TIME energy

Water Scarcity Hindering China’s Shale Gas Production

China fracking
Major oil and gas companies in China are ready to exploit the country's shale resources Brent Lewin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Lack of water is holding back a possible fracking revolution in China

Originally appeared in OilPrice.com

China holds the largest reserves of shale gas in the world, but much of it may never get developed because of one major obstacle: water scarcity.

A new report from the World Resources Institute (WRI) says China suffers from high water stress, which may prevent it from ever fully developing its vast shale gas resources. China is sitting on 1,115 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable shale gas resources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, but much of it is located in arid areas of the country.

This presents an acute problem for a country that may see its natural gas consumption more than triple over the next 25 years.

China has not yet succeeded in producing its shale gas resources on a large scale, but the central government is putting a lot of effort into developing the expertise needed to economically extract natural gas. For several years now it has invested in North American shale gas companies, such as China National Offshore Oil Corporation’s (CNOOC) $2.1 billion investment in Chesapeake Energy back in 2010. A few months later, PetroChina spent $5.4 billion for a stake in Encana, a large shale gas producer in Canada.

Both moves were seen less as a financial investment and more as an effort to learn the secrets of the North American shale gas revolution.

To be sure, exploration in China is already underway. Much of the drilling thus far has taken place in the Sichuan basin in central China, with over 100 wells drilled to date. WRI says that Sichuan basin is in an area experiencing “medium to high” water stress.

Worse, nearly the entire extent of the Tarim basin, another promising shale gas region in the northwestern province of Xinjiang, suffers from “extremely high” water stress. The dusty region has groundwater shortages, and many of its feeble rivers dry up during certain times of the year.

Drilling and developing shale gas requires massive amounts of fresh water. In Pennsylvania, for example, an average shale gas well can use 4.4 million gallons of waterduring the drilling process, or the equivalent to the daily water consumption of 11,000 American families. That is not necessarily a problem in wet areas, but the effect is much worse in drier areas.

In China, over 60 percent of its shale gas reserves are located in areas suffering from “high to extremely high” water stress. That could cause tension with communities or other businesses that are also in need of water. “High levels of competition among agricultural, domestic, and industrial water users could represent higher costs, reputational risks, and increased regulatory uncertainty for operators trying to access water for hydraulic fracturing and drilling operations,” WRI says in its report, as a warning to businesses seeking to operate in China.

And it is not just China grappling with this conundrum – it just happens to have the most shale gas and some of the worst water problems. WRI conducted a worldwide assessment and ranked countries based on their shale reserves and vulnerability to water scarcity. Mexico and South Africa stand out as two other countries that could see water shortages delay or derail the development of their shale resources.

Mexico has 545 trillion cubic feet of shale gas, a little less than the 665 tcf found in the United States. But most of Mexico’s shale gas is located in the deserts in the northern part of the country, just south of the Eagle Ford shale in Texas. For anyone who has visited northern Mexico, they know that water is scarce. Just 4 percent of annual rainfall in Mexico hits the north. The Burgos basin, Mexico’s most promising, is in an “extremely stressed” water area, with much of its aquifer depleted.

South Africa faces similar constraints. It has one large shale play, over 75 percent of which is located in a region suffering from “extreme” water stress. As is true in most places, the vast majority of water is used for agricultural purposes, so the development of shale gas in South Africa would likely mean diverting water from other uses.

Worldwide, around 38 percent of shale gas reserves are located in areas dealing with “high” or “extremely high” water stress. The natural gas reserves may exist, and could be technically recoverable, but if there isn’t enough water available, the gas may stay in the ground.

TIME 2014 Election

Democrat Jared Polis Withdraws Support for Colorado Fracking Initiatives

U.S. Representative Jared Polis during the Colorado Democratic Party's State Assembly in Denver on April 12, 2014.
U.S. Representative Jared Polis during the Colorado Democratic Party's State Assembly in Denver on April 12, 2014. David Zalubowski—AP

Vulnerable Colorado Democrats breathe a sigh of relief

Rep. Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, announced at a press conference on Monday that he would be withdrawing his support for ballot initiatives restricting fracking in Colorado. The move comes as a relief to fellow Democrats worried that the initiatives would’ve driven out Republican voters in the fall.

In exchange for withdrawing the controversial initiatives, Polis won a blue-ribbon panel that will be set up to analyze whatever problems might exist. The panel will propose fixes over the next six months to a year.

The initiatives had so scared Democrats that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper had spent the better part of the last month trying to come up with a legislative compromise so he could call the state legislature back into a special session to waylay Polis. But with an Aug. 4 deadline to lock in ballot initiatives, hope for a legislative fix was dwindling.

Meanwhile, Democrats have privately and publicly called on Polis to withdraw the initiatives, but he has refused to do so, saying the Democratic base supports these moves. While that is true, many Democrats worried the fracking issue could draw pro-Republican advertising into the 2014 election in Colorado, motivating more Republicans to vote while hurting Democratic chances among independent voters.

At stake was Democrat Hickenlooper’s tough reelection, along with the reelection of fellow Democratic Senator Mark Udall—and, given the electoral map, potential control of the U.S. Senate. Oil and gas groups were gearing up to pour in $20 million in Colorado to defeat the initiatives, which they say would’ve essentially halved or effectively halted fracking in Colorado. Fracking generated $29.5 billion in economic activity in Colorado in 2012, creating 111,000 direct jobs with an average wage of $74,811, according to the Colorado Petroleum Association.

Polis argued that it’s such a big issue for his constituents, he cannot ignore the problem. He has also introduced federal legislation, which has stalled in the GOP-controlled House.

TIME natural disaster

7 Quakes Hit Oklahoma in Less Than a Day

Oil Drilling Earthquakes
Computer screens displaying data of real-time monitoring of seismic activity throughout the state of Oklahoma are pictured at the Oklahoma Geological Survey at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., Thursday, June 26, 2014. Earthquakes that have shaken Oklahoma communities in recent months have damaged homes, alarmed residents and prompted lawmakers and regulators to investigate what's behind the temblors — and what can be done to stop them. Sue Ogrocki—AP

The biggest temblor clocked in at 4.3 on the Richter scale

Oklahoma was rocked by seven small earthquakes in a span of about 14 hours over the weekend, the U.S. Geological Survey said.

Three quakes hit between Saturday evening and Sunday morning, centered in the areas of Guthrie, Jones and Langston, and ranging between 2.6 and 2.9 in magnitude. They followed four larger temblors earlier on Saturday, including one near Langston shortly after noon that clocked in at 4.3 on the Richter scale.

TIME 2014 Election

Friendly Fire Over Colorado Fracking Could Cost Democrats the U.S. Senate

U.S. Representative Jared Polis during the Colorado Democratic Party's State Assembly in Denver on April 12, 2014.
U.S. Representative Jared Polis during the Colorado Democratic Party's State Assembly in Denver on April 12, 2014. David Zalubowski—AP

The reelections of the Democratic governor and U.S. Senator in Colorado are threatened by ballot initiatives pushed by a renegade House Democrat

Correction appended July 15, 2014

With a nail biter election on the horizon that flip control of the U.S. senate, the biggest concern of many Colorado Democrats is one of their own—a wealthy congressman named Jared Polis who is pushing statewide ballot initiatives that party strategists fear could increase Republican turnout in November.

Polis has introduced and is helping garner enough signatures for a state ballot effort would restrict oil and gas fracking, a major issue in his home district where four of the five biggest towns have banned it.

The initiatives have so scared Democrats that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper has spent the better part of the last month trying to come up with a legislative compromise so he could call the state legislature back into a special session to waylay Polis. But with an Aug. 4 deadline to lock in ballot initiatives, hope for a legislative fix is dwindling.

Meanwhile, Democrats have privately and publicly called on Polis to withdraw the initiatives, but he has refused to do so, saying the Democratic base supports these moves. While that is true, the fracking issue could motivate Republicans more, by making the oil and gas industry front and center this election year.

“The concern among many Democrats is that the ballot initiatives that we’re talking about are very very appealing the farther left you go; troubling at the center; and on the right, they are turn out machines,” says Steve McMahon, a Democratic strategist and Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign manager. “If you’re in a safe district, you’re not concerned. But if you’re a Democrat that has to win statewide these things look a lot different.”

At stake isn’t just Democrat Hickenlooper’s tough reelection, but that of fellow Democrat Senator Mark Udall—and, given the electoral map, potential control of the Senate. Oil and gas groups are gearing up to pour in $20 million in Colorado to defeat the initiatives, which they say would essential halve or effectively halt fracking in Colorado. Fracking generated $29.5 billion in economic activity in Colorado in 2012, creating 111,000 direct jobs with an average wage of $74,811, according to the Colorado Petroleum Association.

“Oil and gas has been the spark of the recovery for Colorado and these initiatives would destroy that,” says Stan Dempsey, head of the association. “Why [Polis] thinks that only he has the perfect solution rather than the experts at the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission is beyond me.” Dempsey notes that the industry just went through an extensive rule making process last year in Colorado.

First elected in 2008, Polis is a wealthy businessman and philanthropist, who founded a number of ecommerce companies, including ProFlowers.com. In 2008, he became the first openly gay parent elected to Congress, and while in office sponsored the Race to the Top education reform and has been a defender of the virtual currency Bitcoin. He represents a relatively safe seat, and given his personal fortune is not beholden to leaders or rich patrons to fundraise.

He first got involved in fracking issues in early 2012 when he lobbied Encana Corp. to halt construction on wells close to Red Hawk Elementary School in Erie, Colorado. “Many families have moved out of that area,” Polis tells TIME. “It absolutely hurt the housing market, then people saw fracking going in.” Polis says that having fracking within eyesight of a building reduces property values between 5% and 15%. He also cites environmental concerns given that there were 400 spills last year alone, many of them in populated areas.

Polis says he isn’t anti-fracking and that he believes in an “all of the above” energy policy. “It’s exciting that our state is contributing to American energy independence,” Polis says. But, he adds, he wants companies to act more respectfully of the population. One of his initiatives would require extending setbacks to 2,000 feet from existing buildings, a move that would cut in half the amount of available land or fracking in Colorado, Dempsey says.

Polis argues that it’s such a big issue for his constituents, he cannot ignore the problem. He would prefer a legislative solution, but the “window for that is closing,” leaving him no choice but to proceed with his ballot initiatives. He has contributed personal money to the push to get enough signatures to get on the ballot.

The Colorado Petroleum Association’s Dempsey compares Polis’s tactics, given the ongoing legislative process, to “negotiating with a gun to our heads.” “If he was serious he’d set aside the ballot initiatives, sit down with all the stakeholders and thrash out a compromise,” Dempsey said of Polis. “But it’s his way or the high way and the high way is going to be an expensive and potentially divisive political fight.”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the fracking setback in the Polis ballot initiative. It is 2,000 feet.

TIME energy

New York Appeals Court Upholds Bans on Fracking

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Anti Fracking Banner Michelle McCarron—Getty Images

The ruling is a major victory for environmental advocates fighting to stop the practice, which has led to a boom in oil and gas production in the United States

In a blow to the oil and gas industry, the New York state Court of Appeals in Albany ruled Monday that cities have the authority to ban hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas drilling, or fracking.

The decision is a victory for anti-fracking activists while Governor Andrew Cuomo weighs whether or not to lift a six-year-old statewide moratorium on the controversial practice.

The Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York state, dismissed two lawsuits brought by oil and gas firms against the towns of Dryden and Middlefield, two small, rural communities in New York that instituted fracking bans after extraction firms started exploring for natural gas deposits in the area.

Environmental advocates around the country have raised concerns about the potential impact of fracking—in which underground explosions release trapped oil and gas deposits—including pollution of groundwater resources, heavy traffic and road use in rural areas and a possible increase in earthquakes.

But oil and gas firms reject claims that fracking pollutes groundwater or can trigger strong earthquakes, and note that advances in the technology have sparked a fossil fuel boom in the U.S. in recent years, boosting the economy and giving the U.S. increased energy security. Only a decade ago the U.S. faced the prospect of increasing demand and dwindling resources, a situation that has completely reversed thanks to the boom in oil and gas extraction.

The New York towns sit atop the Marcellus Shale, a natural gas rich geological formation that sits under parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Like other gas-rich formations, including the Permian Basin in West Texas and the Bakken formation in Montana and North Dakota, the Marcellus has seen a tremendous uptick in oil and gas drilling in recent years.

TIME energy

Earthquake Insurance Becomes Boom Industry in Oklahoma

Chad Devereaux
Chad Devereaux examines bricks that fell from three sides of his in-laws' home in Sparks, Okla., on Nov. 6, 2011, following two earthquakes that hit the area. Sue Ogrocki—AP

At least one industry is benefiting from the recent epidemic of tremors in the Sooner State

Just a few years ago, earthquake insurance wasn’t something many thought much about in Oklahoma. That’s changed with the outbreak of tremors that has rattled the state in recent years, which many blame on increased oil- and gas-drilling activity.

“Every time there’s a decent-size earthquake, there’s a spike in interest,” says Matthew Ramirez, an agent for Farmer’s Insurance in Edmond, which has been affected by many of the recent quakes. So far in 2014, Oklahoma has seen 200 earthquakes of magnitude 3.0 or stronger.

Standard homeowner policies generally don’t cover damage caused directly by earthquakes (to a building’s foundation, for instance), though they usually do cover the damage that earthquakes can cause, such as burst pipes or fire. Before November 2011, Ramirez insured “three or four homes” for earthquake coverage, “including mine,” he says. On Nov. 6, that all changed. A magnitude-5.6 earthquake — the largest ever recorded in Oklahoma — destroyed 14 homes and injured two people. “In the days that followed, we were flooded with earthquake calls, about 20 per day for two weeks,” Ramirez says.

Roughly 1% of the homes Ramirez insured in October 2011 had earthquake insurance. Today, he says, more than 40% of the homes he insures are covered for earthquake damage. Statewide, according to the Insurance Information Institute, the total premiums on earthquake insurance policies in Oklahoma more than doubled between 2009 and 2013, to $12,407.

According to Amberlee Darold, a seismologist with the Oklahoma Geological Survey, it’s no longer a matter of debate that hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells, or fracking, causes earthquakes. “It’s known that fracking can cause earthquakes and has caused earthquakes,” she says. Whether or not the injection of fracking wastewater into old wells for storage leads to earthquakes is a matter still up for debate, she says, but “there’s no question with fracking.”

Fracking, due to the nature of setting off underground explosions, is by its nature a seismic event, and the American Petroleum Institute (API) does not dispute that fracking can contribute to small-scale seismic activity. But the industry group rejects the idea that fracking causes earthquakes of a strength that can lead to a damaged home, for example. “A review of published research shows no cases of injuries or damage as a result of the very low level of seismicity related to this well-completion technique, which has been used in more than one million applications,” says an API report on the question.

Attributing any single seismic event to fracking is tricky, in the same way that attributing any single weather event to climate change is problematic. But taken on the whole, it’s hard not to link the notable increase in earthquake activity in Oklahoma with the boom in oil and gas drilling driven by advances in fracking technology. That boom shows no sign of slowing down, which may mean more earthquakes — and for the people selling earthquake insurance, more sales.

TIME Culture

# Selfie, Steampunk, Catfish: See This Year’s New Dictionary Words

154446225
This picture displays "nautical steampunk fashion." Renee Keith / Getty Images / Vetta

Merriam-Webster has revealed 150 new words that will be added to its collegiate dictionary this year, ranging from 'hashtag' and 'catfish' to 'dubstep' and 'crowdfunding,' most of which speak to some intersection of pop culture, technology and the Internet

Today Merriam-Webster, America’s best known keeper of words, announced new entries for their collegiate dictionary in 2014. Among them are telling specimens like selfie, hashtag and steampunk, reflecting lasting cultural obsessions that have become widespread enough to earn a place in the big red book.

“So many of these new words show the impact of online connectivity to our lives and livelihoods,” says Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski, in a press release. And that’s not all.

Many of the 150 new words do indeed speak to some intersection of pop culture and technology, like Auto-Tune and paywall. But others, like freegan and turducken, remind us how many modern Americans are bravely pursuing alternative eating habits, refusing to forego dumpsters as a regular food source or to consume merely one kind of poultry at a time. And though MW does not say as much, others remind us of what lasting influence Kate Middleton has in our society (See: baby bump, fangirl).

Here is a selection of the new words, with their definitions and the earliest year Merriam-Webster editors could find them being used:

Auto-Tune (v., 2003): to adjust or alter (a recording of a voice) with Auto-Tune software or other audio-editing software esp. to correct sung notes that are out of tune

baby bump (n., 2003): the enlarged abdomen of a pregnant woman

big data (n., 1980): an accumulation of data that is too large and complex for processing by traditional database management tools

brilliant (adj., new sense): British: very good, excellent

cap-and-trade (adj.,1995): relating to or being a system that caps the amount of carbon emissions a given company may produce but allows it to buy rights to produce additional emissions from a company that does not use the equivalent amount of its own allowance

catfish (n., new sense): a person who sets up a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes

crowdfunding (n., 2006): the practice of soliciting financial contributions from a large number of people esp. from the online community

digital divide (n., 1996): the economic, educational, and social inequalities between those who have computers and online access and those who do not

dubstep (n., 2002): a type of electronic dance music having prominent bass lines and syncopated drum patterns

e-waste (n., 2004): waste consisting of discarded electronic products (as computers, televisions, and cell phones)

fangirl (n., 1934): a girl or woman who is an extremely or overly enthusiastic fan of someone or something

fracking (n., 1953): the injection of fluid into shale beds at high pressure in order to free up petroleum resources (such as oil or natural gas)

freegan (n., 2006): an activist who scavenges for free food (as in waste receptacles at stores and restaurants) as a means of reducing consumption of resources

gamification (n., 2010): the process of adding game or gamelike elements to something (as a task) so as to encourage participation

hashtag (n., 2008): a word or phrase preceded by the symbol # that clarifies or categorizes the accompanying text (such as a tweet)

hot spot (n., new sense): a place where a wireless Internet connection is available

insource (v., 1983): to procure (as some goods or services needed by a business or organization) under contract with a domestic or in-house supplier

motion capture (n., 1992): a technology for digitally recording specific movements of a person (as an actor) and translating them into computer-animated images

paywall (n., 2004): a system that prevents Internet users from accessing certain Web content without a paid subscription

pepita (n., 1942): the edible seed of a pumpkin or squash often dried or toasted

pho (n., 1935): a soup made of beef or chicken broth and rice noodles

poutine (n., 1982): chiefly Canada: a dish of French fries covered with brown gravy and cheese curds

selfie (n., 2002): an image of oneself taken by oneself using a digital camera esp. for posting on social networks.

social networking (n., 1998): the creation and maintenance of personal and business relationships esp. online

spoiler alert (n., 1994): a reviewer’s warning that a plot spoiler is about to be revealed

steampunk (n., 1987): science fiction dealing with 19th-century societies dominated by historical or imagined steam-powered technology

turducken (n., 1982): a boneless chicken stuffed into a boneless duck stuffed into a boneless turkey

tweep (n., 2008): a person who uses the Twitter online message service to send and receive tweets

unfriend (v., 2003): to remove (someone) from a list of designated friends on a person’s social networking Web site

Yooper (n., 1977): a native or resident of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan — used as a nickname

TIME

The Seismic Link Between Fracking and Earthquakes

Environmentalists fear that fracking could cause more quakes if it expands to California Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

New research indicates that wastewater disposal wells—and sometimes fracking itself—can induce earthquakes

Ohio regulators did something last month that had never been done before: they drew a tentative link between shale gas fracking and an increase in local earthquakes. As fracking has grown in the U.S., so have the number of earthquakes—there were more than 100 recorded quakes of magnitude 3.0 or larger each year between 2010 and 2013, compared to an average of 21 per year over the preceding three decades. That includes a sudden increase in seismic activity in usually calm states like Kansas, Oklahoma and Ohio—states that have also seen a rapid increase in oil and gas development. Shale gas and oil development is still growing rapidly—more than eightfold between 2007 and 2o12—but if fracking and drilling can lead to dangerous quakes, America’s homegrown energy revolution might be in for an early end.

But seismologists are only now beginning to grapple with the connection between oil and gas development and earthquakes. New research being presented at the annual meeting of the Seismological Society of America this week shows that wastewater disposal wells—deep holes drilled to hold hundreds of millions of gallons of fluid produced by oil and gas wells—may be changing the stress on existing faults, inducing earthquakes that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Those quakes can occur tens of miles away from the wells themselves, further than scientists had previously believed. And they can be large as well—researchers have now linked two quakes in 2011 with a magnitude greater than 5.0 to wastewater wells.

“This demonstrates there is a significant hazard,” said Justin Rubinstein, a research geophysicist at the U.S. Geological Survey. “We need to address ongoing seismicity.”

Rubinstein was speaking on a teleconference call with three other seismologists who have been researching how oil and gas development might be able to induce quakes. All of them noted that the vast majority of wastewater disposal sites and oil and gas wells weren’t connected to increased quake activity—which is a good thing, since there are more than 30,000 disposal wells alone scattered around the country. But scientists are still trying to figure out which wells might be capable of inducing strong quakes, though the sheer volume of fluid injected into the ground seems to be the driving factor (that’s one reason why hydraulic fracturing itself rarely seems to induce quakes—around 5 million gallons, or 18.9 million L, of fluid is used in fracking, far less than the amount of fluid that ends up in a disposal well).

“There are so many injection operations throughout much of the U.S. now that even though a small fraction might induce quakes, those quakes have contributed dramatically to the seismic hazard, especially east of the Rockies,” said Arthur McGarr, a USGS scientist working on the subject.

What scientists need to do is understand that seismic hazard—especially if oil and gas development in one area might be capable of inducing quakes that could overwhelm structures that were built for a lower quake risk. That’s especially important given that fracking is taking place in many parts of the country—like Oklahoma or Ohio—that haven’t had much experience with earthquakes, and where both buildings and people likely have a low tolerance to temblors. Right now there’s very little regulation regarding how oil and gas development activities should be adjusted to reduce quake risk—and too little data on the danger altogether.

“There’s a very large gap on policy here,” says Gail Atkinson, a seismologist at the University of Western Ontario. “We need extensive databases on the wells that induce seismicity and the ones that don’t.”

So far the quakes that seem to have been induced by oil and gas activity have shaken up people who live near wells, but haven’t yet caused a lot of damage. But that could change if fracking and drilling move to a part of the country that already has clear existing seismic risks—like California, which has an estimated 15 billion barrels of oil in the Monterey Shale formation that could only be accessed through fracking (limited fracking has been done in California, but only in the lightly populated center of the state). Environmentalists who seek to block shale oil development in the Golden State have seized on fears of fracking-induced quakes, and a bill in the state legislature would establish a moratorium on fracking until research shows it can be done safely.

Regulation is slowly beginning to catch up. In Ohio, officials this month established new guidelines that would allow regulators to halt active hydraulic fracturing if seismic monitors detect a quake with a magnitude of 1.0 or higher. But it will ultimately be up to the oil and gas industry to figure out a way to carry out development without making the earth shake.

“I am confident that it is only a matter of time before we figure out how to exercise these technologies in a way that avoids significant quakes,” says Atkinson. Otherwise the fracking revolution may turn out to be short-lived.

TIME Environment

Even Advanced Biofuels May Not Be So Green

Corn waste used for biofuels
New research shows that next-generation biofuels made from corn waste aren't so green Photographer's Choice via Getty Images

Environmentalists have long worried about biofuels like corn ethanol. But a new study shows that even advanced biofuels, which use waste from crops like corn to make fuel, may hurt the climate

Back in 2008, TIME published a controversial cover story with a simple line: The Clean Energy Myth. TIME’s Michael Grunwald made a damning case against the ethanol industry, arguing that the massive subsidies for biofuels intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by cutting demand for oil actually had the opposite environmental effect:

“The basic problem with most biofuels is amazingly simple, given that researchers have ignored it until now: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon.”

The years since have seen rounds of opposing studies on the environmental effects of bioenergy, even as the amount of biofuel produced has continued to rise. The U.S. is expected to use almost 5 billion bushels of corn to produce over 13 billion gallons of ethanol this year, thanks chiefly to government mandates. But research has also linked the use of crops like corn and soybeans as fuel to the rise in global food prices in recent years. (In 2013, four of every ten bushels of corn producing in the U.S. went to ethanol, almost as much as was used to feed livestock.) And improving gas mileage and rising production of domestic oil—thanks to the recent shale boom—have undercut the argument that biofuels are needed for energy independence.

Still, biofuel advocates have always pointed to the development of second-generation biofuels that will get around some of those environmental drawbacks by using the waste products of crops like corn or by tapping non-food plants like switchgrass or wood chips. Though those next-generation cellulosic fuels have proven difficult to develop on a commercial scale—it’s been chemically challenging to tap the energy locked in cellulose—there has been some progress recently, with major cellulosic ethanol plants from companies like DuPont and Abengoa Bioenergy.

But now it turns out that even next-generation biofuels may be worse for the climate than the fossil fuel-based sources they’re meant to replace. A new federally-funded study published in Nature Climate Change has found that biofuels made from corn waste release 7% more greenhouse gases over the short term than gasoline. That’s because by using corn waste like stalks and cobs as a fuel source, farmers aren’t letting the plant residue remain in their fields, when over time it would enrich the soil with carbon. The carbon gained by swapping out gasoline with next-generation ethanol made from corn waste doesn’t make up for the additional carbon lost by the soil. While next-generation biofuels are better for the climate over the long term, the study concludes they’re not green enough to meet federal standards for subsidies, which require cellulosic ethanol to produce at least 60% less carbon than gasoline. And without those subsidies—which amount to $1 per gallon—the nascent advanced biofuel industry could be smothered in the crib.

That should be extremely worrying to the biofuel industry, which has been counting on the growth of advanced biofuels as subsidies for corn ethanol are phased out. The Renewable Fuels Association—an ethanol trade group—was quick to criticize the Nature Climate Change study, noting that earlier research concluded that corn residue could be removed for fuel without reducing the amount of carbon in soil. And Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spokesperson Liz Purchia said in a statement that the study “does not provide useful information to the life-cycle greenhouse gas emission from corn stover ethanol.” University of Nebraska Professor Adam Liska, who led the Nature Climate Change study, noted that using some of the corn residue to produce electricity—where it could help replace far dirtier coal—could make next-generation biofuels greener. So could the adoption of other cellulosic sources, or even algae. But most of the next-generation biofuel plants that are close to completion will be using corn residue as an early fuel source.

The reality is that the biofuel industry is in trouble. For the first time ever, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explicitly warned about the environmental risks of uncontrolled biofuel development in its most recent report on global warming. Given the political power of the farmers who directly benefit from ethanol subsidies—and the paucity of other immediate options to reduce the climate impact of transportation—biofuels aren’t going away. But the industry has a long way to go before it can prove that biofuels—even next-generation options—aren’t a clean energy myth.

TIME energy

Why Are U.S. Oil Imports Falling?

The United States is less reliant on foreign oil than it has been for almost a decade

According to data from ­­­­­The Energy Information Administration (EIA) in their 2014 Early Release Overview, oil imports decreased from 12.55 million barrels per day in 2005, (60 percent of daily U.S. consumption), to 7.45 million barrels per day, (40 percent of daily U.S. consumption), in 2012. Preliminary data from the same report shows that imports dropped even further in 2013, to 32 percent of overall consumption.

U.S. Energy Information Administration

So what accounts for the drop in imports? There are two likely reasons.

First, domestic supplies have increased due to a new drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, which involves the injection of more than a million gallons of water at high pressure into drilled wells thousands of feet below the surface. The pressure causes the rock layer to crack so that crude (unrefined) oil flows up the well.

Because hydraulic fracturing freed up oil that was previously inaccessible, U.S. production boomed, particularly in states like Texas, North Dakota, and Alaska.

According to more EIA data, total spending by oil (and natural gas) companies grew 11 percent on average per year from 2000-2012, and spending on development activities increased by 5 percent ($18 billion) in 2013. All this culminated in the U.S. production of 7.9 million barrels of crude oil per day in 2013, a level the country hasn’t hit since 1988.

U.S. production is expected to continue rising, to 8.4 million barrels per day in 2014, and 9.1 million barrels per day in 2015.

Second, imports decreased because high gasoline costs, fuel efficient cars, and the 2008 recession all led to lower national oil consumption, which decreased from 20.8 million barrels per day in 2005, to 18.64 million barrels per day in 2013. Although consumption hasn’t recovered to pre-2005 levels, it started to pick up in 2012, and the EIA predicts that consumption will continue to rise along with domestic production in 2014.

Despite increased domestic oil production and lower oil consumption, the US remains the largest importer of oil in the world, and spent $427 billion on imports in 2013.

The U.S spent almost as much on imports in 2013 as the sixth through tenth largest oil importing countries (Korea, The Netherlands, Germany, The United Kingdom, and Spain) combined.

However, the U.S. is only the 34th largest consumer of imported oil per capita. Countries that rank before it as the top importers per capita include Singapore, Luxembourg, and The Netherlands.

 

This article was written for TIME by Kiran Dhillon of FindTheBest.

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