December 26, 2013

Frackers Fight Back

It has been a potent argument in the case against fracking for natural gas that it is ruinous for water supplies, especially in arid regions like Texas. But a new study claims that fracking poses a far lesser threat to water than coal. In the summary of Bryan Walsh, Time’s environmental correspondent:  
Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin collected water use data from all 423 of the state’s power plants. They estimate that the water saved by switching from coal to natural gas is 25 to 50 times greater than the amount of water used in fracking to extract the shale gas in the first place. In 2011, the researchers estimate that Texas would have consumed an extra 32 billion gallons of water if all its natural gas-fired power plants were instead burning coal. “The bottom line is that hydraulic fracturing, by boosting natural gas production and moving the state from water-intensive coal technologies, makes our electric power system more drought resilient,” said Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist at the University of Texas’s Bureau of Economic Geology and the lead author on the study.

The study is a reminder that for all the focus on the water consumed in fracking or by farms through irrigation, one of the single biggest users of water is the power industry itself. Thermoelectric generation—that would be technologies like coal, natural gas and nuclear, which use heat to generate steam—account for approximately 40% of the freshwater withdrawals in the U.S. In arid regions and during droughts—like the historic 2012 drought, which at its height covered up to 65% of the U.S.—water can become so scare that power plants may need to reduce operations or shut down altogether. With population increasing—especially in fecund and popular Texas—and demand rising, the so-called “water-energy nexus” will be a growing challenge for decades to come.
But the huge amount of water used by power plants tends not to get the kind of attention that fracking does—probably because fracking, especially on a large scale, is relatively new, while coal and natural gas plants have been around for decades. (The Texas State Water Board estimates that hydrofracking accounts for less than 1% of total water use, while providing more than 10% of the state’s total economic output.) Fracking for oil and gas is also much more distributed than a centralized power plant is; if you live in Texas, chances are much better that you live closer to a fracked well than you do a power plant. Power plants—and the mining of the coal used in many of them—are out of sight, and thus they’re out of mind.
Still, the fact remains that Texas was a water-stressed state well before the first gas well was fracked, and the concentration of fracking in certain areas of the state can strain local water supplies. Water use for fracking in Texas is also growing rapidly, from 36,000 acre-feet in 2008 to 81,500 acre-feet in 2011. That’s why oil and gas drillers will need to start recycling frac water, or find substitutes that don’t need water at all, like the liquid petroleum gel made by the Canadian company GasFrac. Water is scarce now in Texas and its likely to be even scarcer in a hotter and more crowded future. Every industry—including oil and gas—will need to figure out a way to use our most precious resource more efficiently.

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Bryan Walsh, “Fracking for Natural Gas May Help Us Save Water,” Time, December 23, 2013

Follow the Money

How far the climate change debate has been distorted by “dirty money”—that is, money provided by rich foundations and corporations directly interested in fossil fuel production—is a question taken up in a new study by Robert J. Brulle in the journal  Climate Change. The author, a professor of environmental sociology at Drexel University, identifies a range of foundations and think tanks that he calls “U.S. Climate Change Countermovement Organizations."  Then he matches them with their sources of funding. Brulle acknowledges that the majority of these organizations are “multiple focus organizations” and that “not all of this income was devoted to climate change activities.”   Still, he has clearly identified a network of funders and fundees who have thrown scorn upon the climate change movement, and he has demonstrated the intimate nexus of financial ties that exist within this network. His most unsettling finding is that unknown donors have recently assumed by far the most prominent role in funding the “countermovement.” However one understands these ties among conservative foundations and think tanks—a more innocent explanation is possible than the one Brulle offers—it is surely a travesty of democratic norms that those conducting such a big intervention in the debate should be allowed to do so anonymously.

The first pie-chart below shows the relative size of conservative public policy institutes—what Brulle calls the “Climate Change Countermovement Organizations.” The second pie-chart shows the conservative foundations that fund them.

 In perhaps his most interesting finding, Brulle shows the rise to funding prominence of Donors Trust and Donors Capital. Conveniently, these are “third party pass-through foundations” whose funders cannot be traced. In the following graph, we get a picture of changing “node strength,” which is “based on the assumption that a foundation’s influence in the funding network is a function of its overall grant-making levels.”
Notes Brulle:
As this graph shows, the overall percentage contribution of Donors Trust/Capital rapidly increased from 2007 to 2010. At the same time, the Koch Affiliated Foundations, which peaked at 9 % in 2006, declined to 2 %. The ExxonMobil Foundation effectively stopped publicly funding CCCM organizations in 2007. Additionally, funding by the Scaife Affiliated Foundations, the second largest funder of CCCM organizations, also declined from 14 % in 2003 to just under 6 % in 2010. Finally, Bradley Foundation funding slightly declined over this time period. The rapid increase in the percentage of funding of the CCCM by Donors Trust/Capital and the decline in both Koch and ExxonMobil corresponds to the initiation of campaigns by the Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace publicizing and criticizing both ExxonMobil and Koch Corporations as funders of climate denial. Although the correspondence is suggestive of an effort to conceal funding of the CCCM by these foundations, it is impossible to determine for certain whether or not ExxonMobil and the Koch Foundations continue to fund CCCM organizations via Donors Trust/Capital or direct corporate contributions. However, it is important to note that a Koch run foundation, the Knowledge and Progress Fund, initiated a pattern of making large grants to Donors Trust in 2008.
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Brulle promises a study of the influence of money on the other side of the debate as well. For a pdf of the paper, see Robert J. Brulle, “Institutionalizing Delay: Foundation Funding and the Creation of U.S. Climate Change Counter-Movement Organizations,” Climate Change (accepted November 19, 2013). Tip of the hat to Desdemona Despair.