David Hughes

If We Can't Make Fracking Unnecessary, Can We At Least Make It Safer?

(3Bl Media/Justmeans) - Russell Gold’s pragmatic piece about fracking in the Wall Street Journal makes a number of excellent points. First, our economy has such an enormous appetite for energy, that there is no way we can simultaneously give up coal, oil, nuclear and natural gas, as much as the environment would like us to, without bringing things to a screeching halt. So pick your poison.

Conventional wisdom has been that gas is the lesser of the four evils, especially after Fukushima, where nuclear lost most of whatever remaining luster it had. Even the esteemed Rocky Mountain Institute said we could wean ourselves off the other three, while growing the economy, so long as we had natural gas as a “bridge fuel.” That was before the precipitous drop in gas prices due to the discovery of Marcellus Shale and before the realization of the many issues associated with fracking.

Gold mentions several of them: the leaks, the lack of water testing or understanding as to what constitutes a safe and suitable site, and the lack of quality control throughout the process.

He does not mention several other issues including the question of earthquakes triggered by fracking, and the presence of radon in the gas. Radon has a radioactive half-life of 2-3 days. The means that by the time it reaches New York from places like Louisiana, it is no longer radioactive. But it can get to New York a lot faster from Pennsylvania.

Mr. Gold focuses more on pre-testing water before drilling in order to protect companies from “abusive false claims” of water contamination, than he does on legitimate claims.

As to the question of leaks, which the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) recently found were serious enough to make natural gas less climate-friendly than diesel fuel (though still more benign than coal), he says it’s just a matter of finding the leaks and fixing them. That could be easier said than done, considering the shoddy state of much of our infrastructure, including oil and gas pipelines. There is also the fact that some of the leakage is intentional. Many natural gas wells operating in remote areas without electricity use pneumatic controllers that are powered by a flow of gas that spins a turbine before being released into the atmosphere. Annual releases of as much as 50 billion cubic feet have been recorded in recent years. The EPA has begun regulating these releases under the Clean Air Act, which has led to newer designs with lower emissions that are now being deployed. But these emissions could be cut to zero if solar powered electric units with backup batteries were used instead.

But perhaps the biggest omission is any discussion of any of the work that is currently taking place to actually make fracking safer.

Nuclear and Wind Energy Blocked by Cheap Natural Gas—For Now

To say that recent energy trends both in the US and abroad have been confusing is a considerable understatement. Over the last several years, concerns over carbon emissions and government policies have led to significant investment and growth in solar, wind and nuclear. But aggressive development of domestic oil and gas resources, including shale gas, tight oil, tar sands and deep offshore resources, have led to a resurgence in domestic production that has tilted the energy playing field, reshuffling the pecking order in the process. Of particular significance is the widespread adaption of natural gas for electricity generation. This has left both nuclear and wind, which were previously competing successfully against coal, in a position to compete against natural gas, which has been more difficult.

 Given the falling natural gas prices, both nuclear and wind are having trouble competing. And, according to The New York Times, they’re fighting each other as well. Because there is no national, comprehensive energy policy, but rather only what the Obama administration calls an “all of the above” approach, which ends up diluting the both the effort and the investments needed. The market needs a clear signal because of the large investments involved. You can see this confusion at work also in the biofuels area, where we’ve seen a backing off of the commitment—under a lot of pressure from the oil industry, I might add. That could potentially scare away investors. 

It’s true that falling gas prices have held back renewables. Prices were even lower in 2013 than they were in 2012, which were low enough to shake things up. It’s a very dynamic market comprised of two major segments that are quite different: power generation and industrial/buildings. In the power generation world, utilities own both coal and gas plants, and have the opportunity to switch back and forth between them by flipping a switch in response to price signals. So the price of coal will drop in response to the low price of natural gas and vice versa. So much so that gas, which accounted for 40 percent of electricity generation power in 2012, fell to 35 percent in 2013, due to the decline in coal prices.

In the case of both buildings and industry, fuel selection is a question of capital infrastructure that is not so easily changed. That is why some analysts say that oil and gas companies, seeing the looming threat of renewables to their profitability, are making a deliberate effort to drive natural gas prices down as a survival tactic, hoping to induce customers to make such investments, lured by the low gas prices, thereby locking in those sales for years to come. The use of gas for industrial purposes, according to the International Energy Association, has remained high this year for exactly this reason.

Subscribe to David Hughes