Hydrofracking and carbon caps

Like almost everybody else I know, I oppose the environmentally destructive practice of hydrofracking – horizontal drilling for shale gas using hydraulic fracturing.  But without the development of large-scale and practical alternatives to natural gas and other fossil fuels, we will have no alternative in the end.

New York state is on top of the northern edge of the Marcellus Shale, a large mostly-underground shale formation extending below West Virginia and parts of Ohio and Pennsylvania.  There are large quanities of natural gas in the pores and cracks of the shale, and conventional technologies are incapable of extracting it.

Hydrofracking involves fracturing underground shale formations by means of shaped explosive charges, and then forcing out natural gas by injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure.  This requires millions of gallons of water per well.

Part of the water stays in the ground and, opponents say, could work its way into the ground water.

My default position is that we should refrain from hydrofracking, and, for that matter, from surface mining for coal or deep ocean drilling for oil as long as we possibly can.  The natural gas, coal and oil have been underground for millions of years.  They won’t go away if we wait another 10, 20, 50 or 100 years to dig them up.  Maybe in the meantime affordable substitutes for fossil fuel will become available.  Maybe better methods of extraction will be developed.  Maybe there will be some sort of breakthrough which I can’t even imagine.

But hope is not a plan. Easy-to-get natural gas, coal and oil have been used up.  I heat my own house with natural gas, and I know it has to come from somewhere.

Demand for natural gas is increasing at a rapid rate because of the likelihood of caps on emissions of carbon dioxide, one of the greenhouse gasses that is heating up our planet.  Caps on carbon dioxide mean less use of coal and oil and, in the absence of a commercially-available alternative, more use of natural gas and nuclear energy.  Natural gas is clean burning, and nuclear energy produces no greenhouse gasses at all.

One irony is that release of natural gas (methane) into the atmosphere is one of the problems associated with hydrofracking. While natural gas is clean burning, raw natural gas is one of the most potent greenhouse gasses – much more powerful than carbon dioxide.  So it is possible that the increased use of natural gas, whose purpose is to slow down global warming, may help make the problem worse.

This video is a clear explanation by the American Petroleum Institute of how hydrofracking is supposed to work.  This video made me aware of what a great technical achievement hydrofracking is.  It is amazing that it is possible, let alone that it would work perfectly every time.

Odd fact: One of the chemicals injected into the water is to make it more slippery so that it completely penetrates the cracks in the shale.  Another odd fact (not in the video): Another chemical is an anti-biotic to prevent gas-eating bacteria from growing and clogging up the pores in the shale.

Click on Shale Gas: a Game Changer for a report on the economics of natural gas by Charlotte Batson, editor of Taimerica-SBS Alternative Energy News.  She writes about the connection between carbon caps and the natural gas boom.  She predicts that Marcellus Shale gas producers will be the “OPEC of shale gas.”  Another reason that New York and Pennsylvania are attractive to gas producers is that, unlike Texas, Wyoming and other gas-producing states, we have no severance tax on gas production.

Click on Leasing of Natural Gas Drilling Rights for a 2003 report by Katherine Ziegenfuss and Duane Chapman on another aspect of the economics of shale gas drilling – the bargain rates for leasing rights on state and federal land compared to private farmland.

Click on Marcellus Blog for commentary and explanation by Rick Allmendinger, a geology professor at Cornell University.  He knows his stuff, and makes a good faith effort to present information as objectively as possible.  His position is that if hydrofracking is done right, it shouldn’t present any problems.  The hydofracking water is separated from ground water by layers of shale, he said, and the well itself should be watertight.  He says hydrofracking is no worse that a lot of other things we do today, and shale gas is needed as a “transitional fuel” to the time when we have renewable non-polluting energy.

My question is: Where’s the transition? There are a lot of things we could endure if we knew when they are going to end, that we couldn’t tolerate if we thought they will go on indefinitely and get worse. President Obama has announced a lot of interesting initiatives on green energy, but even if the technology proves out,  it will take a national effort, comparable to the national effort in earlier eras to build the transcontinental railroads or develop the nuclear energy industry

Click on Shaleshock for the case against hydrofracking in upstate New York.

Click on Citizens Campaign for the Environment for a report on the anti-hydrofracking campaign.

The Marcellus Shale formation

U.S. shale gas resources

P.S.  I have one exception to my philosophy of leaving fossil fuels in the ground if you can, and that is the oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the northern coast of Alaska.  Climate change is making the Arctic tundra too soft to support oil drilling equipment more and more days of the year.  The amount of oil there is not a large amount in the total scheme of things, but if we don’t get it while we can, the tundra may be too soft for too many days of the year to permit drilling.

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