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Friday, July 12, 2013

DOE - climate disruption should drive push for waterless fracking

A new U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) study describes (without the obvious irony) the severe and growing risks to the nation's energy sector from climate disruption and recommends specific actions to improve its resiliency.  

For oil and gas production - already facing water availability risks that will worsen, and increasing risks from disposing of water that it uses, DOE recommends:
Improved technologies to reduce freshwater use for fuels production—including for alternative or unconventional fossil fuels—by increasing utilization of degraded  waters  (e.g., produced waters) and nontraditional waters (e.g., brackish waters), or improving technologies for enhanced shale gas recovery such as dry fracturing processes (use of exothermic reactions instead of water to fracture shale).
The need waterless fracking to become the norm is becoming more obvious, and pushing toward it urgently makes business sense.  

Study raises new concerns about earthquakes and wastewater injection

It has long been known that injection of waste water - especially in the high volumes generated from hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas production, but also geothermal powercan cause earthquakes.  Now, seismologists at Columbia University say that major earthquakes half a world away can trigger significant quakes at waste water injection sites.

Researchers have identified three earthquakes - in Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas - that were triggered at injection-well sites by  major earthquakes whose seismic waves rippled thousands of miles across the globe and activated faults that have been previously stressed by the injection of waste water.

This new emphasis on seismic risks from fracking points adds to ever-growing need - and the business case - to drive to alternative, waterless fracking technologies.  

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Can natgas and fracking save lives?

This Bloomberg article is worth reading, for a number of reasons.

It reports on a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that finds that pollution from burning coal reduced the life expectancy of Chinese citizens living in the northern half of the country by a full five years.  A separate study published in December in the Lancet attributed about a million deaths a year in China to air pollution.

Bloomberg suggests that the development of China’s shale gas reserves – currently stalled due to geological considerations and a shortage of water – could allow China to replicate recent air quality gains made in the United States. Those temporary gains were enabled, in part, from the switch from coal to cheap natural gas made possible by the shale gas boom here.  China has the opportunity to save lives by switching from coal to gas for energy production, Bloomberg says.

The potential of natural gas as an energy source to saves lives also underscores the opportunity and the urgency of developing alternative, waterless fracking technologies - and coupling them with strong regulations and smart energy policies.

To be sure, there are other air pollution issues surrounding natgas development that need urgent attention. And questions of public health and natgas production cut both ways. But it is indisputable, from the standpoint of air pollution compared to coal, that shale gas – and fracking – can save lives.  That fact needs to part of the public discussion and debate on fracking’s future – here and abroad. 

July 12 update: A new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters says that over 2 million people a year globally die from air pollution - specifically from inhaling soot that is generated from burning coal, oil, and diesel. Converting to natural gas - combustion of which releases no soot - can save lives. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

What is the value of conservation in the shale gas era?

What is the value of conserving natural resources?  One can answer that question qualitatively - based on value judgments, philosophy, educational background, life experiences, religion, and more.  But that question can also be answered quantitatively – to at least some degree of accuracy – thanks to the emerging and increasingly important field of resource economics.  That discipline attempts to place almighty dollar signs on some specific example of the Almighty’s handiwork, in an attempt to avoid the destruction of the latter in favor of the former. 

An important example of the application of this work can be found close to home, in the Delaware River Basin, which provides drinking water to 5 percent of the U.S. population.  Pennsylvania’s Governor recently called on the Delaware River Basin Commission to lift its 3-year old moratorium on unconventional gas exploration in the basin, citing depressed economic growth in northeastern Pennsylvania and deprivation of landowners’ rights.  DRBC reportedly responded saying that commissioners are trying to strike the “appropriate balance between natural gas development and protection of natural resources and public health.”

The question of balance is even more complicated that DRBC implies, because the value of natural resources is often not taken into account when making decisions.  So, another question for the Governor and the Commission is this: Does the economic value provided by the waters and forests of the Delaware River Basin dwarf the value of any natural gas drilling that could take place in it?

According to a 2011 study by researchers at the University of Delaware, the answer is a rather emphatic "yes."

The report estimates the economic value of water, natural resources, and ecosystems in the Delaware Estuary watershed in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania as:
  • over $10 billion in annual economic activity from recreation, water quality and supply, hunting, fishing, boating, ecotourism, forests, agriculture and parks;
  • $12 billion annually in ecosystem goods and services provided by habitat, such as wetlands, forests, farms, and open water.  For example, forests and wetlands filter drinking water naturally; if lost, they would have to be replaced with very expensive drinking water filtration plants;
  • directly and indirectly supporting over 500,000 jobs with over $10 billion in wages annually.
Recently, the study’s principal author said that the upper Delaware River Basin above the Delaware Water Gap – where drilling would occur if the moratorium is lifted - is worth nearly $8 billion annually from renewable resources, including drinking water at $2.8 billion; forests at $4.2 billion; and river recreation at $940 million.

These values should be weighed carefully. And the methodology that produced them should be refined and more widely and consistently applied by regulators and companies - not necessarily to prevent development, but to inform decisionmaking and to drive production innovation and regulation. 

What is the value of conservation? Even in the shale gas era, the answer is – a lot.  If gas - as valuable as it is - cannot be produced responsibly with minimum impacts and risks, and strongly regulated, there may indeed be places where it should not be produced at all.