Blowing at Windmills

Girl and WindmillBy Patricia Zick @PCZick

Even when I think I’m being reasonable and moderate, I still walk a fine line with some folks.

“What do you want us to do, blow on windmills until we have enough power to fuel all our energy needs?” my brother asked me recently.

The question came after I tried to present a reasonable answer to the question posed to me: What is fracking?

“We shouldn’t jump into any new forms of bringing fossil fuels up out of the ground without investigating first,” I said. “They moved into fracking too quickly as a result of the bad connotations given offshore oil drilling and coal mining.”

That’s when my brother posed his question as if I’d said stop drilling, blasting, pounding, breathing.

Then this morning I received an equally “off the center” email from the other side. It seems there’s a group now demanding corporation and individual divestment from fossil fuels to stop global warming.

Is there no longer a middle ground on which to stand safely without fear of being knocked off?

I hope so, but just in case, I’m going to climb on my little mound in the center of the field safe here in my small office behind an anonymous computer screen to give my spiel in the hopes someone will listen. Neither of the sides quoted here will allow me to do so.

The subject of our energy and its sources are not new to me, but I became quite embroiled in the issue while researching Trails in the Sand. One of my sources, Power Hungry – The myths of ‘green’ energy and the real fuels of the future” by Robert Bryce, addresses what I’ve surmised all along. He writes, “But the reality is that the modern world runs on oil, coal, and natural gas. And while those fuels take a toll on the environment, they are indispensable.”

And as I would explain to either side, except they’re too ready to wield an ax on my head, we must ensure we are wise stewards and bring those forms of energy to us in a safe manner that does the least harm.

We’ve no choice but to rely on regulations and laws that mandate safety for the environment and human life. It’s a sad state of affairs when the government must tell corporations to engage in certain practices so workers aren’t killed.

I’m trying to make this post as uplifting as possible, but today an article I read about natural gas mining in Wyoming discourages me. “Too deep to drink, huh? Too shallow an excuse,”  by Suzie Gilbert with shalereporter.com, writes about a situation between Wyoming’s Oil and Natural Gas Commission and Encana, a fracking company. The government and Encana are tossing around the concept of allowing the company to dump 750,000 gallons of fracking wastewater per day into an aquifer for fifty years. Some agencies say “no,” others say “yes,” the scientists say, “hell no,” and the argument continues.

I’m all for tossing around ideas and discussing them, but for goodness sake, this one does not take a geologist to understand that wastewater has no place in an aquifer. Period. End of discussion. If our drinking water becomes contaminated with wastewater from unsafe practices, then it really will be the end of the discussion – all discussions.

#trailsbanner3webTrails in the SandA Family Saga Filled with Love Triangles, Sea Turtles, and an Oil Spill

Using real-life events as the backdrop, Trails in the Sand explores the fight to restore balance and peace, in nature and in a family, as both spiral toward disaster. Through it all, the ancient sea turtle serves a reminder that life moves forward despite the best efforts to destroy it.

Fracking Dilemma – It’s Not the Promised Land

cover for the movie "promised land"

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

I recently went to see the new movie Promised Land starring Matt Damon, as rising star salesman Steve Butler. What does Steve sell? The promised glory to landowners if only they’ll sell off the rights to their land so the power companies can drill for natural gas on their property. Steve makes up figures and tosses out promises so some desperate landowners in western Pennsylvania are convinced they’ll become millionaires, if only they’ll allow the drilling. He doesn’t go into detail about the process, which is called fracking. Fracking allows drillers to go deep into the earth to extract natural gas. Recently, in states sitting on the rich resource, some homeowners have water so contaminated with chemicals they ignite.

The Associated Press published an article this past week that suggests the Environmental Protection Agency may be shying away from bringing charges against the companies using the method of “hydraulic fracturing.”

The article leads with this paragraph: WEATHERFORD, Texas (AP) — When a man in a Fort Worth suburb reported his family’s drinking water had begun “bubbling” like champagne, the federal government sounded an alarm: An oil company may have tainted their wells while drilling for natural gas.

But then the EPA changed its mind and decided to leave the company alone.

The movie Promised Land has been vilified by the natural gas industry for painting an unfair portrait of fracking. The Marcellus Shale Coalition  even purchased ads to run before the movie. When we saw the movie, the ad played about ten minutes before the show so when the movie started, the ad was forgotten and not seen by the twenty or so folks who came in afterwards.

The industry says the process of fracking is safe. Scientists, environmentalists, and some who live close to the drilling sites say differently. It’s a dilemma, and one faced by Steve Butler in the movie once he begins to see his victims as real human beings he’s lying to. The fact is he doesn’t really know anything about the science behind the drilling. He’s just in their homes to sell a pipe dream.

It’s a complicated issue, and it needs much more study before we go any further. Even the Sierra Club first endorsed the process because they felt natural gas was the solution to ridding the world of “dirty coal.” But not anymore. Now they put fracking in the same category as coal mining.

The Promised Land is a work of fiction with a particular viewpoint that explores the dilemma of bringing natural gas up out of the ground fast and cheap. I’ve heard criticisms of the ending, but I’m not sure I understand why. I won’t give it away here because I’d like you to go see the movie and make up your own mind. It’s important to remember the movie is a fictional account of one man’s struggle between his job and his moral integrity.  It’s up to him to decide if the two are mutually exclusive. And guess what? It ends the way the writer decided to end it. Period.

 

 

EPA Coal Mine Water Rules Struck Down By Federal Judge

As I was perusing articles about the massive ice melt in Greenland, I came across this article.

Are we really going to go backwards at this time? I just wrote a piece about the “recovery” of a creek near us that sits in the middle of abandoned mines. Without the new standards on pollution from acid mine drainage, this creek would now be dead. Is this really what this federal judge wants?  Please go to this link to read the rest of the article:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The Environmental Protection Agency overstepped its powers by setting up water-quality criteria for coal mining operations in Appalachia, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton in Washington ruled that the EPA infringed on the authority given to state regulators by federal clean- water and surface-mining laws. A coal mining industry coalition sued the EPA and Administrator Lisa Jackson, and the lawsuit was joined by West Virginia and Kentucky.

The ruling represents the latest setback to the Obama administration’s attempts to crack down on mountaintop removal coal mining.

Last year, the EPA revised standards issued in April 2010 by tightening guidelines on the practice of dumping waste from surface mine blasting into Appalachian valley waterways. Critics say that practice destroys the environment. The mining industry defends it as an efficient way to produce cheap power and employ thousands in well-paying jobs.

Read more

A View from the Creek

Raccoon Creek 2011Raccoon Creek May 2011

By Patricia Zick @PCZick

Raccoon Creek winds for nearly thirty miles through the foothills of the Alleghenies in western Pennsylvania. During its course through valleys and woodlands, it picks up several tributaries flowing down the hillsides before it dumps into the Ohio River thirty miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

We recently kayaked five miles of the creek from outside Raccoon Creek State Park. We actually put in our kayaks in Little Traverse Creek in the park and paddled a short distance to Raccoon Creek which begins its flow seven miles upriver.

Downed trees made the first mile or so rather challenging but interesting. We managed to get by the majority but were forced to portage the kayaks twice – once pulling under a tree and once carrying over a split trunk of a large sycamore. We hit some small white water flows and a few places where stones and rocks required some fast maneuvering. It’s a pleasant cruise. As soon as a challenge is met, there’s a wide expanse of deep water and easy floating as the water carries the kayak downstream. We saw deer swimming across the creek. Great blue herons yakked in the air above us flushing out smaller birds from the bushes on the banks. Little blue herons sat on downed tree limbs basking in the sun. And catfish more than a foot long swam past us in the clear water.

Skipping stones

When I wasn’t figuring out how to wedge between tree limbs or how to dodge the large rocks on the riverbed, I gazed at the trees, birds and skies with gratitude and relief. At one point, tears filled my eyes when I considered how close we came to losing this creek. While it looks pristine now, it really isn’t. Surrounding us in the hills and in the woods are abandoned coal mines, both underground and strip mines on the hilltops. A decade ago, this creek was filled with acid mine drainage, and no birds sang. If fish swam, they were filled with toxins such as mercury and unfit for consumption by any living thing.

Since 1781, the entire area was mined for coal, and Raccoon Creek and all its tributaries were nearly killed by acids and metals draining from the abandoned mines. The Raccoon Creek Watershed covers 184 square miles in southwestern Pennsylvania and Raccoon Creek runs right through the middle of it. After a report was released in 2000 on the levels of poisons in the creek, major efforts began, resulting in the installation of  acid mine drainage pollution treatment systems. Those efforts in the past decade have made a big difference here and elsewhere.

I brought my back up camera on the trip and took lots of pictures of Raccoon Creek and its abundance. As I prepared to write this blog, I couldn’t find the camera to download the pictures. I’m using photos from our trip last year when we attempted to kayak nearly the entire length of the creek. It ended two miles from our takeout point when we both collided into a fallen tree with a fast current moving underneath it.

The tree that took us out.

The rescued kayak from 2011

My kayak got away from me and our paddles floated along behind it. A rescue crew brought us home although the only thing rescued that day was my kayak.

Raccoon Creek is only navigable from March to June when the water is higher. We’ve been in a drought here for most of the spring and summer so we had to wait this year to get out until the rains brought the water level up high enough. Now we’ll have to wait until next year for our next cruise. Thanks to wise environmental practices now being implemented, the creek will be there waiting. And so will the wildlife.

A living creek

Fracking Power

Sierra magazine published an article in its July/August 2012 issue called the “Fracking Nightmare.” I read the article with interest since I live atop the Marcellus shale region of western Pennsylvania. Washington County considered the “honeypot” for the “wet gas” resources underground. Those resources include propane, butane, ethane and other profitable chemicals.

Interestingly, until 2010, the Sierra Club supported natural gas as a “clean” alternative to coal and its coal-burning power plants. But this practice of pulling the gas up out of the ground was rushed into production with coal’s nasty image tarnished and rising oil prices without much consideration of what it takes to get the natural gas out of the ground.

It’s a brutal practice outlined in the article. The farmers, who thought allowing the drilling on their lands and who thought it would be a way to safe their farms, are finding out differently. While the gas companies pile on the profits from drilling on the farms sitting on top of the Marcellus shale, the farmers are paying the price. Local communities are now powerless in Pennsylvania to do much of anything since Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law a prohibition on allowing municipalities to have any say at all in permitting and enforcing the gas companies’ practices.

The article, while attempting to look at all sides (albeit with a definite bend toward the environmental side) and attempting to explain their past support and now withdrawal of support for natural gas drilling, left out one important footnote.

An earthquake in Ohio earlier this year shook more than the foundations of homes. It left folks puzzled until a report was released that linked the earthquake to the fracturing taking place there.

In researching for my next novel, I’m discovering that there are no easy answers. I’m also accepting that we are all to blame for this rush to find more and more sources of power. We can all be a part of the solution, too. Please share the links in this blog. Being an informed citizen is the first step.

(NOTE: I usually don’t use Wikipedia as a link source, but when I put in “Marcellus shale,” I either found a link decidedly pro or con. This was the only one that provided the “facts” I was seeking.)

Justice for Deepwater Horizon and Massey Mine Disasters – Charge the Real Culprits

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

Criminal charges filed against Kurt Mix, a former BP engineer, for destroying records detailing the amount of oil spewing during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill  in 2010 are encouraging. But it’s not enough.

It’s the same thing as arresting petty drug dealer on the streets. Those guys are easy to replace. Visit a local middle school to groom the next replacement. Same thing for replacing an engineer – recruit at any university across the country or world, and there will be thousands of replacements standing in line for the interview.

It’s not so easy to replace the kingpins – those money-dripping lords at the top of the feeding chain, whether it’s drugs or a fossil fuel that’s being pedaled.

BP was quick to distance itself from its former employee; however, the culture created by a corporation such as BP also creates employees who will do anything to save their job. Joel Achenbach in A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea points out that BP regularly gave bonuses to employees who managed to cut costs. Safety be damned.

The Macondo well that blew after the Deepwater oil rig exploded and killing eleven men, had been a problem from its inception. It never should have continued. According to Achenbach, Shane Roshto, one of the workers killed on April 20, told his wife just before leaving for the rig in the Gulf of Mexico, “Mother Nature just doesn’t want to be drilled here.” Roshto was 22 years old.

It’s easy to forget dates as time moves forward, but Deepwater Horizon’s explosion and fire occurred just fifteen days after another fossil fuel disaster. An explosion on April 5, 2010, at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine  in West Virginia, killed twenty-nine men. Massey was notorious for its violations of mining regulations, but always seemed to get by without paying the price for mining coal no matter the cost to safety. The former superintendent of the mine, Gary May, pleaded guilty  in March 2012, to federal conspiracy charges for manipulating the mine ventilation system during inspections. He’s the highest ranking official from Massey charged in connection with the blast. Yet a report released May 2011, blames Massey Energy for the explosion by creating “a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable.”

The culture that permeates a corporation does not start at the local level. My question: When will the real culprits be criminally charged for the forty lives lost because of corporate disregard for human life in the pursuit of power and profit?

What do you think? Am I being naive? Is it unrealistic to think that if we start punishing the real culprits, the kingpins of industry, we might stop paying such a high price?

Power – Cheap, Easy, and Hidden

By P.C. Zick@PCZick

We all want power. Today, our lives depend heavily on power. Try going a day without using it. We want it cheap and easy, but we’d rather not know its dirty little secrets.

For many decades, coal ruled as the energy source of choice for powering up the power plants across the nation. Thomas Edison started it all in New Jersey in 1906. Coal was plentiful and virtually free. Who cared that the process of bringing it up out of the earth was deadly? Who knew the emissions from the coal-powered plants were killing our atmosphere with carbon dioxide emissions? We couldn’t see it; but we could see to read more clearly at night. Coal continued as the cheapest way to bring light to our lives up until the past few years, despite the cost in human lives to do so.

Nuclear energy took a hit with the Three Mile Island mess and Chernobyl in Russia. But in the past decade a renaissance of sorts began taking place in the minds of folks who wondered if nuclear really wasn’t safer than we thought. Then with the meltdown in Japan after the tsunami, that renaissance almost screeched to a halt. It took something else to completely hurl it off the tracks: the cost of natural gas.

Natural gas prices are at their lowest in a decade, even cheaper than coal. But how much do we know about the methods used to bring that stuff up out of the ground? Because it’s cheap and profitable, fracking continues. However, a few weeks ago the Sierra Club reversed its position on supporting the drilling of natural gas as a safe alternative for energy. What impact that will have is uncertain because we don’t want to be inconvenienced by not being able to power up our computers or run our electric lawn mower.

The EPA has brought forth a proposal to limit emissions from electrical generations up to no more than 1,000 lbs. of carbon dioxide for every megawatt produced. Current coal plants, which will not be effected by this proposal should it become law, produce 1,800 lbs. per megawatt. Natural gas-fired power plants can meet this limit.

Let’s just all take a moment and breath while we can. Power from oil, natural gas, and coal provide us with the energy to fuel 90 percent of our horsepower. It does it for us behind the scenes quietly and relatively cheaply. And until human lives are lost, we don’t even think about it. Then we’re outraged as we watch CNN on our big screen TVs as the air conditioner keeps us cool.

According to Robert Bryce in Power Hungry – The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future, renewable energy is just not up to the challenge of giving us the power we demand.

And the more I read, the less I believe renewable energy will ever be able to do the job at the level we live today. The power plants and the fuels lighting up our lives can do the job, but at what cost to us?

All I can do here in my little world, sitting within miles of a nuclear power plant and a coal-fired power plant, is to live a conscious life and do my part to lessen my dependence on power. But first let me post this to my blog after I’ve heated up my coffee in the microwave. And then I’ll turn out the lights.

Coal-power in the backyardCooling towers at the Shippingport Nuclear Power Plant