Natural gas is a critical feedstock to many chemical production processes, and has many environmental benefits over coal as a fuel for electricity generation; over electricity and traditional heating fuels in the industrial, commercial and residential sectors; and over gasoline as a fuel for the transportation industry. Because natural gas has the lowest carbon content of all fossil fuels and not a mixture of other carbon containing compounds with other inorganic impurities, it is the cleanest “burning” fossil fuel, including lower emissions of sulfur, metal compounds, and carbon dioxide. But to produce natural gas from shale has some questionable environmental, safety and health risks. These environmental issues are the result of modern methods of subsurface extraction. Specifically, the unconventional methods involve horizontal drilling and “fracking” or more formally “hydraulic fracturing.”
Fracking is a current societal hot a button. Almost as pervasive as the subject of Climate Change! Both topics give rise to highly polarized groups with strong unwavering sentiments. These groups are mirrored by disbelievers basing opinions on perception and anecdotal information rather than facts.
Some may say the facts are generated by insidious conspirators, be it Big Oil, government officials, the commercial sector and the scientific community, who have a vested interest in hiding the truth. To some degree this may be a valid statement. But, as will be seen later in this discussion, there are some reputable, independent and impartial studies that can be used to understand the truth.
This discussion hopes to present an honest and unbiased viewpoint of fracking and horizontal drilling. If there is any bias, it’s towards a more realistic perspective of doing the right thing to achieve a cleaner and more prosperous world. This discussion is a continuation in part of “Natural Gas: The Cleaner Environment.”
Fracking is a process to unlock vast reserves of shale gas. In fracking, large volumes of water and sand, along with chemical additives, are injected under high pressure into a well bore to create small cracks (fissures) in hard shale formations that allow the gas to flow to the surface. Fracking goes back about 60 years.
According to Hydraulic Fracturing: History of an Enduring Technology, fracking is not a new technology. “It can be traced to the 1860s, when liquid (and later, solidified) nitroglycerin (NG) was used to stimulate shallow, hard rock wells in Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Although extremely hazardous, and often used illegally, NG was spectacularly successful for oil well “shooting.” The object of shooting a well was to break up, or rubblize, the oil-bearing formation to increase both initial flow and ultimate recovery of oil. This same fracturing principle was soon applied with equal effectiveness to water and gas wells.
“Then in 1947 Stanolind Oil conducted the first experimental fracturing in the Hugoton field located in southwestern Kansas. The treatment utilized napalm (gelled gasoline) and sand from the Arkansas River. Since 1949, when fracturing was formally introduced, close to 2.5 million fracture treatments have been performed worldwide.”
Fracking made extraction of natural gas from shale layers commercial viable. Natural gas is tightly bound in the dense shale layers, and therefore, hard to release. Fracking both creates fissures in the rock and keeps them open for a sustained outflow of the gas. When used in conjunction with horizontal drilling, more surface area of the gas containing shale layer is exposed to the fracking fluid. This dramatically increases the yield of natural gas and shifts the economics to a much more favorable position.
The controversy over fracking has to do with health and safety concerns and the impact on the environment. These are by far not trivial issues. So what’s about fracking that raises these concerns? Fracking is subsurface, high pressure, water intensive and contains chemical additives. All of this sets the stage for groundwater contamination.
What can be reliably said of fracking comes from MIT’s Energy Initiative study. The study was a multidisciplinary effort carried out by a team of Institute faculty, staff and graduate students with advice from a board of 18 leaders from industry, government and environmental groups.
The study found:
- “….. only 42 documented incidents of such problems (water contamination), out of tens of thousands of wells drilled.”
- “….. the environmental impacts of shale development are challenging but manageable,”
- “….. the small number of cases where there has been contamination, the problem has stemmed from improper cementing of the well casings.”
- “….. “The quality of that cementing is the area where the industry has to do a better job,”
Fracking wells are between 5,000-10,000 feet deep and uses between 3-5 million gallons of water per well. The fracking fluid is a proprietary slurry mixture consisting of no less than 98% water and sand. The remaining 2% or less includes 3-12 chemical additives most of which are commonly used with little or no health risks. Though several are classified as toxic or hazardous, only one – ethylene glycol (automotive antifreeze) can be harmful or fatal if swallowed.
Specifically, fracking fluid contains:
The toxic or hazardous substances including their health from U.S. Material Safety Data Sheets are:
- Glutaraldehyde – Hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant), of eye contact (irritant), of ingestion, of inhalation (lung irritant, lung sensitizer).
- Ammonium persulfate - Harmful if swallowed
- N,n-dimethyl formamide – Hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant, permeator), of eye contact (irritant), of ingestion, of inhalation.
- Guar gum or hydroxyethyl cellulose – Severe eye irritant. Harmful if swallowed or inhaled, and in contact with the skin. Laboratory experiments have shown mutagenic effects.
- Ethylene glycol – Harmful or fatal if swallowed, harmful if inhaled or absorbed through skin, may cause allergic skin reaction, may cause irritation to skin, eyes, and respiratory tract, affects central nervous system.
Another concern with shale gas is the impact of local air quality and release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Natural gas is a potent greenhouse gas with the ability to trap heat almost 21 times more effectively than carbon dioxide.
Potential emission sources include compressor engine exhausts and oil/condensate tanks, production equipment, well drilling and fracking engines, well completions, gas processing, transmission and the large number of supporting components such as pumps, flanges, valves, gauges, pipe connectors, compressors, and other pieces.
According to NatrualGas.org:
- “….. although methane emissions account for only 1.1 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, they account for 8.5 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions based on global warming potential.”
- “….. Sources of methane emissions in the U.S. include the waste management and operations industry, the agricultural industry, as well as leaks and emissions from the oil and gas industry itself.”
- “….. in 2011, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University released “Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of Marcellus shale gas”, a report comparing greenhouse gas emissions from the Marcellus Shale region with emissions from coal used for electricity generation. The authors found that wells in the Marcellus region emit 20 percent to 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal used to produce electricity”.
- “….. In 1993, the natural gas industry joined with EPA in launching the Natural Gas STAR Program to reduce methane emissions. The STAR program has chronicled dramatic reductions to methane emissions, since that time”
- “…. the increased use of natural gas in the place of other, dirtier fossil fuels can serve to lessen the emission of greenhouse gases in the United States.”
This does not suggest society should turn a blind eye. Far from it! According to a report issued bySouthern Methodist University, cost effective control strategies are readily available that can substantially reduce emissions, and in some cases, reduce costs for oil and gas operators. These options include:
- use of “green completions” to capture methane and VOC compounds during well completions,
- phasing in electric motors as an alternative to internal-combustion engines to drive compressors,
- the control of VOC emissions from condensate tanks with vapor recovery units, and
- replacement of high-bleed pneumatic valves and fittings on the pipeline networks with no-bleed alternatives.
The knowhow exists to minimize the environmental, safety and health risks of shale gas extraction. Some remedies include:
- intensifying on-site oversight,
- closing loopholes that exempt fracking from key federal air and water environmental regulations,
- toughening up the permitting process and ordnances,
- ensuring production companies follow industry best practices,
- implementing more air and water testing, requiring drillers to publically disclose the chemical additives used in the fracking fluid, which up to now was consider a trade secret,
- developing new rules over the disposal of the fracking waste water, and
- identifying cost-effective emissions control procedures.
In addition to the environmental and health benefits of natural gas over other fossil fuels, the final caveat to this discussion is the economic benefits from shale gas production.
Recently the IHS Global Insight reported:
“….. natural gas “shale gale” that began in the Barnett Shale is having “profound economic impacts” on the U.S. economy — creating jobs, reducing consumer costs for natural gas and electricity and escalating federal, state and local tax revenues,”
“….. shale gas development, after contributing $76.9 billion to the nation’s economic output in 2010, will add $118.2 billion in 2015 and $231.1 billion in 2035.”
“….. in 2010, the shale gas industry supported more than 600,000 jobs; that number will likely grow to nearly 870,000 by 2015 and 1.6 million-plus by 2035.”
“….. savings from lower natural gas prices, as well as associated lower prices for other consumer purchases, will add an average $926 in disposable income per household annually from 2012 to 2015 and more than $2,000 annually by 2035.”
“….. the shale gas industry and related jobs pay higher wages — an average $23.16 per hour — than those in manufacturing, transportation and education.”
“….. the boom in domestic gas production has held down natural gas prices and thus electric rates in Texas because gas is burned to generate much of the power.”
“….. as a transportation fuel, compressed natural gas is cleaner-burning and much cheaper than gasoline,”
As shown, condemnation of fracking makes little sense; control of fracking makes much sense. Societal issues are not black and white. Everything has risks. Our job is to manage these risks while exploiting the benefits of shale gas. Today, the U.S. and other countries of the world find itself in a precarious “energy” position. Renewable energy has yet to make a significant impact on our energy mix. Nuclear energy is more highly charged issue. Conventional hydroelectric is locked up in its own environmental constraints. Traditional fuels are continuing to increase in cost and adversely affect the environment and the health of the public. Other than natural gas, there are few viable choices for the near future.
Possibly not a fair comparison, but from 1899-2010 there were 3,513,897 motor vehicle fatalities in the U.S. In 2010 alone, there were 32,708 motor vehicle deaths. Based on these shocking statistics, it’s curious why the same people wanting to ban fracking are not calling for a total ban on driving?
Few are elated when they receive higher utility bills and pay more for gasoline at-the-pump. All want the most bang for their buck. All want assurance that electricity and heat is available upon the flick of the switch. If society was willing to pay any price for what they get while making significant sacrifices to their lifestyle and comfort, the equation might be in favor of clean and renewable fuels. But people for the most part are not willing to pay more for commodities like electricity and gasoline and change the way they live. That is a plain and simple fact.
In closing, it’s a desirable goal to rebalance our economy’s energy production and consumption from fossil fuels to cheap clean fuels. For this to happen, our government must enact a true clean energy policy and aggressively fund related programs. It’s clear that this is not in the cards. In the meantime, the U.S. has little choice but to leverage its abundant natural gas reserves as a transitional bridge until such time that our government “walks the talk.”
Shale gas is transformative and can play a major role towards achieving energy security, economic prosperity and a cleaner environment. This will buy time while renewable energy develops into an economically reliable source of energy. Until our law makers wake up to the realities of their fiddling while we continue to burn dirty fossil fuels, these environmental and health issues will continue to plague our society.
If there is a more realistic solution adoptable today without pain in the pocket book and lifestyle than pushing natural gas forward with adequate controls, please speak up.
- “Natural Gas: The Clean Alternative“
- “Hydraulic Fracturing: History of an Enduring Technology“:http://frack.mixplex.com/content/hydraulic-fracturing-history-enduring-technology
- MIT Energy Initiative: http://web.mit.edu/mitei/research/studies/natural-gas-2011.shtml and http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2011/natural-gas-full-report-0609.html
- NaturalGas.org: http://www.naturalgas.org/environment/naturalgas.asp#greenhouse
- Southern Methodist University, Emissions from Natural Gas Production in the Barnett Shale Area and Opportunities for Cost-Effective Improvements:http://www.edf.org/sites/default/files/9235_Barnett_Shale_Report.pdf
- HIS Global Insight, The Economic and Employment Contribution of Shale Gas in the U.S. http://www.anga.us/media/235626/shale-gas-economic-impact-dec-2011.pdf andhttp://www.star-telegram.com/2011/12/06/v-print/3576017/report-shale-gas-industry-has.html
- List of Motor Vehicle Deaths by Year in the U.S.http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author Dr. Barry Stevens, an accomplished business developer and entrepreneur in technology-driven enterprises. He is the founder of TBD America Inc., a global technology business development group. In this role, he is responsible for leading the development of emerging and mature technology driven enterprises in the shale gas, natural gas, renewable energy and sustainability industries. To learn more about TBD America, please visit: http://tbdamericainc.com/