March 23 news: NYT on natural gas and clean water; Idle land finds a purpose as farms for solar power; Mayor calls for 100% renewable SF by 2020

Natural Gas and Clean Water (NY Times editorial)

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told a House subcommittee recently that a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing could be the “Achilles’ heel” that kills the natural gas industry. Like many others, Mr. Salazar sees natural gas, which America has in great abundance, as cleaner and more climate-friendly than coal or oil and a useful transition to alternative fuels. But he also fears, as we do, that public support for drilling will diminish unless the industry and its state and federal regulators do a better job of making sure the gas does no harm to drinking water.

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Hydraulic fracturing involves blasting water, sand and chemicals into underground rock formations to unlock the gas they contain. The technique has been around for many years and has been used, mostly without incident, in hundreds of thousands of natural gas wells. But the risks have multiplied as the wells are drilled deeper and stretched vertically and horizontally to get at remote deposits. A single well can cough up a million gallons of wastewater laced with carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium.

The technique has become especially controversial in Pennsylvania, the epicenter of a big push for natural gas locked in the Marcellus Shale, a formation stretching from West Virginia to upstate New York. Ian Urbina’s recent series in The Times found that conventional wastewater treatment plants in Pennsylvania could not prevent radioactive contaminants from entering rivers that provide drinking water for millions of people. The series also identified many instances of poor regulation.

At the urging of Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency has begun an investigation of hydraulic fracturing’s effect on the environment. An earlier E.P.A. study in 2004 was superficial and skewed toward industry. The oil and gas companies provided much of the underlying data, and there were few onsite inspections. This time the study must involve rigorous field testing. It must also be thorough and transparent.

There is a message here for New York State as well. Albany has been dithering for years over whether to allow increased hydraulic fracturing, and under what conditions and rules, in New York’s portion of the Marcellus Shale. The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation is nearing the end of a revised environmental impact statement that is due on June 1.

Given all the new information, this is a ridiculously short time frame. The department “” which hasn’t even finished processing comments from a 2009 study “” needs to get it right. We would hope that it prohibits drilling altogether in two watersheds that supply millions of people with unfiltered drinking water, while imposing the strictest possible drilling standards elsewhere. The two watersheds are the New York City watershed, which covers one million acres north and west of the city and provides drinking water to 8.2 million people, and the smaller Skaneateles Lake watershed near Syracuse.

The issue here is not whether the country should be drilling for natural gas, which is an important source of energy as well as jobs in places like Pennsylvania and New York. The issue is whether it can be done safely.

Idle Land Finds a Purpose as Farms for Solar Power

Since the economic downturn, residents and businesses have been looking for ways to use real estate that may no longer appeal to mall developers or home builders. One option is to build solar energy farms, where thousands of solar panels convert the sun’s energy into electricity.

Developers and utilities have a particular incentive to do so in New Jersey, where the state’s Solar Renewable Energy Certificates market, along with federal and sometimes local incentives, has made solar energy more profitable.

Solar panels atop warehouses and suburban homes have become more common, and some businesses are also using idle land nearby to build small solar farms to power their companies, said Adam J. Zellner, the president of Greener by Design, an environmental asset management and energy investment company in New Brunswick.

“You have a lot of corporate offices that have little microfarms, like three-acre things, that were next to the building,” he said. “Those are places that are very much appropriate for people to develop into solar power to feed directly into those companies.”

Proposed U.S.-Canada oil pipeline fuels debate

David Daniel found his piece of paradise on 20 acres in east Texas, complete with a hardwood forest of oak, hickory and elm and three spring-fed creeks that burble year-round.

“I drink out of the creeks. It’s that clean,” says Daniel, a carpenter who built a house for his family on the land.

He sees his refuge in peril. A proposed oil pipeline “would cut my property in half and tear up the wetlands,” says Daniel, who has rallied fellow U.S. landowners against the $6 billion project.

In this David vs. Goliath tale, what happens in Winnsboro, Texas, may hinge on events thousands of miles away. Unrest in the Middle East could affect whether the Obama administration allows a 1,661 -mile underground pipeline carrying a controversial form of heavy crude oil to slice through the United States from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast.

San Francisco mayor calls for city to go 100% renewable by 2020

Where could you get 797 people to stand in line outside a nightclub to attend a $100-a-ticket fundraiser for a nonprofit that advocates for solar energy? Not-so-sunny San Francisco, of course.

The queue to get into the Vote Solar Initiative annual spring equinox bash snaked down the street Monday, and even the sun made an appearance during a break in the deluge that has been soaking the Bay Area for the past week.

Now, I don’t cover the party beat. But as someone who lived in San Francisco during the dot-com boom of the late ’90s and worked at the leading chronicler of the era, The Industry Standard, I came to see parties as an indicator of any boom.

Back then, the line for the Standard’s weekly rooftop bash routinely stretched down the block. (It was the only magazine I’ve ever worked for that employed its own doorman.) What started out as reporters and editors knocking back a few beers ballooned into an over-the-top bacchanal, taken over by PR people and advertisers. (For the Standard’s second anniversary, the magazine rented out San Francisco City Hall and installed hot-and-cold running martini and sushi bars.)

California Judge Calls Time Out for Climate Change Law

Irony usually speaks for itself, so I’ll tread lightly here. But what is one to make of a climate-change law that withstands a $35 million campaign supported by conservative oil interests only to be thrown off course by a legal challenge from the leftier edges of the environmental movement, particularly its environmental justice wing?

And what to make of a court opinion that awards a partial victory to these groups “” relying not on a finding of environmental injustice but rather on a determination that the state of California failed to engage in a crucial economic debate about policy alternatives?

Last week’s decision by Judge Ernest A. Goldsmith of state superior court in San Francisco offers a second look at some of the arguments being made against A.B. 32, the state climate-change law passed in Sacramento in 2006. A few Democrats, particularly those representing poorer industrial areas, were deeply suspicious of cap-and-trade policies to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, arguing that their constituents would be hurt when a local polluter simply paid for pollution allowances rather than cutting back on the pollution itself.

Greenhouse gases, of course, are thought of as having more of a global impact than a local one. But the incidental benefits of greenhouse-gas reductions can include a reduction in conventional pollutants, which do tend to enter the ground-level air close to industrial plants.

Germany’s solar panels produce more power than Japan’s entire Fukushima complex

Germany is the world leader in installed solar photovoltaic panels — and they also just shut down seven of their oldest nuclear reactors. Coincidence? Maaaaybe … Anyway, it’s worth noting that just today, total power output of Germany’s installed solar PV panels hit 12.1 GW — greater than the total power output (10 GW) of Japan’s entire 6-reactor nuclear power plant.

Now before the trolls come out, let me just note that 12.1 GW is max power (the output whose name you’d love to touch). The panels generated that much at one instant in time — when the sun was at its apex — but of course solar power production varies with the weather and the time of day. To find out how much energy those panels generated today in total, you’d have to calculate the area under that curve in the lower right hand corner. (Which, come to think of it, we should probably use as the CAPTCHA on the comment field on this post.)

Regardless, Japan’s facing rolling blackouts until next Winter, and it’s undeniable that if the country had more distributed power generation like Germany’s roof-based solar PV system, the entire country would be much more resilient in the face of catastrophe.

Get ready for more Chu

Energy Secretary Steven Chu will speak Wednesday at a Pew Environment Group forum on clean energy, an appearance that comes days after Chu suggested the Japanese nuclear reactor crisis could influence the siting of future U.S. nuclear plants.

“Certainly where you site reactors and where we site reactors going forward will be different than where we might have sited them in the past, I would say,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Chu’s brief comment drew widespread attention “” tomorrow he could face more questions about the impact of the crisis in Japan. The Energy Department has deployed resources and staff to assist the response and track the accident’s effects.