July 31st, 2012 ~ I've taken a bit of a hiatus in my journal postings to focus on two new special sections on my home page.  One is an admittedly biased look at the critical 2012 campaigns which will define America's political landscape for years to come.  Of course, if we make the wrong choices, that may be very few years indeed for the America we grew up knowing.  The other special section is a link to "Gotta Vote", a website dedicated to protecting your RIGHT to vote.  You may THINK that's a Right nobody needs to defend in 21st Century America.  You would be wrong.  The Republican party is ACTIVELY working to prevent you from getting to the voting booth.  The "New Red Menace" has been VERY busy since 2010.

      July 10th, 2012 ~ As I write this, State Governors and Legislatures are under intense pressure to permit extraction of natural gas from shale deposits via a controversial technique known as Hydraulic Fracturing, or as it's more commonly known, "Fracking".  Industry lobbyists and lawyers are only part of that pressure.  Dwindling State tax revenues in today's economic conditions are making it harder and harder to stay out of the red.  A fresh crop of citizen millionaires and employed taxpayers would certainly go a long way in filling in the budget gaps.
      Fracking is controversial because Americans from all walks of life question the operational safety measures of companies involved and point to the industry's secrecy about the chemicals used and even the geological impact of those operations.  One thing is certain.  We need to look at this one controversy in a larger context to clearly see the overall environmental impact of natural gas.
      Today, many utilities with aging coal-fired powerplants are finding it less costly to retrofit those powerplants to use natural gas, rather than installing and maintaining so-called "clean coal" emissions controls and sulfur dioxide (SO2) scrubbers and then dealing with disposal of the toxic sludge produced by those scrubbers.  New powerplants, designed from the ground up to be fueled by natural gas, are obviously less expensive than either new or retrofitted coal-fired powerplants.
      We know that when burned as a fuel, natural gas produces a small fraction of coal's carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and none of its SO2 or mercury (Hg) emissions.  Similar comparisons can be made between vehicles designed from the outset or retrofitted to run on natural gas and their gasoline or diesel fueled counterparts.

      Those are the good points.  Now, the not so good...

      While natural gas burns cleanly, unburned natural gas is mostly composed of methane (CH4), a potent greenhouse gas, with an average greenhouse effect relative to CO2, of anywhere from 21% greater over a 100 year period, to a staggering 72% greater if averaged over a 20 year period.  Methane molecules remain intact and hyper-effective upon our climate for at least eight years, before eventually breaking down to CO2 (still a greenhouse gas) and water.
      Pre-1950's cast iron pipelines account for only 3% of the total natural gas transmission infrastructure in the United States, yet they account for over 25% of the leakage in the network.  Most (not all) of the oldest infrastructure exists in the Northeast where natural gas has been providing heating and cooking fuel to tens of millions for nearly a century.
      As extensive as our natural gas pipeline system is, its traditional focus has been on serving powerplants and urban centers.  Expanding that network rapidly to support fueling stations in remote parts of the country, while certainly feasible, would also be prohibitively expensive to support an aggresive program of vehicle conversions to natural gas.  The alternative, therefore, is transporting that gas via rail and ultimately trucks to remote consumer fuel stations.
      Each hand-off of natural gas, from pipeline terminus, to rail, to truck, to underground tanks, to individuals fueling vehicles, presents an opportunity for release of that gas into our atmosphere; where, again, it persists in its super-greenhouse effect for at least eight years.

      Back to fracking...

      Our nation sits atop vast reserves of natural gas locked in shale deposits across our land.  The greatest concentrations of natural gas appear to exist in particular shale formations known as "Marcellus Shale" found mostly in Northeastern States and named for Marcellus, New York, where these formations actually poke out on the surface.  This proximity to Northeastern centers of demand, make these formations especially appealing to natural gas extraction companies.  Modern drilling technology has allowed those companies to inject a secret stew of chemicals, under unbelievable pressures, to literally shatter the shale formations, thereby releasing the natural gas to be vacummed up to the surface.
      Unfortunately, as in New York or North Carolina, some of those shale deposits are not as deep as industry lobbyists pretend.  Some, in fact, are barely below critical fresh water aquifers serving thousands if not millions of Americans.  Of the chemicals we know about, used to shatter those rock formations, some are known to be carcinogens; others are just garden variety poisons.  Massive amounts of water are also required in this toxic stew and the protocols for reclaiming and sequestering millions of gallons of this stuff back on the surface is not clearly understood by State officials and the American public alike.
      Then, there are the earthquakes.  As Sarah Simpson of Discovery News points out, USGS seismologists had been flummoxed by an increase in seismically significant tremors, since 2009, in areas of our nation noteworthy for their seismic quietude.  The only new factor seemed to be fracking operations.
      Most Americans know about the "San Andreas fault" in California and the "Super Volcano" under Yellowstone National Park.  Most Americans DON'T know about the "New Madrid Fault" right in the middle of our nation, nor the "Ramapo Fault" spanning New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.  EXACTLY where natural gas extraction companies seek to undermine tens of millions of homes and apartment buildings with their rock-shattering operations.
      In conclusion, we see that while natural gas shale deposits hold a potentially abundant domestic energy source, in terms of the largest consumers, powerplants, we would just be trading one abundant domestic energy source, coal, for another.  We also see that while coal presents many environmental problems, from its extraction to its use, we at least know from long experience what those problems are.  We know very little at this point about the long-term effects of fracking or large-scale natural gas consumption, but what we do know gives us good reason for caution and concern.

      July 4th, 2012 ~ Today, We, the People of the United States of America, celebrate our Declaration of Independence from English King George III.  That declaration affirmed our independence not only from a distant and capricious monarch, but also from his titled "gentlemen" of English commerce, whose systematic and highly profitable plundering of our colonies had made that monarch possible.  As Brunel University Professor of History, Kenneth Morgan wrote for The BBC, "...trade and empire went hand in hand, with a symbiotic relationship to each other".
      While hereditary monarchs have dwindled to a mostly ceremonial handful worldwide, the Principalities of Profit they helped create have flourished well into the 21st Century and while our Declaration of Independence led to a never-before-seen democratic republic, our hard won rights and protections under law are as much in peril today, from the commercial fiefdoms spawned so long ago by royal decree, as they were back in the late 18th Century.  Banking and Finance, Pharmaceuticals, Energy, Agribusiness, all have legions of lobbyists in our nation's capital and in State capitals across our land with the express mission of undoing any and all regulations.  Nothing personal, you understand.  Just business.
      But now, our Supreme Court has ruled that even sovereign "States Rights" are trumped by their "Citizen's United" ruling of 2010.  Corporations like Barclay's Bank, British Petroleum (BP), and GlaxoSmithKline, may now express their First Amendment right to employ their vast profits in directly effecting our legislative and electoral processes.  Forgive my focusing on British corporations to make my historical point.  The reality is that ANY foreign company (including "dual headquartered" Halliburton or Koch Industries subsidiary INVISTA), doing business in our United States, has the right to secretly pump hundreds of millions of dollars into Super PAC propaganda targeting any legislation or candidate for office they like/dislike.
      If We, the PEOPLE, can't rely on the transparency and fairness of our electoral process because corporations (and unions) are now considered people, it may be time for a Declaration of Independence Ver. 2.0.  We, the PEOPLE, of the United States of America, need a Constitutional Amendment to clearly state that our rights extend only to living, breathing Human Beings and our States; not to some entities which exist solely on paper.  If you agree, I urge you to contact your Senators and Representative demanding such a Constitutional Amendment.  Let's declare our independence from foreign corporations and their secret money today!