Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category

TysonRTfrackingI did an interview with RT discussing the growing problems that chemicals used in fracking oil & natural gas pose to the environment and public safety. First, the Associated Press reports that there have been hundreds of complaints of water pollution from fracking, most from methane but some from the chemicals used in fracking. But this AP report only tells half the story, as it simply documents the different ways in which states handle and record complaints when folks call in to a hotline or send an email. That’s good info, but not nearly as important as sending scientists to investigate the complaint. And there’s the rub: when confirmed fracking pollution occurs, oil & gas companies quickly settle with the affected landowners, and, in return for providing cash and drinking water supplies, force families to sign non-disclosure agreements, forbidding them from even acknowledging that fracking pollution ocurred, or in some cases, requiring families to sign statements proclaiming that pollution didn’t occur. We challenged Jack Gerard on this point when he spoke at our offices earlier this year, and he denied knowing anything about these common non-disclosure agreements. In one famous case, the natural gas company forced parents to guarantee that their two young children would never speak about fracking pollution on their farm for the rest of their lives. The proliferation of these non-disclosure agreements distorts the policy debate because they interfere with the collection of data needed to draw conclusions about the saftety of fracking. It is unacceptable for the industry to continue to say “Fracking is safe, evidenced by the lack of water contamination proof!” at the same time they’re forcing familes to give up their right to talk about pollution (or in same cases, forcing the families to lie in order to qualify for the financial compensation). A simple solution is to disallow non-disclosure agreements that mask information on drilling contamination.

A second issue involves transportation hazards posed by fracking chemicals. On December 30, Warren Buffet’s BNSF line was hauling 78,000 barrels of oil on 104 rail cars from the Bakken Shale to a refinery in Missouri when it was hit by another BNSF train carrying soybeans headed in the opposite direction, derailed, and started a massive fire. I spoke to ABC World News Tonight about this tragedy, and, as my friend Steve Horn reports, the crude oil was more volatile and dangerous because it was laced with fracking chemicals absorbed by the oil during the production process. Indeed, the Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration just issued a warning that fracked oil is more chemically explosive. And corrosive agents used in fracking that are then absorbed by the oil, such as hydrochloric acid, “which federal investigators suspect could be corroding the inside of rail tank cars, weakening them.” This means that moving fracked oil by pipelines won’t be safer, since the caustic oil could corrode pipelines as well. Big oil is opposing federal efforts to retrofit the safety of rail cars hauling crude oil.

railAs I’ve written before, the fracking boom is failing to deliver affordable, safe or sustainable energy for America.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum

By Scott Michelman, Public Citizen Litigation Group.

Cross-posted from Consumer Law & Policy Blog.

In September, a group of auto safety advocates and parents represented by Public Citizen sued the Department of Transportation over its failure to issue a congressionally-mandated regulation to address the problem of backover crashes, that is, collisions in which a vehicle moving backwards strikes a person (or object) behind the vehicle. Each year on average, according to the Department of Transportation (DOT), backovers kill 292 people and injure 18,000 more — most of whom are children under the age of five, senior citizens over the age of seventy-five, or persons with disabilities.

In November, the court ordered DOT to respond to our petition, which it did two weeks ago. DOT also did something else that the court had not ordered: as the Detroit News reported yesterday, DOT sent a proposed final rule back to the Office of Management and Budget for final review (a step required by executive order before a rule is issued). This means that the regulatory process is moving again, and sooner than expected — six months after DOT withdrew the rule from OMB, now it’s back, and that’s not a very long time to overhaul the proposal (but, to be clear, we don’t know what rule the agency is now proposing). We’re pleased the administration appears to be moving forward in response to our lawsuit.

But before getting too excited, remember that we’ve reached this stage before — DOT sent a proposed rule to OMB back in November 2011, only to have it languish for 19 months before being withdrawn. So progress is not enough: we need the administration to finish the job.

Meanwhile, our lawsuit is still pending. If the administration doesn’t follow through and issue the final rule this time, hopefully the court will order it to do so.

A version of this appears on the National Journal Energy Insiders blog.

Our energy infrastructure leaves consumers exposed to volatile, fossil-fuel linked prices under centralized utility and oil company control. We need an energy consumer “Bill of Rights” that gives households the tools they need to generate more of their energy from onsite renewables, afford energy efficiency retrofits, and have improved access to mass transit in their communities. Record US oil production can’t lower retail gasoline prices, and today’s inexpensive natural gas won’t last long. But entrenched industries are fighting so-called “disruptive” technologies like rooftop solar, and instead seek to maintain the status quo. But the status quo is no longer affordable, both from an economic and a climate perspective.

Let’s start with oil: it’s a globally priced commodity driven more by Chinese demand than domestic production. That’s why record US oil production has failed to deliver cheaper gasoline to motorists.  Oil production efficiencies and fracking’s technology improvements aren’t translated into lower prices because consumers are charged for the price of the commodity, and Wall Street traders’ strategies price oil with irrelevance for efficiency. As a result, drilling and fracking technological efficiencies are pocketed by oil drillers, as gasoline and oil prices have actually increased for consumers during the oil boom. Contrast this phenomenon with the iPhone, microchips or solar panels, where technology efficiency gains are translated into ever-lower prices for consumers (and where renewable energy features zero fuel commodity costs). Solar PV costs are plummeting, from $3.80/watt in 2008 to $0.86/watt in mid-2012. And of course there’s all of the wasted water of fossil fuel production. The equity prices of fracking companies benefit from the fracking boom—consumers don’t.

Natural gas is problematic too. It’s imprudent policy to assume that gas will remain cheap, or even affordable for that matter. While we most likely have a few more years of moderately-priced natural gas, we will see a return to the Bad Old Days of natural gas price volatility as soon as emerging and proposed infrastructure changes accelerate. Natural gas’ emissions benefits are no match for zero-emission competitors, but today’s cheap gas prices are luring crucial support away from the long-term renewables solution.

In the power sector, decisions are being made based on today’s low prices that commit significant parts of our electricity infrastructure to gas for the next generation. This will come at the expense of renewables, which, unlike natural gas, will only have a plummeting future cost curve. It would be one thing if the oil & natural gas boom was producing affordable, clean and safe energy. It’s not and it can’t. The more money we spend to build oil and natural gas infrastructure is less money we have to invest in the true technological revolution that will actually deliver for consumers: renewables and efficiency.

Some utilities, with management styles enshrined with state utility commissions, lack the acumen to efficiently respond to changing market dynamics. They remain beholden to outdated supply chains that led them to believe that they must continue to stick with coal, economics be damned. Maximizing investment in a decentralized electricity structure has to be a significant part of policy going forward. Indeed, FERC Chairman Jon Wellinghoff promoted the idea of replacing centralized, baseload generation with small-scale, distributed renewable energy in an April 2009 interview.

A progressive price on carbon, with money directed to households, coupled with limits on greenhouse gas emissions are needed to transition to a sustainable energy economy that puts consumers first. The Obama Administration has begun the process at the EPA, and when the Administration calculated the social cost of carbon at $38 per metric ton for 2015 as part of a rulemaking on microwave oven efficiency standards.

An Energy Consumer Bill of Rights—complete with a progressive carbon price, limits on greenhouse gas emissions, billions of dollars in annual funding for a consumer-centric sustainable energy infrastructure and the establishment of an Office of Consumer Adovcate are all needed to move us away from centrally controlled fossil fuel system to the Solar Rooftop Revolution.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum

On Friday I appeared on Fox Business to discuss the initiative by 8 states to coordinate on electric vehicle infrastructure. The government has a long history of transportation infrastructure investment, and there’s no question consumers will benefit from a transportation fuel divorced from expensive and polluting oil. Electric cars help diversify our fuel mix, and must play a prominent role if we’re to address climate change and make transportation more affordable.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum

              Last night I appeared on Fox Business to discuss the future of energy storage and batteries. The United States has fallen desperately behind in production and innovation in the industry, with Japan, Korea & China controlling 92% of global market share and the US only 2%. Batteries serve as the foundation of our energy system, essential not only for putting the “mobile” in mobile phones, but serving as a key energy production service in automobiles, aviation, medical devices, and as balance for intermittent renewable energy. The problem has been that there’s no “Moore’s Law” for battery technology: Intel’s founder correctly predicted in 1965 that microchip capacity will double every 24 months, which explains why my Motorola smartphone possesses more computing power than the warehouse-sized mainframes that sent a man to the moon in 1969. We’ve had battery technology for 2,000 years, but energy storage innovations are failing to keep up with the technology it’s designed to power. That’s why public investment in R&D and battery-affiliated infrastructure is essential. Now, the future of batteries in cars may not be 100% battery powered but rather an electric drive train fueled by hydrogen passing through a fuel cell. But batteries will be essential as part of the Rooftop Revolution, allowing households to generate free electricity from the sun, powering batteries during the day that can kick on after sunset to provide power all night.

Tyson Slocum is Director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program. Follow him on Twitter @TysonSlocum

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