“We are the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.”
—Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., May 2010
Most everybody seems to be aware that most natural reservoirs of petroleum and natural gas are beyond their peaks, and are slowly drying up. That’s why more imaginative ways to get at the planet’s sources of crude oil are now being exploited. Deep sea offshore drilling and developing the tar sands in Alberta may cost more and cause greater harm to the environment, but given that they still make money, they’re still worth it to those doing the exploiting.
One relatively new term to the fossil fuel vocabulary is “fracking.” Short for “hydraulic fracturing,” fracking is yet another way of getting at some petroleum products that were previously inaccessible. Developed as a technique more than sixty years ago, it didn’t become economically useful until 1997, specifically for accessing natural gas associated with shale which is a fine-grained sedimentary rock made from a mixture of clay and other minerals. Not surprisingly, therefore, natural gas found in shale is known as shale gas.
Shale gas has become an increasing source of fossil fuels, particularly in the US but other countries such as Canada are developing their own fracking operations as well. China sits on the largest source of shale gas on the planet.
The technology of fracking involves pumping millions of litres of water deep into the shale formations where the petroleum products, particularly natural gas (methane) are located. This is done at very high pressures. Chemicals are added to the water to make it more viscous, and because companies believe this is a proprietary issue they won’t usually divulge exactly what these chemicals are, but thousands of litres of the stuff are added to the millions of litres of water. The chemically-altered water cracks the shale or in some cases widens existing cracks, freeing any hydrocarbons deposited in the shale to flow toward the well at the surface. About thirty percent of the water is lost. It’s believed that fracking has contributed in some part to the droughts that Texas has experienced of late.
To keep the fractures from immediately collapsing, something known as a proppant is added to the fracking fluid that will keep them open. Sand is often used, but other materials include ceramic, bauxite, and even glass.
As you can imagine, this issue has its many who are for it, and many who are against it. Those in favour of it point out how much more natural gas and other hydrocarbons that were previously inaccessible can now be extracted, reducing dependence on foreign sources of fossil fuels. Also, natural gas is a cleaner fossil fuel than either coal or oil.
Those against it, however, point out that once again, obtaining fossil fuels with these less conventional methods wreaks havoc on the environment. These include:
—the high volume of water required
—contamination of ground water and drinking water
—risks to air quality and health
—carbon emissions associated
—disruption to ecosystems
—migration of gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals to the surface
—surface contamination from spills and flowback
Although Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) stated in April 2011 that there’s “never been one case—documented case—of groundwater contamination in the history of the thousands and thousands of hydraulic fracturing [wells],” that’s a mistake at best, and a lie at worst. Various surface spills have occurred over the years. There have also been blowouts at wells operated by Chesapeake Energy and EOG Resources. One spill of more than 30,000 litres of fracking fluid occurred at a site in Pennsylvania, contaminating the groundwater there.
The Council of Canadians is one group in my country very opposed to fracking. But anywhere that fracking is taking place, you don’t have to look too far to find those who see it as another appalling way to look for energy. A quick Google search reveals that New York State, North Carolina and Alabama all have fracking with many opposed to its development.
I would just love to see as much energy and research invested into renewable sources of energy as there is devoted to squeezing every last bit of fossil fuel out of the planet. People talk about how the infrastructure isn’t ready for renewables yet, it’s not designed to handle the intermittency of wind and solar, and the battery capacity isn’t yet there. Know what I say to that? Then let’s develop them.
That may sound naive, but the ability is there, I have no doubt. The hackneyed phrase applies here, so I make no apologies for using it: over forty years ago we put men on the Moon. Surely we can build better batteries that are smaller and economically competitive, and we can build a grid that can deal with the intermittency of renewables.
All it takes is a little willpower to see where we need to be, and what we need to achieve to get there. We’ll have to do this someday anyway once every last well has run dry, and every last bit of shale gas has been consumed. Even our coal isn’t infinite. I just hope we have the sense to stop looking for unique methods of obtaining tougher sources of fossil fuels and use that ingenuity to develop renewables.