Alternative Energy, Energy

Green Crude


The global oil supply has been a topic of heated debate in recent years. On one hand, there is the concern that oil reserves are being depleted and we will be without a heavily relied on resource in the near future. On the other hand, there is the notion that we must continue to seek additional oil reserves and to refine every last drop from current ones. According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, the global oil supply has increased since 2010. This statistics doesn’t amount to much, though, because “at today’s consumption rates, the world has proved reserves sufficient to meet current production for 54 years for oil.” (BP) The underlying issue of a dependency on a nonrenewable resource still remains. George W. Bush summed it up perfectly when he said, “America is addicted to oil.” The solution to this addiction isn’t to exhaust our efforts and bank accounts until we can deplete the last reserve, but rather to curb our dependency from a nonrenewable source to one that is more renewable and sustainable.

Sapphire Energy essentially mimics those natural processes that produced crude oil millions of years ago. This mimicry can occur in four different methods.At Sapphire Energy, numerous open algae ponds line the facility grounds. Algae absorb sunlight and carbon dioxide and through high temperatures and high pressures, oil is extracted. The chemical composition of algal oil is so similar to crude oil that it does not render existing infrastructure obsolete.

      Green Crude

Sapphire Energy is most recognized by the supportive role they played in Josh Tickell’s effort to educate the public about greener fuels. Josh Tickell is a proponent of alternative fuels, particularly in the transportation sector. He was first known for his nonprofit educational program, the Veggie Van Organization, as well as for his 2008 Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary, Fuel (2008).


In his film, Tickell travelled across the globe in his van that ran off of fryer oil. He is more recently known for his modified Toyota Prius known as Algaeus. Algaeus is a hybrid that runs off of electricity and algal biofuel from Sapphire Energy. The vehicle made it from coast to coast on 25 gallons of algal biofuel, averaging about 52 mpg. Tickell’s modified Prius challenged the largest concern of alternative fuel based vehicles, short range anxiety.


There have been numerous analyses performed on the efficiency and feasibility of algal biofuel production. According to a study published in Bioresource Technology journal, carbon dioxide emissions from algae fuel were capable of being 50-70% lower than emissions from oil. As is often the case with renewable or alternative energies, there is no practicality involved. The United States Department of Energy determined that only 30,000 square kilometers, or an area about half of the state of South Carolina, would be required to replace petroleum in the United States. This seems like a substantial amount of land; however, a study conducted at the Pacific Northwest National Lab concluded that algal production could be implemented in 14% of the United States, or an area the size of Texas and New Mexico.

There are current policies in place that already acknowledge algae. Two said policies are the Department of Energy’s Biomass Program in 2010 and the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP).

Algal biofuels are a seemingly appropriate alternative to our current fuel resources, so it doesn’t make sense as to why they haven’t been widely accepted. A few concerns that still remain revolve around cost and need for further research. Should we also be concerned about relying on particular strands of algae? Is it possible that these strands could eventually evolve and render the costly operation invalid? More importantly, will algal biofuels ever take off? Will these groundbreaking technologies and breakthroughs disappear like the EV did? Is it fair that the government is funding and supplementing algae programs and farmers? Should algae production be included in any other federal policies, such as the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act?


The Policies (or Lack Thereof) of Hydraulic Fracturing

In recent years, hydraulic fracturing has been the source of much enthusiasm and heated debate because of the energy it ultimately provides and the environmental impacts that come along with it. The history of hydraulic fracturing can be traced back to the 1940s, but it did not become prominent until 2003 when large resource companies began exploring huge deposits (called plays) of a type of natural gas called shale gas.

Shale Play MapSource: Energy Information Administration

Natural gas is primarily composed of methane and burns cleaner than oil or coal.  Ultimately, it releases lower amounts of carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Sounds good, right? Cleaner fuel, less greenhouse gases- it’s what we want. However, the process of removing shale gas, hydraulic fracturing, may be doing more harm than good- because of policy reasons.

Fracking SiteSource: ProPublica

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a relatively simple process (see figure below). In recent years, the most controversial part of this process is the chemical mixing. Many are concerned that this water mixture may contaminate groundwater sources when it is injected into the ground, and rightly so. In this report by the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Minority Staff, they state that “more than 2500” products were used in mixing, including “750 chemicals and other components”. However, recent studies (here, here, and here) have shown that it is not the chemicals that are contaminating groundwater but methane from gas leaks in the wells.

Fracking CycleSource: ProPublica

In 1947, The Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA) was passed and the EPA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) Program was created. UIC regulates injection wells to prevent contamination of underground drinking water sources. If there are already regulations in place to prevent such contamination, why do we have so much contamination from fracking? It is because fracking was specifically exempt from the EPA’s authority and regulations in 2005 when the Energy Policy Act was passed (except when diesel fuels are used). Why? The EPA conducted a study in 2004 to analyze the risk of hydraulic fracturing for coalbed methane production on drinking water sources. They “reported that the risk was small, except where diesel was used” and stated that “regulation was not needed”.

Today, we are starting to see how wrong they were. The 112th Congress introduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (FRAC Act) in 2011 for the second time. The FRAC Act would repeal the exemption of fracking from the EPAct and would amend the term “underground injection” to include the liquid mixtures used specifically in hydraulic fracturing. The 2011 Act went nowhere, but there is still hope for groundwater everywhere. The FRAC Act was reintroduced for a third time on June 11, 2013.

A few questions: How familiar are you with fracking? Have you ever seen a fracking site? Did you know about the groundwater contamination issues from fracking, or do you know someone who has dealt with them personally? Do you use natural gas in your home or some area of your life? Do you think the EPA’s study for coalbed methane was capable of judging the impacts of fracking natural gas? What do you think about the FRAC Act?