ferret out the fears from the facts, and move forward when the safe, productive way forward is revealed.

After all, abundant, affordable, and clean energy is good for everyone. Everyone. Everyone.


Lumber1 said...

Well done and well said. Thank you for bringing science into perspective in understanding something the media and environmental groups portray negatively with emotional pleas and little science or the misuse of science.

Jeff Wartluft said...

Thanks Chuck for helping me get off the fence somewhat - lots of new info for me.

BenjaBetula said...

I have to push back against your, "the more energy, the better" and "affordable, is good for EVERYONE"--responsible energy is best for responsible communities, and the rush to tap all of Penn's Woods sidelined precautions, promoted waste, set back adoption of renewable energies, and staged our descendants to face scarcity again, along with an industrial-rural legacy

Chuck Ray said...

thanks for the comments, all.

Betula - Surprised that you would push back against the notion that affordable energy is good for everyone. Of course, in your comment "quote" you edited out the word "clean" from my original statement. Perhaps you resist the notion that natural gas is a clean fuel. Suggest you check out the LCA work done by the National Energy Technology Laboratory of the DOE ( for their research and findings that natural gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels.

Your own statements seem quite subjective and that weakens your point. Further, they fly in the face of two suggestive facts: the PA DEP employs 80 gas well inspectors who perform over 5,000 site inspections per year...and our new Democratic governor based his election strategy on taxing the gas industry more per unit of gas produced, not reducing the production of gas. If your points were true and provable, the agencies and elected officials of our progressive state would have determined such and taken appropriate action.

Renewable energy technologies will dominate when they are the best solution for our society. And that will happen in its own time. For now, the advancement of society depends more on the best form of affordable energy than it does on a vague notion of responsibility.

Ben Mummert said...

Chuck--for my part, I'm surprised that you so strongly trust our government (and the market) is effective in practicing foresight and exercising objective and responsible judgment (and that you would call it progressive). Fundamentally, our argument is an economic one.

Taxing natural gas, contrary to what you commented, does suppress demand and the level of production; 2) does give hope for the gradual deployment of rival (renewable) energies; 3) does extend the depletion timeline for our shale gas; 4) disincentivizes waste (SUVs during the 90s); and 5) is justified by very real social and environmental costs of extraction and transportation that are less divisive but more insidious than fracking.

I agree that natural gas is very clean, I also don't have a beef with (now) responsible fracking. I will say in the mad rush in 2007-10, there were spills and other avoidable tragedies due to the nascence of the industry, science, technology and regulation. However, natural gas isn't renewable and I don't believe that is a subjective arguments.

To be subjective, I could argue cheap liquor is also good for everyone, and suggest that switching to cleaner natural gas from coal is an alcoholic switching from bourbon to beer. It gets us by, but enables an addiction and in the process lulls us to ignore the tough questions that will again haunt us when we've too quickly sucked this barrel dry. The Marcellus miracle has not been good for energy efficiency nor renewable energy development.

This is an environmentalist's real reason to protest fracking: it is a poster-child for increasingly desperate technologies (oil sands, too) and without responsible public policy we only discover the bottom of another barrel and never sustainable technologies.

I do not expect we can see eye to eye, but I have appreciated the exchange. Thank you for approving my comment as moderator even though it was critical of parts of the article, and you disagreed with its basic tenets.

--Ben Mummert (BenjaBetula)

Chuck Ray said...

Hey, Ben, thank you for your well-thought and organized response comment. I always appreciate discussing issues with people who have given the issue some serious thought.

I imagine you would appreciate a further comment as well. Therefore, taking your points in order:

1) re: trusting governments and markets. Naturally, I agree that a healthy skepticism is at the heart of continuous improvement. I don't believe "trust" is really at issue here...we have markets that dictate the exchange of goods and services, and we have government that continually tries to manipulate those markets to the supposed best interests of the people, which really means in the best interests of specific constituents. Given the dilemma you posed, I would rather "trust" (if that is even the right word) an unfettered market over a government-constrained one, since it represents reality, as opposed to theoretical common benefit.

2) Your second paragraph illustrates well the assumptions that must be accepted in a progressive control of resources. As you say, taxes will, and always do, suppress demand and production. Unfortunately for those who view that as a good thing, there is an economic model referred to as the "Laffer curve" which illustrates that the end of this progression is, logically, the reduction of tax revenues and the ability to regulate the intended market. Our entire country's history is a testament to the beneficial advantage of supply-side economics over government policy of price and production control.

3) True, artificially high prices on certain targeted products gives hope to producers and supporters of more expensive (renewable) options. But markets always win out, meaning that the best, most cost-effective alternatives can only be suppressed for so long. The longer they are suppressed, the more totalitarian the state must become to enforce the suppression. I suspect you don't really believe that a fossil-free economy must be realized at whatever cost to the economy. Life is cruel to those who can't afford heat or transportation. Wouldn't most rather see the cleanest, most-efficient and affordable production of energy, so that advanced energy technologies can evolve and be adapted in their natural time?

4) Although what we call natural gas today is not renewable in the strictest sense, the "peak oil" argument has always been proven wrong as new technologies find more effective ways to tap the natural energy reservoir we know as Earth. Realistically, at the rate of technological advance we are experiencing, it is far more likely that either a) solar energy will be perfected to supply all of man's needs, or b) mankind will cease to exist due to war or disease, before the natural deposits of fuel are finally depleted.

Constraining energy of one type to support energy of another type is a losing battle that hurts most and helps only that constituency supported by the taxes. If you care to learn more about supportable facts along those lines I've only touched on here, I could suggest the very readable "Basic Economics" by Thomas Sowell, especially his Chapter 23, Myths about Markets; Vaclav Smil's "Energy" which presents the scientific balance of pros and cons of the energy forms we know of in very readable and interesting terms; and Robert Bryce's "Power Hungry" which effectively counters popular energy propaganda with case-study facts and figures.

And if these really interest you, then you would like Jude Wanniski's "The Way the World Works", especially his Chapter 13 on Energy; and finally, for fun, Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" which proves that market power, and the degree to which countries allow it to work relatively unfettered, drives the ultimate success of countries and their people.

Thanks for the constructive feedback, Ben, and enjoy the holiday season.