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.

This could take the form of on-site cleaning technology, such as Purestream Technology’s mobile purification unit for handling “produced water,” as it’s called in the industry. This system can be configured to treat 100,000 barrels a day. Clean Wave, an electrostatic cleaning system developed by Halliburton, is another one.

There is also some interesting work going on in alternative fracking fluids. Some, like Clean Stim are additives appropriated from the food industry that can be used to suppress the growth of bacteria in the fracking wastewater.

Waterless fracking, available from Gasfrac, is another development that is worth mentioning. This approach uses pressurized hydrocarbons in gel form that vaporize when expanded, thus eliminating any liquid runoff. The vapors are then collected along with the natural gas as it comes out of the ground. This sounds promising but, as we’ve already noted, wastewater runoff is only one of several issues.

As George Jugovic, president of PennFuture said, “the chemicals in fracking fluids aren’t the only environmental concern, There is also concern about the large volumes of naturally occurring but exceptionally salty wastewater and air pollution.”

So where does that leave us? Natural gas is cleaner than coal and we are indeed better off for all of the coal plants than have been converted to, or offset by, natural gas as a fuel.

But fracking will never be as clean as solar or wind or some of the other clean energy alternatives. Is it a necessary evil? Probably, for now, though I think there is much we can do to make it cleaner and safer. I also think we need to move quickly to cross the bridge for a number of reasons.

Fracking is putting our health and our climate at risk. The wells that are being drilled today will deplete quickly, meaning that more wells will be required. The deeper we need to go, the more expensive these wells will become. Expect gas prices to rise substantially as time goes on. Some experts, such as geologist David Hughes, have warned that getting our economy hooked on cheap natural gas is setting us up for an economic bubble that could make the real estate bubble look like small potatoes.

I say let’s get through this natural gas transition zone as quickly as we can. There are many alternatives like waste-to-fuel that are not being fully exploited and many more being developed. Let’s not get too dependent on it and let’s make sure, before even considering opening up new areas, that stringent controls are put in place just as we would with a nuclear plant, knowing, as we do, that even there, things can go wrong.

[Image credit: Public Herald: Flickr Creative Commons]