Archive for the ‘Shale Gas’ Category

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Via WikiMedia Commons

Via WikiMedia Commons

Rumor has it that North America may be energy independent within a few years.

Alternative energy sources like wind, solar, and biomass are contributing ever greater amounts to the nation’s energy bank. And the country’s traditional oil and gas industry is booming as it hasn’t in decades. Where the U.S. had become an energy mendicant, relying on unstable (and occasionally unsavory) sources overseas, the country is set to be a net energy exporter and will soon overtake Saudi Arabia as the globe’s top oil producer. Energy independence is a good thing. Weaning ourselves from middle Eastern oil reserves will bring market stability and reduce the temptation to secure our oil and gas supplies by force of arms.

But supplying the bulk of our own energy needs domestically presents challenges of its own.  Wind and solar electricity has to make its way from place where it is generated to consumers who might be thousands of miles away. The national grid is being upgraded but is not yet up to that task. Moving all the new oil and gas that’s flowing out of the various bonanzas around the country presents a whole separate category of problems. Quite aside from the environmental toll presented by hell-for-leather production in, say North Dakota or Alberta, just moving the stuff around the country safely and efficiently is a herculean task.

We generally think of oil and gas as flowing through pipelines. The Keystone Pipeline, which would bring tar sand oil from Alberta is a political flash point. Lots of people are questioning its safety, and for good reason. Exxon’s burst pipeline in Arkansas  and PG&E’s fiery pipeline failure in San Bruno are still fresh in the public mind.

But pipelines are not the only way oil gets around the country. Increasingly, it’s making its way to market by rail. And that’s proving to be a bit of a train wreck in its own right. Last month, the town of Casselton, ND had to be evacuated after a mile-long train carrying crude oil slammed into another train, resulting in thunderous explosions and a searing plume of toxic smoke. ABC tells us that this was the third accident in six months involving trains carrying North Dakota crude oil. In July, a train of 72 carloads of crude oil in Quebec derailed and burst into flames, killing  almost 50 people.

Coal, too, is being increasingly transported by train in the face of growing opposition.

It’s naive to think we don’t need the energy we’re pulling out of the ground with such new-found vigor. It’s also naive to think we could stop it being distributed around the country. But we shouldn’t think that energy independence is an unalloyed good. It presents a whole slew of problems of its own.

USGS Links Fracking to Earthquakes

A hydraulic fracturing drilling rig. Image by Cliff Weathers. Some rights reserved.

The American Midwest has seen something of an earthquake boom in recent years, and speculation that the earthquakes are related to shale gas drilling has run rampant. In 2001, the frequency of earthquakes from Montana to Alabama began to rise, the number of quakes of magnitude 3.0 or greater reaching 87 in 2009. The 134 quakes of that magnitude recorded in 2011 represent a sixfold increase over 20th century levels.

As shale gas production has grown at a rate of 50 percent per year over the past 5 years, official concern has been growing. Back in November, we wrote about a report from the Secretary of Energy laying out recommendations to improve the safety and reduce the environmental impact of shale gas development, including a section on eliminating the use of diesel in fluids used for hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking,” is a method of extracting gas and petroleum from source rocks. The injection of fracturing fluid into a drilled wellbore creates an extended crack in underground rocks typically under high pressure, allowing petroleum or gas to flow from the porous rocks where it is trapped to a natural reservoir from which it can be extracted.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently released the abstract of its report finding a link between fracking and the sharp jump in earthquakes, the latest in a wave of research on the process. It follows a USGS report from last August that noting a series of 50 small earthquakes that came shortly after fracking operations began in Oklahoma. In November, a British shale gas developer admitted that they likely caused small earthquakes in the vicinity of their operations, and in March, Ohio regulators found that some fracking processes probably induced twelve earthquakes in northeastern Ohio.

The USGS thinks most of the earthquakes are caused not by the fracking itself, but from the disposal of the millions of gallons of wastewater produced by each well – often by injecting it back into the earth, as regulators found in Ohio. The bottom line is that the dramatic increase in earthquakes has never been seen outside of volcanic activity or in the absence of a main earthquake, neither of which exist in this region.

One Shale Gas Report, Two Different Takes

Photo by Beaukiss Steve. Some rights reserved.

On November 10th, the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Natural Gas Subcommittee released its second and final report on the steps that can be taken to improve the safety and reduce the environmental impact of shale gas development.

The report lays out 20 recommendations that it believes “would assure that the nation’s considerable shale gas resources are being developed responsibly, in a way that protects human health and the environment and is most beneficial to the nation,” which are being handed over to the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (the duties of which include providing “advice and recommendations to the Secretary of Energy” – quite the chain of recommendations!).

The recommendations range from “improve public information about shale gas operations” to “elimination of diesel use in fracturing fluids,” but one of the most striking parts of the entire report comes in the concluding remarks (which are also called out in the Subcommittee’s related press release):

The Subcommittee believes that if action is not taken to reduce the environmental impact accompanying the very considerable expansion of shale gas production expected across the country – perhaps as many as 100,000 wells over the next several decades – there is a real risk of serious environmental consequences causing a loss of public confidence that could delay or stop this activity.

The Subcommittee cautions that whether its approach is followed or not, some concerted and sustained action is needed to avoid excessive environmental impacts of shale gas production and the consequent risk of public opposition to its continuation and expansion. (emphasis added)

How this report was interpreted, of course, is another point of interest. Investigative journalists at ProPublica covered the report with the gloomy headline Energy Dept. Panel Warns of Environmental Toll of Current Gas Drilling Practices, whereas Energy Secretary Steven Chu glossed over the serious environmental consequences, putting his own positive spin on things:

As the President has said, natural gas will continue to play an important role in our nation’s energy portfolio, helping create jobs, stimulate the economy, and reduce our dependence on imported oil.

I will be working closely with my colleagues in the Administration to review the recommendations and to chart a path for continued development of this vital energy resource in a safe manner.

You can read more about the report and the Subcommittee here.

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