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Natural gas is a critical feedstock to many chemical production
processes, and has many environmental benefits over coal as a fuel for
electricity generation; over electricity and traditional heating fuels
in the industrial, commercial and residential sectors; and over gasoline
as a fuel for the transportation industry. Because natural gas has the
lowest carbon content of all fossil fuels and not a mixture of other
carbon containing compounds with other inorganic impurities, it is the
cleanest “burning” fossil fuel, including lower emissions of sulphur,
metal compounds, and carbon dioxide. But to produce natural gas from
shale has some questionable environmental, safety and health risks.
These environmental issues are the result of modern methods of
subsurface extraction. Specifically, the unconventional methods involve
horizontal drilling and “fracking” or more formally “hydraulic
Fracking is a current societal hot a button. Almost as pervasive as
the subject of Climate Change! Both topics give rise to highly polarized
groups with strong unwavering sentiments. These groups are mirrored by
disbelievers basing opinions on perception and anecdotal information
rather than facts.
Some may say the facts are generated by insidious conspirators, be it
Big Oil, government officials, the commercial sector and the scientific
community, who have a vested interest in hiding the truth. To some
degree this may be a valid statement. But, as will be seen later in this
discussion, there are some reputable, independent and impartial studies
that can be used to understand the truth.
This discussion hopes to present an honest and unbiased viewpoint of
fracking and horizontal drilling. If there is any bias, it’s towards a
more realistic perspective of doing the right thing to achieve a cleaner
and more prosperous world. This discussion is a continuation in part of
“Natural Gas: The Cleaner Environment.”
Fracking is a process to unlock vast reserves of shale gas. In
fracking, large volumes of water and sand, along with chemical
additives, are injected under high pressure into a well bore to create
small cracks (fissures) in hard shale formations that allow the gas to
flow to the surface. Fracking goes back about 60 years.
According to Hydraulic Fracturing: History of an Enduring Technology, fracking is not a new technology.
“It can be traced to the 1860s, when liquid (and later, solidified)
nitroglycerin (NG) was used to stimulate shallow, hard rock wells in
Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Although extremely
hazardous, and often used illegally, NG was spectacularly successful for
oil well “shooting.” The object of shooting a well was to break up, or
rubblize, the oil-bearing formation to increase both initial flow and
ultimate recovery of oil. This same fracturing principle was soon
applied with equal effectiveness to water and gas wells.
“Then in 1947 Stanolind Oil conducted the first experimental
fracturing in the Hugoton field located in southwestern Kansas. The
treatment utilized napalm (gelled gasoline) and sand from the Arkansas
River. Since 1949, when fracturing was formally introduced, close to 2.5
million fracture treatments have been performed worldwide.”
Fracking made extraction of natural gas from shale layers
commercially viable. Natural gas is tightly bound in the dense shale
layers, and therefore, hard to release. Fracking both creates fissures
in the rock and keeps them open for a sustained outflow of the gas. When
used in conjunction with horizontal drilling, more surface area of the
gas containing shale layer is exposed to the fracking fluid. This
dramatically increases the yield of natural gas and shifts the economics
to a much more favorable position.
The controversy over fracking has to do with health and safety
concerns and the impact on the environment. These are by far not trivial
issues. So what
is it about fracking that raises these
concerns? Fracking is subsurface, high pressure, water intensive and
contains chemical additives. All of this sets the stage for groundwater
What can be reliably said of fracking comes from MIT’s Energy Initiative
study. The study was a multidisciplinary effort carried out by a team
of Institute faculty, staff and graduate students with advice from a
board of 18 leaders from industry, government and environmental groups.
The study found:
• “….. only 42 documented incidents of such problems (water contamination), out of tens of thousands of wells drilled.”
• “….. the environmental impacts of shale development are challenging but manageable,”
• “….. the small number of cases where there has been
contamination, the problem has stemmed from improper cementing of the
• “….. “The quality of that cementing is the area where the industry has to do a better job,”
Fracking wells are between 5,000-10,000 feet deep and uses between
3-5 million gallons of water per well. The fracking fluid is a
proprietary slurry mixture consisting of no less than 98% water and
sand. The remaining 2% or less includes 3–12 chemical additives most of
which are commonly used with little or no health risks. Though several
are classified as toxic or hazardous, only one – ethylene glycol
(automotive antifreeze) can be harmful or fatal if swallowed.
Specifically, fracking fluid contains:
The toxic or hazardous substances including their health from U.S. Material Safety Data Sheets are:
• Glutaraldehyde - Hazardous in case of skin contact
(irritant), of eye contact (irritant), of ingestion, of inhalation (lung
irritant, lung sensitizer).
• Ammonium persulfate – Harmful if swallowed
• N,n-dimethyl formamide – Hazardous in case of skin contact
(irritant, permeator), of eye contact (irritant), of ingestion, of
• Guar gum or hydroxyethyl cellulose – Severe eye irritant. Harmful
if swallowed or inhaled, and in contact with the skin. Laboratory
experiments have shown mutagenic effects.
• Ethylene glycol – Harmful or fatal if swallowed, harmful if inhaled
or absorbed through skin, may cause allergic skin reaction, may cause
irritation to skin, eyes, and respiratory tract, affects central nervous
Another concern with shale gas is the impact of local air quality and
release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Natural gas is a
potent greenhouse gas with the ability to trap heat almost 21 times more
effectively than carbon dioxide.
Potential emission sources include compressor engine exhausts and
oil/condensate tanks, production equipment, well drilling and fracking
engines, well completions, gas processing, transmission and the large
number of supporting components such as pumps, flanges, valves, gauges,
pipe connectors, compressors, and other pieces.
According to NatrualGas.org:
• “….. although methane emissions account for only 1.1 percent of
total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, they account for 8.5 percent of the
greenhouse gas emissions based on global warming potential.”
• “….. Sources of methane emissions in the U.S. include the waste
management and operations industry, the agricultural industry, as well
as leaks and emissions from the oil and gas industry itself.”
• “….. in 2011, researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University
released “Life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of Marcellus shale gas”, a
report comparing greenhouse gas emissions from the Marcellus Shale
region with emissions from coal used for electricity generation. The
authors found that wells in the Marcellus region emit 20 percent to 50
percent less greenhouse gases than coal used to produce electricity”.
• “….. In 1993, the natural gas industry joined with EPA in launching
the Natural Gas STAR Program to reduce methane emissions. The STAR
program has chronicled dramatic reductions to methane emissions, since
• “…. the increased use of natural gas in the place of other,
dirtier fossil fuels can serve to lessen the emission of greenhouse
gases in the United States.”
This does not suggest society should turn a blind eye. Far from it! According to a report issued by Southern Methodist University,
cost effective control strategies are readily available that can
substantially reduce emissions, and in some cases, reduce costs for oil
and gas operators.
These options include:
• use of “green completions” to capture methane and VOC compounds during well completions,
• phasing in electric motors as an alternative to internal-combustion engines to drive compressors,
• the control of VOC emissions from condensate tanks with vapor recovery units, and
• replacement of high-bleed pneumatic valves and fittings on the pipeline networks with no-bleed alternatives.
The knowhow exists to minimize the environmental, safety and health risks of shale gas extraction. Some remedies include:
• intensifying on-site oversight,
• closing loopholes that exempt fracking from key federal air and water environmental regulations,
• toughening up the permitting process and ordnances,
• ensuring production companies follow industry best practices,
• implementing more air and water testing, requiring drillers to
publically disclose the chemical additives used in the fracking fluid,
which up to now was consider a trade secret,
• developing new rules over the disposal of the fracking waste water, and
• identifying cost-effective emissions control procedures.
In addition to the environmental and health benefits of natural gas
over other fossil fuels, the final caveat to this discussion is the
economic benefits from shale gas production.
Recently the IHS Global Insight reported:
“….. natural gas “shale gale” that began in the Barnett Shale is
having “profound economic impacts” on the U.S. economy — creating jobs,
reducing consumer costs for natural gas and electricity and escalating
federal, state and local tax revenues,”
“….. shale gas development, after contributing $76.9 billion to the
nation’s economic output in 2010, will add $118.2 billion in 2015 and
$231.1 billion in 2035.”
“….. in 2010, the shale gas industry supported more than 600,000
jobs; that number will likely grow to nearly 870,000 by 2015 and 1.6
million-plus by 2035.”
“….. savings from lower natural gas prices, as well as associated
lower prices for other consumer purchases, will add an average $926 in
disposable income per household annually from 2012 to 2015 and more than
$2,000 annually by 2035.”
“….. the shale gas industry and related jobs pay higher wages — an
average $23.16 per hour — than those in manufacturing, transportation
“….. the boom in domestic gas production has held down natural gas
prices and thus electric rates in Texas because gas is burned to
generate much of the power.”
“….. as a transportation fuel, compressed natural gas is cleaner-burning and much cheaper than gasoline,”
As shown, condemnation of fracking makes little sense; control of
fracking makes much sense. Societal issues are not black and white.
Everything has risks. Our job is to manage these risks while exploiting
the benefits of shale gas. Today, the U.S. and other countries of the
world find themselves in a precarious “energy” position.
Renewable energy has yet to make a significant impact on our energy
mix. Nuclear energy is more highly charged issue. Conventional
hydroelectric is locked up in its own environmental constraints.
Traditional fuels are continuing to increase in cost and adversely
affect the environment and the health of the public. Other than natural
gas, there are few viable choices for the near future.
Possibly not a fair comparison, but from 1899-2010 there were
3,513,897 motor vehicle fatalities in the U.S. In 2010 alone, there were
32,708 motor vehicle deaths in the U.S. Based on these shocking
statistics, it’s curious why the same people wanting to ban fracking are
not calling for a total ban on?
Few are elated when they receive higher utility bills and pay more
for gasoline at-the-pump. All want the most bang for their buck. All
want assurance that electricity and heat is available upon the flick of
the switch. If society was willing to pay any price for what they get
while making significant sacrifices to their lifestyle and comfort, the
equation might be in favor of clean and renewable fuels. But people for
the most part are not willing to pay more for commodities like
electricity and gasoline and change the way they live. That is a plain
and simple fact.
In closing, it’s a desirable goal to rebalance our economy’s energy
production and consumption from fossil fuels to cheap clean fuels. For
this to happen, our government must enact a true clean energy policy and
aggressively fund related programs. It’s clear that this is not in the
cards. In the meantime, the U.S. has little choice but to leverage its
abundant natural gas reserves as a transitional bridge until such time
that our government “walks the talk.”
Shale gas is transformative and can play a major role towards
achieving energy security, economic prosperity and a cleaner
environment. This will buy time while renewable energy develops into an
economically reliable source of energy. Until our law makers wake up to
the realities of their fiddling while we continue to burn dirty fossil
fuels, these environmental and health issues will continue to plague our
If there is a more realistic solution adoptable today without pain in
the pocket book and lifestyle than pushing natural gas forward with
adequate controls, please speak up.
By. Dr. Barry Stevens
Dr. Barry Stevens has over 25 years of proven international
experience building technology-driven enterprises and bringing superior
products and services to market ahead of the competition. He is the
founder of TBD America Inc., a technology business development group. In
this role, he is responsible for monetizing technologies and leading
globally-competitive companies to higher levels of revenue, earnings,
and growth. Please visit TBD's website at http://www.tbdamericainc.com and his blog at http://barryonenergy.wordpress.com