Monday, March 20, 2017

Frack On. Frack Off.

“Fracking should be abolished in the state of North Carolina.”
Debate report (and editorial) of Asheville High/SILSA Speech and Debate Team
by Mark Cates
About Asheville High/SILSA Speech and Debate Team
On March 3, 2017, the Asheville High/SILSA Speech and Debate Team conducted a debate.  The resolution posed was, “Fracking should be abolished in the state of North Carolina.”  Despite the resolution, all sides pretty much agreed, fracking in North Carolina isn’t much of an issue these days.
But let’s slow down and talk about something that is happening in North Carolina.  Turns out, the Asheville High/SILSA Speech and Debate Team drills through opponents like a wildcatter drills through shale.  The team has qualified for nationals nearly every year for over two decades and reached number one overall in the Harvard National Cumulative Rankings for the Congressional Debate event. However, as any good wildcatter can tell you, cash is king. The debate team could use an infusion of capital.  You can find out how to help at their booster club.
Back to the fracking debate… Opening rounds
NC Representative John Ager
Asheville City Councilwoman Julie Mayfield spoke in favor of the resolution
Dr. Richard Wiener, Geologist and Professor, UNCA
Three very important points to note upfront.  
  • First, the audience was one of the most well behaved crowds I have seen at a semi-political forum in Asheville.  My future recommendation would be that we allow the Speech and Debate Team to host all future political forums.  It seems the adults desired to behave themselves in front of the young adults in attendance.  
  • Second, Dr. Wiener is a geologist from UNCA and his expertise made the debate completely unfair. Regardless of one’s position on fracking, we all would have benefited greatly by giving him a projector and the microphone.  
  • Third, Councilwoman Julie Mayfield works for Mountaintrue and she thinks Mountaintrue is great. Now, repeat that over and over again. You can stop in about an hour and a half.
Against Fracking Opening StatementRep. Ager started the debate with a well-prepared opening (and basically closing) statement. 
His main point being that we are closer to renewables being a relevant source of energy today, than we were yesterday.  An extremely difficult point to counter given that today, is always one day ahead of yesterday.  However, Rep. Ager provided no timeline for when the conversion to renewables would take place or how much it would cost. Rep. Ager also opposed the noise, dust, traffic and high volumes of water being used in the industrial process. Some in the crowd appeared to be disturbed by this as they thought he was opposing the New Belgium Brewing Company. It turned out, Ager’s opposition to these issues were only in the realm of fracking.  An audible sigh of relief was heard throughout the crowd.
After his prepared statement in the opening round, Rep. Ager’s contribution to the debate was minimal. He should get credit for being honest and admitting that he was “not an expert” and did “not have the answers”.  The opposition conceded both of these points to Rep. Ager.
Frack job in progress
For fracking: in generalNext up was Sen. Jim Davis. Davis did not work from a prepared statement, but spoke to the benefits of fracking in general.
Davis stated that there really isn’t much fracking occurring in North Carolina and probably won’t be much fracking in the future. North Carolina doesn’t have much oil and natural gas underground. Most of our gas is found above ground in Asheville, near the city hall and Pritchard Park.  It was also apparent in Davis’ opening that he did not get the memo all North Carolinians are going to die due to fracking.  It’s only a guess, but I suspect he did not attend the Asheville protest where that memo was handed out.  However, Davis did say North Carolina has implemented the best fracking regulations in the country.
Later in the debate Mayfield challenged this position, only to then agree with it for the most part.  It became clear that even the best regulations can always be just a little better and if they cannot be just a little better, then we should scrap them completely.
Davis had a consistent theme. Every choice we make comes with risk.  There is risk with gas, coal and oil.  There is risk with renewables. There is risk when we drive our cars.  Humans constantly manage risk and he believes with respect to fracking, the NCGA did an effective job of managing the associated risks. However, once again, it was clear Davis did not receive the memo that Republicans are evil and want to completely destroy the environment we all share.  It was at this point in the debate, I began thinking Davis may be an early adopter of the Asheville catapult-bypass while traveling from Franklin to Raleigh. The Asheville catapult-bypass is a mode of transportation Pete Kaliner (WNC 570 radio host) has suggested the Asheville City Council provide for tourists. It’s intended for tourists using all those city services leaving Asheville continuously broke, but Sen. Davis may be using it also.  I can think of no other way he has missed these important and enlightening memos.
Against fracking: Mountaintrue is greatAfter Davis, was Asheville City Councilwoman Julie Mayfield.  If you haven’t heard, she works at Mountainture and Mountaintrue is great.  
Mayfield said it was a myth that we could not move to cleaner energy… like fracking.  Oh wait, strike that last part. I said that.  Mayfield said, “like renewables”.  Mayfield agreed fracking reduced our carbon footprint and could easily meet current energy demands at a lower cost. While this directly benefits the environment, the poor and middle class, I was left wondering why the poor and middle class selfishly feel the need for that extra money. If they want to save money, they should place their 1.3 million-dollar home in a trust like NC Sen Terry Van Duyn and reduce their tax burdens, or possibly scale down to somewhere around a half million-dollar home like Mayfield. Unfortunately, it’s just not possible for all of us to receive tax dollars for our property like Rep. Ager, or use one’s elected position to grow their company like Buncombe County Chairman Brownie Newman.
Regardless, I was left wondering if those people looking to save a few dollars each month on gas and electric could share Mayfield’s vision for a better tomorrow.
Later, Mayfield agreed North Carolina regulations were pretty good, but what about the methane, methane, methane. (I may have missed some relevant points during this period as all I could hear was Jane Brady and Marsha, Marsha, Marsha. If Mayfield mentioned that she also opposed methane release from landfills, agriculture. cows, pigs, etc., I missed it.)
Mayfield made very poignant appeals to emotion in regards to possible methane release. “What if” the fracking isn’t done properly? “What if” companies choose not to capture it?  Mayfield did clarify that a 2015 regulation required the capturing of methane in all new wells. It was unclear how that point helped her team in the debate though. However, she does make a fair point.  What if companies or individual choose not to follow a law or regulation?  Fortunately, a discussion on immigration did not come up at this point.
Mayfield also made a solid point, when she stated emphatically that we have the technology to capture the methane and use it to our advantage.  Yet again, it was unclear how that point helped her team in the debate.  In addition, Mayfield wanted to know what was in the fracking fluid. She was not referring to the part of the fracking fluid that is 99.5% water and sand. She was talking about the 0.5% that’s similar to what you find at your local car wash.
Speaking to future risk associated with fracking, Mayfield highlighted the problems we now face with Coal Ash cleanup. For some unknown reason, Mayfield failed to mention that it was a problem created by her fellow Democrats and now being addressed by the Republican led NCGA.
Moving on…
And the winner is…Dr. Richard Wiener
Arguably the real winner of the debate was Buncombe County Chairman, Nathan West. West was an original member of the opposing team, but had a last minute “business trip” and UNCA geologist, Dr. Richard Wiener, stood in his place. As noted above, this really made the debate unfair.  Wiener distracted the audience with facts and science and made no appeals to emotion.  He described how well established the fracking process has been over the last 60 years and that while there is some risk, they are well known risks. The risks aren’t truly with the fracking process, but with the concrete casements used. The casements are a risk with all drilling and highly regulated.
Wiener spoke directly to Mayfield’s methane, methane, methane fear and pointed out it’s relatively short lifetime in the atmosphere.  However, Wiener was upstaged by Rep. Ager who jumped back into the debate with reckless abandon. Ager made it clear that when it comes to methane, a farmer like himself, has got the gas. Well, his farm does. Literally. The agriculture production, the cows, the pigs are all sources of methane.  As made clear by Wiener, the methane from fracking isn’t that much in comparison and as made clear by Mayfield herself, we have regulations to capture methane for all new wells.
Often times during the debate, it became unclear which team Ager and Mayfield were arguing for.
But we digressed for a bit – Fracking vs. Renewables
Solar spotlight
Finally, the issue of “when” renewables would be ready to take over as our main source of power was addressed.  If we could quickly move to renewables, there would be no reason to frack. Mayfield suggested that we should be spending our money on renewable energy like solar and wind because a plan by a Stanford professor claims the US could move to “clean energy” by 2050. She didn’t exactly recall the plan, but it turns out it’s not so much a plan as a “vision” by Stanford professor, Mark Jacobson. His vision sets “targets”. His original target was 2030, but he has now moved it back to 2050. After viewing his website, I suspect he will keep moving it back as his plan both acknowledges and trivializes a very relevant detail:
Although we focus mainly on energy supply, we acknowledge and indeed emphasize the importance of demand-side energy conservation measures to reduce the requirements and impacts of energy supply.
Without the “demand-side energy conservation measures”, his numbers fail to add up.  However, that’s another article, for another time.
Methane methane methane
Let’s talk about methane some more.  Mayfield made an excellent point that if the frackers captured their methane better, it could be used to power 7 million homes.  Again, this left me confused if she was arguing for or against the fracking resolution.
Offshore wind turbines
Mayfield also stated that we needed offshore wind turbines.  The plan, I mean vision Mayfield mentioned, suggested offshore wind turbines will need to generate 50% of our power in North Carolina by 2050.  Some in the crowd were delighted to hear their beautiful views of the mountains would not be disturbed, despite being such a good area for wind turbines.  North Carolina beach residents were not available to respond to Mayfield’s comment.  It looked as if Councilwoman Mayfield was going to segue into the 2017 German energy law that prevents building new offshore wind turbines due to the high cost of electricity and damage to its power grid, but she did not.
Battery Technology
Another issue brought up in the debate by Rep. Agers was battery technology. Agers thinks there are a lot of good things happening in that field.  Everyone agreed with him, but the issue of whether battery technology actually existed that could efficiently store energy from solar and wind was not discussed for some reason.  We all agreed we like batteries and we all remain hopeful the technology will arrive soon.  Although, it’s unclear how the yet to be named battery technology for storing electricity fits into the 2030/2050 vision as mentioned by Mayfield.  The vision relies heavily on that yet to be named battery technology in order to make their numbers add up.
One audience member zeroed in on Sen. Davis’ point about how there is environmental risk with all forms of energy.  Davis spoke to the well-known issues of solar arrays frying birds and wind turbines slicing and dicing them.  The speaker noted that cellphone towers kill birds and that cats kill even more.  Davis made it clear he was a dog person, but the audience member clung to his point. Should we also ban cats and cellphone towers?  The audience was clearly divided on these issues. It appeared half of the audience was Pro-Dog and the other half Anti-Dog.  The Pro-Dog crowd seemed perfectly fine with banning cats.  With regards to cellphone towers, the picture was less clear.  Many parents seemed okay with the banning of cellphone towers, but it was hard to get a feel from the younger audience members as they hadn’t bothered to look up from their cellphones.
Back to the main point – fracking
While many cats do kill birds, the debate was about abolishing fracking, not banning renewable energy because of the environmental damage it can cause.  Sen. Davis continued on with his core focus during the debate.  There is risk with every path we take in regards to energy, we have to minimize that risk in a thoughtful and responsible manner.
One audience member did appear to be upset that the Republican led NCGA eliminated certain subsidies for solar panels. He stated that many in his neighborhood had installed solar panels, but without the subsidies other neighbors will not be able to do so.  He seemed very happy he was saving $100/month due to his solar panels, but made no mention of whether he was planning on using that extra money to fund his neighbors.  Installing solar panels can be expensive and not everyone has the extra $20,000 to $50,000 to do so.  If everyone with solar panels in his neighborhood pooled their extra $100/month, they could possibly purchase solar panels for their neighbors.  However, he seemed content with placing the burden of those subsidies on the millions of North Carolinians struggling to pay their bills and take care of their families, while he continued living his green dream.

(You can stop saying Mountaintrue now.)

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