Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

The Dangers of Fracking

with 7 comments

And come to that the dangers of commenting on press articles on line. Recently I posted something using Disqus: it was in response to an article in a Squamish newspaper about the proposed LNG plant. Oddly, nothing in the article, or in the response to that time spoke to the source of the gas. That will come from an expansion of fracking – the practice of releasing hydrocarbons from “tight formations” which has been expanded very rapidly in North America in recent years. The process creates fractures in the oil and gas bearing rocks by injecting water and mix of chemicals under high pressure.

To be clear, I oppose any expansion of fossil fuel use. There is only one way that we are going to be able to slow down our current headlong rush to global catastrophe and that is to Leave It In The Ground. Most of the reserves of oil, gas and coil must not be extracted and burned. Fortunately, the alternative renewable resources are both economically and environmentally attractive – and are getting cheaper. There is much more employment potential in renewables too, so the previously perceived “choice” between the environment or the economy is now a false dichotomy.

Expansion of LNG export terminals in BC seems increasingly unlikely based on any realistic analysis of the finances but Christy Clark has yet to concede this, and is perfectly capable of continuing to increase the public subsidy of this folly. We are actually paying foreign corporations to exploit this resource, which would otherwise be unmarketable. So if the GHG use of fossil fuels is not persuasive enough, the record of fracking needs to be examined. There are two points I made – the first is that methane is released by fracking in a manner which makes it difficult to capture – or even measure. Since methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 that is cause for caution in itself. But there is also the effect of putting injecting water into the ground. Poisoning wells is the least of it (though the youtube videos of setting kitchen faucets alight seem entertaining). We live in a seismically unstable region. There will be a huge earthquake out underneath the ocean, probably south of Haida Gwai. (I wrote that last sentence on April 23 at 10:45. This morning there was an M6.2 in exactly that location but without a tsunami.) With huge a tsunami and lots of damage. But there is plenty of risk of on shore activity too: it will be smaller but also destructive in nature.

Now of course as soon as my post appeared the on line trolls leapt on it. At least some of them are going to be in the pay of the gas drillers or the proponents of LNG expansion. They are spending a fortune on PR efforts around pipeline and terminal expansion – and no contrary opinions must be allowed to go unchallenged. A Google search for “fracking in bc” turns up nearly a million hits.

I want to draw your attention to Oklahoma. There have been a lot of earthquakes recently in Oklahoma, and the spin doctors have been doing their best to deflect responsibility away from fracking. The state government seemed to have been persuaded. Up until now. The state is now admitting that fracking causes the earthquakes. There is also more coverage of the wider impact from the New York Times.

If you do not want to admit that global warming is a problem that is caused by burning fossil fuels, then I think you are unreachable by reason or argument. But then that process of proof by belief in a political doctrine appears to have taken hold with the Conservative faithful here as it has in the US. You can probably also cheerfully ignore the impact of poisoning the water supply: after all it is unlikely to affect us here and we have been seemingly unconcerned about the state of the water on reserves – especially those impacted by the tar sands. But the risk of increasing earthquakes ought to be something you take seriously here. Even though our present government seems to be quite content to leave schools in Vancouver vulnerable to the inevitable.

POSTSCRIPT Bloomberg is now forecasting that Half of U.S. Fracking Companies Will Be Dead or Sold This Year

Written by Stephen Rees

April 23, 2015 at 10:56 am

7 Responses

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  1. I hunted down the discussion. I think your comment was a valuable contribution. You said something that had not already been said. You did it at a relatively prominent point in the discussion, within the first page of comments, 5 hours after the story was posted – around 4pm, before people get off work. In my opinion, the back-and-forth thread that follows is beside the point.

    I don’t buy your claim that those responses are by paid trolls. Your two main antagonists have commented on other topics. Gram Mirnatsy argues against homophobia; in a story about a Russian fighter intercepting an American reconnaissance plane, Dan says that one day the U.S. will “get there’s” (sic). It is possible that these are paid posters, but the views they express on climate change and energy are unfortunately widespread. It seems far more likely that they are sincere, in which case they are neither trolls nor shills.

    In about 15 (!) years of writing comments, I have only been called a shill twice: both times arguing for a Yes vote in the transit referendum. Those engaged in the groupthink on CBC wanted to imagine that no actual citizen could possibly disagree. They wanted to make Yes unthinkable. The only way to negate my position was to say there was no me there by calling me a shill.

    Even when commenters disagree, they force others to recognize their positions as genuine. This is why I think it can be very important to inject a minority viewpoint. To call someone a shill is to say there is to effectively to unmake the comment without addressing it. Of course shills exist; China, for example, employs thousands (though the quality of their work appears generally poor). But I think ad hominem accusations of shilling are tremendously destructive, as much perhaps as shilling itself. It does not help me to persuade myself that my opponents and their arguments do not exist. Nor does such extreme polarization serve democracy. Even where it seems likely, I would not make the accusation without compelling evidence.


    April 23, 2015 at 1:20 pm

  2. Wow, Geof, you put in some real work there. Well done. If I have traduced anyone unintentionally I apologise. But reading again what I wrote, I did not identify anyone by name as you have. I used word “troll” not “shill” – and a troll is one who lurks underneath the bridge and preys on the unaware travellers who cross it. Some are indeed paid. Perhaps not the two you identify. But then there is unlikely to be “compelling evidence” as these people ought to be skilled at covering their tracks. More so than Mr Duffy has been, for example.

    I had been thinking that the blog might not be the best place to air my views, especially when dealing with some of the topics outside of most of the rest of the blog. On another forum I have wondering about the echo chamber effect.

    When people comment here there are some checks in place to detect the spammers. And those who overstep the line of polite discourse can be dealt with as necessary. But posting to local newspaper web sites changes when they use services like Disqus – and I think it is right to draw attention to that.

    I am all in favour of discussion. I think it helps if people can feel that their views are welcomed, and not simply dismissed out of hand. And one of the features I have noticed is how larger arguments can get ignored, or downplayed, by directing attention to less significant details. I feel scarred by my experience – but not entirely deterred, which I think was the intention. Do you get the impression that the comments you read were part of a genuine exchange of views or an attempt to shout down the opposition?

    Stephen Rees

    April 23, 2015 at 1:42 pm

  3. Gee, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to suggest you thought those particular commenters were trolls. I actually felt you were expressing more of a general impression than accusing particular individuals. I investigated those two because they replied to you. I personally wouldn’t call them trolls; as I understand the term, trolls are fundamentally insincere: they say things they don’t believe in order to stir up trouble.

    I am actually studying large-scale reader comment discussion (as distinct from, say, discussion forums), which is why your remark caught my eye. You are right about how discussion can get sidetracked; on the other hand, I have seen instances where comments broaden and contextualize a journalist’s narrow interpretation. I do wonder about their impact (e.g. compared to blogging as you say), but I’m afraid I have little evidence to offer on that point. CBC reports that most readers read the comments (though how often they do so I don’t know), and about a third have commented at one point. A recent study of comments on public service announcements found that comments could have a greater impact on readers than the PSA itself, if the comment was seen as coming from an expert.

    I have not found comments to be particularly deliberative. (Though I’m not much of a believer in deliberative theories of democracy anyway.) What I have found is that most disagree with or oppose what they respond to, often aggressively. On forums I see far more constructive discussion, compromise and convergence – though that’s less surprising given that they tend to feature shared interests, values and decent moderation. Commenters don’t write because they are happy with what they are reading, they aren’t particularly polite, they often don’t listen and they almost never admit to changing their minds. Discussions are widely criticized as ignorant, uncivil, misleading and polarizing – often by commenters themselves!

    But commenters are only a minority of participants. Ratings (thumbs up, likes, whatever) can tell a very different story from the impression one might get from reading content alone. Behind them are legions of silent readers. Commenting in a large-scale discussion, as I see it, is a performance before an audience, not a give-and-take dialog.

    My theory is that one of the functions comments can have is to set boundaries of legitimacy in which commenters stake out various positions. Especially when highly rated, they establish these positions as legitimate views of real people. Arguments in comments may not be won, but they are still worth making. I spent a lot of time in plebiscite discussions trying to ensure that Yes was present as a legitimate choice.

    Boundaries can be narrowed (e.g. CBC stories on the plebiscite), or they can be expanded. Expansion can be good (e.g. criticism of articles channelling propaganda) or bad (e.g. climate change deniers). Even then, they reveal. For example, I think it’s really hard to deny the prevalence of sexism when one looks at comment discussions about women in technology (e.g. gamergate).


    April 23, 2015 at 2:40 pm

  4. Hydro-fracturing is not limited to extracting tight oil and shale gas, but is used to fracture deep granite for geothermal energy. Mind you, at great depths cold water injected into hot rock under pressure can do the job without chemicals. About one cubic km of rock at 10+ km depth can contain enough heat to steam power a plant for perhaps 25 years. Leave it for another decade and the heat from the Earth recharges the rock strata.

    To “leave all fossil fuels in the ground” may be premature because it will take energy to make the windmills, turbines, PV and solar thermal panels, steel and concrete of renewable energy plants, factories and parts. One bus tire has about 50 litres of embodied oil in it. Even our Green MLA Dr. Weaver is in favour of using Anthracite coal to create high-strength carbon steel (I would hope eventually locally) which has useful purposes in things like rails and wheels for trams and commuter trains, windmill towers, frames for solar panel arrays, etc.

    Thermal coal, petroleum fuels for air and ground transport, LNG for export, etc etc, yes by all means let’s eliminate our addiction to them, but it will take a bubble of energy to do just that and develop replacements.

    Replacing fossil fuels one-to-one with renewables will not be possible. Our society will incur a steep decline in overall energy, perhaps 1/3 in 25 years, and therein society must change.

    That’s a tall order.

    I have encountered the same accusation on the Tyee and CBC comments section regarding the transit plebiscite. Me a paid shill? LOL!


    April 23, 2015 at 4:40 pm

  5. Geof – thank you for that thoughtful response. I hope you join the regulars here. The level of discourse in the comments section of this blog is far different to that of the CBC.

    Stephen Rees

    April 23, 2015 at 5:47 pm

  6. MB as I understand the math, we are now past the point where a 2C increase can be avoided. There has to be an acceptance of stranded assets by the fossil fuel industry since going above 2C is going to be bad enough. On the other hand, the fall in the cost of solar and wind has happened much faster than anyone seems to have predicted, and new technologies like batteries seem to becoming available to reduce some of the problems with intermittent energy sources. We have hardly scratched the surface of what can be achieved with better energy efficiency, let alone with changes in behaviour. I mean BC is seen as a leader with its frankly overly cautious carbon tax – there is far more potential there.

    The biggest problem I see is our current dependence on liquid fuels for transportation. But if we seriously tackled both the need for motorised travel and car dependence, even that starts to look manageable – on my good days.

    Stephen Rees

    April 23, 2015 at 5:55 pm

  7. The thing about fossil energy is that it was allowed to underpin the economy. It comprises the massive energy arc that fostered globalization. Energy = economy. When it’s too high in price, a recession occurs. When it’s too low in price, a recession also occurs, albeit for different reasons. There is a lot of evidence that the $148 price of oil in 2008 was the spike that punctured the toxic debt financial balloon. Exacerbating this situation are the still record levels of public and private debt and an untenable level of weakness in several economies from years of quantitative easing (i.e. public debt).

    It remains to be seen whether even a basic a shift to green manufacturing would even be possible when a deep recession or deflation is active and manufacturers and their multiplicity of suppliers are defunct. Regardless of the prior German and Chinese investments in solar and wind that brought the technology prices down by ~200%, it will take new or greatly reoriented funding to build resiliency in our society amidst the plethora of unhealthy co-dependencies and very long supply chains, including for PV panels. The US chose to spend trillions bailing out the banks, essentially by direct payments or by printing money.

    Several prognosticators (Heinberg, Tverberg, Aleklett, Foss, Rubin …) wonder aloud whether another bailout is even possible when economic growth itself has reached its energy limits. Most of these writers and analysts are deep pessimists and believe complete collapse is imminent. Most also reject or underestimate technical innovation, but I believe they are correct in their extreme cynicism toward the ability of decision makers to lead in society’s best interests.

    Now is the time to make the shifts to clean electricity, green investments and local food production, not when our economy is spiraling downward. To build solar greenhouses, plant carbon-absorbing forests and adopt carbon-fixing agricultural techniques, to construct public transit and to electrify freight to the levels we need will require at least a decade to plan just for the barest minimums, and to put in place the most elemental procurement contracts and supply orders. Funding has to come from somewhere, and we will be in a pickle of immense proportions if we try to limit access to all fossil energy now. I suggest that most liquid transportation fuels and coal or gas-fired electricity should be eliminated as soon as possible in accordance with a well-thought out plan. That alone represents a massive decrease in emissions. But holding back some natural gas, diesel fuel and metallurgical coal to devote to manufacturing green energy turbines, electric arc and induction furnaces for low-emission metals and Portland cement, glass for solar greenhouses, to build geothermal power plants and wind farms, electrically-powered land transportation, and local marine transport is necessary. A three or four degree world will be very harsh indeed compared to a two-degree world, but we will need the tools to cope with it more than ever. Holding back a small fraction of fossil fuels to help energize a transition period will not cause tipping points to be exceeded any faster than today’s saturated fossil reality.

    With the current US fracking oversupply about to taper off, which is really just a small bump on a fossil fuel Everest that caused a temporary lowering in world prices, the prices have already started to head right back up to $100 per barrel or higher. The geologists who looked at the production rates previously pinned the tapering of fracked shale products to just before 2020, based on their measured decline rates. The recent demand decrease and oversupply may push that off by a year or so, but much higher prices are still on the way. Recessions do help to lower emissions. But they also put over-leveraged fracking outfits out of business and crimp the supply and jack the price even more.

    In other words, the 2020s will be a very interesting decade with respect to the decline of fossil fuels and increase the impetus to ramp up mitigation and adaptation measures on climate change.


    April 27, 2015 at 11:27 am

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