Shale Gas is a Giant Loser!
12/23 Update: For an update on the (un)economics of shale gas production go here, and for an update on the NY Dept. of Environmental Protection’s decision to prohibit hydrofracing, announced on 12/22 go here.
In my seventh fold posts, I focus on the nexus of the 3-E’s – energy, the environment, and the economy. After years of research, I’ve become convinced that a techno-fix to our 3-E problems simply will not scale up to meet the world’s growing energy demands, and that the best mitigation strategy is voluntary conservation. The problem, of course, is that while conservation preserves natural capital, conservation stifles the accumulation (and hoarding) of monetary wealth. Motivated to exploit nature for profit, energy companies have engaged a tactical marketing campaign in which the primary objective is growth at all costs (so long as they are not forced to pay these costs!). In this post, I hope to convince you that there is a significant risk that we cannot afford the long-term environmental and health costs associated with shale gas production. I hope that reading this post will help you see through the shale gas hype and motivate you to take a stand against the sinister and predatory practice of hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracing… pronounced hydro-frack-ing).
Let’s begin with the question, “What is shale, and why does it need to be hydrofraced?”
Shale is just one type of rock from which natural gas is extracted. There is no difference between the natural gas produced from shales and natural gas produced from other rock formations. Shale rock reservoirs are unique, though. Most oil and gas is produced from permeable sandstone, limestone, or dolomite source rocks. By contrast, shale is completely impermeable. Neither gases nor fluids can be forced to flow through shale. As a consequence of shale’s impermeability, any hydrocarbons which form in shale are trapped indefinitely. Drilling a well into a shale gas or shale oil ‘play‘ (field) would not yield a molecule of gas or a drop of oil. Indeed, shale is mother nature’s finest carbon sequestration system. And energy companies have decided to systematically release these trapped hydrocarbons (natural gases) and endanger hundreds of thousands of lives, and the economy by doing so.
Why would the natural gas industry do this? The answer is simple. The natural gas industry has entered the seventh fold – the point at which increasing production goes from being easy to very difficult or impossible – and at the seventh fold, silly ideas suddenly start to make sense (at least financial sense). One of these silly ideas involves injecting massive amounts of chemical-laced water into the ground in order to fracture massive shale formations and release and capture some small portion of the trapped gases (methane, ethane, butane, propane, etc.). Once fractured, the hydrocarbons are released at the fracture site, and are pumped to the surface where they are captured and carted off to a natural gas thermoelectric power plant. Here is a wonderful diagram ripped from here.
To many people, the idea of fracturing huge masses of solid rock to release some small portion of the hydrocarbons trapped within them sounds like either pure science fiction or the work of madmen. Of course we accomplished the outlandish task of putting a man on the moon in 1969 just to prove to the Soviets that we were their technological superiors, so perhaps hydrofracing is more the work of madmen than science fiction novelists. In fact, energy companies began stimulating oil and gas from ‘tight sands’ (sandstones with low permeability) through hydrofracing as early as 1949. Hydrofracing shale to produce natural gas is a much more recent phenomenon, though, and currently shale gas only accounts for a small portion (less than 10%) of all natural gas production in the U.S.. But if the energy companies have their way, the shale gas industry will grow exponentially over the next few decades.
In their weekly newsletter, ASPO-USA reported that the shale gas ‘miracle’ was a hot topic at CERA Week, the self-proclaimed “leading forum offering insight into the energy future.” See: Peak Oil Review newsletter (.pdf warning). This conference was attended by many of the major energy players, and (disturbingly) U.S. Secretary of Energy Dr. Steven Chu. ASPO-USA reports that shale gas is projected to account for 50% of U.S. natural gas production in 25 years. Considering that total natural gas production is optimistically projected to double in 20 years (again, this is not likely…), this would mean that by 2035 shale gas production will be nearly equal to total natural gas production today. In order to get there, shale gas production will have to double every 5 years. How likely is this, and what would be the environmental impacts of growth at this magnitude?
Let me begin by addressing the all-too-common belief that natural gas is ‘the clean alternative’ to coal. This selling point is part of the energy industry’s tactical marketing campaign, and while it is true that burning natural gas emits far less carbon dioxide per BTU of energy produced, we must look at the full life cycle assessment of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to make an honest comparison. A preliminary assessment of life cycle GHG emissions made by Cornell Professor of Ecology and Environmental Biology, Dr. Robert Howarth, indicates that hydrofraced gas may be worse in terms of global warming than coal produced through mountain-top removal (.pdf warning) The reason is that according to the IPCC, the short-term greenhouse effect of methane (the lightest of the gaseous hydrocarbons) is seventy-two times greater than carbon dioxide (and over a century the greenhouse effect is still twenty-five times greater than CO2), and enough of the once-sequestered methane percolates through the soil and escapes into the atmosphere during the hydrofracing process to more than cover the difference in CO2 emissions.
But any honest and thorough environmental assessment of hydrofraced shale gas should consider impacts beyond GHG emissions. Let’s start with water then move on to an environmental justice analysis.
According to Russia expert Steve LaVine (author of: The Oil and The Glory: The Pursuit of Empire and Fortune on the Caspian Sea), Alexander Medvedev, President of Russia’s Gazprom (one of the largest natural gas producers) is doubtful about the future of U.S. shale gas because “the so-called shale gas revolution will peter out, cut short by imperiled water supplies.” Uh-oh… it looks like there is a risk that hydrofracing somehow risks contaminating freshwater. This can’t be good for the bottom line…
While the earth is awash in water, the vast majority of water is found in salt-water oceans. This is great for fish, but not so great for land-lubbing mammals like ourselves. In the U.S., much of the freshwater comes from fresh-water aquifers. This is especially true for some of the dryer regions, which unfortunately happen to be where a bunch of the shale gas plays are located. Even without the risk of aquifer contamination, these regions face a serious threat. These aquifers are being depleted at rates far exceeding the rates of recharge. In fact, large swaths of land in the U.S. will likely face freshwater shortages in the next decade or two.
It has been said that “the only way to clean an aquifer is not to pollute it.” So let’s take a step back and think about this hydrofracing process. First of all, the process is specifically designed to fracture rock, which is to say that the entire process is designed to make fluids flow through rock which would otherwise remain impervious. Second, toxic chemicals are mixed in with the fracing fluid. Some of the known chemicals that are mixed in with the fracing fluids are proven cancer-causing carcinogens like benzene and tolulene. And other chemicals, like biocides, are mixed with the fracing fluid to prevent population explosions (‘black tides’) of hydrocarbon-ingesting bacteria. So we have a process in which toxic chemicals are mixed with water and injected into the ground in order to allow fluids to flow through otherwise impervious rock. Third, the industry is hydrofracing shale gas plays in: 1) highly populated areas like Ft. Worth, TX and Garfield County, CO, and Dimock, PA which rely on freshwater aquifers for drinking and irrigation, and 2) areas located upstream to major freshwater bodies like the watershed from which New York city gets its drinking water. In a word… Brilliant!
So what’s happening in these areas where hydrofracing has already occurred? For one, pets are becoming ill, losing weight, and losing their hair (link)! Then there’s the case of the mysterious livestock deaths that just happened to occur next to a hydrofracing site (link). There are also cases of people becoming sick – err, poisoned (link), and you can even see impressive footage of water catching fire as it flows from a faucet here. Then there are documented cases of industrial accidents where frac-fluid spills have contaminated streams and killed fish (link). And of course, there is the gigantic problem of what to do with the wastewater produced through the fracing process once the drilling has been completed. If you’re Swamp Angel Energy (no-dookie, this is really the company’s name), the easiest thing to do with 200,000 gallons of chemical-laced brine is to illegally dump it – a violation of the Clean Water Act and a federal offense (link).
From an environmental justice perspective, a geographic analysis of drilling sites shows that the populated places where hydrofracing has been permitted are very poor. Hmmmm…. I wonder if their is a connection?! I wonder if poor people are willing to lease their land to energy companies willing to pay a small/large (depending on which side of the bargaining table you sit) fee for the rights to produce natural gas… I wonder if these same people are influenced by cleverly worded assurances of safety…. I wonder if these same poor people don’t have access to lawyers or other experts that can help them assess the long-term risks associated with hydrofracing?! Give me a break! It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that these unfortunate souls are the victims of predatory practices! For a discussion on this topic check out David Broncacio’s interview with documentarian Josh Fox (link), or better yet, get ahold of the documentary itself! In this interview, Josh Fox also offers insight regarding the reasons why revenue-strapped states, who are in charge of regulating the industry, would perhaps intentionally turn a blind eye, or at least not make the decision to adequately staff and fund the state’s regulatory agencies.
Fellow folders, among the gloom, there is a bright spot on the horizon! It’s called the sun! But renewables – the only true alternative to fossil fuels – simply will not scale up to meet current energy demand. We absolutely must work out a voluntary conservation strategy!
Furthermore, we absolutely must urge our representatives to support the FRAC Act – which essentially gives the EPA power to regulate the shale gas industry. Yup, that’s right, the Fed’s are not permitted by law to regulate this industry because the Energy Policy Act of 2005 specifically exempted hydrofracing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act!
Thanks for reading! I hope I’ve motivated you to do something about this impending environmental, economic, and health catastrophe. We are confronted with enough seventh fold challenges already. There is no need to accelerate the seventh fold freshwater challenge by allowing shale gas companies to become wealthy at the public’s expense!
For more information on the topic, I highly recommend ProPublica’s great coverage. Here is a link to the many great articles written by Abrahm Lustgarten (and a few others). And here is a link to a great Democracy NOW! video on hydrofracing, and the interview of Josh Fox whose documentary Gasland, The Movie is earning well-deserved critical acclaim.