28 January 2013

A lucid and level-headed discussion of fracking

Excerpts from the best article I've read yet about fracking:
Supplies of natural gas now economically recoverable from shale in the United States could accommodate the country’s domestic demand for natural gas at current levels of consumption for more than a hundred years: an economic and strategic boon, and, at least in the near term, an important stepping-stone toward lower-carbon, greener energy.

Even at recent, somewhat higher prices, natural gas is now significantly cheaper than either diesel fuel or gasoline on an energy-equivalent basis: a little more than one-tenth the wholesale, spot prices of about $3 per gallon for those liquid fuels. Lower-priced natural gas has had important consequences for the U.S. economy...

Consumers have benefited directly from lower gas-utility bills, and industrial customers have benefited by switching fuels—as have chemical and other processors that use gas as a feedstock... The shift from coal to gas in the electricity sector has also yielded an environmental bonus—a significant reduction in emissions of CO2, because CO2 emissions per unit of electricity generated using coal are more than double those produced using gas...

The bulk of the natural gas produced from shale today is derived from wet sources: marketing of the liquid products (which command higher prices) justifies the investments. That means that the economic momentum of the shale-gas industry can be sustained for the long term only by decreasing production (ultimately causing prices to adjust—a process that may be under way as drilling diminishes at current prices) or by increasing sales of its product. Increased use of natural gas for transportation could provide an additional domestic market, taking advantage of the significant price disparity versus gasoline or diesel fuels (as noted above)...

To date, then, we can say conclusively that a shift to natural gas from coal has changed the U.S. energy system in ways that yield economic and environmental gains. But there are serious environmental challenges associated with freeing that gas from the shale and distributing it to consumers...

Drillers developing a well must take exceptional care to minimize contact between the wellbore and the surrounding aquifer—often the source of nearby residents’ fresh water. Serious problems have arisen in the past from failures to isolate the drilling liquids, including cases where well water used for drinking became so contaminated that human and animal health was threatened...

Care must be exercised to protect groundwater from spillage and to guard against potential leakage from the ponds. Moreover, the facilities to which the contaminated water is eventually transferred may be ill-prepared to deal with the challenges posed by its unusual chemical composition; for instance, conventional treatment facilities are not equipped to deal with radioactive materials—which under the circumstances could be transferred to the water bodies receiving the treated effluent.

Finally, careless drilling and production from fracked wells can result in fugitive emissions of methane from the shale below. Such inadvertent releases of methane could more than offset the advantages otherwise realized by reducing emissions of CO2 through substituting natural gas for other fuels.
There's much more at the Harvard Magazine link.  This article is refreshingly free of the polemic that typically characterizes discussion of this technology.


  1. " minimize contact between the wellbore and the surrounding aquifer".....this is NOT enough. The fracking liquid is a hellish mix of volatile solvents and "proprietary" ingredients. We got some in our lab and ran it through various analysis, and the chemist's comment was that it was "criminal" to put that near water.

  2. And what are the contingency plan(s) when the contaminated used water infiltrates the Ogalalla aquifer or any other water supply? I haven't seen any mention of a solution for that possibility. And yet, we know it will happen. It has already happened outside Wichita, KS in the little community of Haysville, ruining peach orchards that had been the mainstay of the area's economy for decades. The contaminated fluid leached into the water and killed all the peach trees.

    I think we should be focusing instead on piping water from the northeast to the South and to the West to alleviate the drought conditions in those areas. Water leaks wouldn't hurt anything unless the volume caused a flood in a certain area...

  3. Good lord. And what will the northeast do for water? There will be no good way to alleviate drought that doesn't address the actual cause of the drought. Believe me, the idea of water being drained from areas to solve drought terrifies me, because it is so very very short-sighted, and so very very damaging to the area that has its aquatic biosphere plundered. I know you don't mean to take ALL the water, but there are extremely significant effects of "piping water" and while a few leaks "won't hurt anything", taking water out of an ecosystem and moving it many miles sure as hell hurts the place the water is taken from...and can have unexpected effects at the other end of the pipeline too.

  4. I listened to a news podcast last week where they were talking to some Kentucky coal miners. These miner blame Obama for the decline of their industry. They all claimed he was regulating them out of business.

    Not one mentioned the fact that fuel plants are switching to cheaper natural gas. Nope. Easier to blame the black man in the White House.

  5. Fracking is a bad idea. It is as simple as that. It is beyond criminal that companies are allowed to dump secret "proprietary" fluids in the ground with nearly no liability risk.

  6. Let’s pretend we’re an energy analyst and examine this issue with the kind of impassionate scrutiny we would expect from a computer. The world economy runs on fossil fuels. Though natural gas alone is not sufficient for the economy to function, the estimates of attainable gas in these subsurface formations are vast; after only a few years of large-scale fracking, we’re seeing huge effects in the market. Sorry to be repetitive, but the world economy runs on fossil fuels. It cannot help itself, it has to keep moving because otherwise it will die – it really does have a lot to lose, though it may not exactly have our sympathies.

    I could be accused of fatalism or worse, but there is no way that a state or much less the federal government is going to prohibit fracking right out. I’ve heard all the retorts and all the rhetoric. “You say the world economy has too much to lose, well WE have too much to lose!” I get it, I agree. But it’s empirically true that we have never been able to prohibit something like fracking right out, we can only regulate it. Our only hope here for preservation of the environment is to regulate this machine to the greatest extent we can muster. Because the ugly truth here is that the vast majority of people love the benefits of a fossil fuel economy because they don’t pay the full cost. The comforts are very real and if you’re on the right side of it (USA for example) then why wouldn’t you want to maintain it?

    Those who live near fracking are absolutely justified in their fears. But again, taking the vantage of an impassionate analyst, my greatest fear is what fracking does to the renewable energy movement. I’ve maintained hope for a long time, but the fossil fuel industry keeps finding ways to stay relevant. Say what you want, but they have the best minds working for them and the deepest of pockets. Tar sands, fracking, deep offshore drilling – these innovations keep surprising us, and I have to ask if they will ever stop. And if they don’t ever stop, how can we hope for clean energy?

    It really is a depressing topic sometimes, but the truth often is, right?

  7. Here's a counterpoint: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/05/30/491970/international-energy-agency-finds-safe-gas-fracking-would-destroy-a-livable-climate/

    The 5 cent version:
    Focusing on natural gas production "puts CO2 emissions on a long-term trajectory consistent with stabilising the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse-gas emissions at around 650 parts per million, a trajectory consistent with a probable temperature rise of more than 3.5 degrees Celsius (°C) in the long term, well above the widely accepted 2°C target."

    Lest you think that 3.5C doesn't sound like huge warming, this scenario has been described as beyond the levels of human adaptation, and will lead to dust bowlification of the American west, Australia, Southern Africa. Storm intensities the likes of which we can't even imagine, widespread famine, and the complete submergence of island nations.

    In my view, all efforts must be focused on renewables like wind, solar, hydroelectric, and we must put a price on carbon emissions.


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