THERE'S A PROVERB often attributed to Euripides that warns: "Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad." Ellen Harrison knows what the ancients were on about. In 2008, in a moment of what she now calls madness, the retired environmental scientist signed a lease to allow drilling on the fifty acres of land she and her husband own. She's been fighting mad ever since.
After Harrison retired from Cornell University six years ago, the couple moved onto a beautiful acreage in upstate New York. Soon after they were approached by representatives of an exploration company who offered what seemed like a sweet deal. "Rick and I signed a gas lease," she admits. "We didn't know about fracking."
Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, is a method of extracting trapped gas and petroleum by injecting water, sand, and chemicals underground to fracture the deep rocky layers. When Harrison first learned about the destruction fracking can inflict on rural communities and the threat it poses to the water supply, she went into shock. "I didn't sleep for three nights," she recalls, "and I'm a good sleeper."
Soon after, Harrison took action. She formed a group called Fleased to educate others and organize against what she saw as unfair and deceptive practices in the fracking industry.
As a result of public pressure, in July 2008 the State of New York imposed a moratorium on fracking. Since then Fleased and other groups have spurred the passing of permanent bans on fracking in numerous townships. An industry lawsuit against nearby Dryden challenging its municipal ban will soon be heard by New York's highest court.
In the meantime Harrison shouldn't feel too bad. When it comes to usable power, the figurative energy gods have long made Americans more than a little crazed. From the coal-fired beginnings of the Industrial Revolution to the oil boom of the late nineteenth century, fossil fuels at once raised living standards and lowered ethical ones, leading to the Gilded Age when children were worked to death in the mines while the likes of John D. Rockefeller and Henry Clay Frick bought themselves congressmen by the batch.
Way down in the underworld, Hades would certainly snicker. In a shift of unprecedented irony, we seem as a nation to be moving from coal crazy to gas mad. But one person has a proposal that may yet restore sanity to our energy policy.
Jimmy Randolph grew up in rural Minnesota and professes a deep love of the land. As a scientist he knows that climate change is the overarching challenge we face. "I'm fairly young, and I have a young family," he told me. "We need to go down a different road and soon." But he also recognizes that civilization needs affordable energy. Preaching green just won't solve the problem. A study published in Nature Climate Change last year found that people won't degrade their present standard of living for a hazy hope of averting climate disaster--especially if they perceive that others will evade the sacrifice.
"Romance doesn't get us anywhere," Randolph says. "The solution needs to be commercially viable--no government subsidies, no green drivers, just commercial interest." Pursuit of that goal has shaped his career. Together with his University of Minnesota dissertation supervisor, Dr. Martin O. Saar, Randolph has come up with a way to redirect the technology developed for fracking into a truly clean, green, and large-scale supply of energy.
Here's how he sums it up in his doctoral dissertation: "This new approach represents a radical shift in electric/heat power generation as it not only utilizes a renewable energy source but has a negative carbon footprint." Got that? A negative carbon footprint! What could possibly provide boundless energy while absorbing carbon dioxide? Could it be Hades itself?
For decades environmentalists have aimed their boos and hisses at coal-fired generation plants as the leading villains in the pageant of climate polluters. Their censure is well directed. More than 83 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are in the form of carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]), and no one produces more of it than electric power plants.
When we think of emissions, most of us picture endless lines of cars and trucks pumping out exhaust in rush-hour traffic. That's bad, but it's far from the worst. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that U.S. power plants, in burning fossil fuels to power their turbines, emit 24 percent more C[O.sub.2] than the entire transportation sector. Most of that comes from the burning of coal.
Now, at long last, the EPA is slouching toward regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired plants. At public hearings in the Midwest, angry citizens are turning out to demand the agency keep its hands off their cheap, coal-based electricity. Lawsuits are forcing the closure of some existing plants. At the same time the Obama Administration has declared an end to U.S. support for coal-fired electricity projects abroad.
You can almost hear the Greek chorus chortling. Coal use is plunging--not because of a crisis of conscience or the fear of regulation, but because suddenly, unexpectedly, another fossil fuel has become abundantly and cheaply available.
In principle, natural gas is a more climate-friendly fuel than coal. Faint praise--still, it must be noted that when completely burned, natural gas yields about half as much carbon dioxide as coal.
But here's where the chorus breaks into belly laughs. Incomplete burning can release methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a heavyweight greenhouse gas...