As citizens of the world, consumers of energy and environmental stewards, our responsibility is to
build a sustainable, environmentally friendly and economically viable energy source. By design, few of us are in love with fossil fuels, however, we must be realistic. As the search continues for the best energy solution(s), time-and-time again the compass points north to Natural Gas.
Natural gas production from shale formations rich in hydrocarbons, known as “shale gas,” is one of the most rapidly expanding trends in onshore domestic oil and gas exploration and production today. Why? It is because, key industrial centers are sitting on vast shale gas energy opportunities. This is no longer a fantasy but a vision that can benefit the world not just tomorrow, but TODAY.
Countries including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Mexico, Poland, South Africa and the United States have an abundant domestic resource base of technically recoverable shale gas. Secondly, natural gas is clean; in fact the cleanest of all fossil fuels (see following chart). Being an organic compound, it certainly has a carbon footprint, but natural gas emission levels of carbon dioxide (“CO2”), carbon monoxide (“CO”), nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulates and mercury are on average 40% to 100% cleaner than coal. And with the exception of CO, natural gas is 28% to 100% cleaner than petroleum.
Furthermore, the economic impact from developing shale gas has a multiplier effect far beyond just the supply chain from wellhead to exports. This “Shale Gale” as we call it in the U.S. has the potential to support more than 1.6 million jobs and generate more than $933 billion in federal, state and local government tax revenues over the next 25 years.
Using the U.S. as an example, natural gas has transformed the outlook of U.S.’s energy mix.
- Created 600,000 jobs in the U.S. in 2010,
- Added about $1,000 in disposable income per household,
- Introduced higher paying jobs at about 23.00 USD per hour,
- Contributed about $77 billion to the nation’s economy.
Source: HIS Global Insight
When you put these benefits together, you get what is called the ‘Triple Bottom Line’, an integration of values for measuring success: success in terms of social, ecological, and economic benefits. Shale gas is an endeavor of national social responsibility.
- People – in terms of an improvement towards labor and the community.
- Planet – in terms of benefits towards the ecology and the environment.
- Profits – in terms of real economic benefits enjoyed by the residential, commercial and industrial sectors.
All valid concerns to think first and drill later! To this end, regulatory agencies, policy makers, and the general public need an objective source of information by means of which they can address these issues.
Now let’s demystify a few critical aspects of development. Time to separate fact from fiction! Let’s begin with hydraulic fracturing, simply because it is essential for shale gas completion and central to many controversies over its production.
Both horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are established technologies with a significant track record; horizontal drilling dates back to the 1930’s and hydraulic fracturing has a history actually going back to the 1860’s, when nitroglycerine was used to stimulate shallow, hard-rock oil wells. It was surprisingly very successful and not so surprisingly very hazardous and often illegal.
Fracturing fluid is a proprietary slurry comprised of at least 98% water and sand with the remaining 2%, or less, consisting of chemical additives each having a specific function. Although there are hundreds of chemicals that could be used as additives, there are typically no more than 12 used in the fracturing process. Most of the additives are commonly used household or personal care items, which pose little or no health risks. However, a limited number are hazardous, and only one routinely used additive, ‘ethylene glycol’, is poisonous if swallowed in sufficient quantities. It is important to note that ethylene glycol is widely used as automotive antifreeze.
For this reason, the ingredients of the fracturing fluid must be transparent. Legislation should be put in place to have the operators disclose the makeup of the fluid. Also, of prime importance, are the corresponding regulations to ensure proper injecting and disposal methods.
Pure, clean groundwater! Nothing can replace it. This is why fresh-water aquifers need to be protected through legislation. The concerns around groundwater contamination are primarily centered on one fundamental question: Are the fractures such, that they do not contact underground sources of drinking water?
Source: MIT Research Study, Natural Gas, Chapter 2
From the above diagram, it can be seen that protection is afforded by casing and cementing, where ‘casing’ isolates fresh water zones from inside the well and ‘cementation’ seals the annular spaces within the casing to create a hydraulic barrier to fluid migration. In addition, there are natural barriers in the rock strata that act as seals holding the gas in the target formation. A fundamental precept of shale gas geology is to ensure sufficient separation and effective sealing between the shale layers and overlying aquifers.