Natural gas is supposed to be the fuel of the future, weaning America off dirtier coal and oil while boosting the economic recovery. But as the New York Times reports, some experts worry the industry is growing too big to succeed, following the footsteps of past economic bubbles like tech stocks and housing. In internal emails obtained by the Times, federal officials warn the shale gas industry is "set up for failure" and that it's "quite likely many of these companies will go bankrupt." A geologist for ConocoPhillips even suggests shale gas could end up as "the world's largest uneconomic field."

This is a much darker picture than what most federal and industry officials describe publicly. It has become almost conventional wisdom in recent years that natural gas — and especially shale gas, extracted from deep formations of shale rock — is the next big thing in energy. These deposits of shale gas are said to be so enormous and lucrative, in fact, they've helped overshadow the potential risks of hydraulic fracturing, aka "fracking," which is suspected of causing dangerous water and air pollution in nearby communities. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects shale gas will jump from 14 percent to 47 percent of all U.S. energy production by 2035, helping raise total gas production by 5 trillion cubic feet within 24 years. But the Times' collection of internal messages from government and industry insiders suggests there is skepticism behind the bubbly veneer of this shale gas bonanza. 

"Am I just totally crazy, or does it seem like everyone and their mothers are endorsing shale gas without getting a really good understanding of the economics at the business level?" one EIA analyst emailed to a colleague on April 27. "We might be in a 'gold rush,'" another senior EIA official wrote, "wherein a few folks have developed 'monster' wells,' so everyone assumes that all the wells will be 'monsters.'" 

(Sources: New York Times, EIA)


North Dakota's swollen Souris River crested this weekend at a historic high, surging 4 feet above its 1881 flood record and inundating 4,000 homes in the city of Minot. It's now forecast to decline about 2 feet by midweek, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but Minot will likely remain swamped for weeks. Much of the city remains under a boil-water order, CNN reports, as a precaution against toxic microbes. "It has not been fully tested ... to show that it is contaminated," Minot Mayor Curt Zimbelman says. "There is just a concern at this point, so we're taking precautions."

Meanwhile, floods have spurred another ominous crisis to the south, as a nuclear power plant in Nebraska switched to back-up generators Sunday following the collapse of a berm protecting it from the Missouri River. Officials say the plant's reactors are not in danger, although the news has still caused anxiety in the wake of Japan's recent flood-triggered meltdowns. The Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station, located about 20 miles north of Omaha, has three back-up generators to keep nuclear fuel from overheating, CNN reports, and only one is needed to meet its needs. The plant switched to generator power Sunday when a water-filled flood-protection berm deflated, after it was apparently punctured by some kind of machinery. "The plant is still protected," says Omaha Public Power District spokesman Mike Jones. "This was an additional, a secondary, level of protection that we had put up. The plant remains protected to the level it would have been if the aqua berm had not been added."

Parts of the Fort Calhoun site are already underwater, however, including areas around some auxiliary buildings, Jones tells CNN. Authorities have set up floodgates and sandbags around the site in addition to the berm, yet they insist the plant will almost certainly avoid disaster. It's designed to withstand water up to 1,014 feet above sea level, while the Missouri River now stands at 1,006.3 feet and isn't expected to rise past 1,008 feet, the OPPD says. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko is scheduled to visit the plant today.

(Sources: USA Today, CNN, MSNBC)


An emperor penguin that wandered nearly 2,000 miles from home and ate sand instead of snow is now recovering from an endoscopy, according to officials at New Zealand's Wellington Zoo. The bird was first spotted on a New Zealand beach last week, drawing worldwide sympathy as it gobbled up sand, which it mistook for the snow emperor penguins normally eat in Antarctica to hydrate themselves. Realizing the animal would soon die without help, the zoo took it in for rehabilitation.

The endoscopy removed "much of the gunk that was in his stomach," including "rocks, sticks and stones," Dr. Lisa Argilla, manager of veterinary science at Wellington Zoo, tells CNN. There was also enough sand to fill the penguin's stomach up to the esophagus, a dangerous condition that required immediate treatment. "Having sand in your stomach is very serious," Argilla says. "It can cause a rupture, that's my main concern. ... I would assume the sand has abraded the stomach lining." The penguin has undergone several stomach flushes, and will now be given some time to recover, adds zoo spokeswoman Kate Baker. "We won't do another procedure on him tomorrow — he's had two anaesthetics in two days, so after this we will give him a bit of a rest," she says.

This marks just the second time an emperor penguin has showed up in New Zealand, but while the zoo was quick to step in and save it, it won't be able to provide a permanent home. Air-conditioning and other costs would make it too expensive to build a new exhibit, Argilla explains, but as a social animal, the penguin would also become lonely. "We would need more [penguins]," she says.

(Sources:, CNN)


While the interior U.S. fights historic floods this year, coastal cities would do well to pay attention, the Washington Post reports. Since 1954 they've taken advice from an Army Corps of Engineers handbook on using seawalls and other tactics to hold back the ocean, but now that advice has suddenly changed. The EPA recently published the first handbook on how not to hold back the sea, suggesting expensive seawalls and dikes are ultimately futile against the unstoppable force of sea-level rise.

The new manual, titled "Rolling Easements," aims to "get people on the path of not expecting to hold back the sea" as rising global temperatures continue melting ice into the world's oceans, writes EPA researcher James Titus. Instead, the report advises local and state governments to start devising policies that limit development on low-lying, flood-prone land and encourage more people to move inland. In coastal Hampton Roads., Va., for example, officials recently issued a report warning that a Category 4 hurricane would now threaten 1 million residents due to increased potential for storm surges. The group Clean Air Cool Planet also points out the number of federally declared storms in New England is up 50 percent over the last two decades, making the threat of sea-level rise even more harrowing. "In New Hampshire alone, the costs associated with declared storm damages have increased nearly 15-fold and the state has suffered through four '100-year floods' in the last decade," the report says.

The U.S. Global Change Research Program forecasts sea levels along parts of the Atlantic Coast will rise 14 to 17 inches in the next century, enough to threaten a wide variety of coastal businesses. It won't be feasible to hold back that much water, the EPA warns, and some experts are already envisioning how entire coast-oriented industries might flee the sea. "They have to think about moving back hotels or raising them up," says Old Dominion University economics professor James Koch, "to make it possible to maintain a tourist presence."

(Sources: Washington Post, EPA)


Hurricane Audrey brings a 12-foot storm surge to Texas and Louisiana, Pixar releases "WALL-E," and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (natural gas drilling rig northeast of Denver, Colo.): ZUMA Press

Photo (Souris River floodwaters in Minot, N.D., on June 26): ZUMA Press

Photo (lost emperor penguin in New Zealand on June 20): ZUMA Press

Photo (waves crashing on shore): Franklin O'Donnell/NASA

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Mon. 6/27/2011
Experts warn of gas bubble, floods threaten nuke plant, lost penguin in rehab, and more.