Sunday, January 15, 2012

the freaking fracking fiasco

On December 17, 2011, the Senate approved a two-month extension of a payroll tax cut and a $1 trillion bill to fund the government, resolving the latest in a year-long series of tense political stand-offs, but setting up fresh battles for 2012.

Republicans used the tax bill to push for quick U.S. approval of TransCanada Corp's Keystone XL pipeline project, which is backed by labor unions but opposed by environmental groups. Surprisingly, even Fox News (which tends to favor the Republican point of view) thinks the pipeline is a "bad deal".

The legislation requires President Obama to approve construction of the pipeline from Canada to U.S. Gulf of Mexico facilities within 60 days or declare it is not in the national interest. Obama wanted to take a year, beyond November's elections, to review the project. Republicans argued the pipeline would create jobs at a time the nation is suffering from an 8.6 percent unemployment rate.

By now, we’ve all become weary of the bickering that has paralyzed Congress for most of last year, so let’s take a step back in time to gain a little perspective on the whole issue.

The modern oil industry was born almost exactly 111 years ago today.

Crude oil was first discovered in America in August of 1859 in Titusville,Pennsylvania, and led to a “spike” of prosperity. For a brief period of time, Titusville had more millionaires per 1,000 population than anyplace in the world, but oil production peaked in 1891, and other industries (primarily iron and steel production) become the engines of industry for the area.

The TRUE start of the modern oil industry was in Beaumont, Texas on January 10, 1901, when an enormous gusher of oil on Spindletop Hill erupted, resulting in an initial flow of oil at the rate of 100,000 barrels a day. It took nine days to cap the well, and the excitement generated by the gusher created a boomtown literally overnight. Oil production continued in the area for the next fifty years, but today only a few wells continue to operate in the area.

Until WWII, most homes in America were heated by coal. By 1950, fuel oil had replaced coal as the main source of home heating, and the explosion of auto sales after the end of the war increased the use of oil (as gasoline). Eventually, oil consumption expanded to the point that America needed to import oil from the Middle East and other sources. By the year 2000, we were importing roughly 60% of the oil that we consume. By 2005, that percentage had increased to 66%. Surprisingly, Canada is now the largest source of our imported oil, and Saudi Arabia is a distant second.

For a number of years, we’ve been trying to reduce our “dependence on foreign oil”. As a result, you may wonder why the top export of the United States in 2011 is …. fuel.

The one word answer to that question is "Bakken", which I'll explain to you in a few minutes (make sure that you read the hyperlink titled "North Dakota"). However, another reason that we can afford to export fuel is that the increased fuel efficiency of our cars, trucks, and planes has led to a decrease in demand for gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. In 2008, overall demand for those fuels fell more than 7%, the largest drop in demand since 1950.

Eventually, all the goop from those old dinosaurs is going to run out, which is why forward thinking countries in the Middle East (like Qatar) have been concentrating on diversifying their economies. Although America has long had a very diversified economy, we’ve needed to find alternative ways to find oil due to the fact that our demand for oil far outstrips our domestic supply. One way to do that is through the use of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”,

Since this site is similar to a family newspaper, the question that you’re probably wondering at this point in this:

“What the heck is fracking?”

The petroleum industry first started using fracking in the 1940’s. The quick answer to the question is that fracking is the introduction of water, sand, and other chemicals into known areas of oil and gas deposits at high pressure in order to force the oil and gas to the surface. Is it safe? As always, it depends on who you ask.

According to the American Petroleum Institute (the folks who brought us the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater Horizon) the process is a proven and well-regulated technology.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention feels that additional study on the topic is needed, and the EPA (which is preparing regulations to govern fracking) is continuing to study the issue. Some of the areas that will come under additional scrutiny are
groundwater contamination in Pennsylvania, and increased earthquake activity in Ohio.

Environmental groups, such as The Wilderness Society, are adamantly opposed to fracking, and the 1700 mile long Keystone pipeline, for a number of reasons.

With so much conflicting information, how do you figure out which viewpoint makes the most sense? Fortunately, the answer is pretty easy: Wikipedia. The advantage of this site is that it presents an impartial view of the topics it examines, and it takes a world (rather than a local) perspective.

Besides the United States, eight other countries have used fracturing. All of them currently have moratoriums on the practice including (most significantly) four provinces in Canada. The United States does not currently have a moratorium, in large part due to some “dirty tricks” by a guy named Dick Cheney in 2005, when he was Vice President of the United States. In case you‘ve forgotten, Cheney‘s prior job was CEO of an oil company called Haliburton, which recently had a bit of bad luck in the Gulf of Mexico.

For a variety of reasons (which I’ll explain later) Congress is unlikely to approve the Keystone XL pipeline at any time soon. However, if all the planets lined up wrong, and the thing actually got built, we’d have another “bridge to nowhere” if Canada put a permanent moratorium on the process.

(Sara Palin spent $26,000,000 of the taxpayer’s money to build a road to the non-existent Gravina Island Bridge when she was Governor, and there was still discussion in Congress about continuing to fund the project in 2011.If completed, the bridge would cost $398 million, and would provide service to an island with exactly 50 residents).

The most relevant reference point for the Keystone pipeline is the Trans-Alaska pipeline, which started construction in 1974, a full five years after the first permit was issued. Oddly enough, there weren’t any domestic bidders for the pipeline, so the Trans-Alaska pipeline was eventually built using the infrastructure provided by the three JAPANESE firms that bid on the project. Although there were definitely some environmental concerns about the project, the Arab oil embargo of 1973 forced the issue, even though only 7% of our oil came from those countries at that point in time. As of 2010, the 800 mile long pipeline has delivered 16 BILLION barrels of oil. Although there have been a few leaks in the pipeline itself, the most significant spill was from the Exxon Valdez, which had taken on a full load at Prince William Sound,on the southern coast of Alaska.

Crude oil from Alaska is much different than crude oil from tar sands, in large part because pipelines carrying tar sands oil are much more prone to spills. In July of 2010, a spill from an Enbridge Energy pipeline near Marshall, Michigan (close to Battle Creek) dumped 843,000 gallons of crude, making Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River unsuitable for human contact for nearly a year. It took until March 1, 20112 for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to announce restoration planning for the areas affected by the spill.

The REASON that pipelines carrying tar sands oil are more likely to rupture than conventional pipelines is that the "heavy crude" oil from tar sands is much more corrosive than the "light crude" that is produced domestically. It also has a higher sulfur content, requires a higher pipeline temperature, and a higher pipeline pressure. If you'd like even more information, the link below will provide it to you:

just the facts, ma'am, just the facts

The Republicans contend that the construction of the pipeline will create tens of thousands of jobs. Some estimates have placed the total number of jobs that would be created to be as high as 100,000. As you might expect, those numbers are absolute fantasies. The most accurate estimate, which TransCanada (the pipeline company) agrees with, is a maximum of 6500 temporary jobs over a two year time period.

If the Republicans were REALLY serious about job creation, they would vote FOR investments in green energy technology, for starters,which would create a conservative 45,000 construction jobs over a five year period just to upgrade our power plants to current environmental standards. In addition, the Energy Departments loan guarantee program would create an ADDITIONAL 60,000 jobs in the solar and wind departments. In case you’ve forgotten, the Energy Department (which safeguards our nuclear weapons) is one of the three departments that Governor Bonehead would eliminate if he were elected President (God forbid). Fortunately, he couldn’t remember the department’s name at one of the Republican debates, so I think that the department is safe for now.

During 2011, House Republicans voted 191 times to either undermine existing environmental laws or reject Democratic efforts to strengthen them. In November, the same group of people voted against a bill that would have freed up $60 billion to repair our crumbling infrastructure and created MILLIONS of jobs. That estimate, incidentally, is from a REPUBLICAN Senator from Texas named Kay Bailey Hutchinson.

In view of the time that it took to approve the Trans-Alaska pipeline , it’s unreasonable to assume that 60 days is enough time to determine the fate of the Keystone XL project. More than likely, President Obama will determine that the pipeline “does not serve the national interest”, and will reject it. However, even if he DID approve the project, U.S. law clearly states that environmental impact statements have to be fully completed before a project can be determined to be in the national interest, and that’s definitely NOT going to happen in 60 days.

(Since a portion of the pipeline would cross the Ogallala aquifer, one of the largest fresh water aquifers in the world, an environmental impact statement on that portion of the route WAS completed in August of 2011.)

Even if the Keystone project goes away, fracking projects will still exist in our country.

Except for Sara Palin, and the oil industry, most people would agree that the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should remain off limits for drilling. That leaves North Dakota (of all places) as the last remaining untapped oil reserve in the country. Unfortunately, the fracking procedure is the only viable method to get the goop out of the ground. Although estimates on the amount of oil below ground range as high as 503,000,000,000 barrels, the U.S. Geological survey estimates the true total is closer to 3.65 billion barrels. Although that is STILL a lot of oil, it represents about a one year supply of imported oil. In my opinion, it makes no sense to make thousands of acres of land in North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan Province unusable for decades in order to gain one year’s relief from imported oil. In addition, folks in Minnesota and Wisconsin aren't happy about the fact that their silica sand has suddenly become a hot commodity.

Who’s REALLY the main force in favor of fracking and the $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline?

The Koch brothers, but they won’t admit it. They're also getting a lot of help from Representative Cliff Stearns of Florida, who happens to be the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Not surprisingly, he's also a Republican.

Their father (Fred) was one of the founding members of the John Birch Society, so it’s not surprising that they want as little government as possible. From 1999 to 2003, their company (Koch Industries) was fined $400,000,000 in fines, penalties, and judgments for environmental violations, which explains why all of their political benefactors (Governor Perry being one) are in favor of “rebuilding the EPA”.

Koch Industries is the second largest private company in America. Although the company earned an estimated $100 billion in 2009, it paid NO income tax. The company has spent more than $50,000,000 to lobby Congress since 2006, and its support of the Tea Party and Americans for Prosperity(which David Koch founded in 2003) are directly responsible for the stalemate in Congress that we all endured throughout 2011. The Supreme Court decision of January 21, 2010 will inevitably make lobbying efforts even more egrarious than they already are. A guy named Newt recently received a $5,000,000 check from a casino owner named Sheldon Adelson.

Fracking isn’t going to go away any time soon in the United States, but
starting February 1, drilling operators are going to be required to disclose what chemicals they use during the drilling process, as well as how much water they use. For the record, most wells use about 1,000,000 gallons of water a day, which is tough to justify in Texas, which just went through its worst drought since 1948.

To borrow a phrase form the “war on drugs” we should all just say “NO” to the Keystone XL pipeline. More importantly, we all need to write to our congressman, and demand that the discussion of the pipeline should be “uncoupled” from any other legislation, including the proposed extension of the payroll tax cut bill.


  1. Your whole article is very informative on this subject, which is evading most people's radar as they enter the 2012 elections. The coal & oil Co's are so busy pushing ads on TV saying how we all need "clean coal" (an oxymoron) & other filthy fuels. Especially since fracking (= fracturing shale rock) to get oil out of it, & in the process, polluting tons of water, so it even "ignites" when people turn on their faucets. It also causes cancer & other serious
    illness from that fracking pollution. We have to fight that XL pipeline before it destroys one of the biggest fresh water aquifers in the
    world. Once polluted cannot be repaired. Took 6 million yrs to create, but could be ruined in a few days. In the FUTURE Fresh WATER will be more valuable than Oil. Its very scarce