Tuesday, March 15, 2011

How the Earthquake in Japan Does, Doesn't, and Might Effect Gas Prices, West Coast Residents, U.S. Nuclear Development and Fracking for Natural Gas

Posted by: Noël Jones

Most of us know by now that a terrifying 9.0 earthquake hit Japan last week, followed by a resulting 30 foot tsunami that has decimated entire cities, villages and farms, especially in the area of Sendai, in Northeastern Japan. The earthquake knocked out electricity that ran the cooling systems in four nuclear power plants, and their back-up systems, which run on oil, were flooded and rendered in operable by the tsunami, creating a nuclear emergency that is still underway.

This does, doesn't, and might affect us in a few different ways, aside from natural sense of alarm and sympathy one feels seeing these horrific images on a screen:

1. It greatly affects our nation's dialogue on how to wean ourselves from foreign oil. The other night on MSNBC, I saw that two senators are calling for moratoriums on the development of nuclear energy (we currently get 20% of our electricity from nuclear power plants), and two guests of the program were using that to beat the drum for increased drilling of natural gas. Now those of you who have been following this blog, know all about the controversy over revenue that could potentially be collected from natural gas drillers vs. health risks from water contamination. The EPA's study has not even been completed yet, and these pundits are using the Japan disaster to promote fracking for natural gas, claiming--as if they have any proof--that "it can be done safely." We just don't know that yet folks. We don't know if there are any regulations out there that could make this process safe. We won't know until 2012, but our new governor and the DRBC are trying to ram through new regulations without waiting for the report, claiming that they already know how to make it safe, so that drillers can begin on tens of thousands of planned wells in the Delaware watershed, the drinking water source for 15 million of us in four states. And it's not just Republicans supporting the push for regulations and permits before the study is done--many of our most environmentally-consciouse Democratic legislators too, are so eager to take in the severance tax money from the drillers to plug budget holes, that even though they acknowledge the health risks, they will not sign on to a statewide moratorium.

If you have not already done so, please take two minutes to click here to submit public comment to the DRBC (Delaware River Basin Commission) to express concern about water contamination from fracking and the need to wait until the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) study on health risks has been completed before establishing regulations for new drilling in Pennsylvania. The window for public comment will not be open much longer--please submit a comment now!

2. In a twisted turn of events, the catastrophe in Japan will likely be stabilizing gas prices that were projected to go as high as $5/gallon this summer. In my previous post on gas prices, I mentioned how
gas prices were rising on speculation around the civil war happening in Libya--which is a completely emotional market reaction, as Libya only produces 3% of the world's oil. Japan, on the other hand, is the third largest consumer of oil, as it a first-world nation that produces no oil of its own. The widespread destruction caused by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, have created a sizable dent in demand, as posted by Stephen Gandel of The Curious Capitalist blog for Time Magazine on line. This natural disaster will not only halt the rise of gas prices this summer, but likely cause them to slowly become cheaper over the summer. However,

3. It could make oil and gasoline more expensive in the long run, as Japan struggles to rebuild, and might look to use more oil energy rather than nuclear energy after reviewing all the damage that this nuclear disaster has caused.

4. Those of us with friends and family on the West Coast have been concerned about the possibility of radiation fallout might reach the U.S. on the jet streams that travel from Japan through California. So far, these fears are unfounded, as the explosions that have occurred have only shot radiation up 1,000 - 2,000 feet, while the jet stream runs at 20,000 - 40,000 feet. But we are not out of the woods yet, as a third explosion happened today, and the rods in the reactors are still in danger of melting down, which could trigger a much more powerful explosion, sending radiation fallout into the jet stream.


David Caines said...

This may shock some, but if we had any aid to send I would suggest sending it to Japan, they are a solid trading partner and may one day be asked to return the favor when and if such catastrophes happen here.
As to the rest, the gold rush is on. We may be able to slow it, we may be able to watch dog companies and bust them here and there, but we're probably stuck with the drilling.
And there is just no point to trying to pick a party here with the "Moral high ground" as there simply isn't one. Regardless of what the average citizen may feel the national parties have decided this is going to happen. With luck and a lot of civic involvement we just might be able to keep this from getting truly out of hand. But decades of deregulation have made the task all but impossible.
Perhaps there is some room for hope, but I'm not holding my breath.

noel jones said...

to anyone who hasn't submitted public comment on line asking for a halt to the drafting of regulations to continue drilling, please click on the link in this post and send in your concerns--they need to hear from as many of us as possible!

Dennis R. Lieb said...

Just a note...Japan was the largest foreign contributor to the relief efforts during Katrina.

As to their current sad situation; The cost will be incalculable. How do you replace entire towns and infrastructure that literally spun down the drain? I'd researched GE's Mark I BWR (boiling water reactor)about a year ago for personal reasons and they are trouble with a capital T to say the least. The Japanese will have all they can handle not to have a full scale nuclear disaster on their hands.

Japan is at a crossroads. They can sink into the ocean - figuratively and literally - or rethink their future based on some better economic models than those that have persisted there since the 80's. I wish them luck...they are going to need it, but they are just going down the tubes a bit faster then the rest of us and we should be reading the handwriting on the wall and taking notes.

Wasn't Obama just touting a nuclear restart for the USA a few months ago? Based on what? We haven't changed any of the troubling parameters that made it a bad idea thirty years ago. Japan's misery should serve as our wake-up call. As a Democrat, I thought we elected a progressive administration to lead us into the sustainable energy era. Instead, all I hear are dumb-ass plans like fracking, NatGas car fleets, oxymoronic "clean coal", nuclear power, releasing the strategic oil reserves to keep gas prices lower and "regulatory easing" to benefit those doing business (Big Oil).

This all just leads us nowhere. Are we supposed to be happy about the situation? If they weren't going to use the intelligence at their disposal we could just as well have elected McCain.


David Caines said...

Sadly we agree here, and not even third and fourth party candidates have much better. Whatever else may be going on, I think that above city or maybe county level the Party system has taken control of the nation out of the hands of the voter as only the rhetoric changes, but the actions remain essentially the same.
I do believe that nuclear power can be done safely, we haven't (knock wood) have serious problems here in the states in a while, though like most things cost has become more the issue than safety....we'll have to see.
Odd, the marked effect that poverty has on the value of human life and the morals of an entire nation.
Probably the only truly sane answer of course is some form of regulation of individual power use, mass transit and a total rethinking of everyday life. And the average American simply won't stand for it, nor will the companies who profit off of our ignorance. We really need to think more than anything of which is the lesser of many evils, and that would have to be electric vehicles and Nuke plants to power them.
Like yourself, I don't look forward to seeing the drunk next door behind the wheel of a fuel air explosive. They were working on that sort of thing just as I was getting out of active service and when it worked...well let's just say that my little Honda fit, could take out Easton High-school and leave it at that. Only propane could be worse.
But we have in many ways become a "Don't make me think" generation, in fact I have a book by that tittle about SEO that's been damned useful.
It was always said that an informed populace was the most major safeguard of a democracy, and let's be honest in saying that that safeguard is gone.
Need coffee.
Peace, and our prayers to the nation of Japan,

noel jones said...

With regard to nuclear power, I have been divided for a long time. On one hand, there is no "cleaner burning" or more renewable energy source than splitting atoms. We each have billions of them in the tip of our pinkies, so it's safe to say that we would never run out, and never have to dig for coal or drill for oil or gas again.

On the other hand, we have yet to develop a failsafe way to protect against nuclear accidents like Chernobyl, which occurred from human error, or those catastrophes caused by natural disasters, as we are seeing in Japan. Japan is leads the world on earthquake and tsunami preparedness--they had two backup systems in case the safety measures built into their structures was not enough to protect the reactors, and both failed. It was simply too powerful of a natural disaster to withstand. If Japan can be brought to its knees in this way, we should all be humble enough to realize that it could happen to anyone.

We have also never satisfactorily solved the issue of disposing of radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. To my knowledge we have just been burying it deep underground. How long do we expect to be able to keep doing that? Especially if we ramped up production?

And when it comes to fracking for natural gas--drilling down thousands of feet and then sideways, and blowing up the shale in tens of thousands of wells--do we have any information at all on whether or not the distance from nuclear waste burial sites is being taken into consideration? And what of the seismic consequences of fracking? A lot of drilling has been going on in Arkansas, and they have been having an enormously accelerated number of earthquakes in areas near drilling which has brought a halt to the drilling and a meeting being set for March 29th to discuss the possibility:


How might fracking destabilize nuclear facilities in the U.S? New drilling permits have been requested in 32 states, adding up to hundreds of thousands of wells planned in the next decade.

It really distresses me how eager we all seem to pollute the world and give ourselves cancer. Cancer rates have already skyrocketed in the last few decades, and I just heard a cancer specialist on TV yesterday say that 40% of us will die of cancer already. 40% of us will die a long slow painful death. Think of those odds and how it affects our outlook for our own futures, and the futures of kids in our families. At what point to we make it a priority to fight it? Or are we all so focused on our own lives that we'll just keep doing what we're doing every day, with our heads in the sand, until one day we get the news that we have cancer?

It is time for everyone to WAKE UP pull our heads out of our TVs and start fighting this fight in every way, every day. At the very least we can all make time to write an email or call our representatives in government. We have to start making it a PRIORITY in our lives, or things will only get worse from here...

noel jones said...

Correction--the cancer specialist said 40% of us will GET cancer, not die from it. Some of us will get to go through chemo and radiation treatments fpr months on end to put it into remission, and then do it all again when it crops up 7 or 8 years late. We can draw our conclusions from there.

Are we sick of this yet? Sick enough to fight? I mean, for Pete's sake--even from a financial standpoint--what's going to happen to the cost of healthcare when that many people are getting cancer?

David Caines said...

Again, we're talking about what was a nascent technology. US plants have had a pretty good record for the last 20 years. I'm going to sound like a real whack job here, but many have suggested (and it is possible ) to drop used cores on the moon. Not cheap, but safe. For the moment we have the means, and with certain tech progresses will continue to. We need to move beyond oil...that is a given. That oil rules America is sadly also a given. In it's shadow we have gone from first world to second world. Which outside of our military we are, and most of our military advances come from other nations. Our current first choice sniper rifle is English, our handgun Italian-though I preferred and still do the American Smith and Wesson. Politics...
The S+W handles better has better ergonomics and is of similar caliber with similar capacity, but I digress, similar ballistics for that matter. IT also out performs the police issue Glock , which while more stylish has no other blessings. Give me an S+W 1045 anyday...but again I digress.
Nuclear power fully funded and researched is our future, though still a decade or so away. I would advise against building plants until we find some common threads and regain control of our system of governance. Common threads run through us all if we choose to look for them, learn a bit, read a bit...
It should be noted that every democratic republic in history has failed. This social experiment requires more from us or it will as well, it has truth be told. It needs a bit of CPR, or we are looking at the fall of the USSR...I for one intend to survive it. We have begun to spiral...the choice is ours.
Blessings, maybe dark ones...but blessings nonetheless. Grab a set America, or be rome.
We can share a common future or a common demise....I prefer the former.
We are fare more 1859 than 2011 and we need to admit that.

noel jones said...

David--you said:

"but i digress..... ..... .... but again i digress..."

Yes you DO. Please stay on point.

Propelling nuclear waste into space is something I have heard mentioned before. Not completely out of the question, but I would have to know a lot more about it. Primarily whether we could ensure that it ends up completely out of our orbit so that it can't come back to haunt us.

As for the astronauts charged with taking nuclear waste to bury it on the moon--now there's some hazard pay!

FYI--I heard on CNN today that the President is pushing forward an energy plan--unaltered after the catastrophe in Japan (this is coming from Chu, our Energy Secretary)--proposing the construction of 20 new nuclear power plants in the U.S.

David Caines said...

I favor the moon as we may yet colonize mars. A simple chuck it into space, doesn't work as it may return, gravity being what it is, in either case, oil is a finite resource, we need to look for viable options..and few exist outside of nuclear power.

David Caines said...
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David Caines said...
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Dennis R. Lieb said...

I really don't want to comment anymore, seeing where this conversation is heading, but I'll say three things:

First, we do not have much more of a nuclear fuel supply (if not less) than we do any of the other fossil fuel sources. The world is reaching peak everything in terms of all materials mined from the earth. I can't take time to explain, but read this book for a crash course on the energy problems we face:

The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty First Century

Second, nuclear safety is not a technology problem; it is a human nature problem. No matter how sophisticated our machines become it still comes down to the people in the plants. The first near-nuclear disaster in this country's history (no, not TMI) resulted from a power failure leading to service technicians crawling through unlit service tunnels with candles that set wire insulation on fire and nearly resulted in a core meltdown. We can't be trusted with this power and are simply too vain to admit it.

Third, and with all due respect, how do you get nuclear waste off this planet - stick it in rockets and blast it off a launchpad? Remember the Challenger disaster?

Start thinking clearly.