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Friday, August 31, 2012

More on CO2, fracking, and CCS

The connections among CO2, carbon capture and storage technology, and fracking are at once tantalizing and contradictory.  Researchers at Kyoto University, Japan, say they have found a way to enhance shale fracturing by replacing conventional, water-intensive hydraulic fracturing with liquid or supercritical CO2.  Using CO2 instead of water gets more gas to flow, they say.

The Japanese work complements other chemistry-based research being conducted at West Virginia University on the technical and economic viability of using CO2 to remove methane from shale.

These studies suggest that the use of CO2 in place of water may – may - allow for the extraction of more gas and could extend the productive life of even depleted gas reservoirs. But much more scientific, engineering, and financial/economic work clearly needs to be done before that is proven, much less adopted by industry.

Both sets of researchers point out a potentially huge additional benefit of using CO2 for fracking – it would reduce global warming pollution outright and create an economic driver for carbon capture and storage technology.  That is doubly huge because deploying CCS with natural-gas-fired generation offers the potential of near-zero carbon emissions from electricity production.

But here is the rub. 

While the U.S. may have 500 years’ worth of geologic storage capacity for carbon emissions, a study earlier this year found that fracking might be incompatible with CCS because the process fractures the shale that is often the impermeable seal which would prevent stored CO2 from escaping its underground storage.

The CO2-fracking-CCS connection – or conundrum – bears continuing, close scrutiny.

A race to the top on fracking?

This article presents some very hopeful information about serious efforts that are underway  the U.S. to ensure the responsible production of natural gas from hydraulic fracturing. They include:

  • Work by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to secure strong regulations in 15 major gas-producing states.  EDF is being supprted in this effort by the Bloomberg philanthropies and the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation. The latter is the "father of fracking" who recently called for stronger regulation of the practice he pioneered;
  • A  new “Institute for Gas Drilling Excellence” (IGDE) that is being spearheaded by my friend and former colleague John Hanger; and
  • The Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN)-led effort by 55 major investors calling for, in the words of my friend IEHN Executive Director Rich Liroff “a corporate race to the top in adopting best practices.” 

There are other industry- and NGO-led efforts, as well as stakeholder groups, in the field.  Individual companies, recognizing the global nature of these issues, are also considering serious leadership opportunities that would go well beyond current regulations.  All of this work is critically important and urgently needed.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

New Northeast gas pipeline projects needed; at what cost?

Platts reports that there are more than a dozen natural gas pipeline projects going into service in the Northeast United States by year's end.  While these projects are seen to spread out the supply glut caused by huge increases in Marcellus Shale production, there are still bottlenecks in the distribution system that, combined with weather, are likely to cause continued natural gas price volatility for several more years.  Analysts say that the gap between demand for low-price gas and pipeline capacity is huge.  Platts quotes one industry analyst:  "You probably need 10 times more [pipeline expansions] than that to take a significant chunk out of the price spikes we see during those times of concentrated cold."

Ten times the pipeline may or may not be built, and if built may impact gas prices.  But more pipeline construction will certainly have a more than ten-fold impact on the land and our natural resources.

Site clearing for roads, wells, staging areas, and other infrastructure associated with drilling activity industrializes the landscape.  It profoundly impacts a state like Pennsylvania, where 17 million acres of the state’s 28 million acres are comprised of forests.  Some of that impact, however, is temporary, as well pads and select other disturbances are eventually reclaimed.  When and how that happens - whether and for how long, for example, the wounds on the land are kept open by periodic refracking of wells, and the extent to which sites are sensitively reclaimed – will significantly influence the long term impacts of the shale gas era on Pennsylvania.

But getting shale gas to market, and the market demand for more pipeline and gathering line miles, represents a much more permanent category of landscape change. Pipeline rights of ways in forests, once cleared, stay cleared.

They may shrink a bit from their widths during construction, but they remain as long as the gas flows. They permanently fragment habitat and introduce changes that impact far into a previously intact forest. 

The Nature Conservancy has done some early thinking on what that could mean for Pennsylvania.   The sobering news is that the cumulative impacts from pipeline development in Pennsylvania will likely exceed the impact from well pads and roads. TNC’s preliminary estimates, based on a very conservative case of 60,000 wells drilled over the next 20 years – the number of Marcellus wells alone have been estimated by some at more than three times that amount - are that as many as 15,000 miles of new gathering lines will be built, clearing as much as 120,000 acres of natural habitat and damaging up to 900,000 acres of adjacent forest. Further, at least 1,700 miles of new pipelines are projected, with an estimated loss of 14,000 acres of natural habitat and damage to 50,000 acres of adjacent forest. That totals well over a million acres of forest damaged – over 6% of all forested acres in Pennsylvania - from a very conservative development case.

Pennsylvania’s forests should not pay such a high price to modulate gas prices. And the good news is, there are ways to reduce the impacts.

Smart planning by the drilling and pipeline industry is the key to avoiding and minimizing the impacts of getting shale gas to market.  And it makes business sense.  The International Energy Agency’s Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas report estimates that more sensitive environmental planning - minimizing or eliminating environmental risk,  improving efficiency, optimizing drilling and infrastructure costs, and taking advantage of economies of scale - could yield overall cost savings of 5 percent for the gas industry. Saving this money will have the added virtue of saving forests and fields.

Industry leaders are acknowledging the need and opportunity to embrace better planning.  But the market is not waiting. The industry must respond.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Essential reading on Arctic sea ice "death spiral"

Read this post: Arctic Sea Ice Death Spiral.

Mankind is performing the largest uncontrolled chemistry experiment in history, changing the chemical composition of our atmosphere.  And for the first time in history, the Arctic will soon be ice-free during summer. The consequences may be unimaginable.

French docs pan fracking; is good accounting the solution?

The Environment and Health Association (ASEF) of France, comprised of 2,500 medical doctors, said this week in a statement reported on by Platts that shale gas drilling poses risks to human health.

Platts quoted ASEF President Pierre Souvet:

"Hundreds of chemical products are used in the exploration techniques, which are for the most part toxic or even carcinogenic.  In addition, the fractured underground rocks also emit toxic substances such as heavy metals or natural radioactive substances. These pollutants can filter into groundwater supplies, contaminating the water that we consume and therefore affecting our health. Added to that is the question of the treatment of used water which returns to the service and which we do not know how to treat."

The French government will be discussing the current national moratorium on shale gas drilling at a conference on September 14-15.  According to Platts, Energy minister Delphine Batho said last month that the Socialist government of Francois Hollande has no intention of lifting a ban on shale oil and gas exploration, imposed last year by the previous center-right government of Nicholas Sarkozy.

ASEF's concerns are based on the risks posed by conventional hydraulic fracking. Getting the water and chemicals out of the process directly addresses these concerns.  Waterless, “benign”, or chemical-free fracking methods are being developed and must be proven and accepted (and regulated).  The selection by industry of these alternative technologies depends on many factors, including the characteristics of the target shale formation itself, productivity of the technique relative to conventional fracking, and, chiefly, cost.   

Waterless technologies are seen to be expensive compared to conventional fracking. Some waterless technologies contaminate the gas and require treatment before the gas is placed into pipelines.  However, alternative technologies reduce or avoid altogether the costs of buying, transporting, storing, treating, and disposing of water (and some or all chemicals, depending on the process); they eliminate or minimize the issue of radioactive contamination; and allow for shrinking of drilling footprints and reduced site development, restoration, and reporting costs.  They could also substantially reduce risk of contamination of water supplies from possible migration of drilling fluids, leaks, and spills. And if produced water is not produced and stored in open containment basins, the risk of localized air pollution and associated public health and wildlife impacts are substantially reduced. 

Alternative fracking technologies, if proven, could go a long way to allaying fears about fracking, reducing impacts, and in opening up currently blocked international and domestic resource opportunities for the gas industry.  Getting the industry’s calculus right – including an assessment of all of the costs and benefits – financial, risk, regulatory, intangible, and social - is a key step.


Monday, August 27, 2012

American Meteorological Society issues powerful statement on climate change

On the same day when it was reported that Arctic ice has reached the lowest extent ever measured, The American Meteorological Society has  issued a powerful statement on climate change that is essential, sobering reading.  I quote below from its final remarks:

There is unequivocal evidence that Earth’s lower atmosphere, ocean, and land surface are warming; sea level is rising; and snow cover, mountain glaciers, and Arctic sea ice are shrinking. The dominant cause of the warming since the 1950s is human activities. This scientific finding is based on a large and persuasive body of research. The observed warming will be irreversible for many years into the future, and even larger temperature increases will occur as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere. Avoiding this future warming will require a large and rapid reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions. The ongoing warming will increase risks and stresses to human societies, economies, ecosystems, and wildlife through the 21st century and beyond, making it imperative that society respond to a changing climate.

Technological, economic, and policy choices in the near future will determine the extent of future impacts of climate change. Science-based decisions are seldom made in a context of absolute certainty. National and international policy discussions should include consideration of the best ways to both adapt to and mitigate climate change. Mitigation will reduce the amount of future climate change and the risk of impacts that are potentially large and dangerous. At the same time, some continued climate change is inevitable, and policy responses should include adaptation to climate change. Prudence dictates extreme care in accounting for our relationship with the only planet known to be capable of sustaining human life.

Waterless, chemical-free fracking?

Water is at the root of concerns around fracking – how much of it is used by drillers and where it comes from…the problems and costs associated with hauling or piping it to drill sites…the potential for groundwater pollution from toxic chemicals that are added to it to frack a well…the risks of spills and leaks...the high costs of treatment and disposal…the potential for disposal to cause earthquakes. It’s a long, exhausting list – and for the industry, expensive - list.

What if it water and chemicals were no longer needed for fracking? Would the industry embrace it?  And if so, would public fears about fracking evaporate as well? 

Platts reports today that a New York-based company called Expansion Energy says it has invented a type of fracking that will allow shale drillers to frack oil and gas wells without using a single drop of water, no toxic chemicals, and no other types of fracking liquids that are sometimes used in other developing waterless fracking technologies, such as liquid propane or liquid nitrogen, or dry or “exothermic” fracturing.

The process is called Vandor's Refrigerated Gas Extraction, or VRGE.  It uses ordinary gas from the shale formation itself that is
cryogenically processed – chilled to an extreme degree - as the fracturing and proppant-delivery system.  Cold compressed natural gas produced at the well site is first sent down the well bore to "thermally shock" the formation through exposure to extreme cold, creating initial fissures.  The cold gas is then returned to the surface for reprocessing, then pumped back into the formation at high pressure to create more fissures in the underground formation and to deliver proppant (e.g., sand) to hold open the fissures. 

Expansion Energy says that its process allows the fracking of  oil and gas wells using no liquids or toxic chemicals whatsoever, saving drillers time and money, avoiding the costs of hauling fresh- and wastewater and chemicals , avoiding risks of pollution, and enabling drillers to shrink the footprint of the fracking operation “by a dramatic percentage."

This post is not intended as an endorsement of anything but the entrepreneurial spirit and of the pursuit of win-wins for the environment and economy.  As with any new technology, VRGE  must be proven and accepted by the industry.  Its impacts must be understood. Regulations governing its use must be developed. All of that will take time.  But the problems that VRGE is meant to solve are urgent and real.  Real solutions to them could be a boon for the world.