Dr. Mark Hyman: Why You Should Ditch Artificial Sweeteners
“I know you’re not big on sugar and frequently tell people to cut down on it,” writes this week’s House Call. “But what about artificial sweeteners? Can I use those instead?”
Sadly, the answer is emphatically no. Human, animal, experimental and other studies show artificial sweeteners can be just as bad and maybe even worse than regular sugar.
Artificial sweeteners have long been positioned as “guilt-free,” innocuous, safe alternatives, so why would I argue they are actually worse than sugar?
Photo credit: Shutterstock
Manufacturers love to position zero-calorie sweetened foods and drinks as better because they create a “halo effect” and they know you’re more likely to buy them.
We’re surrounded by low-calorie or calorie-free foods and diet soft drinks that contain artificial sweeteners touted as healthy or consequence-free. As a result, the number of Americans who consume products that contain sugar-free sweeteners grew from 70 million in 1987 to 160 million in 2000.
At the same time, the incidence of obesity in the U.S. has doubled from 15 percent to 30 percent across all age groups, ethnic groups and social strata. And the number of overweight Americans has increased from about 30 percent to more than 65 percent of the population. The fastest growing obese population is children.
High sugar intake deservedly takes the blame here, but we frequently overlook artificial sweeteners as a potential culprit. The evidence is catching up. Recent studies have not been kind to artificial sweeteners, claiming among other problems they adversely affect gut health and glucose tolerance.
You’re probably wondering, though, how a calorie-free sweetener could make you fat. If you’ve read my blogs, you know that while calories count, other factors like hormonal imbalances contribute far more to weight gain.
Let’s briefly look at three reasons artificial sweeteners create adverse consequences to your waistline and health.
1. Artificial sweeteners increase your risk for diabesity. Studies show sugar substitutes potentially can increase your risk for weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. One study of rats that were fed artificially sweetened food found that their metabolism slowed down and they were triggered to consume more calories and gain more weight than rats fed sugar-sweetened food. In another animal study, rats that consumed artificial sweeteners ate more food, their metabolic fire or thermogenesis slowed down and they put on 14 percent more body fat in just two weeks even if they ate fewer total calories than the rats that ate regular sugar-sweetened food.
2. Artificial sweeteners rewire your brain chemistry and metabolism. How could aspartame and other fake sweeteners make you gain weight even though they’re calorie-free? Because they stimulate your taste buds and trick them to think you’re eating real sugar. Artificial sweeteners can be 1000 times sweeter than sugar, so your body becomes confused and revs up production of insulin, your fat-storage hormone. Your metabolism slows down, you become hungry more quickly, you’re prone to eat way more food (especially carbs) and increased belly fat is the inevitable result. Because they confuse and slow down your metabolism, you burn fewer calories every day. Artificial sweeteners make you hungrier and cause you to crave even more sugar and starchy carbs, such as bread and pasta.
3. Artificial sweeteners are highly addictive. I regularly see patients who complain they can’t kick their diet-soda habit. “I have one in the morning and I can’t stop,” they say. It isn’t just their imagination: Artificial sweeteners can quickly become addictive. In an alarming study, rats offered the choice of cocaine or artificial sweeteners always picked the artificial sweetener, even if the rats were previously programmed to be cocaine addicts. The author of the study said that, “The absolute preference for taste sweetness may lead to a re-ordering in the hierarchy of potentially addictive stimuli, with sweetened diets … taking precedence over cocaine and possibly other drugs of abuse.”
Let’s consider that last point a little more closely, particularly with diet sodas, which account for a fair amount of the artificial sweeteners we consume.
One of the biggest struggles I see with patients—ironically, usually overweight or obese patients—is surrendering their diet sodas. Like artificial sweeteners, we’ve been misled to think they’re guilt-free alternatives to regular soda.
Hardly. Diet soda and diet drinks make you fat and cause type 2 diabetes.
Wait … diet soda makes people fat? Really? How does that happen?
If losing weight were all about the calories, then consuming diet drinks would seem like a good idea. That’s certainly what big-name cola companies want us to believe, judging by the ad campaigns highlighting their efforts to fight obesity. (And the other food giants making diet drinks push the same propaganda).
Soda companies proudly promote the fact that it has 180 low- or no-calorie drinks and that it has cut sales of sugared drinks in schools by 90 percent. Is that a good thing? I don’t think so. In fact, it may be worse to drink diet soda than a regular soda.
A 14-year study of 66,118 women published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (and supported by many previous and subsequent studies) discovered some frightening facts that should make us all swear off diet drinks and products:
Diet sodas raised the risk of diabetes more than sugar-sweetened sodas.
Women who drank one 12-ounce diet soda a week had a 33 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes and women who drank one 20-ounce soda a week had a 66 percent increased risk.
Women who drank diet sodas drank twice as much as those who drank sugar-sweetened sodas because artificial sweeteners are more addictive than regular sugar. The average diet soda drinker consumes three diet drinks a day.
The bottom line is you can’t outsmart Mother Nature. Fooling your brain into thinking you are getting something sweet plays dirty tricks on your metabolism. Artificial sweeteners disrupt the normal hormonal and neurological signals that control hunger and satiety (feeling full).
The use of artificial sweeteners, as well as “food porn,” the sexy experience of sweet, fat and salt in your mouth, alters your food preferences. Your palate shifts from being able to enjoy fruits and vegetables and whole foods to liking only the sexy stuff.
Sugar or Artificial Sweeteners: What’s the Answer?
Let’s be clear here that I am not letting sugar off the hook. Of the more than 600,000 food products—note I said food products, not foods—80 percent have added sugar. That’s where the trouble begins.
We went from eating about 10 pounds of sugar per person, per year in 1800 to 152 pounds of sugar (and 146 pounds of flour) per person, per year today. Think about it: On average we eat about one pound of sugar every day!
Those sugar-laden foods literally become drugs: Pharmacological doses that hijack our metabolism and make us fat and sick.
Adding a teaspoon of sugar to your coffee or having an occasional dessert doesn’t make you fat and sick. Added sugars in even so-called healthy foods or non-sweet tasting foods creates the real, cumulative damage.
I realize this can all become confusing. Here are five ways I recommend making sense about sweeteners:
1. Have a little. If you like sugar and want a little bit, fine, but eat real food and then have sweet things. Consider sugar a recreational drug that you can partake of in moderation like red wine or tequila. Put a little sugar in your coffee because at least you’re aware about how much you’re getting. Likewise, you’re not going to overeat cake, because you know it’s bad for you. One caveat: If you know a little sugar will become a slippery slope for overeating, stay away from the sweet stuff period.
2. Become aware of hidden sugars even in so-called healthy foods. Read ingredients and realize sugar lurks even in foods that don’t taste sweet or that are positioned as healthy.
3. Learn to appreciate natural sweetness. Fruit, nuts and other real foods contain natural sweetness without processed foods’ sugar overload or the detrimental effects of artificial sweeteners.
4. Stop confusing your body. If you have a desire for something sweet have a little sugar, but stay away from “fake” foods. Eating a whole-foods diet that has a low-glycemic load and is rich in phytonutrients and indulging in a few real sweet treats once in a while is a better alternative than tricking your body with artificial sweeteners, which leads to wide scale metabolic rebellion and obesity.
5. Judiciously use this one sweetener. Among sweeteners, I make one exception with stevia. A little bit in your coffee or tea should be fine, but be judicious. Besides, overdoing stevia creates a bitter effect, so you’re more likely not to get carried away. If you partake, make sure you’re buying 100 percent pure organic stevia, not the stuff that contains bulking agents like maltodextrin (corn) and nebulous natural flavors.
If you really want to break free from the addictive grip of artificial sweeteners and sugar, as well as food sensitivities, I highly recommend doing The Blood Sugar Solution 10-Day Detox Diet. I’ve witnessed patients curb their worst sugar and artificial sweetener cravings and learn to appreciate the natural sweetness of real, whole foods in just 10 days.
Whatever you do, stay away from artificial sweeteners. I recommend giving up aspartame, sucralose, sugar alcohols such as xylitol and maltitol and all of the other heavily used and marketed sweeteners unless you want to slow down your metabolism, gain weight and become an addict. Use a little stevia if you must, but skip out on the others.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
Ahead of the People's Climate March, Senators Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey stood beside movement leaders to introduce legislation that will completely phase out fossil fuel use by 2050. The "100 by '50 Act" outlines a bold plan to support workers and to prioritize low-income communities while replacing oil, coal and gas with clean energy sources like wind and solar.
"100 is an important number," said 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben. "Instead of making changes around the margins, this bill would finally commit America to the wholesale energy transformation that technology has made possible and affordable, and that an eroding climate makes utterly essential. This bill won't pass Congress immediately—the fossil fuel industry will see to that—but it will change the debate in fundamental ways."
The "100 by '50 Act" would put a halt to new fossil fuel infrastructure projects like Keystone XL and the Dakota Access pipeline, and fracked gas pipelines facing opposition from tribes and landowners. Instead of new fossil fuel infrastructure, the bill invests hundreds of billions of dollars per year in clean energy—enough to create four million jobs. These large-scale clean energy investments prioritize black, brown and low-income communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
"While fossil fuel billionaires supporting Trump's administration put profits before people, we now have a legislative roadmap to phase out this dirty industry once and for all," said 350.org Executive Director May Boeve. "This bill deploys clean energy in communities that need it most and keeps fossil fuels in the ground. From Standing Rock to the Peoples Climate March, movement leaders have been calling for these solutions for years. This bill is proof that organizing works, and it's the beginning of an important conversation."
The issues covered by the bill reflect the demands of the climate movement, from Standing Rock to the fossil fuel divestment campaign, to the fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground. The content stands in bright contrast to Trump's vision of a more polluted America where fossil fuel billionaires profit at the public's expense. While this precedent setting bill is unlikely to pass during the Trump administration, similar bills are being considered at the state and local level in California, Massachusetts, New York and elsewhere across the country.
At a press conference held by Senators Merkley and Sanders, speakers included representatives from climate and environmental justice groups, progressive organizations and more. A crowd of supporters carried banners and signs reading "100% Clean Energy For All," and, "Keep Fossil Fuels In The Ground." The event was part of an ongoing week of action leading up to the People's Climate March on April 29, when thousands of people are converging in DC and around the country to march for jobs, justice and the climate.
By Kelly Levin
Thousands of people are expected to attend the People's Climate Movement march in Washington, DC and sister cities around the world this coming weekend. They are marching because actions taken to date by governments and others are not commensurate with the scale of climate impacts—both those already borne and those projected in the years to come.
It's a good moment to reflect on the facts. What do we know about global climate change and what impacts can we expect in the future? The following graphics speak volumes.
1. What is Climate Change?
Climate change is a long-term change in Earth's weather patterns or average climate, including temperature and precipitation. While the climate has changed in the past, we are now seeing it change at an unprecedented rate. As a result of the build-up of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—due to our burning of fossil fuels, cutting down trees and other activities—global average temperature is now changing at a faster rate than at least over the past 1,000 years.
2. What's Causing Climate Change?
When models only include natural drivers of climate change, such as natural variability and volcanic eruptions, they cannot reproduce the recent increase in temperature. Only when models include the increase in greenhouse gas emissions due to human activities can they replicate the observed changes.
U.S. Enviromental Protection Agency, adapted from Huber and Knutti, 2012
3. How Have Global Emissions Changed?
Emissions have been climbing since the Industrial Revolution, but the rate of annual emissions increase during the first 10 years of this century was almost double the rate between 1970 and 2000.
Global Carbon Project
Emissions from fossil fuels and industry have seen a staggering increase in recent years—63 percent since 1990.
4. Who Are the Biggest Emitters?
From 1850 to 2011, the five major emitters—the U.S., European Union, China, Russian Federation and Japan— together contributed two-thirds of the world's CO2 emissions.
Now, China has emerged as the top emitter and China, the EU and the U.S. are the world's top three emitters. Together they emit more than half of total global greenhouse gases. In contrast, the 100 smallest-emitting countries collectively add up to only 3.5 percent of global emissions. Almost three-quarters of global emissions come from only 10 countries.
5. How Much Should We Limit Global Warming?
The Paris agreement on climate change sets a target for countries to collectively limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F), with a goal of sticking to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) in order to prevent some of the worst effects of climate change. The amount of carbon emissions we can emit while still having a likely chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees is known as the "carbon budget." As of 2011, the world had already blown through nearly two-thirds of the carbon budget and is on track to exceed it by 2033 if emissions continue unabated.
6. Where is the Temperature Headed?
In the absence of countries' recent emissions-reduction commitments, known as intended nationally determined contributions or INDCs, we would see 4-5 degrees C of warming. Even if these INDCs are fully implemented, the average global temperature is still on track to increase 2.7-3.7 degrees C by 2100, according to a range of studies. That's far short of the global goal to limit warming to 1.5- 2 degrees C.
7. What Have Been Some of the Impacts of Climate Change to Date?
The impacts of climate change are already occurring and occurring everywhere. For example, climate change has already led to: more negative than positive impacts to crops, such as wheat and maize; coral bleaching and species range shifts; more frequent heat waves; coastal flooding; increased tree die-off in various regions; and a significant loss of ice mass in places like Greenland and Antarctica.
For example, as a result of ice melting on land, such as from glaciers and ice sheets, as well as thermal expansion of the ocean, we have seen sea level rise 3.4 millimeters per year from 1993-2015, which puts coastal communities at risk of flooding and infrastructure damage.
8. What Impacts Do We Expect in the Future?
The impacts we see in the future will be determined by our emissions pathway and resultant level of temperature increase. The warmer it gets, the greater the impacts—and the lower our ability to adapt.
9. Are There Signs of Progress?
Recently, we've seen signs of "decoupling." According to the International Energy Agency, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions stayed flat for three years in a row even as the global economy grew. This flattening of emissions was due to the growth of renewable power generation, fuel switching from coal to natural gas and energy efficiency gains, among other changes.
This decoupling can also be seen at the country level in 21 nations from 2000-2014. Whether these are indicative of long-term shifts remains to be seen. We will need to see a deep decline if we are to limit dangerous climate change and even with existing emissions-reduction commitments, global emissions are not expected to decline until at least after 2030.
20. Are We Investing in Solutions?
Global investments in renewable energy have been growing in recent years to an all-time high of $285.9 billion in 2015, a 5 percent rise compared to the previous year. In 2015, renewable energy (excluding large hydro) made up the bulk (54.6 percent) of new installed generating capacity for the first time.
REN21 Renewables 2016 Global Status Report
That being said, we need to shift away from fossil fuels much more quickly if we are to have a fighting chance of limiting warming to 1.5-2 degrees C.
Marching for Action
Let's hope that as people take to the streets, it will wake leaders up to the scale of the climate change challenge and the task ahead. Avoiding the most dangerous of climate change impacts—which necessitates phasing out emissions in the second half of the century—will require sustained action well beyond this weekend's activities.
Anadarko Petroleum Corporation is temporarily closing all its vertical wells across northeast Colorado following a massive house explosion and fire in the town of Firestone last week that killed two people.
The Woodlands, Texas-based oil and gas giant said in press release it was shutting more than 3,000 producing vertical wells, which produce about 13,000 barrels of oil per day, "in an abundance of caution."
Mark Martinez and his brother-in-law Joseph William Irwin III, both 42, were killed in the April 17 explosion. Mark's wife, Erin Martinez, was injured as well her 11-year-old son. A GoFundMe page is currently raising funds for the family.
In its statement, Anadarko acknowledged that the blast occurred approximately 200 feet from the family's recently built two-story home on Twilight Ave., where the company operates an older vertical well drilled by a previous operator.
The tragedy has sparked concerns from local anti-fracking activists over the risks of oil and gas production in Colorado and are calling for a statewide emergency moratorium as officials and regulators investigate the cause of the explosion.
The Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) are involved with the investigation.
"While the well in the vicinity is one aspect of the investigation, this is a complex investigation and the origin and cause of the fire have not been determined," Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District Chief Theodore Poszywak said.
The Colorado Independent reported on the possible link between the Anadarko-operated gas well and the Firestone house explosion:
A source has told The Independent that personnel and trucks bearing Anadarko's logo responded soon after the explosion, and that company personnel at and near the scene over the following days came in unmarked vehicles and clothes. They were apparently paying special attention to a feeder line that may have been severed near the home.
News stories after the explosion reported that Irwin, a master plumber, was helping Mark Martinez install a hot water heater, apparently at or near the time of the explosion. The insinuation was that their work may have led to their deaths.
But that narrative sounded immediately curious to those who knew Irwin and his work, and became less plausible when Colorado's Public Utilities Commission passed the investigation on to the COGCC, which regulates the oil and gas industry.
Anadarko spokesman John Christiansen would not respond to the Independent's report or questions about the company's possible involvement.
Anadarko is one of the world's largest private oil and natural gas exploration and production companies and the largest oil and gas producer in Colorado. The state is the seventh-largest oil and gas producing state in the country.
"Our teams will remain actively engaged with residents in the Firestone community," said Brad Holly, Anadarko senior vice president of U.S. Onshore Exploration and Production.
"Colorado residents must feel safe in their own homes, and I want to be clear that we are committed to understanding all that we can about this tragedy as we work with each investigating agency until causes can be determined."
In response to the incident, Boulder, Colorado-based climate change activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez is calling for immediate halt on drilling activity.
"Our thoughts and best wishes go to Martinez and Irwin families, no one should have to lose a family member before their time," Martinez, who is the youth director of Earth Guardians, told EcoWatch. "We must fight to make sure that Anadarko is held accountable, if its shown their reckless behavior played a part in their deaths, so we can ensure this is the last time a tragedy like this occurs."
"Unfortunately this is likely the result of a state that has completely failed to protect it's citizens from the impacts of fracking," Martinez added. "Based on the explosive danger coming from this industry and the proximity to homes, schools and hospitals we are calling for a statewide emergency moratorium, until it can be demonstrated that fracking can be done safely."
In March, the Colorado Court of Appeals sided with Martinez and other youth plaintiffs that the Oil and Gas Conservation Act required it to strike a balance between the regulation of oil and gas operations and protecting public health, the environment and wildlife resources.
Martinez said that the appellate court's decision "clearly states that health and safety must be prioritized with regards to oil and gas industry in the state."
"Based on that decision and [the Firestone house explosion] it's clear that all drilling activity should be halted immediately and the danger of fracking should be investigated in full," Martinez said.
A source pointed out to EcoWatch that "Fractivist" Shane Davis, a biologist who started the fracking resistance in Colorado several years ago, happened to live in Firestone and "literally moved out of the town for this very reason."
Incidentally, Davis detailed in a January blog post about the dangers of living nearby drilling operations.
One landowner's decision to lease their minerals to the fracking industry "can place hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people at risk from the dangers of the fracking industry's toxic air, groundwater contamination, fugitive emissions, failed equipment, human error, and even a blowout which is the most dangerous to communities that are close by," Davis wrote on Fractivist.org.
Anadarko said the wells will remain shut in until the company's field personnel can conduct additional inspections and testing of the associated equipment, such as facilities and underground lines associated with each wellhead. The wells will not be restarted until each has undergone and passed these additional inspections. Anadarko currently anticipates the process will take two to four weeks.
A new Global Wine Index outlines the most at-risk wine regions according to natural disasters, rising temperatures and other climate change factors. Unfortunately, some of the world's finest grapes are unlikely to survive.
The index was created by a multidisciplinary European-Australian research team of engineers, seismologists, meteorologists, scientists and wine lovers, who analyzed 110,000 wineries in 131 countries that produce a combined total of 26 billion liters of wine a year.
At the top of the list is Argentina's Mendoza region, which experiences a smorgasbord of obstacles for growing grapes.
"We see that Mendoza in Argentina, which has earthquakes, hail, floods, the whole gamut of natural hazards... is number one," said James Daniell of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany and co-author of the research.
Just behind Argentina, the most at-risk regions are in the following order: Kakheti and Racha regions in Georgia, the southern Cahul region in Moldova, northwestern Slovenia in fourth place, and tied for fifth are the Yaraqui Valley in Ecuador and Nagano, Japan. All in all, wine contributes a staggering $300 billion to the world economy every year.
Most at-risk wine regions.
So wine is kind of a big deal, but is it enough to send a message about climate change? The new site offers enlightening advice on some of the most common risks associated with our most beloved wine regions. Italy, which contributes 4.9 billion liters annually, is facing hail, frost and earthquakes as the number one threats to vino. In France, it's frost, hail and storms. And in Spain, it's hail in the northwest, frost and heat. As for American wine, since most of it comes from California, one of the biggest threats is earthquakes.
According to the site, by looking at climate models, wine regions will generally shift both southward and northward. Southern Italy and southern Spain, therefore, will see the biggest losses. This data is meant to help winemakers make better decisions about their grapes to stave off any effects of climate change.
"This uses data going back from 1900 onwards," said Daniel. "They can at least identify that they are at risk and... do something about it to mitigate it."
Some of those methods are using anti-hail nets for the vineyards, tying up stored wine bottles to withstand the shock of an earthquake, using a "hail cannon" as France's Burgundy region is doing to seed clouds with stone-shrinking silver iodine or by simply just taking out some old-fashioned crop insurance.
By Greg Alvarez
Over the past few months, we've seen big wind energy investments from the likes of GM, Facebook, Home Depot and others. But one of the world's largest companies and leading proponents of doing business using 100 percent renewable energy, has been conspicuously absent: Apple.
That finally changed this week.
Apple announced this week it has signed a power purchase agreement to buy wind energy from a soon-to-be-built Oregon wind farm. It will power an in-state data center about 130 miles away from the wind farm and Apple said the project is its largest renewable energy investment to date.
Apple plans to hit its 100 percent renewable energy goal by sourcing renewables through a combination of direct project ownership and long-term contracts with new renewable energy projects and preferably from projects in the same state as their facilities. When it can't do either of those, it procures renewable energy from "newer projects in nearby markets … through available utility green energy programs … or [through] strong renewable energy credits (RECs) tied to recently constructed renewable energy projects."
In 2016, Fortune 500 companies and other non-utility customers signed 39 percent of the capacity contracted through wind power purchase agreements and their strong interest in wind has continued into 2017.
Companies like Apple choose to power their operations using renewables like wind not just because it's good for the environment, but also because it helps their bottom lines.
"This pursuit of renewable energy benefits our customers and communities through cleaner air while strengthening our business through lower and more stable energy costs," said GM Chairwoman and CEO Mary Barra, speaking about her company's 100 percent renewable pledge.
Check out this video to hear straight from the source about why some of the world's largest companies want to make more of their products using wind power:
By Courtney St. John
In case anyone doubts the death of coal, experts just issued the autopsy.
A new report from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University looks at exactly what's causing coal's demise. It finds that cheap natural gas is responsible for roughly half the decline in U.S. coal consumption. Falling demand for electricity and cheap wind and solar account for most of the rest. Adding insult to mortal injury, falling demand for coal from China put a dent in U.S. exports.
Environmental regulations—a frequent scapegoat of coal companies—did accelerate coal plant retirements, but the effect was small. Overall, the report finds that President Trump's efforts to roll back environmental protections will do little for coal country.
Employment across the coal sector has declined. Today, coal employs just 160,000 workers nationwide while the solar industry employs some 375,000. Even in the heart of Appalachia, businesses are turning away from coal.
This week, Charleston, West Virginia-based utility Appalachian Power said that it won't be building any new coal plants and will instead look at building out solar and wind to bring companies like Amazon and Google to West Virginia—companies that want to source their power from renewables. And in an ironic twist, the Kentucky Coal Museum is going solar to save money on power.
While there is little that the president or lawmakers can do to rescue the coal industry, they can throw a lifeline to coal workers. Congress has until the end of the week to ensure that more than 22,000 retired miners continue to have access to federally funded healthcare. Coal companies that declared bankruptcy in recent years were relieved from contributing to the fund.
Coal is on its deathbed. And while Washington can't revive the industry, it can revive Appalachia.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Nexus Media.
By Nancy LaPlaca
For the gas industry and some utilities that are racing to build as much gas infrastructure as possible, there's a lot riding on a shale gas "play" known as the Marcellus. For those who aren't buried in natural gas minutiae, a "play" is an area where there's lots of fracking for natural gas.
U.S. shale gas production (i.e. from hydraulically fractured wells) has grown steeply over the past 17 years and is now 67 percent of total U.S. natural gas.
Gas prices have historically been extremely volatile, but gas companies and utilities are saying that it will stay low for a long time—almost indefinitely—and they base much of that argument on the Marcellus, the largest source of fracked gas in the U.S.
The Cost of Natural Gas is Extremely Volatile
The cost of natural gas has always been volatile and its price has been a roller-coaster ride for the past decade. Duke Energy's former CEO, Jim Rogers, famously called it the "crack cocaine" of the power industry. And because the cost of fuel is what's known as a "pass-through," electricity customers reimburse the utility for its fuel costs. This means that utilities and their shareholders, don't really have skin in the game when it comes to fuel costs. And in 2014 alone, electric utilities around the U.S. spent $42.4 billion purchasing natural gas for electric power plants (and another $39 billion for coal).
The chart below shows the volatility of natural gas since 1997. The two biggest spikes are Hurricane Katrina (August 2005) and the run-up in oil and gas costs which peaked in July 2008 with oil at $147/barrel and natural gas at $13/MMBtu.
Key to Understanding Natural Gas Price Volatility: It's Priced at the Margin and Utilities Only Hedge a Year or So in Advance
One of the keys to understanding natural gas pricing is that it's priced "at the margin." In plain language, this means that today's price reflects the immediate past and the immediate future. Due to the volatility of gas prices, prices for natural gas are usually only "hedged" (i.e. 'locked in') a year or less in advance. In Florida, utilities paid $6 billion too much for natural gas over a 15 year period after the price of gas crashed. So while hedging gas can save money over certain time periods, it can also be a big money-loser.
This means that beyond the one year when gas prices are hedged, consumers must pay whatever the gas costs, no matter what. And because fuel costs are "pass-throughs," if the utility's cost estimates are off, it's the customers who pay, not the utility or shareholders.
Despite the Volatility of Natural Gas Prices, EIA Assumes Natural Gas at $5/MMBtu from 2030 to 2040
Despite the extreme ups and downs of natural gas pricing, the U.S. Energy Information Administration's (EIA) 2017 Annual Energy Outlook projects that the cost of natural gas will remain at bargain-basement levels from 2030 to 2040 at $5.00 per MMBtu. This is 20 percent below what EIA forecast in its 2015 Annual Energy Outlook price forecast over the 2015-2040 period.
Average Decline Rate for Shale Gas Well is 75-85 Percent Over First Three Years
While the increase in U.S. shale gas production is stunning, so are the decline rates for individual wells, which average 75-85 percent decline over the first three years. As geoscientist David Hughes points out, a steep decline rate for each well means that 30-45 percent of a play's production must be replaced each year by more drilling. In some areas of the U.S., spacing of gas wells has dropped from 1 well pad per 240 acres to 1 well pad per 10 acres.
A good example is the Haynesville shale play, which started at nearly zero in 2006 and shot up quickly until peaking in early 2012. As of 2017, the Haynesville is down by 52 percent. Despite the obvious decline in production, the EIA recently predicted an ever-higher output from the Haynesville, so that it will nearly double its 2012 peak and continue producing gas past 2040.
What About the Marcellus?
The Marcellus shale play currently provides over a third of total U.S. shale gas produced and is mainly in Pennsylvania but also includes eastern Ohio, northern West Virginia and southern New York state. The top five shale-producing counties in Pennsylvania have accounted for 65 percent of cumulative production from the Marcellus play, demonstrating the fact that most gas is produced from a few "sweet spots."
The EIA's overblown estimate of future gas supplies is higher for the Marcellus shale than any other play.
The chart below, Figure 1 from Hughes' 2016 study, shows the estimated recovery for several plays from the EIA's Annual Energy Outlook for 2014, 2015 and 2016. The 2016 estimate for the Marcellus play, in red, shoots up higher than any other play in the U.S. and is in fact 76 percent higher than the Annual Energy Outlook 2014 estimate. Note that the short black bar on the right is actual gas recovery. The Annual Energy Outlook 2016 estimate is also triple the estimate by the U.S. Geological Survey.
One constraint that's seldom mentioned is geological: many sweet spots already have so many wells that it's impossible to drill more wells without draining gas from adjacent wells, known as "well saturation."
During 2014 "Polar Vortex" Wind Power Saved Customers $1 Billion Over Two Days
Can clean energy really save money compared to natural gas fuel costs?
In early January 2014, an event called the "Polar Vortex" plunged the Northeast and Great Lakes region into a bitter cold. During those two days, as the cost of natural gas on the spot market skyrocketed to meet the huge demand, wind energy saved customers a stunning $1 billion over two days.
A more recent study by Synapse Energy Economics reports that if the use of wind energy doubled in the PJM Interconnection beyond current requirements, 12 states would save customers $7 billion per year, in part because wind energy would displace the need to purchase fuel.
Where is the U.S. Today on Natural Gas Production?
The latest numbers from the EIA report that year over year, U.S. natural gas production—and oil production—decreased from 2015 to 2016. Whether this trend continues or is merely a temporary decline, is yet to be seen.
But it's certainly worth watching. Any decreases in production might signal higher prices down the road, calling into question all of the math utilities are using to justify their massive investments in gas pipelines and power plants.
Grizzly bears venturing from dens in search of food this spring will face landscapes dominated by mines, roads, pipelines, clearcuts and ever-expanding towns and cities. As in years past, they'll also face the possibility of painful death at the hands of trophy hunters.
British Columbia's spring bear hunt just opened. Hunters are fanning across the province's mountains, grasslands, forests and coastline, armed with high-powered rifles and the desire to bag a grizzly bear, just to put its head on a wall or its pelt on the floor as a "trophy."
According to BC government statistics, they will kill about 300 of these majestic animals by the end of the spring and fall hunts. If this year follows previous patterns, about 30 percent of the slaughter will be females—the reproductive engines of grizzly populations.
Many grizzlies will likely be killed within BC's renowned provincial parks and protected areas, where trophy hunting is legal. Government records obtained by the David Suzuki Foundation in 2008 show trophy hunters have shot dozens of grizzly bears in places we would expect wildlife to be protected. We don't know the exact number of bears killed in BC's parks since 2008 because, in contravention of a BC's privacy commissioner's ruling, the government refuses to disclose recent spatial data showing where bears have been killed.
Much of this killing has occurred in northern wilderness parks, such as Height of the Rockies Provincial Park, Spatsizi Plateau Wilderness Park and Tatshenshini-Alsek Wilderness Park. Tatshenshini-Alsek Park forms a massive transboundary conservation zone with federal protected areas in the Yukon (Kluane National Park and Reserve) and Alaska (Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve). Trophy hunting is prohibited in most U.S. national parks and all Canadian national parks, but not in BC's provincial parks.
Wild animals don't heed political boundaries. Wide-ranging species like grizzly bears move in and out of neighboring jurisdictions. If a grizzly bear in Montana wanders a few kilometers north in search of a mate, it goes from being protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act to being a possible trophy hunter target in BC.
But now, in response to intense pressure from the trophy hunting industry, the U.S. administration wants to strip grizzly bears of federal protection. President Trump also recently signed into law rules allowing trophy hunters to target grizzly bears around bait stations and from aircraft and to kill grizzly mothers and their cubs in Alaska's national wildlife refuges, where they've been protected from these unethical hunting practices.
Grizzly bears face an ominous political climate under the Trump administration, along with growing human threats across their North American range, from trophy hunting to habitat destruction, precipitous declines in food sources like salmon and whitebark pine nuts and climate change impacts.
In parts of Canada, mainly in sparsely populated areas of northern BC and the territories, grizzly bear numbers are stable. But in the Interior and southern BC and Alberta, grizzlies have been relegated to a ragged patchwork of small, isolated and highly threatened habitats—a vestige of the forests and grasslands they once dominated. The BC government has ended grizzly hunting among highly threatened sub-populations in the Interior and southern parts of the province and, in response to pressure from local First Nations, has promised to do the same in the Great Bear Rainforest. But the slaughter of BC's great bears continues everywhere else.
That this year's spring hunt coincides with a BC election could bring hope for grizzlies, possibly catalyzing the first change in government wildlife policy in close to two decades. The May 9 election will give BC residents the opportunity to ask candidates if they will end the grizzly hunt if elected. So far, the BC New Democratic Party and Green Party say they would ban grizzly trophy hunting (but allow grizzly hunting for food), whereas the BC Liberals continue to defend and promote the trophy hunt as "well-managed," despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
The fate of BC's grizzlies is too important to be a partisan issue. All politicians should support protection. Rough-and-tumble politics this election season might finally end BC's cruel and unsustainable grizzly bear trophy hunt. It's time to stop this grisly business.