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Colorado's Elegant Solution for Fracking

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Eventually those local moratoriums against fracking will expire in Boulder, Longmont and Erie. And residents will worry anew about toxic fracking operations inching up on schools and neighborhoods in pursuit of a product that goes "poof" the instant it's used. Nice value -- not.

And it's timely that the University of Colorado at Denver School of Public Health just announced a study which finds that air pollution within a half mile of frack-ops have toxic emissions five times over federal safety standards, causing elevated life time cancer risks and respiratory and neurological effects for nearby residents. Rep. Diana DeGette is now urging the Environmental Protection Agency to consider Colorado's study as they finalize air standards for fracking.

It has also just come out that fracking is inching up on agriculture to compete for Colorado's water. Taking only .08 of a percent per year, it's a smidge for sure, but that water gets so polluted it must be disposed in a way that removes it from the hydrologic cycle. And that's not pretty when we're looking down the craw of a new drought kicked off with a historic climate change induced heat wave plus a horrifying wildfire this season.

Permanently voiding precious Colorado water out of the hydrologic cycle feels even worse in view of the fact that such water can be lost for naught when the depletion rate on fracking wells is 63-85 percent in the first year, according to Dave Hughes of the Geological Survey of Canada. This can mean fruitless water waste when drilling down the slippery slope of diminishing marginal returns.

But Colorado will need all the more gas, as the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act requires Xcel Eenrgy in Colorado to soon retire 900 megawatts of coal burning capacity. The act also requires that the natural gas used for recouping that coal-fired capacity comes from in state (see page 18 here). That puts upward pressure on fracking all over the state. This means more tangles between fracking and populated areas, and more permanent loss of precious Colorado water. It seems like Colorado may have backed itself into a box canyon, where residents are cornered with fracking risks to land, air, water and health.

But there's an elegant pathway to reducing Colorado's need for natural gas -- by using the sun in a familiar technology that is at least two times more efficient than solar photovoltaics. It's good old fashioned solar thermal -- those rooftop panels that heat water.

Colorado could amend the CACJA to promote solar thermal as a jobs intensive domestic energy supply that works with natural gas to heat homes, buildings, water and industrial processes. This could free drilling companies to sell excess Colorado gas out of state for much higher prices (see page 8 here), possibly gaining crucial industry support for this intrusion of renewables into their market. Higher profitability, less contentious drilling and more renewable energy jobs is the hope.

In all of North American, Colorado is "ground zero" for the best conditions for producing huge benefits from solar thermal. It's the sunshine, cold ground water, high heating loads, renewables-savvy population and existing industry that can, if the state takes on robust targets, lead the nation in an industry that swaps jobs and skills in place of burning money. And burning money is what we do when we burn costly fuels that go poof the instant they're used.

A robust Colorado plan for solar thermal could put the clean air and clean jobs back into the so-called, gas-friendly Clean Air Clean Jobs Act.

And in case anyone has forgotten -- there are huge economic risks with shale gas, a.k.a. the fracking boom, as the resource is almost certainly not as profitable, resourceful or as clean as hyped by industry. On deeper review, it's promising to be an economic bubble.

Fracking is supposedly going to make our nation 100 years of cheap gas, as, amnesiac members of Congress and the president are wont to say. But various geological experts such as the Potential Gas Committe have poured cold water all over that flaming hype, detailing how the supply could be as little as 21 or even 11 years. And Arthur Berman, a widely regarded petro-geologist has commented that the industry reminds him of the sub prime mortgage mess and wrote, "U.S. shale plays share many characteristics with the gold rushes... Both phenomena result from extreme promotion. Anyone can join. Every participant believes that they will get rich. Great amounts of capital are destroyed as entrants try to get a position. The bonanza is exhausted sooner than most expected and few profit in the end."

So if you are one of the thousands of Coloradans who are waking up to the nightmare of fracking in your community -- go online and read the Colorado Solar Thermal Roadmap. Then find every political leader you can to talk about it. Colorado would be wise to use its natural solar resources to hedge against an over-reliance on gas, one that shall expand as the CACJA requires. And coal with its rising prices is on the wane nationwide as well, which means the demand for gas will be a pressure cooker loaded with risk for our energy security, economy, and environment.

A version of this post originally appeared in the Daily Camera.