Noelle Swan

Posts Tagged ‘fuel’

Is Fracking Just a Dirty Word?

In Uncategorized on February 4, 2010 at 12:00 pm

With cap and trade initiatives temporarily sidelined in Washington, the dialogue has changed from emissions reduction to energy independence and job creation. Without missing a beat, the Chairman and CEO, Rex Tillerson, of Exxon Mobil appeared before the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment on January 20, 2001, presenting hydraulic fracturing as the key to both.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process for extracting oil and natural gas from beneath shale by injecting fracking fluid, (water mixed with small amounts of chemicals), at very high pressures into the ground, forcing out fuel. The technology has been around for a century and has been used in Exxon Mobil oil wells for 60 years. Today, 90% of the nation’s oil and natural gas wells already employ this technology.

Why then, is Tillerson campaigning for an already thriving technology?

Tillerson is trying to paint an image of fracking as a technology that helps us achieve energy independence while creating jobs, ensuring fossil fuels keep the lead role in America’s evolving energy paradigm.

This image is more important today than it ever has been in it’s 100 year history.

For the past year, fracking has been under attack.

NPR reported last May that Texas, Ohio and Colorado residents claim that fracking has polluted their wells. These accusations have yet to be confirmed. It is difficult to analyze any link between contamination of well water and fracking fluid because the chemical compounds utilized are carefully guarded industry secrets.

In 2005, fracking was granted an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act taking regulation out of the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency. Vice Chair of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Colorado Representative Diana DeGette has introduced a bill in the House that would repeal this exemption. Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania has introduced a comparable bill in the Senate.

While the passage of DeGette and Casey’s bills would be a victory for the Obama administration’s expressed desire to reverse the policies of the Bush-era EPA, it may not be crucial to the fracking fluid disclosure cause. In the absence of federal regulation, individual states have begun to request disclosure of fracking fluid contents.

Gas executives from Chesapeake Energy and Range Resources have joined the call for disclosure. This stance is an interesting power play. In addition to continuing the heavy role of fossil fuels in America’s future energy paradigm, this also places reform out of the hands and budgets of energy suppliers.

Fracking is performed by independent contractors, including ther firm Americans love to hate, Halliburton. It is these contractors that hold the recipes to fracking fluid. Aubrey McClendon of Chesapeake Energy can publicly declare, “we need to disclose the chemicals that we are using and search for alternatives,” because it is not his company that will bear the cost of such endeavors.

Environmentalists, worry that any disclosure initiated by the industry might be insufficient and hold out hope that Congress will move to bring the process back under federal regulation.


Tobacco to the Rescue?

In Uncategorized on January 2, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Move over corn, tobacco is poised to take the lead in the biofuel race.

Just a few short years ago, it seemed that ethanol, a biodiesel fuel derived from corn, was going to be the key which freed us from the shackles of fossil fuels.

Yet, the promise of ethanol has since worn thin. Nitrogen-hungry corn requires heavy fertilizer when grown on a large-scale, placing the local water-table at risk. Social justice advocates have cautioned further against using a food source for fuel.

Could tobacco be the answer?

Initially, scientists considered the oil derived from tobacco seeds as a potential fuel source. Seed volume proved to be too low, shifting attention to the leaves. With a little bioengineering, the leaves have become promising oil producers. The researchers at the Biotechnology Foundation Laboratories at Thomas Jefferson University have recently isolated two genes in the tobacco plant DNA that, when over-expressed, increase oil production. Surprisingly, as oil production increased, so did the concentration of fatty acids within the oil. The result is not only more, but more concentrated oil.

While tobacco clearly has promise, it too will have to stand the scrutiny which befell ethanol. Tobacco is considered an expensive plant, though a significant portion of the expense lies in the curing of leaves for smoking tobacco as this involves the burning of large volumes of wood. It is this practice which is often quoted as a major environmental beef with the tobacco companies.

While tobacco is not a food source, there is still a legitimate concern that the crop could end up competing for land with food crops. Tobacco is native to the Americas, yet much is already produced in the developing world. Were tobacco to become an energy commodity, cash poor nations might be tempted to relegate more of their farm land to the latest cash-crop.

While it is an intriguing idea that Big Bad Tobacco could shift its business to the energy sector, it is yet still fantasy.


Plant Biotechnology Journal (2009) 8, pp. 1–11.