In his recent documentary Gasland, Josh Fox travels across the United States to investigate the rapidly growing practice of hydraulic fracturing or “hydrofracking” that natural gas companies have developed to produce gas from underground shale deposits.
Fox’s film has sparked outrage over a practice that, according to testimony in the film and elsewhere, poisons local wells, makes animals lose their hair and causes neurological damage, brain lesions and cancer in nearby residents—not to mention making tapwater flammable. (I recently wrote about the practice and New York State’s absence at a recent meeting on the topic, and Dan Stellar talked about the recent moratorium on drilling).
Hydrofracking (the deliberate fracturing of underground rock formations to release natural gas) has been around for a while, but new techniques, including horizontal drilling and the invention of proprietary chemical stews to more effectively break up rock formations, has revolutionized the process.
The new techniques, coupled with higher energy prices, sparked a frenzy of drilling several years ago in a number of states–notably Texas and Colorado, and more recently, Pennsylvania. But the dangers of the practice largely escaped public notice—at least until plans to drill in Upstate New York threatened New York City’s pristine drinking water.
What no one is yet talking about, though, is the bigger picture—the multi-faceted way that natural gas production and consumption is intimately connected to water availability and purity along with climate change and looming resource shortages. When one looks at the whole system, what’s going on with natural gas is perfect example of the bigger water-energy nexus—the way in which the challenges of water and energy in the coming decades are increasingly linked.
The more one looks at those links, the more shortsighted the nation’s recent natural gas push looks, and the greater the urgency of truly sustainable measures—deep conservation plus a rapid shift to renewable energy—appears.
Peak Oil and the Need for Natural Gas
It’s important to understand that the recent frenzy for North American shale gas doesn’t arise in a vacuum, but in the context of the worldwide depletion of easy-to reach hydrocarbons. For a number of years, a growing number of experts from environmentalists to retired petroleum executives have been warning the world about the looming crisis of peak oil.
In brief, peak oil is the point in time when the rate of production for a given well, oilfield, nation or region reaches its maximum point and begins to decline. An increasing number of experts now believe that the world has passed global peak oil, which means that from now on the rate of global oil production will shrink, and that oil will be increasingly expensive and difficult to find.
The arrival of peak oil explains why we are now forced to drill dangerous and expensive deep water wells in the middle of the ocean or process huge amounts of tar sands in Canada rather than rely on conventional production. It also suggests that going forward, the oil industry is going to find itself increasingly stretched as it attempts ever more heroic but ecologically risky techniques to get at the world’s declining hydrocarbon resources.
A few years ago, many of the same experts who gave early warnings of the decline of crude oil suggested that natural gas production was at grave risk as well. Given that natural gas is widely used for commercial and residential heating as well as electricity production—not to mention the production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer upon which the industrial food system depends—the suddenly decline of natural gas seemed, if anything, more worrisome than a peak of oil supplies.
Unfortunately, while the evidence for imminent peak oil has gotten stronger and stronger over the past few years, the question of what will happen to gas supplies has only gotten more complicated. It turns out that unlike oil wells, natural gas deposits don’t slowly decline; their production, rather, goes off a cliff. For a while, it seemed to many observers that the natural gas supply was at greater risk of precipitous decline than oil.
Then came the rise of shale oil. Beginning with the Texas Barnett shale formation, energy companies showed how, using hydraulic fracturing, they could produce natural gas from underground deposits that would have been impossible to tap economically a few years ago.
The Marcellus Shale formation—one of the largest in the country–extends from upstate New York to West Virginia. According to a 2008 New York Times article, the new technology, along with higher natural gas prices, has created “a frenzy unlike any seen in decades is unfolding in rural Pennsylvania, and it eventually could encompass a huge chunk of the East, stretching from upstate New York to eastern Ohio and as far south as West Virginia,” as gas companies bet that they can make billions on the deposits. Rural landowners, meanwhile, have been paid thousands for leasing rights to their land.
The sudden viability of so much gas was a game-changer in the minds of many observers. Perhaps most notably, legendary Texas oil baron (and confirmed peak oil believer) T. Boone Pickens developed and began promoting a comprehensive plan to wean the nation from foreign oil. The “Pickens Plan” focuses on energy efficiency, a rapid expansion of wind power (to displace natural gas-generated electricity) and a turnover of the automobile fleet to natural gas powered vehicles.
In many ways, the plan makes sense. Global oil production is, without doubt, in an extremely precarious position, and net oil importing nations such as the United States are particularly vulnerable to both short-term shocks and long-term supply shortages. Rapid expansion of wind power to generate electricity supports both the reduction of carbon emissions from other electricity sources and puts the nation on path to a fully renewable economy.
As for natural gas, there is no question that it is cleaner-burning than either coal or oil, producing both less carbon and almost non-existent particulate emissions. The only problem is that at least at present, getting at the abundant shale formations to make this plan possible requires injecting millions of gallons of water—water from lakes, rivers, wells and wetlands–along with a toxic stew of chemicals that threatens to poison water supplies across the country.
But Can Hydrofracking Really Save Us?
The gas industry says that concerns about hydrofracking are overblown and that there is no 100 percent safe form of energy.
But given the potentially enormous risks to the water supply for millions of people, its worth asking if hydrofracking can even live up to its promise of providing cheap, clean and abundant natural gas for decades to come.
Petroleum geologist Art Berman says it cannot. In an interview with the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas (ASPO), Berman described his skepticism around the claims of the gas industry. While Berman acknowledges that shale gas is a significant contribution to United States natural gas supply, he doesn’t believe that the resource is
“anywhere near the magnitude that is commonly discussed and cited in the press . . . the reserves have been substantially overstated. In fact I think the resource number has been overstated . . . when you look at it probabilistically, which I think is the only intelligent way to look at anything which you have any uncertainty about, what you realize is that the numbers that are being represented by all of these companies as ‘truth’ are probably [have] a 5 percent probability of being true.”
It seems as though we are at the precipice of another Faustian bargain. The gas industry tells us that it can provide safe, abundant energy for us—energy that has a lower carbon footprint, decreases emissions and reduces our dependence on foreign oil.
But what if they’re wrong? What if, instead of providing safe, abundant energy for decades, we poison the water supply of millions only to discover that there wasn’t as much gas available as we thought?
A recent study from Bloomberg New Energy Finance reported that in 2008 governments gave between $43 and $46 billion to support renewable energies, compared to nearly $557 billion to subsidize fossil fuel production. Maybe before we risk poisoning our water supplies with yet more fossil-fuel drilling, we should look at that disparity and see if we can finally put ourselves on a more sustainable—and sane—path.