Oil and Water Don’t Mix: California Must Ban Fracking
Millions of years ago, shallow oceans covered big swaths of North America. The bottoms of these ancient seas became cemeteries for sea lilies, squid and diatoms. In this oxygen-poor environment, these creatures turned into drops of oil or bubbles of methane.
Time and pressure turned the silty layers of the seafloor into stony layers of shale, trapping the oily, gassy corpses within. These fossilized graveyards are now the bedrock that underlies much of our nation, including upstate New York, where I live, and the San Joaquin Basin of California. New York’s old ocean floor is named the Marcellus Shale. Here in California, it’s called the Monterey Shale, and it runs from Modesto to Bakersfield.
The question of our time is whether or not to shatter these layers of prehistoric rock, located thousands of feet below the sunlit surface, and exhume the scattered oil and gas they contain. Because shale does not give up its dead easily—drillers can’t just stick a straw down into the Earth and expect geysers to flow—“unconventional” techniques, such as fracking, are required.
Fracking uses water as a sledgehammer to break apart subterranean layers of shale and a slurry of sand and chemicals—many of them toxic—to prop the cracks open and allow the oil or gas to flow.
In a time of climate emergency, the wisdom of blowing up bedrock to keep the fossil fuel party going is questionable. And a growing body of evidence shows that fracking cannot be done, under any known regulatory framework, without risking public health. This conclusion, reached by New York’s Department of Health last December, became the foundation for Gov. Cuomo’s statewide ban on fracking.
Here in drought-stricken California, there is an additional consideration. Extracting oil, particularly oil locked in shale, imperils an increasingly scarce natural resource—water.
Last week, the U.S. Geological Survey delivered two pieces of news about the Monterey Shale. It contains far less oil and gas than previously thought. And its extraction largely depends on “unconventional” methods.
This is actionable intelligence and, for a governor who has already declared the drought a state of emergency, should be sufficient to ban fracking in California once and for all.
Oil drilling threatens the dwindling supplies of freshwater that California still possesses. This happens in one of three ways. First, much of the water used for fracking becomes permanently entombed in deep geological strata. It exits the water cycle and will never again fall as rain or fill a reservoir. It’s just gone.
Second, the chemicals used in fracking can migrate through unseen cracks and fissures and contaminate groundwater. We know for a fact that this has happened in other states. As the California Council on Science and Technology warned last summer, California is at particular risk for fracking-induced groundwater contamination because much of the oil-containing shale is located in shallow layers located close to aquifers.
As snowpacks disappear and rivers run dry, groundwater is increasingly eyed as California’s salvation. Is this really the moment to double down on oil drilling?
Third, the water that does return to the surface with the oil is, in California, not only toxic but especially briny. No technology exists to turn this wastewater into fresh drinkable water. Last summer, news broke that the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources was negligent in its oversight of oil companies that were pumping fracking wastewater directly into protected aquifers. This wastewater contained high levels of carcinogenic benzene. Those aquifers are now ruined. It’s clear that oil and gas companies will continue to ignore water quality laws so long as they are allowed to drill. If they expand extraction deeper into the Monterey Shale, water will be the victim.
Meanwhile, students in the Central Valley’s Tulare County are told not to use drinking fountains because the water is unsafe. And people in East Porterville have already seen their wells go completely dry. As in, when they turn the spigot, nothing comes out.
Gov. Brown has a choice. He can allow outdated and dangerous energy practices to continue to threaten California’s limited water resources and public health. Or he can stop it. The world is watching.
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If weather is your mood, climate is your personality. That's an analogy some scientists use to help explain the difference between two words people often get mixed up.
Size Matters<p>Climates are a bit like woven tapestries. The big picture is important, no question. But so are all the seemingly minor details found inside the larger whole.</p><p><a href="https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/persons/tommaso-jucker" target="_blank">Tommaso Jucker</a> is an environmental scientist at the University of Bristol. In an email, Jucker says he'd define the term microclimate as "the suite of climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation) measured in localized areas, typically near the ground and at spatial scales that are directly relevant to ecological processes."</p><p>We'll talk about that last bit in a minute. But first, there's another criteria to discuss. According to some researchers, a microclimate — by definition — must differ from the larger area that surrounds it.</p><p><a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/research/paleoecologylab/publications/Davis_et_al_2019_Ecography.pdf" target="_blank">Forests</a> provide us with some great examples. "The climate near the ground in a tropical rainforest is dramatically different from the climate in the canopy 50 meters [164 feet] above," says University of Montana ecologist <a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/personnel/details.php?ID=1110" target="_blank">Solomon Dobrowski</a> in an email. "This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics."</p><p>Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial <a href="https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/bees-stopped-buzzing-during-2017-solar-eclipse.htm" target="_blank">solar eclipse</a> caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to <a href="https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wea.2802" target="_blank">change more dramatically</a> than it did in a nearby forest. That's because trees provide not only shade, but their leaves also reflect solar radiation. At the same time, forests tend to reduce wind speeds.</p><p>All those factors add up. A 2019 review of 98 wooded places — spread out across five continents — found that forests are 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) <a href="https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/47363-forests-protect-animals-and-plants-against-warming" target="_blank">cooler on average</a> than the areas outside them.</p><p>Now if you hate the cold, don't worry; there's a cozy exception to the rule. According to that same study, forests are usually 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the external environment during the wintertime. Pretty cool.</p>
A Bug's Life<p>When does a microclimate stop being, well, micro? In other words, is there a maximum size we should be aware of when discussing them?</p><p>Depends on who you ask. "In terms of horizontal scale, some have defined 'microclimate' as anything that is less than 100 meters [328 feet] in range," Jucker says. "I'm personally less prescriptive about this."</p><p>Instead, he says the "scale at which we want to measure [a particular] microclimate" ought to be "dictated" by the questions we're trying to answer.</p><p>"If I want to know how temperature affects the photosynthesis of a leaf, I should be measuring temperature at centimeter scale," Jucker explains. "If I want to know if and how temperature affects the habitat preference of a large, mobile mammal, it's probably more relevant to capture temperature variation across [tens to hundreds] of meters."</p><p>For instance, solitary plants have the power to generate itty-bitty microclimates. Just ask <a href="https://www.colorado.edu/geography/peter-blanken-0" target="_blank">Peter Blanken</a>, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the co-author of the 2016 book, "<a href="https://amzn.to/2XN6FT8" target="_blank">Microclimate and Local Climate</a>."</p>
The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA
Microclimates on a Grand Scale<p>It's no secret that our planet is going through some rough times at the macro level. The global temperature is <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/" target="_blank">climbing</a>; nine out of the <a href="https://www.noaa.gov/news/2019-was-2nd-hottest-year-on-record-for-earth-say-noaa-nasa" target="_blank">10 hottest years on record</a> have occurred since 2005. And by one recent estimate, roughly 1 million species around the world are <a href="https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf" target="_blank">facing extinction</a> due to human activities.</p><p>"One of the big questions that ecologists and environmental scientists are trying to answer right now is how will individual species and whole ecosystems respond to rapid climate change and habitat loss," says Jucker. "...To me, [microclimates are] a key component of this research — if we don't measure and understand climate at the appropriate scale, then predicting how things will change in the future becomes a lot harder."</p><p>Developers have long understood the impact small-scale climates have on our daily lives. <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/urban-heat-island.htm#pt0" target="_blank">Urban heat islands</a> are cities that have higher temperatures than neighboring rural areas.</p><p>Plants release vapors that can moderate local climates. But in cities, natural greenery is often scarce. To make matters worse, plenty of our roads and buildings have a bad habit of absorbing or re-emitting heat from the sun. <a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Microclimate_and_Local_Climate/LHUZDAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=urban%20heat%20island" target="_blank">Vehicle emissions</a> don't exactly help the situation.</p><p>Still, it's not like Boston or Beijing are thermal monoliths. Sometimes, the documented temperatures <a href="https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-we-turn-down-the-temperature-on-urban-heat-islands" target="_blank">within a single city</a> vary by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 11.1 degrees Celsius).</p><p>That's where metro parks and city trees come in. They have nice cooling effects on nearby neighborhoods. "Several cities around the world have developed programs to increase urban green spaces," says Blanken. "Tree planting programs and green roof programs, have been shown to lower surface temperatures, decrease air pollution and decrease surface water runoff (urban flash-flooding) in urban areas."</p>
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