Counterpoint on Shale Gas and the Future of Fracking

Recently the peer-reviewed scientific journal Nature published a ‘pros vs. cons’ piece on the production of unconventional gas from shale. The tête-à-tête, led by Terry Engelder on the pro side and Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea on the con side, weighs the risks and benefits of gas production as it relates to the economy and human and environmental health.

Howarth and Ingraffea, authors of the first peer-reviewed study on lifecycle emissions from unconventional gas production, are solemn in their assessment: “shale gas isn’t clean, and shouldn’t be used as a bridge fuel” to a clean energy future. Their recommendation is based on the risks involved with high-volume slick-water hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as it exists in its present form.
Although the industry claims to have performed over one million fracking operations since the 1940s, Howarth and Ingraffea counter that the current technology is still relatively new and has only been in operation for a decade. Modern fracking bears little resemblance to its historic counterpart and requires greater amounts of water and chemicals, deeper drilling and higher pressures. All these differences combine to make fracking an unavoidably dangerous process. Howarth and Ingraffea also claim that a switch to unconventional gas will not substantially alleviate global warming in the near future.
Unconventional gas drilling creates problematic waste, not only for the air, but also for land and water. And despite progress made in the regulatory structure surrounding gas drilling, if there is any to celebrate, the process is still inherently dangerous, secretive and exempt from the federal statutes designed to protect human and environmental health. 
Overall, when you consider the risks, there is little to prop up unconventional gas as the “clean” fuel of the future. Furthermore, the amount of time and resources devoted to shale gas development stifle the production and commitment to true alternatives.

For all of these reasons, Howarth and Ingraffea call for a moratorium on fracking “to allow for better study of the cumulative risks to water quality, air quality and global climate.”
“Only with such comprehensive knowledge,” they claim, “can appropriate regulatory frameworks be developed,” the Cornell University professors conclude.
But Terry Engelder, a geologist with years of experience working for the gas industry, poses a bold counter claim to Howarth and Ingraffea: “fracking is crucial to global economic stability” and “the economic benefits outweigh the environmental risks.”

Yet Engelder’s assessment rests on a number of assumptions that may prove unsupportable in the long run. 
Engelder’s first assumption is that America’s unconventional gas reserves are enough to uphold tremendously high projections of gas production. Such projections underpin the ‘energy security’ of turning to unconventional gas in the wake of oil’s decline. Some say we have about a century’s worth of domestic gas to carry us through to a clean energy future. This will give us energy and economic security as well as a high employment rates and standards of living. (Howarth and Ingraffea, however, point out that emerging data, from the Post Carbon Institute and the U.S. Geological Survey, find these projections to be greatly exaggerated.)
Engelder also presumes that public approval of fracking will support a steady increase in unconventional gas drilling across the country, the increase needed to achieve production projections. Unconventional wells only produce for a short amount of time so a steady increase in production means many new wells must be drilled. But an increase in fracking may have the consequence of increased resistance, which is something already happening across the nation. Opposition to fracking will certainly get in the way of uninhibited drilling, a point Engelder seems to overlook. In fact, Engelder seems to rely upon continued support from people in drilling regions where they are less likely to become anti-drilling activists.
The final assumption that Engelder makes surrounds the broad scope of human and environmental harm. Sounding much like an industry front man, Engelder downplays the risks associated with fracking, suggesting that water contamination has not and will not occur, that methane contamination is basically harmless and naturally occurring, that industry mistakes, like leaks and blowouts “are like all accidents caused by human error – an unpredictable risk with which society lives.” Engelder wants to at once suggest that there are no unmanageable problems associated with fracking and, where there are problems, call them a necessary evil.
In a post-Macondo world, the vague and nonchalant treatment of such serious risks is brazen and inexcusable.
Engelder writes that in the case of fracking “fear levels exceed the evidence.” But this statement holds none of the practical wisdom of Howarth and Ingraffea’s final words: “gas should remain safely in the shale, while society uses energy more efficiently and develops renewable energy sources more aggressively.”


Methane extraction.  Leaks, with high global warming potential.  Makes a mess.

Methane piping leaks [see above].  Also sometimes explodes.  Anyway, a goodly portion is burned just to power the pumps.

All told, not good at all.

“Gas should remain safely in the ground” I have worked in several different industrial disciplines and am a very open minded person. If a person comes to the table because the have a problem with process, procedure, or policy then speak it out. And give your solution to the problem. From this point, if it is a real problem, then we can change or compromise or resolve the problem somehow. I agree that global warming is a problem but nobody has come to the table with any viable solution. Many people protest all this stuff but don’t really know that they are protesting their very way of life and possibly even their own existence. 85% of all wells gas and oil are fractured and this number will only increase. So basically doing away with fracturing will limit oil to 15% all this would go to the military and the very wealthy. We had a demonstration in Conway Arkansas protesting drilling and the police had to come disband them. Not because of them protesting but because they were obstructing a major intersection off interstate 40 and had parked their CARS at local businesses. Imagine that these people DRIVE to a protest in their CARS to protest the ability to drive them. What? In another blog I ask the same thing, ok I agree global warming is a problem but give me a solution. The closest thing I got was that a solar panel 42X42 miles would provide enough electricity to meet current demand. We are not talking about electricity. We are talking about replacing the 60% of our total energy usage. Planes, trains, trucks, busses, boats, ships, cars, and many industrial processes must now be powered from this solar panel. So multiply that 2.5 minimum. We have now covered the entire state of Road Island, Maryland, and DC. Gas has superior efficiency over electric so the actual figure will be much higher. This is NOT an answer. Ms linnitt says we should stop using gas and oil. Can anybody give a solution to replace it and still live our lifestyle.

Yes, it may seem ironic on the surface that people would drive their cars to such a protest.  Nevertheless, you do not know if they realize that irony or not.  Maybe they are protesting the drilling, but also support the development of electric vehicles, vehicle efficiency standards, and public transportation.  In which case, their views may not be hypocritical.  Then again, maybe they are simply “not in my backyard” types.

Either way, solutions for zero CO2 emissions electricity can potentially be a mix of solar, wind, enhanced geothermal, efficiency, carbon captured fossil fuels, biofuel, nuclear, hydro, wave/tidal, and conservation.  Each can be used based on the merits of their technical maturity and resource availability.  Conservation would only be encouraged through incentives. 

Transportation solutions could include light electric vehicles and electric trains, with efficiency standards for each.  Heavy vehicles, ships, and planes are a tougher issue, since battery electric propulsion is not available.  Here, efficiency standards and a sustainable biofuel need to be developed.  During the 70’s oil crisis, work had begun on an algae-produced biodiesel that would essentially be sunlight converted into a liquid fuel, grown in either a desert or marginal land environment (possibly bio-reactor factories).  Secretary Mabus of the US Navy has indicated that the Navy is allocating funds for biofuel production to the tune of $500 million.  That is a start, but we need to scale up significantly.  More shipping and airplane travel could be allocated to electric trains as a suitable biofuel is developed and produced at scale.  Again, there would be incentives for conservation.

I’m an engineer, not an economist, city planner, or agriculture expert, but I have read about ideas from those arenas for potential energy savings, while still maintaining a happy standard of living for all.

There’s your technical solutions.  Let’s figure out ways to make them happen.

I agree with what you are saying but I am talking about facts, figures, and the engineering completed to show how it is economical and will work. This article states to leave the gas in the ground. Like the protesters had on their signs. “stop the fracking”! To the people writing these papers they make it out like we can just stop and all will be fixed. Just turn off the switch today. But have not a clue what they are talking about. As for them driving their cars if they really want to protest then they should go out and buy an electric car. Tesla Motors makes a very nice one.

>> “I agree with what you are saying but I am talking about facts, figures, and the engineering completed to show how it is economical and will work.”

My post above laid out in basic terms what technologies to employ and also noted where R&D would be required.  As far as what order to plan it out, employ the technologies that allow people to save energy first.  Those would be conservation incentives and efficiency standards for buildings, lighting, vehicles, etc.  Efficiency measures can have a good return on investment period.  At roughly the same time, scale the various existing non-CO2 energy sources to meet needs.  Put a price on CO2 emissions via some economic mechanism, encouraging non-CO2 sources to come down in price as they replace CO2 emitting sources.  Aggressively fund R&D projects for developing and scaling a sustainable biofuel to power airplanes, ships, heavy vehicles, and possibly base load power plants.  The needed R&D for a sustainable biofuel is where the most risk is involved.  If some incredibly energy-dense, yet physically lightweight battery comes along, that may do the trick, too.  That would enable battery-electric propulsion for new applications.

In any case, there is some economic risk involved with the R&D end.  Then again, R&D always has some risk.  I say if we can go to the moon, we can turn sunlight energy into a liquid fuel in large quantities if we really tried.  Carbon sequestration could likely use R&D as well if that technology does not lend to quick development.

>> “To the people writing these papers they make it out like we can just stop and all will be fixed. Just turn off the switch today. But have not a clue what they are talking about.”

Again, you are assuming that you know what these people are thinking.  I’m sure they realize that if you turn off the energy source to a power plant, something has to give.  If not, then yes they are clueless.  They probably would rather see the rush to drilling be replaced with a rush to alternatives. 

Biofuel is out. First research showed the you put biofuel in your engine and less CO2 came out the exhaust. However all they did was measure CO2 exhaust from the test engine. It was less than half of conventional diesel and they deemed it a big success. But then along came other scientists that said wait a minute. You must calculate the CO2 used to till, plant, and harvest the fuel. This actually made it a break even or a little worse. But then still another said you have not yet included the CO2 from the decomposing plant matter left behind in the field. This pushed it to double or more the CO2. Then figure the massive amounts of CO2 that are produced by the fertilizer plants and we have another problem. At the present time most CO2 from these plants is captured and can be used by the oil industry to stimulate wells. But when we plug and abandon these wells what will we do with this? As for the algae this may bring solution to this if dead plant matter is not left behind. As for current biodiesel in its current form it is good for renewable but a burden on GHG.

There have been great claims about the potential of algae. Seems like a great idea if it works. But all these things promise the world and never seem to pan out.

That is why I indicated “sustainable biofuel” production.  For example, take a facility that is able to extract oils produced from algae ponds or bio-reactors.  All the electricity required for processing, pumping, cooling, transportation, etc comes from some form of renewable source.  Furthermore, the algae take CO2 from the air, which is then released when the fuel is burned in an end-use application.  Thus, we have a CO2 neutral liquid fuel over the life cycle.

I realize the limitations to the current corn-based ethanols and palm oils.  It is not smart to use perfectly good cropland for large amounts of fuel.  This is why marginal and dry land production ought to be pursued.

So, this new liquid fuel is a developmental lynchpin, for sure.  There has to be some major effort to create a process and scale it up.  We should have continued the efforts started during the 70’s oil crisis, but there is no time like the present.  We have time to let the R&D effort mature.  We could convert our airplanes, ships, and heavy land vehicles to biofuels after all the other efforts to reduce CO2 in other sectors are finished.

Any given plan is going to contain some risk and has to be flexible, yet still have a strong goal in mind.

Oh, and any plan must have the fossil fuel industry in as partners.  I would call for training programs for displaced workers as the fossil fuel industry ramps down production.  Furthermore, sunk costs in the fossil fuel industry may need to be evaluated.

Sorry didn’t dawn on me at the time but you better pull the rains back on that. Geothermal requires DRILLING, deeper than most oil and gas and FRACKING!

The world economy is absolutely tied to emissions for all of our lifetimes. Since Kyoto, world wide emissions have gone up despite promises and goals and the pretense of worrying about the climate. Emissions might go down in a thousand years when they finally develop fusion power or sooner when some major events depopulate the planet.

I doubt that anybody wants to turn off the hydrocarbon spigot tomorrow and cause people to die off.  

All reasonable plans for reductions are over many years.  For example, the Stern Review calls for a long-term plan.  The Stern Review is a long report, but I have looked at the major conclusions.  It was somewhat controversial, but it’s a plan for sure.


Stern Review Executive Summary:

Two years ago while working for a drilling company in Mexico we drilled several wells near a couple of villages that give the prime example of living without hydrocarbons. I loved the food down there and a coworker and myself would go to the nearest village and find a restaurant. We spent several months near a couple of villages (Lat 20.696298 Lon –98.044653) that really struck me as being a completely different lifestyle. The population was around 300 combined and multiple generations lived in 500-600 ft houses. We did find a couple of restaurants/stores and ate there often. The majority of the houses had no electricity. The ones that did had like a 10ga service conductor that in some cases would feed two or three houses. (enough to run a few lights) No phones. The wealthy people in town had a cooking room with a wood stove but the majority of them cooked on open fires in the yard that had a tarp or some tin to shed the rain. Maybe 4-6 pickups (for the very wealthy) both villages combined. Nobody had TVs. The trails through town had only a few spots wide enough for two pickups to pass and when you met a horse you would have to pull over and stop while they went by. They had no water system. No sewer system. The rich people had water tanks. They could buy water from a person who would pump it right from the river and deliver it to their tank. The rest of the people hauled it in buckets when the rain barrel went dry. Come Sunday most of the people would be at the creek taking a bath. They had a one-room schoolhouse that run two shifts from 8:00 to 1:00 and 2:00 to 7:00. These people were happy with their life. Now you would think that this lack of carbon energy usage would make this place environmentally friendly and free of pollution. Wrong! You can spot the village for miles by the cooking smoke rising. And on a cool night when the weather caused a low inversion you would nearly choke from all the smoke. Maybe we are poisoning ourselves with all this drilling and fracking and mining. But I will give up a few years of my life to live my life like we do vs like that. Why in our poisonous way of life do we have a higher life expectancy than these people?

That’s an interesting story.  Zero carbon living does not have to be filled with poverty and pollution, though.  See solutions above.

>> “Maybe we are poisoning ourselves with all this drilling and fracking and mining.  But I will give up a few years of my life to live my life like we do vs like that.  Why in our poisonous way of life do we have a higher life expectancy than these people?”

This statement compares two very different lifestyles with complicated reasons for why they have different life expectancies.  It may be possible that our average life expectancy could potentially be even higher without toxic exposures.  Furthermore, certain forms of exposure are localized.  Thus, some may suffer greatly in order to bring energy to the masses.  This sacrifice may not be morally justified depending on your views.  I feel it is imperative that progress is made towards energy solutions that can provide energy without significant externalities that harm people or change the climate.  We can have the best of both worlds.

“It may be possible that our average life expectancy could potentially be even higher without toxic exposures”

Oh my gosh now you have to bring social security into the picture!

Yes, still working in the field but back in the states.  No I am not a geologist or an engineer. That is one of my biggest regrets in that I finished a degree in diesel and heavy equipment technology, turbines both steam and gas, and power generation. Two more semesters and I would have got my engineering degree. But going to OSU and working a full time job to fund it the field was calling me and I do not own an engineering stamp. However I work daily with engineers and geologists just a few steps away if you need questions answered.  

I hang out every once in a while with a group of engineers in an oil services company.  I do ask them about techniques used and supplies around the world and such.

And is OSU referring to “The Ohio State University”?  If so, Go Bucks!