Natural Gas: To Frack or Not to Frack

Source:  Natural Gas: To Frack or Not to Frack    Tag:  natural sources of radioactivity
It was only a few years ago that terms like "peak oil" were bandied about amid discussions of the crushing effect of rapidly escalating oil prices. Today there is as much concern about energy, but the discussion has become focused on how to respond to the expected glut in oil and natural gas supplies. An article in the New York Times by Jad Mouawad provides an excellent summary of the state of affairs: Fuel to Burn: Now What?

One of the consequences of continued high prices for oil is that it encourages the extraction of oil from expensive and difficult to reach sources. Some of these endeavors have been much more successful than expected.

"The North American energy revival is primarily the result of so-called unconventional sources of energy — like shale oil and shale gas across the United States, oil sands in Canada and deepwater production in the Gulf of Mexico. In the last five years, the United States and Canada combined have become the fastest-growing sources of new oil supplies around the world, overtaking producers like Russia and Saudi Arabia."

These developments have left analysts almost giddy as they issue optimistic projections. Combining increased efficiency in transportation fuel consumption with increased supplies, one might arrive at this conclusion.

"Assessing falling American dependence on foreign oil, analysts with the financial firm Raymond James said imports fell from 65 percent of demand, or 13.5 million barrels a day, their peak in 2005, to 9.8 million barrels a day in 2011, or 52 percent of demand. They predicted that imports would keep falling, reaching 4.5 million barrels a day — or just a quarter of domestic oil demand — by 2015. By 2020, they forecast, the United States would not need to import foreign oil anymore."

The surge in natural gas supplies—and the lowering of prices—has derived mainly from a process called "fracking" that has allowed the recovery of gas embedded in shale rock. The term is a variant on the description of the process: hydraulic fracturing. A chart from Businessweek provides us with a prediction of how this process will contribute to future supplies.

By 2035 it is expected that about 45% of our natural gas (methane) will come from shale.

All these rosy projections have an environmental burden associated with them—a cost that is not fully understood yet, and has certainly not been factored into the cost of extracting these new supplies.

Bill McKibben discusses the issues associated with the fracking process in an article in the New York Review of Books: Why Not Frack? The purpose of the article was to review these three sources:

The End of Country
by Seamus McGraw
Random House, 245 pp., $26.00

Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale
by Tom Wilber
Cornell University Press, 272 pp., $27.95 (to be published in May 2012)

a documentary film by Josh Fox
Docurama, DVD, $29.95

McKibben provides this introduction to fracking.

" the words of Seamus McGraw, it works like this: having drilled a hole perhaps a mile deep, and then a horizontal branch perhaps half a mile in length, you send down

a kind of subterranean pipe bomb, a small package of ball-bearing-like shrapnel and light explosives. The package is detonated, and the shrapnel pierces the bore hole, opening up small perforations in the pipe. They then pump up to 7 million gallons of a substance known as slick water to fracture the shale and release the gas. It blasts through those perforations in the pipe into the shale at such force—more than nine thousand pounds of pressure per square inch—that it shatters the shale for a few yards on either side of the pipe, allowing the gas embedded in it to rise under its own pressure and escape.’

"This new technique allowed the industry to exploit terrain that it had previously considered impenetrable. It was used first in the late 1990s in what’s called the Barnett Shale in Texas, and is also being widely used to liberate oil from beneath the Bakken Shale in North Dakota. But the industry’s biggest excitement has come in the East, where a boom has been underway for several years in the so-called Marcellus Shale that runs from West Virginia into upstate New York. This gas-trapping shale formation has been estimated to hold as much gas as the whole United States consumes in a century. (The estimates are highly contested; some analysts are insisting that new data show them to be considerably smaller, though still vast, and indeed at the end of January the federal government slashed its earlier predictions in half.)"

McKibben discusses three reasons for being concerned about fracking on a large scale. The first involves the potential for fluids and gases injected and created in the process to migrate into underground water supplies. The injected water includes unknown chemicals because of the dark lord himself, Dick Cheney,

"....drilling companies have been exempt from federal safe drinking water statutes and hence not required to list the chemicals they push down wells."

Reports of polluted water supplies and faucets that stream both water and methane are emerging.

" December, the EPA released its first thorough study, conducted in the Wyoming town of Pavilion, where residents had reported brown, undrinkable water after nearby fracking operations. The EPA concluded that the presence in the water of synthetic compounds such as glycol ethers and the assortment of "other organic components" were "the result of direct mixing of hydraulic fracking fluids with ground water," and told local residents to stop drinking from their wells."

"....Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, best known for decrying global warming as a ‘hoax,’ added that the EPA report was part of ‘President Obama’s war on fossil fuels.’ But the evidence from Pavilion was a powerful indictment of the industry, and it led several leading doctors to call for a moratorium on fracking pending more health research. ‘We don’t have a great handle on the toxicology of fracking chemicals,’ said Vikas Kapil, chief medical officer at the National Center for Environmental Health, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control."

Trading water for natural gas is a losing proposition no matter how you look at it. The industry does not yet have the knowledge to be able to say where, or how, fracking might affect water sources—but in some cases it clearly does.

McKibben then reminds us that wells have been assigned fault for earthquakes observed in the seismically quiet states of Ohio, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

A second and even more troublesome issue with fracking involves the above ground damage to the environment.

"Most of the chemical-laced slick water injected down the well will stay belowground, but for every million gallons, 200,000 to 400,000 gallons will be regurgitated back to the surface, bringing with it, McGraw writes,"

‘not only the chemicals it included in the first place, but traces of the oil-laced drilling mud, and all the other noxious stuff that was already trapped down there in the rock: iron and chromium, radium and salt—lots of salt.’

This waste water is too noxious to allow it to mix with fresh water sources, and often too noxious to be dealt with by treatment plants. And there is this additional concern.

"As Ian Urbina reported in the Times last February, the water returning from deep underground can carry naturally occurring "radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for…treatment plants to handle." Despite a 2009 EPA study never made public, the federal agency has continued to allow "most sewage treatment plants that accept drilling waste not to test for radioactivity." And most drinking-water intake plants downstream from the sewage treatment plants, with the blessing of regulators, have not tested for radioactivity since 2006, even though the drilling boom began in 2008."

"Industry, as usual, is unconcerned, at least in public. ‘These low levels of radioactivity pose no threat to the public,’ said the CEO of Triana Energy. They are ‘more a public perception issue than a real health threat.’ But as Urbina pointed out, a confidential industry study from 1990, which looked at radium in drilling water dumped into the ocean off the Louisiana coast, found that it posed ‘potentially significant risks’ of cancer for people eating fish from those waters."

Not all the gases that are emitted from the wells are captured.

"The natural gas wells can cause air pollution problems too: Wyoming, for instance, no longer meets federal air quality standards because of fumes seeping from the state’s 27,000 wells, vapors that contain benzene and toluene, according to Urbina."

‘In sparsely populated Sublette County in Wyoming, which has some of the highest concentrations of wells, vapors reacting to sunlight have contributed to levels of ozone higher than those recorded in Houston and Los Angeles.’

"In a county without a single stoplight, regulators this time last year were urging the elderly and children to stay indoors."

This process uses vast amounts of water, often in areas where it is in scarce supply. It seems foolish to think that these wells can be endlessly duplicated without coming to terms with the issue of how to return safe water to the environment.

When the promise of large supplies of methane for power production became apparent, many environmentalists were thrilled at the prospect because gas powered electricity generation is much more efficient in producing energy for a given amount of carbon. Cheap natural gas and increasingly strict environmental regulations would then render coal powered plants obsolete. The situation has not turned out to be that simple. While methane burns efficiently, it is also a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The problem arises because the fracking wells also leak some of the methane into the air. Preliminary data seems to be consistent with the conclusion that fracked gas could be as bad, or even worse than coal burning, as a producer of power.

This leakage seems to be an area where technology should be able to diminish this concern, but until it is addressed, it again seems premature to plan for a golden age to come.

The greatest concern of all is that the enthusiasm over essentially limitless supplies of natural gas will diminish the prospects for renewable energy options. Natural gas cannot be a solution to the global warming problem in itself, and if it encourages cheap and increasingly consumed energy, it will only make our problems worse.

Judicious use of natural gas power sources to complement massive investments in renewable sources and coupled with intense conservation efforts provide the only viable path forward. One fears that we are beginning to head in a different direction.