Friday, August 17, 2012

It's Time to Get Fracking!

I have been mostly ambivalent about fracking an the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus shale deposit. But the news that US CO2 emissions have fallen to 1992 levels almost entirely because of energy producers shifting away from coal and instead using natural gas has won me over. To have fallen to 1992 levels of CO2 with no regulation, no caps, no carbon tax, and no increased prices to consumers is just incredible. Imagine the impact if we converted more cars into natural gas vehicles?

I've researched this issue and I've taught this. I understand quite well the arguments put forward by environmentalists. I understand their concern about contamination of the water by the chemicals used in the fracking process. But ground water contamination from fracking is rare. In fact there is one documented place where ground water contamination from fracking may have ocurred - Pavilion, WY. Pavilion is a remote town of about 160 people. High levels of the chemicals linked to fracking have been found in groundwater supplies and the EPA is testing to confirm the source. But the aquifer in Pavilion was located only a few hundred feet above the shale gas deposit.

The Marcellus shale is so deep below natural aquifers - several thousand feet - that there is little to no risk of water contamination. Surface spills remain a risk, but a small risk. A recent study by Robert Jackson, a biology professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, has been used by fracking opponents because the study found "salty, mineral-rich fluids deep beneath Pennsylvania's natural gas fields are likely seeping upward thousands of feet into drinking water supplies." Opponents have used that finding to warn that fracking byproducts may do the same. But those opponents ignore other key aspects of the study - "the fluids were natural and not the byproduct of drilling or hydraulic fracturing" and "No drilling chemicals were detected in the water, and there was no correlation between where the natural brine was detected and where drilling takes place." Further, Jackson has said "We don't know if this happens over a couple of years, or over millennia" and he "considers it unlikely that frack fluids and injected man-made waste are migrating into drinking water supplies."

The PA town of Dimock was made famous in 2009 after a documentary filmmaker critical of fracking publicized complaints by residents that fracking was contaminating their water. But recent tests by the EPA determined the drinking water in the town was not contaminated.

The Marcellus Shale deposit stretches from New York south through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Western Maryland, and into West Virginia.

Please understand, I am not advocating fracking and natural gas extraction as a solution to the larger problem of greenhouse gas emissions or our reliance on fossil fuels. Understand as well that I am well versed in the environmental case against fracking in general - in addition to concerns about drinking water quality there are concerns that fracking may cause earthquakes. The US Geological Survey recently determined that fracking has likely resulted in increased tremors and minor earthquakes. But the USGS was unsure why and there is evidence to suggest that the disposal of waste water deep underground, as opposed to fracking, may be the culprit. Methane has roughly 4 times the heat trapping capacity of CO2. If increased extraction of natural gas were to result in higher levels of methane escaping and leaking into the atmosphere then the reduction in CO2 achieved by switching from coal to natural gas could be negated. So clearly there is an imperative to better contain gas at the points of extraction and distribution. Natural gas extraction is not without problems, but I argue the benefits from reduced reliance on coal outweigh those problems.

Fracking the Marcellus Shale has been ongoing in Pennsylvania and policymakers in New York are about to resume fracking by lifting a moratorium in place since 2008. It is estimated the Marcellus Shale deposit contains enough natural gas to power the U.S. for twenty years - this is crucial.

We are nowhere near developing a reliable renewable resource for energy production. Nuclear power is a great option but also a political hot potato owing to concerns about waste disposal and long term costs. Whether we opted for nuclear or solar or wind it would take considerable time to construct sufficient facilities to replace the energy currently provided by fossil fuels. Perhaps more important, our politics are marked by divided government and polarized parties. As a result, any progress on establishing a true national alternative to or reliance on fossil fuels is years away. Worse, perhaps, we mired in debt. Our annual deficits exceed $1 trillion and our accumulated debt has surpassed our GDP. Couple those realities with our divided and polarized government and you'll realize that there will be no national investment in infrastructure improvement anytime soon.

Natural gas is a stop-gap. It's an alternative to coal that is viable and readily accessible. And for all the concerns about natural gas it is a far superior alternative to coal - strip mining, coal dust, coal ash, CO2,  arsenic, mercury, chromium, and cadmium are all part and parcel of our reliance on coal. Would it be best to find a renewable resource? Of course. Is natural gas perfect? No.

But our quest for the perfect should not prevent us from doing the possible. Public policy is about making tough choices among less than perfect options. Right now, the best and only realistic choice for the US is natural gas. It's a choice we need to make - and the sooner the better.

Until we do find and are able to implement a viable zero emission energy source, we need to continue our shift away from coal and to natural gas and that means fracking Marcellus.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Congressional Dysfunction, Part 3 - The Rise of Conservative Republicans: 1976-1994

Part 3 of an ongoing series exploring the roots of our dysfunctional Congress.

Just as Figure 4.1 shows congressional Democrats moving left beginning in the 1950s, it shows as well that Republicans began their own ideological journey right starting in the late 1970s. Though the congressional elections of 1976 and 1978 did not see significant changes in the balance of power in the House or Senate, they did witness the election of more conservative Republicans. Republicans influenced by an emerging activist and ideological conservatism. In 1978, 35 Republican freshmen arrived in the House, including Newt Gingrich (R-GA) who became secretary of the group. In the face of what had seemed permanent minority status, these activist Republicans sought other means by which to influence the process, frequently raising questions of possible ethics violations by majority party members.

The election of 1980 changed the perspective of many Republicans and raised the possibility of reclaiming control of Congress. Republicans erased all of the losses they had suffered since 1964 and returned to pre-Watergate levels in the House. Additionally, the party continued to build on its presence in the south. Republicans netted 12 seats in the Senate, including four new seats in the south. More significantly, Republicans claimed control of the Senate for the first time since 1953.  A new Republican party was emerging. It was a more uniformly conservative party with a steadily growing southern accent.

The arrival of recorded votes offered incentives to the minority party as well. Prior to 1971 votes on amendments were not recorded. Members of the House might vote simply by stating “aye” or “nay” or simply inform the vote teller of their position – but there would be no list of how each member voted. Only those in the chamber would know how a member voted. With the introduction of recorded and then electronic voting every member’s vote became a matter of public record. This encouraged the minority party to offer amendments to force tough or even embarrassing votes for majority party members – especially those from districts competitive districts. The change was dramatic. All told there was an eightfold increase in the number of floor amendments subject to a recorded vote between the 84th Congress, convened in 1955, and the 95th Congress, adjourned in 1978. 

Newt Gingrich saw the potential afforded by the new openness created in the 1970s. Gingrich and likeminded Republicans formed the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS) in 1983. The COS served as the conservative Republican counterpart to progressives’ Democratic Study Group established in the 1950s. The COS took advantage of House rules and used floor amendments to force Democrats to make politically challenging votes. This was an effective way to embarrass Democrats from vulnerable districts in an era of televised floor proceedings and recorded votes. The minority party lacks the power to overcome majority party advantages in the House, so the COS instead used the House floor as a platform to undermine confidence in the Democratic majority.

Republicans used ethics reforms adopted in the 1970s to target Democratic leaders. In quick succession ethics inquiries and investigations led to the resignations of Democratic Speaker of the House Jim Wright and Majority Whip Tony Coelho in 1989 – that same year Gingrich gained election as Minority Whip, the second highest-ranking Republican leadership position in the House. A scandal involving the House bank in 1991 and the House Post Office in 1993 followed the resignations of Wright and Coelho. Though Democrats and Republicans alike were found to have overdrawn their accounts in the House bank, the scandal contributed to a COS narrative of a corrupt Congress controlled by Democrats. Nearly 80 House members either retired or were defeated in 1992 because of the bank scandal. The election 47 freshman Republicans to the House accompanied the election of Democrat Bill Clinton as President in 1992. Figure 4.1 clearly shows the growing conservatism of House Republicans during that time.  Senate Republicans steadily followed suit. Conservative House members, first elected after 1978 and subsequently elected to the Senate (Theriault and Rohde 2011), helped to produce the growing polarization within the Senate.

The House Post Office scandal erupted in 1993 and effectively ended the career of Democratic Representative Dan Rostenkowski (D-IL) the very powerful Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. The cumulative effect of the scandals and public dissatisfaction with President Clinton was the Republican sweep of the 1994-midterm elections. In the 1994, election Republicans realized a net gain of 54 seats in the House and 8 seats in the Senate and assumed full control of the U.S. Congress for the first time since 1954. Gingrich gained election as Speaker of the new Republican controlled House. Republicans would hold the majority in the House and Senate until 2007, with the exception of a brief period in the Senate from 2001-2003.

 Next: Part 4 - The Contemporary Congress – Polarization, Professionalization and Competition