As predicted, things got hectic, but I have been wanting to share the following letter that I sent to President Obama after his visit to Binghamton University to talk about higher education. Of course, we fracktivists took the opportunity to talk about the perils of unconventional fossil fuel development. We rallied on campus, had speakers, and held signs and chanted as the presidential motorcade passed. Because we did not have a forum to meet the president directly, I wrote a letter after the event. I realize the president won’t see it, but hope it will get be another addition to the growing file of opposition to fossil fuels, especially unconventional ones.
August 26, 2013
Dear President Obama,
I am very pleased that you came to visit my hometown, Vestal, New York, home to Binghamton University, on Friday to discuss the affordability and quality of higher education. You and I are the same age and we each have two wonderful daughters. Another thing you, Michelle, and I have in common is that we all were lifted up and set on a service-oriented path for our adult lives by outstanding opportunities at institutions of higher learning. Obviously, the particulars of our journeys are very different; I went from the tiny town of Monroe Bridge, Massachusetts to Smith College. However, for us and countless others, the critical and creative thinking that is fostered by college/university education has been the basis for many important decisions in both private and public life.
One of the things I most appreciated about attending a liberal arts institution was the encouragement to study many subjects outside one’s major. One of my favorite departments at Smith was the geology department, in which I studied basic geology, environmental science, and meteorology and climatology. I studied those subjects because of personal interest, but, in recent years, that background has been important in my role as an engaged citizen and social justice advocate.
I was one of hundreds of New Yorkers who greeted your motorcade on the Binghamton University campus with signs asking you to ban high volume hydraulic fracturing for fossil fuels, “fracking” for short. One side of my sign pictured a traffic light with the caption, “Stop fracking. Go green energy.” I know you have called for the elimination of tax breaks and subsidies for fossil fuel companies for a long time and share your disappointment that they have not yet been enacted. I also know that you consider fracked methane to be a less damaging bridge fuel to the renewable energy future. I disagree on a number of grounds, but will only address climate change here.
As you may know, if more than 3.2% of methane produced escapes into the atmosphere, methane becomes worse for the climate than coal when burned to produce electricity. Recent scientific studies show high rates of leakage from gas drilling basins. For example, this study by NOAA/CIRES: http://cires.colorado.edu/news/press/2013/methaneleaks.html shows leakage just from the drilling and immediate production in the Uintah basin in Utah at 6+%. Recent and ongoing studies have detected thousands of methane leaks from the distribution systems under the streets of Boston, Manhattan, and Washington DC. A recent report completed for Sen. Markey shows that consumers are being charged for the methane lost to leakage: http://www.markey.senate.gov/documents/markey_lost_gas_report.pdf Methane is lost through venting and flaring, the most egregious current example being the massive venting and flaring in conjunction with Bakken shale oil drilling in North Dakota and Montana. There are also leaks in transmission lines and from gas processing and transmission activities such as compressor stations. Three examples from my own area: 1) The Millennium Pipeline was cited for methane leakage and faulty welds in 2011 even though it had only been in operation since 2009. 2) An explosion occurred at a Windsor NY compressor station on July 23, 2012 when lightning hit a vent stack and ignited methane being vented. This venting of methane was described as part of normal operations. 3) We smelled gas in the street near our Vestal home and had a patch of grass near the curb die. NYSEG confirmed a methane leak but said the wait to fix it would be months. It became an emergency situation one night during a heavy rainstorm when the methane leaking underground began to follow the lines into the basements of two of our neighbors’ homes. Over a year, and several other emergency repairs later, the lines in the street and into our homes were finally replaced, along with some of our meters. Months later, we had an energy audit performed, which detected a leak in the fitting of our new outdoor meter. I realize these personal stories are anecdotal, but they illustrate that methane leakage is common in the distribution system and that the industry does not deem these leaks particularly important to quickly repair or to prevent from occurring in the first place.
Current evidence makes it impossible to believe the industry’s contention that only 1% leakage is occurring. Rather, it seems that the current increase in unconventional fossil fuel production, particularly of methane, is causing damaging amount of methane emissions, especially given the potency of methane as a greenhouse gas in the critical twenty year timeframe, during which we are attempting to keep atmospheric carbon below 450 ppm and total global warming below two degrees Celsius.
To achieve this goal, international climate scientists agree that the world can burn less than a third of the known conventional reserves of fossil fuel. Given that, it makes the most sense to leave unconventional fossil fuel carbon safely sequestered underground. That would mean no further development of mountain top removal coal, shale oil/gas, tar sands, coal bed methane, off-shore Arctic drilling, etc. and using a third of the remaining conventional reserves as a transitional fuel source as we move quickly to a renewable energy world.
The flip side of my sign dealt with our local role in that transition. It read, “Binghamton U: Proud Home to Solar Lab and SmartEnergy. Not Fracking!” The existing Solar Lab has developed a thin-film solar cell that does not use any rare earth elements. The SmartEnergy Center is currently being built as part of the SUNY 2020 initiative and will conduct research in green energy production, efficiency, and storage technologies. Meanwhile, in the City of Binghamton, a High Tech Incubator project is underway. We hope that some of the research from the University will be used to start new companies to produce renewable energy products for New York, the United States, and the world. Broome County, the birthplace of Link Flight Simulation and IBM, has a long history of innovation and we hope to carry that legacy forward into the 21st century green economy. I also hope that we can convince Governor Cuomo to make New York a leader in renewable energy by adopting a plan such as this: http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/Articles/I/NewYorkWWSEnPolicy.pdf.
I truly appreciate how much you have already done to move our country toward greater energy efficiency and renewable energy production through the many green initiatives that grew out of the stimulus plan, the new CAFE mileage standards, the incoming regulations on power plant carbon emissions, the White House solar array installation, and others. I also appreciate you using the power of the presidency to bring the issue of climate change to the fore in national attention. I do, however, feel that the fossil fuel indsutry and the scientists they fund have misled you on the place of unconventional fossil fuels in the transition to the clean energy economy. I hope that you and your administration will consult with independent scientists to reassess the role of fracking and other unconventional fossil fuel extraction and, instead of “all of the above,” choose “go all in” for renewables.
Very truly yours,