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Issue No. 20 - November 15, 2013

1. Fracking wastes more water than previously thought

Water Resource Reporting and Water Footprint from Marcellus Shale Development in West Virginia and Pennsylvania
A new report published on October 30 2013, reveals that the water footprint of hydraulic fracturing is even higher than previously thought, and that over 90% of water used remains underground.

The researchers, from Downstream Strategies and San Jose State University analysed state and industry data for Marcellus shale gas wells in Pennsylvania and West Virginia to calculate the blue water footprint for shale gas, which is defined as the amount of water permanently removed from the water cycle per unit of gas produced.

They found that, even when high gas production estimates are taken into account, the blue water footprint of shale gas production is roughly double previous estimates.

The researchers used available self-reporting data on water use and waste volumes, and also took into account missing data. They acknowledge that given the incomplete data, "it is likely that much more water is being withdrawn and more waste is being generated than is reported. In short, the true scale of water impacts can still only be estimated."

The report makes recommendations for improved data collection and reporting requirements, and greater public access to the data. EcoWatch quotes one of the report's authors as saying: “States should require operators to track and report water and waste at every step, from well pad construction to fracturing to disposal.”

Given the enormous volume of waste generated (613 million gallons in Pennsylvania in 2011 alone), the report highlights the need for increased fluid recycling, even while noting that, "even as more waste is recycled, it is only displacing a small percentage of freshwater withdrawals".

The report also notes that, while Pennsylvania and West Virginia have relatively abundant water resources, the quantities of freshwater used in hydraulic fracturing would have "significant impacts on water resources in more arid areas of the country".

Areas such as New Mexico, for example, where drought-stricken farmers are selling their water for use in fracking, in order to pay the bills (video).

2. US utilities switching back from shale gas to cheaper coal

Coal Claws Back (Rhodium Group)
Since the beginning of 2013, US electricity providers have been increasingly turning back to coal, cheaper than shale gas, as financial expert Deborah Rogers explains.

Ms. Rogers estimates that the break-even price for shale gas producers is around $6/Mcf. The price in January 2012 fell below $2/Mcf, a price at which gas producers made significant losses but at which natural gas became attractive to power utilities as an alternative to coal. However, in early 2013, when the natural gas price has recovered to $3.5 - 4/Mcf, the utilities started turning back to coal, which had again become relatively cheaper. Even at this higher gas price, shale gas producers are still operating below cost, at a loss (see SGBI No. 19).

The possibility of exporting the natural gas would increase the price, thereby making natural gas even less attractive for US utilities, reducing domestic demand, and requiring exports in sufficient volumes to make up the difference.

A selection of press articles discussing the US shift back to coal:
Ms. Rogers quotes International Energy Agency (IEA) Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven about the economic prospects of renewable energy sources:

"As [renewable] costs continue to fall, renewable power sources are increasingly standing on their own merits versus new fossil-fuel generation....Many renewables no longer require high economic incentives. But they do still need long-term policies that provide a predictable and reliable market and regulatory framework compatible with societal goals. And worldwide subsidies for fossil fuels remain six times higher than economic incentives for renewables."

3. Enough renewable energy to power the world

As yet another UN report urgently calls for significant carbon emissions reductions by 2020, scientists at Stanford University are showing that all of the world's energy needs can be realistically met using solely renewable sources, around seven times over.

Dr. Mark Z. Jacobson (see SGBI No.12), director of the Atmosphere/Energy program at Stanford, recently appeared on the popular US TV program Late Show with David Letterman (see video at left), and revealed that his research team has produced plans for the world, the USA, and is working on plans for each of the 50 US states detailing how all energy used for all purposes  can be switched to renewable sources. Plans have already been completed for New York and California.

While Dr. Jacobson acknowledged that transporting the electricity produced from the wind resources in the Great Plains would be difficult to transmit to the coasts, he pointed out that the offshore wind potential off the East Coast is "the largest untapped resource of wind energy in the world."

In agreement with IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven, quoted above, Dr. Jacobson pointed out the need for public policies to actively promote the transition to renewable energy, and noted that much public policy still favours the fossil fuel industry.

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