Hydraulic fracturing and unconventional gas

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are changing the natural gas industry, by enabling the exploitation of reserves that were previously inaccessible, such as the large reserves of shale gas in North America:

Shale and other reservoirs once considered unexploitable (coal-bed methane and “tight gas”) now meet half the country’s demand. New shale prospects are sprinkled across North America, from Texas to British Columbia. One authority says supplies will last 100 years; many think that is conservative. In 2008 Russia was the world’s biggest gas producer; last year, with output of more than 600 billion cubic metres, America probably overhauled it. North American gas prices have slumped from more than $13 per million British thermal units in mid-2008 to less than $5. The “unconventional”—tricky and expensive, in the language of the oil industry—has become conventional.

All of this is doubly problematic from a climatic perspective. Firstly, as hydraulic fracturing spreads worldwide, the total quantity of gas extracted and burned will rise, increasing the total amount of climate change experienced by future generations. Secondly, increased access to gas will perpetuate fossil fuel dependency, delaying the process of transitioning to the use of renewable and zero-carbon forms of energy.

Some people argue that all this gas is actually going to help with climate change mitigation efforts, because people will burn it for electricity in place of coal. In response to this argument, it seems sensible to point out that what really matters are the total cumulative emissions of humanity – not the amount of greenhouse gases released in any particular year. If we burn this gas and then go on to burn that same coal later, we will be in a worse position than if we had never gained access to the gas. The one way in which these gas reserves could conceivably help with efforts to deal with climate change is if they displace coal in the short term, and then legislation finally comes through to push the national economies in question away from the use of coal forever.

Of course, accomplishing that will be an incredibly difficult feat, given the entrenched interests involved. As such, it seems far more sensible to protest any new extraction or use of coal and unconventional oil and gas, while simultaneously pushing for legislation that will finally put a price on greenhouse gas emissions, and that will treat the risks associated with climate change appropriately by, among other things, putting a moratorium on coal use.

16 thoughts on “Hydraulic fracturing and unconventional gas

  1. Milan Post author

    Global reserves of unconventional gas may be very large:

    Shale is almost ubiquitous, so in theory North America’s success can be repeated elsewhere. How plentiful unconventional resources might be in other regions, however, is far from established. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates the global total to be 921 trillion cubic metres (see chart 2), more than five times proven conventional reserves. Some think there is far more. No one will really know until companies explore and drill.

    In addition to the danger that this fuel will worsen climate change, hydraulic fracturing (“fracing”, pronounced “fracking”) involves other risks and unwanted consequences. The fracturing fluid could contaminate surface or subsurface water supplies. The contents of fracturing fluids are trade secrets, but they may contain toxins, known carcinogens and heavy metals.

  2. .

    “Because, he contends, shale gas – the previously unattainable source of vast gas supplies that has been unlocked by new high-tech horizontal drilling advancements – is not the holy grail it’s been cracked up to be. Not even close.

    “Everyone thinks [shale gas] is going to solve all of our problems. There are very optimistic estimates about the economically recoverable volumes of gas from this new resource,” he said in an interview last week in the Toronto offices of boutique fund manager Middlefield Capital Corp., where he’s a long-time consultant and is special adviser to the nine-month-old Middlefield Groppe Tactical Energy mutual fund.

    “That’s dominating everyone’s views about the gas supply picture – that we’re going to be flooded with gas.”

    The reality, he argues, is that shale gas deposits are a tiny part of the North American production pool – and they are already depleting fast.

    Mr. Groppe says that while the average depletion rate in conventional gas wells is about 25 per cent (in other words, if you didn’t drill at all for new wells, production would decline by a quarter each year), shale gas shows even more rapid depletion – output tumbles, on average, 45 per cent in the first year for shale wells.”

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  4. .

    Fracked tap water in Texas is 99% PR spin

    When you have lived in the same place for 20 years and all of sudden your hair turns orange after you wash it, you might be more than a little concerned.

    But, of course, don’t blame the natural gas company that is pumping thousands of gallons of toxic sludge into the ground just up the street. That can’t possibly have anything to do with your hair turning orange or the chemically smelling sediment floating around in your water glass.

    After all, the natural gas industry, in a process called hydraulic fracturing (also called “fracking”), says that 99-percent of the sludge they use is just water and sand.
    The 1 percent that isn’t water and sand is chemicals like formamide, a “reproductive toxicant” that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says targets organs like the “eyes, skin, respiratory system, central nervous system, [and] reproductive system.”

  5. .

    Oil companies’ dash for gas
    Vapour trails
    In hot pursuit of a fuel that is less risky and more accessible

    Jul 1st 2010

    “THE bad news is we didn’t hit oil,” ran the old wildcatter’s joke. “The good news is we didn’t find gas.” Potentially dangerous and always more difficult to manage than pouring liquid into a barrel, natural gas used to give oil companies a headache. Now gas is dominating the thoughts of Western oil bosses and, increasingly, their firms’ portfolios. Seven of the eight projects Exxon Mobil completed last year were for natural-gas developments. Two of the three it has scheduled for this year are also gas-related. Royal Dutch Shell says that by 2012 half of its output will come from gas. The current high oil price still makes crude the prize for any self-respecting major. But the West’s big oil companies are growing gassier.

    In part this is because oil is getting harder to find, for geological and political reasons. Global oil production will peak within a few decades, if not before. And the remaining “easy oil”—which can be extracted without fuss or expense—is increasingly out of bounds for Western firms. Almost 90% of it is in the hands of national oil companies which have, with few exceptions, blocked Western giants from their riches. This is forcing Big Oil into trickier and pricier areas, notably deepwater fields, such as those in the Gulf of Mexico and off Africa’s west coast, and unconventional reserves, such as Canada’s tar sands. Hence the appeal of gas, and a string of deals in Australia and America.

    In March Shell joined PetroChina to buy the Australian assets of a gas specialist, Arrow Energy, for A$3.5 billion ($3.2 billion). ConocoPhillips paid $5 billion in 2008 for another Australian gas firm, Origin Energy. Chevron is spending almost $40 billion to build a liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant off the coast of Australia—one of more than a dozen such projects in the country. Almost all of them include a Western major as a leading shareholder.

    In America, meanwhile, the majors are being lured by the opening of vast new “unconventional” gas reserves, which have scarcely begun to be tapped. In May Shell said it would pay $4.7 billion to buy East Resources, a shale-gas firm with access to the Marcellus shale, a large deposit of gas close to the markets of the country’s east coast. Total and BP have joined projects started by Chesapeake Energy, a shale-gas producer long on expertise and short on cash. And in December Exxon Mobil offered $41 billion for XTO Energy, another shale-gas specialist. That deal, approved on June 25th, will give rise to another wave of asset-buying in the sector, says Ernst & Young, an accountancy firm.

  6. .

    “Nevertheless, the likelihood of B.C. reaching its 2020 target of reducing emissions by 33 per cent diminishes each year as we fail to attack head-on our addiction to fossil fuels and the emissions they cause.

    The latest evidence came this spring when the government approved the EnCana shale-gas processing plant in northeastern B.C. without requiring the plant to install carbon capture and storage.

    Shale gas is natural gas that can be extracted by underground fracturing of shale rock with a pumped mixture of water, sand and chemicals. B.C. has a vast shale gas resource that is attracting substantial investment as advances in extraction techniques have made it competitive with other gas sources.

    However, shale gas has a high concentration of carbon dioxide and the cheapest solution for industry is to separate this and vent it into the atmosphere at gas processing plants.

    The Spectra processing plant near Fort Nelson vents carbon dioxide and it will soon be joined by the EnCana plant. What is surprising is that the EnCana plant received its permit even though the B.C. government has set aggressive GHG targets and recently revamped its environmental assessment process to consider cumulative effects -the consequence for total emissions of building many plants that together would be needed to develop an extensive fossil fuel resource like B.C.’s shale gas.”

  7. .

    “Not surprisingly, we found that if the resource is exploited without capturing and storing the carbon dioxide, this activity alone will make it virtually impossible for B.C. to reach its 2020 GHG emissions target -especially once one includes the additional emissions from fuel combustion in the plants and methane leaks from associated pipelines (methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide).

    The conclusions are obvious. The provincial government should either honestly tell British Columbians that, like all past Canadian governments, it is not being honest about its climate targets, or it should ban the development of shale gas unless the industry’s processing facilities capture all their GHG emissions. “

  8. .

    “With oil spilling all over the place these days, natural gas (NG-FT3.76-0.001-0.03%)should never have looked more appealing. But, as Josh Fox’s recent documentary, Gasland, vividly illustrates, the environmental challenges are no less daunting in that industry. Just as depletion has forced oil companies to take on greater and greater environmental risks, so has it affected North American gas producers. Shale gas, heralded by T. Boone Pickens and others as the answer to America’s future energy needs, leaves just as heavy an environmental footprint.

    Not only does fracturing shale rock require an enormous amount of water (similar in that respect to tar sands), but it uses a toxic cocktail of chemicals to do the job. And those chemicals (as much as 80,000 pounds of them to fracture a well) have a nasty habit of turning up in the local groundwater. As much of 70 per cent of the chemical solution that is injected for shale fracturing stays in the ground.

    But, fortunately for shale gas companies, producers can contaminate groundwater with impunity. Hydraulic fracturing, the process of tapping shale gas, was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005 in the interests of promoting American energy independence. Thanks to that exemption, and the environmental practices that it engendered, residents who live on top of the Marcellus Shale formation, for example, can actually light their tap water on fire. “

  9. .

    “Meanwhile, if lobbying by BP and other oil companies in recent years is shown—as some suspect—to have thwarted laws that might have made things safer, the oil industry’s reputation will suffer still more. And as natural-gas and oil companies press authorities in America to open more land to drillers seeking shale-gas deposits, which politicians will be comfortable accepting the argument that the cement casing of wells and the hydraulic fracturing of rocks close to water sources is risk-free?

    The political implications do not stop there. The accident seems likely to strengthen the hands of environmentalists keen to turn America away from oil and towards some unconvincingly specified alternative mixture of noble abstinence, natural gas, electricity and ethanol. At the same time, it could harm the most important environmental measure currently on the table in Washington: a troubled Senate bill that might, for the first time, put a price on American emissions of carbon dioxide. Some of this legislation’s tenuous support has depended on its embrace of energy policies that many Republicans, but few environmentalists, favour: offshore drilling and nuclear power. Renewed opposition to offshore drilling could break the various constituencies apart. “The political compromise on offshore drilling is about as fragile as the Louisiana wetlands,” says Paul Bledsoe, a Clinton-era Interior Department official. “The fate of one could determine the fate of the other.””

  10. .

    EPA asks firms for info on gas-fracking liquids

    WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday asked gas companies to reveal what chemicals are used in deep extraction, addressing concerns by residents that their drinking water is being contaminated.

    U.S. companies have increasingly tapped shale gas, which lies deep underground and was once thought inaccessible. Firms force out the gas through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which a large volume of liquid is injected below.

    The EPA said it had sent letters to nine companies, including energy giant Halliburton, asking for data within 30 days on the chemicals involved in fracking.

    The agency’s chief, Lisa Jackson, said the data would “help us make a thorough and efficient review of hydraulic fracturing and determine the best path forward.”

    “Natural gas is an important part of our nation’s energy future, and it’s critical that the extraction of this valuable natural resource does not come at the expense of safe water and healthy communities,” Jackson said.

    The EPA said it was asking the companies to turn over data voluntarily, but could try to force them if they did not comply.

  11. .

    Environmentalists, farmers rejoice as Cabinet puts brakes on Karoo fracking

    Following an avalanche of complaints and a formal objection, Cabinet endorsed the department of minerals and energy’s decision to hit the freeze button on licenses for fracking in the Karoo. Can you hear the cheers? By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

    Government spokesman Jimmy Manyi announced on Thursday the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Karoo had been endorsed.

    “Cabinet has endorsed the decision by the department of minerals to invoke a moratorium on licenses in the Karoo where fracking is proposed. The department of minerals will lead a multidisciplinary team including the departments of trade & industry, science and technology, among others, to fully research the full implications of the proposed fracking.

    “Cabinet has made it very clear that clean environment together with all the ecological aspects will not be compromised,” the statement said.

  12. .

    Shale gas extraction
    The need to be seen to be clean
    Natural-gas production is booming, but its green image is in question

    DRILL rigs tower over the silos on farms in Pennsylvania. Once-empty mesas in western Colorado, where mule deer and sage grouse ranged freely, now look like a neural network from a bird’s-eye view, with well-pads connected by dirt roads scattered across the landscape.

    These are the signs of America’s natural-gas boom. Thanks to new drilling technology, and in particular a controversial process called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” the size of the proven reserves is growing. At the end of 2009 the United States had estimated reserves of 283.9 trillion cubic feet (8 trillion cubic metres) of natural gas, up 11% from the year before. In 2010 the country produced 22.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, up from 18.9 trillion cubic feet in 2005. The price at the wellhead has dropped from $7.33 per thousand cubic feet to $4.16 during the same period.

    Natural gas is cheap and plentiful. That makes it an appealing alternative to wind and solar power, which are relatively expensive and erratic. And plants powered by gas emit far less carbon dioxide than those powered by dirty coal. Nearly half of America’s electricity is generated by coal, and electricity generation accounts for 40% of America’s carbon-dioxide emissions. In 2009, the most recent year for which data are available, the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions were at their lowest level since 1995. That was partly due to the bad economy, and partly to the increased use of renewables and natural gas.

    But some question whether natural gas is really as green as all that. For one thing, fracking uses a tremendous amount of water, a severely undervalued resource inland. And the process gives off methane, a potent heat-trapper. A study led by Robert Howarth of Cornell University found that greenhouse-gas emissions over the life cycle of natural-gas production could actually be considerably higher than those of coal per unit of energy provided. Greater care about methane venting would, of course, reduce that problem.

  13. .

    Energy in Poland
    Fracking heaven
    Other Europeans fear fracking. Poland is steaming ahead

    POLAND may have western Europe’s largest reserves of shale gas. A dozen global gas-exploration companies have promised to drill as many as 120 test wells over the next few years to find out. The prize could be trillions of cubic metres of gas. It is “a huge and expensive gamble”, says Tomasz Maj, the head of Polish operations for Talisman Energy, one of the exploration firms. The rewards could be vast. Shale gas could free the country from its dependence on coal, a dirtier fuel, which currently accounts for 95% of Polish power generation. It could also mean that Poland no longer has to rely on Russia, the neighbourhood bully, for most of its natural gas.

    But the extraction of shale gas is controversial. It requires fracking: blasting fissures in subterranean rock and pumping in water and sand, and occasionally nasty chemicals, to force out the gas. France won’t do it. There is local resistance in the Netherlands. Yet other countries’ qualms may make fracking more attractive for Poland. If others won’t frack, they will probably buy Polish gas.

    European energy policy is in turmoil. Germany decided last month to abandon nuclear energy. A referendum in Italy on June 12th also said “no thanks” to nuclear power. Reliable sources of energy are inadequate to meet future demand. Poland sees an opportunity.

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