Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Natural Gas & Water for Shale Exploration


August 10, 3:46 PMEnergy ExaminerJohn Guerrerio

Eureka! This is the recent cry of Senators Reid and Pelosi, even Energy Secretary Chu referring to the potential of natural gas to solve America's energy crisis. They are specifically referring to shale-gas, which is stored in shale rock and is extracted using a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Deposits of the gas are strewn across the U.S., and domestic deposits have the potential to meet demand for the next 100 years.

At a recent clean energy summit in Las Vegas, Senator Reid declared his conversion to T. Boone's camp by saying that natural gas is a sensible alternative to coal for electricity generation. Nancy Pelosi went a step farther by saying natural gas was a practical alternative to fossil fuels; it should be noted that the Energy Information Administration's kid's page defines natural gas as a fossil fuel. Secretary Chu's approach seemed more sensible when he referred to the gas as a transition fuel to a transportation economy based on EVs running on biofuels.

Problem solved! No more oil imports; our cars will run on natural gas. No more dirty coal; we will generate electricity from clean natural gas. Energy independence and lower emissions, what more could we ask for from a natural resource?

John Podesta from the Center for American Progress makes the argument that the Clean Energy and Security Act that the House recently passed does not include enough incentives to expand natural gas use in our energy infrastructure. He outlines ways to expand the gas' use in the electricity and transportation sectors in great detail but only marginally addresses some of the major concerns that people who currently live near natural gas drilling sites experience on an ongoing basis.

Mr. Podesta acknowledges that natural gas drilling:

involves pumping water and other materials under high pressure deep into rock formations that hold gas. The process fractures the rock and holds open the fissures to allow the gas to flow to the surface more efficiently. This process can employ toxic chemicals such as benzene and has the potential to pollute deep aquifers, groundwater, and surface waters. Adjacent communities are concerned about the public health impacts from the use and release of toxic substances, both naturally occurring and those used in the natural gas production process such as benzene, formaldehyde, or radioactive materials. The process also yields significant amounts of air pollution. The gas production from the Barnett Shale in the five counties near Dallas-Fort Worth creates more emissions of smog-forming compounds than motor vehicles.

But his recommendation seems a bit misguided in addressing those issues:

As a first step, the EPA must undertake a comprehensive scientific analysis of the air, land, water, and global warming impacts from natural gas production, including a lifecycle greenhouse gas analysis. It should review the effectiveness of federal and state programs at protecting people, air, land, and water from gas production side effects. The EPA should also review new and emerging technologies to reduce this pollution. Medium and large natural gas producers should also publicly disclose the chemical constituents (but not the proprietary chemical formulas) used in natural gas production. This right to know requirement would enable communities and citizens to better know about the chemicals used and released near their homes.

You should read the full report HERE; I pulled the relevant quotes from the piece for brevity's sake. For a detailed analysis od Colorado's chemical injection status, check HERE. It makes no sense to expand these adverse health effects nationally, especially in light of skyrocketing healthcare costs. Denial of coverage based upon proximity to drill sites may become a possibility.

It does not appear that Mr. Podesta's plan addresses the number one concern regarding the expansion of natural gas drilling domestically, and that is the over 300 compound chemical cocktail that is injected into the ground to force the gas to the surface. (for a list of 54 known chemicals in the fracking fluids and their effects, check HERE). His suggestion of public disclosure by gas producers does not go far enough. So what if gas developers disclose the chemical cocktail that they use; they still inject it into the ground where it seeps into our domestic freshwater supply. Even if the fracking goes on far below the groundwater table level, the tailing ponds on the surface have the potential to leak topdown into the water supply. Look at the map below where they want to drill (click for enlargement):Do we really have the luxury of poisoning this much of our freshwater suply in the name of natural gas development? The question needs to be asked again: What do we value more, energy to run our machines or water to sustain human life?

Fracking processes are improving. There are best practices that use non-toxic cocktails, but these methods are employed in areas few and far between. Perhaps in the future, they will become standard.

What happens when the domestic natural gas wells run dry, though? Won't we simply be in the same position we find ourselves currently today? At least both Podesta and Chu refer to natural gas as a transition fuel (Pickens for that matter too), but our money, time, and effort could be better spent expanding clean energy in the form of wind, solar, biofuels, and geothermal as well as energy efficiency measures.

Drilling for more natural gas simply ruins more landscapes and runs the risk of poisoning our entire domestic freshwater supply. Is this the lowest level of risk our society can muster?

The following video from Investors Business Daily tries to pin the blame squarely on environmentalists for the delays in expansion of the natural gas industry, but the scope of the projects on the drilling bloc ought to give us pause before we run headstrong into converting our entire natural landscape into a natural gas extraction experiment.In addition to the shale gas, the video mentions oil shale. Like its convenient omission of the chemical cocktail (the main source of contention with environmentalists), the video omits the fact that extracting oil from oil shale requires more water than the Colorado River contains. Where will Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, Los Angeles, San Diego, and other cities that rely on the river for drinking water get their life's sustenance? Do we really want to stripmine the Rocky Mountains in the same fashion that we have the Appalachian range?

Like with ethanol, the problem is not necessarily with the fuel itself; rather, it is the indirect effects from scaling up the processes to comercial size that creates side-effects that are detrimental to human existence. We ought to pause and ask ourselves if natural gas is really cleaner than biofuels in their current form.

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