Part 2. Serious Near-Term Challenges to the Future of Fracking

by S. Tom Bond on February 3, 2020

Deep well drilling penetrates many geologic layers

Could 2020 Determine Fracking’s Future?

From an Article by Renee Cho, Earth Institute, Columbia University, January 28, 2020

Environmental impacts are very serious problems

Methane leaks, vents and flares

Natural gas is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas that, over 20 years, traps more than 84 times more heat in the atmosphere than does carbon dioxide. A 2019 MIT study found that between 1.5 and 4.9 percent of the natural gas that is produced and distributed leaks before it is used. Methane leaks can occur anywhere from the well to the storage facility and throughout the distribution system to the end user. In addition, methane “leaks” when it is intentionally vented or flared. According to the World Bank, flaring in the US increased 48 percent from 2017 to 2018.

A 2018 study found that US oil and gas operations emit 60 percent more methane than was estimated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Another estimated that North America’s shale gas production could be the source of more than half of the increase in global fossil fuel emissions over the past decade.

The MIT study found that “in order for natural gas to be a major component of the nation’s effort to meet greenhouse gas reduction targets [26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025] over the coming decade, present methods of controlling methane leakage would have to improve by anywhere from 30 to 90 percent.”

Earthquakes mainly due to high pressure wastewater injection

In November 2019, the UK banned fracking in England after a report warned that there could be “unacceptable” impacts on people living near fracking sites, and that it was impossible to predict the magnitude of earthquakes that fracking might cause.

Actually, the earthquakes are not caused by the process of fracking itself, but by the pumping of fracking’s wastewater deep into injection wells for disposal where it can trigger earthquakes. From 1973 to 2008 in the central and eastern US, the yearly number of earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or more averaged 25; today that number is 362. The largest recorded earthquake was a damaging 5.8 magnitude quake in Oklahoma suspected to have been triggered by the disposal of fracking water

Water use for hydrofracking

Between 2011 and 2016, the amount of wastewater produced by oil and gas wells during their first year of production increased by up to 1,440 percent, according to a 2018 Duke University study. The researchers also found that the amount of water used for fracking has risen 770 percent in all major gas and oil production regions of the US. This is likely occurring because drillers must dig longer horizontally to reach more difficult to access gas and oil. The vast use of water could become critical as climate change worsens. Two-thirds of the drilling leases on public land in six Western states are in areas with high water stress. Moreover, the Duke study suggested that if this increasing rate of water use continues, fracking’s water footprint could grow 50-fold by 2030.

Elkind says that some fracking companies are taking these issues of methane leakage, earthquakes, and water use seriously. “The companies that want to be around for the next couple of decades or longer see real danger, not only to the environment, but also to their license to operate, arising from corner-cutting,” he said. “Some of them are absolutely cognizant of this and want to change it. Those companies recognize that if you’re going to employ hydraulic fracturing and horizontal directional drilling, then you have to be able to document that you’re doing so without the kind of risks that arise from poor field practice.”

Too much fracking & natural gas?

One consequence of the increase in US gas production is a gas glut, which has lowered gas prices and caused reverberations throughout the energy sector. In the vast Marcellus Shale in Appalachia, gas prices are half what they were in 2018. In December 2019, the New York Times reported that “companies are shutting down drilling rigs, filing for bankruptcy protection and slashing the value of shale fields they had acquired in recent years.” This slow-down in gas production is hurting manufacturers that once thrived by producing drilling equipment, and their workers. In Texas’ Permian Basin, there is less overtime work and fewer jobs.

Between 2014 and 2017, 29 of the largest shale companies produced 15 percent less than they told investors they would. Shale wells are productive early on, but taper off faster than anticipated. According to the Wall Street Journal, investors are pulling back and banks are tightening lines of credit to oil and gas producers. One energy analytics firm predicts that investment in drilling and fracking will fall 6 percent in 2019, and another 14 percent in 2020.

Nonetheless, the gas industry and investors have plans to build over $70 billion of new gas-fired power plants through 2025 according to two Rocky Mountain Institute reports. As the price of renewables continues to plummet, 90 percent of this proposed new gas infrastructure will be more expensive than equivalent clean energy (wind, solar and storage) by the time it comes online. By the 2030s, these new gas plants will not be economical and will face tens of billions of dollars of stranded assets.

Weighing the pros and cons of unlimited fracking

Any dire predictions about fracking restrictions need to be weighed against the climate crisis. According to a recent report by a coalition of environmental groups, over the next five years the US will likely produce more oil and natural gas than any other country.

North America will be responsible for 85 percent of new global oil and gas development with over 90 percent of US expansion dependent on fracking. The Environmental Integrity Project found that the continued increase in oil, gas and petrochemical production could result in an additional 227 million tons of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by 2025 — 30 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than were generated in 2018.

Meanwhile, according to CarbonTracker, large oil and gas companies need to cut their production by more than a third by 2040 to meet the Paris climate goals. As it stands, carbon emissions from existing operating oil and gas operations around the world are on track to push us over 1.5˚C of warming, beyond which climate impacts could be catastrophic.

“I think it’s important to recognize the benefits that increased natural gas production has had in terms of that switch away from coal-fired generation,” said Webb. “But at the same time, we know that in order to achieve longer-term climate goals to transition to a net-zero economy, we are going to need to largely phase out natural gas use. There may still be some demand for gas in certain industrial applications and some forms of transport, but if we are to achieve our climate goals, the need for fossil natural gas has to decline.”


See also: Concern builds over possible shut-in of LNG plants as oversupply sinks prices | S&P Global Market Intelligence, January 29, 2020

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

S. Thomas Bond February 5, 2020 at 10:10 pm

Any way you look at fracking it is a looser. It was never thought through thoroughly, just from the “can us guys make a profit” side. Even that was not thoroughly thought out.

Whether you consider problems of fracking people will object to, or whether you make a thorough economic analysis considering the “externalized costs,” which must be borne by society, it doesn’t pay. The (problems-externalized costs) just keep coming. Most recently, radioactivity drawn up from the black shale has come to attention.

Several decades ago, at the beginning of the atomic power era, black shale was given as an inexhaustible supply of material for atomic reactors. It took several decades to get our heads straight on that one, but the sources of radioactivity are still down there, still soluble, and come up with the frack water returning to the the surface and contaminating wherever it goes.

Global warming is an insurmountable attribute of producing carbon dioxide, and worse, methane. There is no way to get around it. Some 90 percent goes into the ocean, and will come out again if some means is invented to sequester it, so ten times as much as is in the air must be removed to reduce the level causing damage by heating!

Still one more problem, or externalized cost is never mentioned. Our gargantuan military is necessary to assure sale of the fracked gas overseas. Many other places in the world have vast reserves of free flowing oil and gas, look at references for oil and gas reserves by country. They haven’t exported their free flowing petroleum in times past as the United States has.

The technology needed to extract it is not so complex nor so expensive. Many of them can ship to Europe and China by pipe, too. Much cheaper than liquefaction, shipping by tanker and re-gasification for gas, or shipping by tanker for oil. Arab countries we buddy with in spite of the fact they are autocratic, but Russia and Iran and others we bully to prevent sale of their resource.

One of the main jobs of out military is to do the heavy lifting on this project. Around one fourth of the national budget is to maintain the military.

Is fracking worth it? How long will it take before our society catches on?


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