There has been much hype, misinformation, anti-fracking rallies, business bullshit and economic justification, desire for more fuels and pure greed – otherwise known as the gold rush mentality – surrounding the unconventional natural gas extraction technology that it is difficult to see the woods for the trees.
I have watched a PBS America documentary about ‘fracking’. I had started off anyway with a gut feeling that fracking was not a good idea – digging into the earth’s crust for any number of metres has never seemed like a good idea to me. This documentary has not changed my mind but has given me a greater understanding of why it is not a good idea. Sure, the doco is basically anti-fracking and has to do with the US and Canada but the US is the country that has had the gungho go ahead approach and, it would seem, without sufficient research in the environmental effects of thousands of wells in areas, some of which are residential and urban, suburban or small townships. The doco cited some women talking about the wells being completed and vented while they were pregnant. The effect on the kiddies who were subsequently born seems to possibly be correlated with fracking activity in their residential area. That needs a citation!
As I said, there is a lot of hype – fracking has not been regulated or monitored by government agencies but has been left to the industry itself to regulate – never a good idea where profits are to be made.
The first thing is air quality – no government agency monitors this. Apparently there is not enough available dosh to do this. Methane is a colourless, odourless gas, relatively non-toxic but is about 22 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide. Phew! That helps to heat the environment. And the albedo effect merely exacerbates this. And the air quality is not monitored. This is irresponsible. Edit: This is from Wikipedia and talks of the exemptions in America with regard to various government and quasi-government agencies that regulate the oil and gas industries.
‘There are many exemptions for hydraulic fracturing under United States federal law: the oil and gas industries are exempt or excluded from several of the major federal environmental laws. These laws range from protecting clean water and air, to preventing the release of toxic substances and chemicals into the environment: the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as Superfund.’
What is most disturbing is the release of a mixture of organic compounds with the venting /flaming of methane. After 2015, new wells will be prevented from venting/flaming. The initial gas released will have to be collected and shipped where ?? Only 5 tonnes of organic compounds will be allowed to be wasted annually. It is a more expensive scenario (for the fracking company and its investors) than simply flaming the compounds into the atmosphere. But the restriction on new wells won’t extend to already existing wells. So they remain unmonitored and the public will have to rely on lobbying and demonstrating in an attempt to get companies to comply with emission standards. Edit: As time goes on and opposition to fracking starts to mount, there is bound to be regulatory bodies, not under the auspices of the oil and gas industries, that will develop better best practice codes including emissions and wastes. I should admit there are some regulations listed in Wikipedia here.
Cementing the pipes that are drilled down for about a couple of miles – maybe 10,000 feet – to try to halt any fracturing of those pipes has been partially successful in stopping leakage into the surrounding geological material. The stresses are caused by the weight of rock above and the disturbance of the fracturing process itself. According to the PBS doco, in Pennsylvania between 6.2% and 7% of wells are in violation of cementing standards and fracturing is apparent. This means leakage of the fracturing fluid, but more likely the methane and other components of the gases being collected are leaking through the shale into wherever – including water tables and natural water storage areas many metres above the horizontal pipeline. Once the well is completed, the injected fluids are withdrawn and the gas is allowed to travel up the pipes to the earth’s surface where it is initially vented and afterwards collected and compressed in pipelines for transport to distribution tanks. Well casing violations are dealt with in this article. Edit: There seems little reporting or monitoring is effected on wells. From another report:
‘For Pennsylvanians with natural gas wells on their land, chances are they won’t know if a safety violation occurs on their property. That’s because the state agency charged with regulating the wells — the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) — does not have to notify landowners if a violation is discovered. Even if landowners inquire about safety violations, DEP records are often too technical for the average person and incomplete.’
Now when I had a caesarean, it was because there was a 1.2% – 2% risk that my uterus would split under contractions and no doctor would allow me to have a natural birth. I would claim that 6.2% to 7% is far too high a risk to take with fracturing shale, potential earthquakes, subsidence, water and air pollution. The proper care of population is a lot more important than one woman being prevented from going into labour.
The other thing is that we know, or we should know, even though Scotland is rich in supplies of potable water, that this is a precious resource and we are fairly profligate in our usage. Fracking uses a massive amount of fresh water and its collection from water storage points is not regulated except by the fracking industry that needs it. This is not a good idea at all. Independent agencies ought to be monitoring water collection and usage. A fracking well, from beginning to completion, is going to use about 2 – 8 million litres of potable water. That potable water will be mixed with sand and chemicals including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. These compounds are not known as goodniks for humans and some are ‘known’ to be carcinogenic. Besides, wells can be fracked a number of times, thus increasing the water and chemical usage. The salient point is that none, repeat none, of the contaminated waste water can ever be re-introduced into the water cycle. So we will be using up a precious resource that we can’t replenish. Smart move, eh?
What to do with all that water once the fracturing has been achieved and the pressure is reduced? Well, it was originally pumped out into the sea and other water ways but it became environmentally untenable. So open evaporation ponds were employed and the sludge was left to the atmosphere and any being accessing the surface of the dried pond. It must have been obvious that as a secondary treatment plant that idea was insupportable. So now the contaminated waste water is carted away and injected back into the ground at a great depth in order to sequester it. Remember this is what ‘they’ were going to do with carbon dioxide waste from coal power plants?
The big problem with trying to machinate, ie fracture yet again, the earth’s crust to pump waste materials underground is that, by increasing the volume underground, you also increase the potential for earthquakes. And that is what has happened. See Pennsylvania.
When coal was being mined in Scotland, I am led to believe (I wasn’t here) that subsidence occurred around some underground pits, especially around Glasgow. Well – why wouldn’t that happen? Prop up the pits, box in the horizontal underground trenches and blast/dig away. It is bound to fail sometime – another analogy with gold mines.
I used to be involved in blasting and digging 60 feet vertical mines down to shale and then tunnelling along horizontally trying to locate seams through the shale that contained the chemical impurities embedded in the silica that made the opal. I have a working knowledge on a small scale of what subsidence is and what tunnel roof falls can be. Subsidence isn’t necessarily a problem, but if there are hundreds of fracking mines in any one area, burrowing down a kilometre or so and then horizontally tracking through shale; then pumping millions of chemically treated water under pressure to entice the fracturing of deep geological layers to release their trapped gas; that pressure exerting more pressure on the walls of the pipe – even though encased in cement – then there is a potential for massive problems. And we don’t need it. Wind power is far, far better and worthy of investment.
The argument that home owners will not have any recourse is a normal one. I do not know of a country that allows the property owner any rights to any minerals that may be discovered under the land he thinks he has bought. I believe the depth of the land to be about 6 feet depending on any particular country.
I think our best bet is to fund renewables to the max and forget the use and necessary extraction of fossil fuels. I agree with Lawrence Krauss that India should stomp on its proposed increase in coal mining and burning up to 1 billion tonnes and start funding renewable energy sources. It won’t be cheap but neither is pumping CO2 into the atmosphere. That is likely to be fatal at a species level. And we are just another species relying on the 28% oxygen in our breathable air. Nitrogen in abundance will kill us and all other oxygen breathing species. Methane and Carbon dioxide in abundance will cook us and all other species. The choice is hard for me to work out. But I will be dead in a decade or so. My grandkiddies have to live in the future.
There is obviously more to this post – but I want to say what I want to say right now! I have problems trying to anticipate a future without us. But I am starting to accept that we have fucked it all up. And all other species will suffer and die because of our intransigence. That hurts. And it doesn’t endear me to my species. I could say ‘sorry’ but I think this planet is better off without us. We have not shown ourselves to be good and responsible caretakers of our environment. On the other hand we have shown ourselves to be greedy bastards and we deserve all we reap. No pity. I am sorry for other species. Vale.
Edit: I have probably not done enough research on this but it is an immense topic and becoming more contentious. Some bans are already in place. See this pdf.
‘Because of significant questions about health and pollution issues related to fracking, several countries have banned the use of fracking. Bulgaria [See: Photo I-16], France, Germany, and Ireland have banned all fracking operations. The Czech government is seriously considering a ban.’
There will be more.
Useful links – some are polemical.
http://www.wtrf.com/story/27689835/only-on-7-gas-still-leaking-at-monroe-county-well-pad – This is current – ie. right now. Just how much was spewed into the atmosphere over the four days I don’t know. People have been allowed to return to their homes now.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydraulic_fracturing – This is an informative and reasonably comprehensive article for those of us who are not technically trained.
This is new – reported from Ohio.