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"All of the Above" Energy Means More Fracking, Renewables, Nukes and Clean Coal

Originally published in Scientific American on August 27, 2013

By David Biello

There is no technical issue with fracking, the controversial technique of fracturing shale rock with high-pressure, chemically treated water to release natural gas. But there is clearly a political one, judging by the multiple interruptions to a talk at Columbia University by new Secretary of Energy Ernest J. Moniz. The affable former M.I.T. professor and Scientific American advisor could chuckle about these gas-related outbursts, but the endurance of the fracking moratorium in New York State—six years and counting—points to the volatility of the issue in some parts of the country.

Six years is about the same amount of time Moniz spent on building up the Energy Initiative at M.I.T., a bid to make the energy debate more inclusive. And more inclusive it has become, thanks to fracking, though Moniz might wish for more of that passion be channeled into efforts to combat climate change. After all, the CO2 already in the atmosphere is enough to ensure that the U.S. will endure more scenes of climate disruption, whether it’s Hurricane Sandy here in New York City or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. “We are building for a low-carbon future, but a low-carbon future in which we have to expect suffering some of the consequences of climate change,” Moniz told the crowd gathered by Columbia’s new Center on Global Energy Policy. “Eighty-four percent of carbon emissions are power-related. Mother Nature seems to be returning the favor with a long-term toll on energy infrastructure.”

As examples of such a toll, Moniz cited wildfires that threatened power lines to San Francisco despite being nearly 200 kilometers away and, last summer, a nuclear power plant near Braidwood, Ill., that needed special permission to continue to operate when hot weather warmed the water in its cooling pool to 39 degrees Celsius, well above the standard operating temperature. “When the electricity goes out,” Moniz added, “getting fuel gets kind of tough,” pointing to the long gasoline lines and rationing that hit the Northeast in the wake of Sandy.

To reduce this threat in the future while in a void of Congressional action, President Barack Obama has decided to act to combat climate change using the “substantial resources and authorities of the executive branch,” as Moniz put it. That includes everything from new energy efficiency standards for appliances such as microwaves to mandatory cuts in CO2 pollution from coal-fired power plants. 

That “directive has been derided by some as tantamount to a war on coal,” Moniz stated. On the contrary, the Obama administration wants to make a future for burning the copious quantities of dirty coal in the U.S., only cleanly via technologies like chemical looping that capture and store pollutants. The Obama administration has offered $8 billion in loan guarantees for such coal-related projects—enough to cover about 8 projects, which represents a bid to resuscitate flagging carbon capture and storage (CCS) efforts, set back by events like the closure of the pioneering CCS effort at the Mountaineer coal-fired power plant in West Virginia. The goal this time around is to learn more about the storage part of CCS, Moniz said, including long-term monitoring of the CO2 underground. “You don’t want any seismic events,” he added.

Of course, seismic rumbles are exactly the events that wastewater from fracking has touched off in places such as Youngstown, Ohio.

Besides earthquakes, fracking has also been linked to increased concentrations of methane and toxic heavy metals in water wells as well as economic bonanzas for some rural locales.


Read the rest on Scientific American to learn about plans for reducing the amount of carbon emission in the Earth and how fracking can be done correctly:

Editor's Note: David Biello is the host of the forthcoming sequel to the award-winning Beyond the Light Switch. The series, produced in partnership with Scientific American, will continue to explore how transformation is coming to how we use and produce electricity, impacting the economy, the environment and national security.

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