The Many Ways Chemical Companies Love Fracking

No doubt this is blindingly obvious. But when I was reading a news squib that said that the market for fracking chemicals would rise to $20.4 billion by 2018, it struck me that chemical companies must love the fracking boom in so many ways. Most coverage centers on the new cheapness of natural gas-derived inputs, like ethane, propane and butane, which go into making chemicals. But as the news squib reminded me, the chemical companies presumably  make…fracking chemicals! Undoubtedly it’s a tiny fraction of their vast business, because they churn out products for everything from shampoos to couches, but still — a growing market segment in the double-digit billions is nothing to scoff at. Finally, chemical companies must also benefit from cheap natural-gas power to run the plants.

So, in sum, here’s what’s going on: The companies use cheap fracking-linked power to make chemicals from fracking-related inputs—and some of those chemicals enable more fracking! Nice business model.

Groundwater and Surface Water: Linkages and Legal Cases

Many Western states, including California and Texas, regulate groundwater and surface water differently. Yet the two are interconnected because aquifers bleed into rivers and lakes—as several high-profile, ongoing legal cases suggest.

One of the most interesting right now is in Northern California on the Scott River. I’m no expert on this, but it appears that environmentalists are trying to force  authorities that oversee the river to also oversee nearby groundwater withdrawals as well. But, as reported by the Siskiyou Daily News, the county fears that a decision for the plaintiffs “will make every request to drill a well subject to an environmental review process.” There’s a hearing on April 11, but any resulting decision will likely be immediately appealed. If anyone has a sense of how wide-ranging the implications could be, by all means leave a comment.

Another case I’m familiar with is in the Texas-New Mexico spat, in which Texas accuses New Mexico farmers of depleting the Rio Grande as it flows into Texas, by (among other things) pumping water from wells near the river. It’s now with the Supreme Court (the lucky arbiter for many inter-state water disputes), and some fiery words have been flying: New Mexico’s attorney general Gary King accused Texas of “trying to rustle New Mexico’s water.” But the US Solicitor General submitted a brief to SCOTUS agreeing with Texas. New Mexico’s pecan farmers, profiled in the New York Times last week, have a lot at stake in this battle because some draw groundwater from near the Rio Grande.

There are other lively intra-Texas tussles over the groundwater-surface water interchange, as the Texas Tribune recently reported.

Moving now to Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes: a lawsuit was filed last year over the falling levels of White Bear Lake, northeast of Minneapolis St Paul. As reported by MNPR’s Ground Level blog, “Homeowners and businesses near the shrunken lake have sued the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, arguing it should not have been so free with allowing nearby cities to pull water from the ground, thereby sucking water away from the lake.”

So there’s a lot going on in the groundwater-surface water nexus. Other cases of interest, anyone?

Marine Conservation: A Tough Road Ahead

Much has been written about the problems with marine preserves, where fish can, in theory, swim relatively free from human threats. There are few of them, especially on the high seas outside of national jurisdiction; their quality is highly variable; and governments’ ability to enforce fishing restrictions is limited.

A new study to be published on Wednesday in the journal Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems hones in on another issue: that officials tend to create reserves in the least useful areas for conservation. For example, they may favor areas where biodiversity is relatively sparse so as not to hurt local fishing industries. As a result, hitting a target for the *amount* of ocean preserved can result in a “false sense of achievement for conservation,” the study warns. My International New York Times Green column has more on this subject.

I’ll be learning more about oceans this week at the Economist World Oceans summit in California.

Managing Wildfires: What the West Can Learn from the South

Much of this blog falls in the category of “features I’d write if only I had time.”

This one’s been on my list for months: What the West could learn about wildfire management from the South. As it turns out, Southern states oversee huge prescribed-burn programs, with private landowners often voluntarily burning their land every several years, in addition to government groups. “The Florida Forest Service boasts one of the most extensive prescribed burning programs in the nation,” Jim Karels, the head of the service, said recently. Winter is the season for it. A massive prescribed burn just began in the Everglades. The South, like the West, is timber country — recall the huge blaze three years ago in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp — so prevention is key.

Landowners have obvious concerns about liability lest a fire get out of control. And no one wants smoke blowing across a highway or settled area, which is an increasing challenge as people build homes deeper in the woods. But liability can be potentially limited if the landowners take certification courses on burns or have their burn supervised by someone who’s certified. These rules will vary state to state, and are often evolving. New Jersey, for example, is currently working on rules about liability and certification.

Differences between the South and the West abound, of course. Most significantly, the West has a lower percentage of private land. Doubtless there are important weather differences too. But as the Western wildfire season approaches — and it’s going to be a severe one, because of the big bad drought — perhaps federal land managers should study Florida’s example.

Coal v Oil: A Competition for Trains

One item caught my eye in the Casper Star-Tribune‘s rundown of coal’s 3% production drop in Wyoming in 2013. One of the key factors, besides the weather, was the rising number of oil-carrying trains. “Increasing oil shipments mean rail constraints [for coal] are expected to persist into 2014,” the Tribune reported.

There has been a lot of reporting on the hazards of oil trains. But this is a new angle — at least to me. Oil train shipments have risen by 40x since 2008. So how much are they crowding out other shipments, including different energy fuels like coal? How much are prices for rail transport rising?

Water Prices, the Forgotten Drought Tool

When it comes to the West’s unending water woes, a key element is always missing from the discussion: price. Water is incredibly cheap. Actually, it’s basically free: household bills (which generally cost less than cable TV) reflect the cost of pipes and pumping and treatment, not the commodity itself. For all the talk of water being more valuable than oil — it’s not.

Water must of course remain affordable for people at the low end. But when things cost more, people use less. And it’s interesting to me how rates are a third rail of sorts in local politics. Water is basically taken for granted. As the chief financial officer of San Antonio’s water system once told me, “We have people come in and say: ‘I’m really struggling to pay my water bill. Just a minute, let me answer my cellphone.’”

Rates have  been going up in California and around the country — by 23 percent on average between 2000 and 2010, according to one study. The gurus say it’s almost certainly not enough, as local utilities cope with rising debt burdens and the need to find new supplies in an era of climate change and population growth. Price is far from the only tool to help deal with shortages, but it’s a little-used one. The general recommendation is for tiered pricing that increases depending on use, so that heavy users pay higher per-unit charges than light ones. While common, this is far from universal.

In times of drought, rates often go up anyway. Midland, Texas, is one recent example. That’s partly because water utilities want to encourage conservation, but they also get caught in a conundrum. Revenue falls as restrictions cut into usage, yet the utility still needs to maintain its infrastructure and, if desperate, find more (expensive) water. So rates end up rising on those who’ve obeyed orders to conserve. That’s unpopular, to say the least.

By the way, since we’re talking conservation, it helps to measure water use. A fascinating fact to emerge from the Sacramento Bee’s excellent reporting is that only about half of Sacramento’s water customers have meters. In other words, the capital of the nation’s most drought-ravaged state cannot measure the water use in half the homes and businesses it serves. Without knowing how much each location consumes, the city cannot technically enforce its 20 percent mandatory cut for everyone. Instead it’s focusing on compliance with outdoor watering restrictions (which is sensible, to be sure). Nor can it get much fancier than a flat rate for water for unmetered properties (about $42 per month for modest-sized homes). By 2025 all California homes must by law have meters, which certainly aren’t cheap — a few hundred dollars per installed meter, if memory serves.

All of this matters because municipalities are the fastest-growing major users of water, with very roughly half of cities’ water use going to lawns. Agriculture is a bigger consumer overall, however. I’ll save thoughts on that for another day.