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Should the Shale Gas Revolution be Feared or Cheered?

shale gasShould the shale gas revolution be feared or cheered?

The boom in shale gas production currently reshaping North American energy markets has a mixed environmental record. Cheap natural gas is forcing the closure of dozens of America’s dirtiest coal plants and driving U.S. carbon dioxide emissions to new lows, giving some environmentalists cause for celebration. At the same time, the controversial hydraulic fracturing method used to unlock shale gas resources consumes vast amounts of water and raises new fears over the potential for water contamination.

A typical hydraulic fracturing operation involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand, and a cocktail of proprietary chemicals – ranging from the mundane, such as salt and citric acid, to toxic and carcinogenic substances, including benzene, formaldehyde, and lead – all carried at pressures up to 15,000 pounds per square inch through a well drilled horizontally into shale rock formations as deep as 10,000 feet below the surface. The high pressures force open dozens of fissures that then become propped open by sand and other materials carried in the fracking fluid. After the fluid is pumped back to the surface, natural gas once trapped in the shale can flow freely, pumped through the fissures and back up the well by the natural pressure created by the thousands of feet of rock sitting above.

This fracking process raises a number of environmental risks. Improperly drilled wells or faulty well casings can leak fracking fluids, associated chemicals, or methane gas into nearby aquifers and water wells. To date, these kinds of failures have been relatively rare, but the Environmental Protection Agency has investigated at least two cases of probable drinking water contamination near fracked wells in Pavillion, Wyoming and Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.

The larger environmental challenge centers on the safe disposal of the billions of gallons of used fracking fluid produced at natural gas wells annually. Of the five to ten million gallons of water used in a typical frack job, about 20 percent will flow back to the surface. This flowback water contains both the original cocktail of fracking chemicals as well as minerals, heavy metals, and radioactive radon gas dissolved from the rock formations.

Most wastewater treatment facilities are ill-equipped to handle flowback water. Instead, drillers typically hire hundreds of trucks to carry the water away to be injected into wells and stored deep underground. “There’s a lot of cost and collateral damage from that trucking process,” says Warren Sumner, CEO of Omni Water Solutions, an Austin, Texas company that has developed a system to recycle flowback water. Recycling waste water may go a long way towards mollifying environmental concerns over fracking and could mean reduced costs for drilling companies and the local communities who host them. “The volume of trucking is enormous and the wear and tear on the roads is large,” explains Sumner. “Everyone would like to reduce that.”

Yet while fracking raises new risks for gas field communities, cheap gas is in the process of driving Old King Coal out of electricity markets, leading to cleaner air and lower CO2 emissions. Coal-fired power generation fell by 12.5 percent in 2012, with rising output at natural gas-fired plants displacing coal megawatt-hour for megawatt-hour. Coal’s share of electricity production has plummeted from 50 percent in 2008 to under 38 percent last year, helping drive down U.S. CO2 emissions to the lowest levels in 20 years.

A one-two punch of cheap gas and tightening pollution regulations is also driving the planned closure of at least 175 coal-fired generators by 2016, representing 8.5 percent of the U.S. coal fleet. One third of those plants are expected to shut down this year alone, making 2012 the biggest year for coal plant retirements in the nation’s history. Among the planned closures are some of the nation’s oldest and dirtiest power plants. Their permanent retirement will mean cleaner skies and will prevent hundreds of premature deaths annually, according to research from the Clean Air Task Force.

While this reduced air pollution is an unmitigated good, the long-term climate benefits of this historic coal-to-gas shift hinge on the ability to control the amount of methane leaking from gas wells and pipelines. Burning natural gas emits about half as much carbon per kilowatt-hour as coal, but methane leakage can undermine this climate savings. Pound for pound, the climate warming impact of methane is 72 times more potent than CO2 over a 20-year time frame and more than 20 times more potent over a 100-year period.

“If methane leakage is too high, it negates all the climate benefits of shifting from coal [power plants] to gas,” explains Fred Krupp, Executive Director of the Environmental Defense Fund. EDF is now leading a national effort to assess the rate at which methane leaks from natural gas wells and pipelines and is working to identify and promulgate industry-wide best practices to stop leaks. According to Krupp, their initial research indicates that “65 percent of leaks come from just 10 percent of wells,” meaning that controlling a few bad actors may be the key to realizing the full climate benefits of shale gas. In the end, “we can solve this,” concludes Krupp.

Jesse Jenkins's picture

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Ron Wagner's picture
Ron Wagner on Mar 30, 2013 9:39 pm GMT

Best practices should be enforced. The worst abuse is flaring, which has been going on since the first oil well was ever drilled. strangely this is rarely mentioned by environmentalists. It is a sin against natural resources and the economy. Natural gas can get used onsite with modular refining equimpent. What cannot be used can be stored and shipped. 

Ron Wagner

Bobbi O's picture
Bobbi O on Mar 31, 2013 2:42 pm GMT

 Jesse,It is time for you to become acquainted with what is currently in the market place so that you need not repeat what a hundred other authors are also saying is the ” typical hydraulic fracturing operation ” .
  Waterless hydraulic fracturing using CO2 , Nitrogen. or propane/butane are being used more and more in in this country and Canada  particularly in drought areas. I believe the one with the most benefits is propane/butane fracking ,having been used in over 2000 stimulations [fracks]. Propane / butane fracking  uses no water and no toxic chemicals to frack. After fracking, the propane/butane gel is virtually 100% recovered as a gas; leaving nothing in the ground. No water has been needed in the process so there is no waste water to decontaminate or dispose of. The propane/butane gas is then recycled and reused in the next well. There is growing evidence the propane/butane frack [ sometimes pentane is also used] produces  significantly higher  lifetime well production. It is also safe . Why,you may ask, is this newer technology not better known????   The reason is the drilling industry is conservative and is not going to spend a lot of capital or time adjusting to new methods until they are are forced to by pragmatic environmentalist who are willing to accept natural gas development as long as it is done  in an environmentally sound way. But people are not going to be aware of this technology until writers like you start doing your homework and write about the advantages.

I K's picture
I K on Mar 31, 2013 8:49 pm GMT

CO2 is not that dangerous or that big a deal,

You should be a lot more concerned with things like sulphur dioxide, benzene, various aromatics, carbon monoxide, No2, particulates, and a whole host of other volatile matter that comes off coal both before its burnt (ie those big piles of coal waiting in heaps outside) and once it has been burnt

So its far from a simplistic “Gas fired power stations produce half the CO2”

And more like…….Gas fired power stations produce 90% to 99.99% less of the real harmful substances you have not heard of because all you are fed is CO2 bonk. Gas fired stations are not good becuase they produce half the CO2, they are good because they are more like 99% cleaner on everything else.

Sid Abma's picture
Sid Abma on Apr 6, 2013 5:00 am GMT

The hydraulic fracturing process is in the process of being regulated and a number of companies are working to be the problem solvers to the water treatment issues, and every other issue. This will be millions of dollars worth of work for them.

America needs the energy. Everyone wants and needs constant reliable electricity. America also needs natural gas to provide building heating and the heating of water for domestic use.

Industry needs natural gas to produce almost everything that we use, eat, wear and consume daily. Think about it, plastics and glass and metals and chemicals and pharmaceuticals…all require natural gas in the process.

The next great thing about natural gas is how efficiently this energy source can be consumed. The residential market has it’s condensing boilers and furnaces and it’s high efficiency condensing water heaters. These appliances operate at mid 90% energy efficiency and vent COOL exhaust through PVC pipe out of the sidewall of the building.

Industry has the technology of Condensing Flue Gas Heat Recovery to recover the heat energy fom the exhaust gases of their natural gas appliances. This technology makes it possible for these commercial building owners and industries to utilizeall this recovered heat energy where it was intened to be used, inside their building. Being vented into the atmosphere will be cool exhaust.

The US DOE states that for every 1 million Btu’s of energy recovered from these waste exhaust gases, and this recovered heat energy is utilized in the building orfacility where it was combusted, 118 lbs of CO2 will NOT be put into the atmosphere.

Increased natural gas energy efficiency = Reduced utility bills = Profit
Increased natural gas energy efficiency = Reduced global warming
Increased natural gas energy efficiency = Reduced CO2 emmisions
Increased natural gas energy efficiency = Water conservation

What natural gas is not wasted today will be there to be used another day, or be used for another process.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Apr 7, 2013 5:36 pm GMT

Nice summary, Jesse. But Bobby O raises an interesting point about waterless fracking. He may overstate the case a bit, but this is an emerging development that was worth noting.

More here: http://stateimpact.npr.org/texas/2013/03/27/waterless-fracking-makes-headway-in-texas-slowly/

Though it irritates Jay, ‘I K’ makes a good point that natural gas offers immense environmental and health benefits compared to coal, even if one disregards GHG considerations.

However, cheap natural gas also is making the economics of nuclear power development less attractive. At the same time, natural gas power generation may help make solar and wind power more feasible even as it makes price competitiveness of those alternatives harder to attain. So the overall role of natural gas re GHG concerns is complicated.

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