For a number of years, notes ecologist and UC Santa Barbara Professor Emeritus Daniel B. Botkin, energy professionals have been plugging natural gas from shale as the cleanest and most abundant source of energy to transition America’s economy from heavy polluting fossil fuels to clean, “green” renewables like solar and wind.
The truth is that extracting shale gas is based on experimental, and extremely risky, technology that uses vast quantities of water and some seriously toxic chemicals to “blast” the gas out of formations.
This often results in gas and fracking chemicals leaching from holding ponds into drinking water supplies. Finally, the available shale gas may be only one to five percent of estimated reserves, which means as little as a year or, at most, a decade’s worth of fuel.
Thus, even though the destination – a renewable energy future – may be evident, the journey is likely to be a difficult one. Let’s examine why, as Botkin did.
The first step will be to study Josh Fox’s docudrama, Gasland, which pretty much says it all. Fracking (or fracing) involves drilling a horizontal well and injecting fluid into the rock layers at 8,000 pounds per square inch (psi; as compared to 2,000 psi used on vertical gas wells a decade ago). Fire hoses have a maximum pressure of 300 psi. Tap water coming out of the faucet in an American home is between 50 and 75 psi.
The fluid, as mentioned earlier, is a combination of two to four million gallons of water per well, and chemicals like diesel fuel (which contains benzene), ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene, naphthalene, methanol, 2-butoxyethano, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, hydrochloric acid, and sodium hydroxide. These are not “om noms” by any stretch of the imagination. All are toxic; some are carcinogenic.
Used fracking fluid is stored in ponds, just like the cyanide used in heap leach gold mines and the holding ponds used to store toxic runoff in mountaintop removal coal mining. Eventually, and usually sooner rather than later, the holding pond fluids seep into the ground, contaminating groundwater supplies from which local wells draw drinking water.
A case in point is Fort Lupton, Colorado, where recent fracking has resulted in tap water that literally burns when lit. Other sites, like Dimrock, Pennsylvania - site of the Marcellus Shale gas play – are experiencing similar depredation. The Marcellus Shale is a ridge of natural shale gas that almost exactly parallels the Appalachian coal seams, whose excavation has destroyed vast tracts of Appalachian wilderness.
In fact, fracking is such an environmental nightmare that New York State, at the northern tip of the Marcellus Shale, recently pushed a bill that would impose a one-year moratorium on fracking (until June 1, 2011). It’s the kind of proactive measure we all wish the Obama administration had taken in regard to deep well drilling in the Gulf.
But the real shocker is in actual shale gas reserve estimates. The U.S. Geological Survey says there is enough gas in the Marcellus Shale to last this country for a hundred years. Botkin, breaking it down, notes that only one percent of that estimate (or enough to last a single year at 2006 usage rates) is categorized “readily available”.
Five percent is “technically recoverable”. This is like saying you can assemble a steam turbine with a pair of pliers. In fact, you may be able to, but will it work (and, more important, will your hands afterward)?
Six percent of gas reserves are “marginal.” This means we don’t yet have the technology. Fully 84 percent of the reserves are “unknown but probable”, a hopeful but extremely lightweight estimate that falls closer to the realm of prophecy than fact.
Can we get there (a renewable energy future) from here (a natural-gas driven economy)? Yes, but it’s going to be a bumpy, dangerous, costly ride. Natural gas has all the inherent risks of oil, which has demonstrated its true character in BP’s Gulf spill.
Still, we don’t have much choice. Renewable energy technologies are leaping ahead, as witnessed by the NREL/SkyFuel Inc. concentrating solar power (CSP) joint venture using metal troughs to “out-muscle” coal and gas as traditional electricity generation sources.
Even big multinational energy companies like Iberdrola are diversifying into renewables to provide a cushion against a future in which coal, oil and even natural gas are not merely fossil fuels but “dinosaur” fuels.
But until renewables meet the challenge of grid parity (costing the same as, or less than, conventional fuel sources like coal, oil and gas), we need a transitional source, and the United States reliance on natural gas is substantial; a fact even billionaire T. Boone Pickens hasn’t found a way around.
Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is armed with a program designed to help major corporations like 3M, Intel and Dow identify opportunities to save energy and fuel. Called the Save Energy Now LEADER Program, the initiative has resulted in 119 trillion Btus of natural gas being left in the ground, where it is safest.
Image credit: dobrych via Flickr
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