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Friday, May 11, 2012

Seven more decades of drilling in Pennsylvania?

John Hanger blogged today that Marcellus drilling in Pennsylvania will likely go on for another seven decades, topping out at around 200,000 wells drilled.  Today, a little over 10,000 Marcellus wells have been permitted and less than 6,000 drilled.
We are in the very, very early stages of the Keystone State’s shale gas era. And the staggering 200,000 well projection is just for the Marcellus Shale.  There are other shale beds that could (and are) – being drilled in Pennsylvania: the Utica, the Upper Devonian, and the Trenton-Black River

The implicit assumption here is that we will somehow dig up every last hydrocarbon on earth and burn it for our energy needs.  While the economics of renewable energy are changing for the better – a condition that could be accelerated with the right subsidy policies – history would suggest that that assumption is a strong one.  How many more wells will eventually be drilled in Pennsylvania, then, is anyone’s guess.
What the impact of all that drilling will be on Penn’s Woods is something that should concern every Pennsylvanian.
A complex set of issues swirl around shale gas drilling, and they need to be addressed now. But the long term cumulative impacts of gas drilling also need to be planned for, avoided, and minimized now as well. Otherwise, we will repeat the mistakes of Pennsylvania’s past waves of resource extraction, with consequences that will be devastating.
The gas industry and others are moving to develop – on paper at least - best practices that will need to be refined with experience.  Surely, drilling technology is advancing and will advance further.  Already, green fracking chemicals and even waterless fracking with propane or nitrogen are being tried.  But the early evidence suggests that gas drilling is already devouring Pennsylvania’s forests and fields.  Fundamental questions about water consumption and wastewater disposal are still open. We will need industry to not only reduce resource consumption and reduce the footprint of individual well sites and pipelines, but to think ahead to the next seven decades; to plan ahead; to collaborate; to share infrastructure, and avoid disturbing sensitive lands (which we have a lot of in Pennsylvania).  That will save money, conserve natural resources, and benefit us all.  
We need gas drillers and pipeline companies to do more than talk about watershed- and landscape-level planning, but to actually do it.  Now.  There are seven decades of drilling ahead in Pennsylvania. But time to conserve our natural heritage is running out. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

CCS for all fossil-fueled electricity now

U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are being significantly reduced by a combination of strong proposed limits on emissions from power plants and the shale gas boom.  Coal-fired electricity generation has fallen from a 52% market share in 2000 to a projected 37% for 2012. Two thirds of that decline is being replaced by natural gas-fired generation that emits 50 percent less CO2, and the rest, happily, by increased renewable energy use.   

Conventional wisdom has been that, even with these trends, we’ll have to capture the carbon emissions from any continued combustion of coal and store them safely underground to slow a runaway climate. But with temperature records being shattered and global water cycles intensifying at frightening rates, it’s clear that we must apply carbon capture and storage (CCS) to gas-fired generation as well

I’m going to oversimplify a lot of technical issues and suggest six basic reasons why the time to do this is now.
First, CCS technology is here.  It’s already being used successfully to inject captured CO2 into depleted oil wells to increase production. It allows for the capture of 90 percent of the CO2 emitted from natural gas combined cycle (NGCC) power plants. 

Second, natural gas-fired power’s carbon advantage over coal serves to reduce not only the cost of capture, but also the costs and the amount of underground storage space needed. While the US appears to have centuries of CO2 storage capacity, this is also important because shale gas exploration may present potential conflicts with CCS that need to be better understood.

Third, the price of natural gas is low. The cost of retrofitting a natural gas plant with CCS has been estimated at $80 to $100 per ton of CO2 captured. Similarly, in 2007, the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) calculated the cost for a new NGCC plant with CCS at $83/ton.  This estimate was based on natural gas priced at $6.75/MMBtu. The price of gas today is 60% less than that, though it’s bound to rise as the current market glut balances itself.  Still, lower gas prices argue in favor of applying CCS to gas-fired power now.

Fourth, CCS and gas-fired generation technologies are constantly improving.  An NGCC plant that’s equipped with CCS has reduced energy output because the CCS system needs power to operate. Five years ago, NETL studies said that NGCC plants would run at 51% efficiency without adding CCS equipment and 44% with it.  Today, gas plants efficiencies without CCS are at 60% and climbing, based on what I heard at CERAWeek 2012. So, the relative costs of CCS in gas plants is coming down.

Fifth, states are moving on CCS.  CCS has always been assumed to need a Federal regulatory driver - a tax on carbon emissions, for example.  But California law now mandates greenhouse gas emission reductions of 25 percent by 2020.  Since gas plants provide about half of California’s electric power, WESTCARB has begun a study of retrofitting California natural gas plants for CCS.

Finally, it’s possible to improve the economics of CCS even further, thanks to the work of another state - Pennsylvania.  During my tenure at the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, I led some of the nation’s most advanced planning work on CCS, a key component of which was completed with the invaluable help of the Clinton Climate Initiative.

The Pennsylvania approach relied on economies of scale to drive down CCS costs.  Individual CCS projects are inherently expensive per unit of carbon captured. Pilot projects often lack the potential for scale up that would ensure commercial deployment.  A network approach to CCS - a cluster of emitters (in our case, coal-fired power plants) sharing a common transportation and storage infrastructure – could overcome those problems. A CCS network could leverage investment in plant retrofit, share pipeline and storage infrastructure, and design for scale-up at inception, all lowering costs.  Indeed, the initial assessment of a Pennsylvania CCS network indicated that it would be competitive compared to both proposed and existing international CCS projects. Preliminary estimates for network capture and transmission costs came in at $47 - $73/ton.  These are well below NETL’s cost estimates for an individual NGCC plant.  So, a network approach to CCS has promise.

It’s time to get serious about applying CCS to all fossil-fuel based electricity production.  

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Bob Dylan, climate disruption, and natural gas

A change in the weather is known to be extreme…

So begins the last verse of the Bob Dylan song You’re A Big Girl Now.

The past twelve months were the warmest ever in U.S. history, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  They have included the nation’s second warmest summer, fourth warmest winter, and the warmest March on record. Fifteen thousand warm temperature records were broken in March alone.  Twenty-two states experienced record warmth for the 12-month period, and nineteen more states had years in which warmth ranked in their top ten.

NOAA says that the January – April 2012 period was the warmest January – April period since record keeping began in 1895.  It was also the most extreme January – April on record: 82% of the contiguous U.S. had maximum temperatures that were in the warmest 10% historically, and 68% had warm minimum temperatures in the top 10%, with records going back to 1910.

But what’s the sense of changing horses in midstream?...

That second line of You’re A Big Girl Now’s last verse is music to the ears of climate disruption deniers. Despite the fact that it will impact business and dramatically impact our national security (two favorite themes of the right). After all, they say, since climate science believers are like murderers and madmen.

But we must change horses or be swept away.  Change is happening, thanks to the Obama Administration’s commitment to reducing carbon pollution and a switch from coal-fired power to natural gas, which is enabling dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide pollution (and in other pollution that sickens and kills).  But the change must happen faster. We have an opportunity now to capitalize on the synergies between renewable energy and natural gas. The Worldwatch Institute has published an important report that lays out a path to speeding the transition to a low-carbon economy.
The gist of that report is this. Renewable energy is variable. Wind doesn’t blow all the time, and cloudy days and nighttime cut into solar productivity. Big coal plants that provide for base load on the electricity grid are inflexible; they are slow to turn up or down, and have great difficulty accommodating for the variability of renewable energy. That incompatibility strains the electricity grid and is used by renewable energy naysayers to argue that the future role for renewable resources is small. 

Enter natural gas.

Gas-fired technology for electricity generation is efficient, flexible, and scalable over a considerable range. It lends itself to distributed generation – a more secure way to generate electricity in the face of weather disasters and even terrorism threats – that is also more efficient. Transmitting energy long distances involves considerable “line losses” – we lose a big chunk of electrons to the friction of transmitting them over hundreds of miles of wires. Generating electricity – and heat - on-site avoids those losses and may provide significant cost savings.

So, because of the flexibility of gas-fired technology that is readily available today, Worldwatch says that natural gas is a “natural partner for variable renewable energy sources” like wind and solar power.

The security, efficiency, economic and climate benefits of consciously and aggressively using natural gas as a bridge fuel to a renewable future are ours for the taking. That cleaner, cooler, cheaper, more secure future must be our nation’s future.  

We must build the natural partnership between renewable energy and natural gas as quickly as possible. Inherent in building that partnership involves enacting and enforcing the right regulations on gas drilling operations and methane emissions (from planning to drilling to transport of gas to market). Minimizing impacts and monitoring them. Adapting the rules to follow where science leads.

The third verse of that Dylan song sums up the situation:

I can change, I swear, oh
See what you can do
I can make it through
You can make it too

We can change and make it to a low carbon future. Will we?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Using acid mine drainage for fracking a good idea, but…

State regulators and the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania are looking at the possibility of using water polluted from coal mining in place of fresh water for hydraulic fracturing.
Known as acid mine drainage, or AMD, this is the water that works its way through abandoned underground or surface mines and picks up contaminants – iron, sulfides, aluminum, and other metals. It’s highly acidic.  When that water reaches a discharge point and flows into streams, it pollutes those streams so badly that they cannot support aquatic life. Pennsylvania has at least 4000 miles of such biologically “dead” streams from AMD pollution – one of the many outrageous legacies left by the state’s coal mining industry.     
The solutions to AMD are straightforward: surface reclamation of abandoned mine lands, flooded strip pits, or coal refuse piles, or permanent treatment of AMD discharge. Those solutions area costly – as in tens of billions of dollars costly.  For example, the cost of AMD remediation in the Susquehanna River Basin alone has been estimated at $15 billion. 
Using AMD for hydraulic fracturing could reduce the amount of higher-quality water withdrawn from rivers and streams for use in drilling. Treating AMD for use in drilling could reduce the amount of AMD flowing into streams and improve water quality. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission in fact encourages drillers to use AMD.
As a recent Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader article put it, “(u)sing the state’s latest natural resource boom to clean up the legacy of the last one seems like a natural pairing.”
Yes - as far as it goes.  But it does not go nearly far enough, for 3 reasons.
First, such “beneficial reuse” of polluted water is at best a very limited benefit. It avoids first principles – our use of precious water resources and the daunting question of cleaning up AMD at its source.
Second, we must keep in mind that gas drilling is a special kind of consumptive water use.  As I wrote here, rather than returning water to the natural cycle, as other consumptive uses of water do, gas drilling injects water deep underground, where 80% or more of it stays. It’s out of circulation forever.  Doesn't it seem likely that this will have long-term, cumulative consequences?
Third, and most important for present purposes, is that using AMD for fracking does not actually clean anything up. Diverting a smallish amount of polluted water is far different than cleaning up a massive, pervasive statewide problem.
The official estimate of Pennsylvania’s AMD flow is 300 million gallons a day. Every day. Forever. The gas industry uses several million gallons of water to frack a well. A December, 2011 conference on using AMD for fracking found that even if every drop of the gas industry’s water use – statewide - came from AMD sources, the gas industry alone would never “use up” Pennsylvania’s AMD-polluted water - if using up water of any quality is actually a good idea or not.  As reported by the Times-Leader, AMD in the Pittsburgh region alone could provide two to seven times the water needed by the industry annually.
So, using AMD for fracking is a good idea, and DEP and the gas industry should be commended for exploring it. But it avoids basic questions of statewide water quality and consumptive use of precious water resources. And, at best, it treats a symptom. It is not a cure.