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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

On Earth Day 2014: Energy and Fracking

Occasionally on a main street in my neighborhood, groups appear with petitions asking the New York State government to ban fracking, the process of oil companies’ drilling wells deep into rock formations to release natural gas or crude oil.  I have always declined to sign because I have thought that New York State is losing out on the rural economic development that would result from the fracking operations and that the United States would be more secure in this troubled world if it used more of its own energy resources and relied less on imports.

These opinions are well grounded.  However, the anti-frackers have valid points as well.  We can list some, and we will.

First, though, in this Earth Day commentary, let me give one disclaimer and one general conclusion.  The disclaimer is that what follows here is a collection of thoughts and ideas, not a clean, well-conceived analysis that leads to a neat conclusion.  Partly, this is because there is not a neat conclusion, or all this would in fact be settled.  In addition, my own conclusions have lately become more fluid – no wordplay intended.

Use Less Energy!
There is the one general conclusion.  The best answer to these debates and their associated turmoil is for all of us to use less energy.  Turn out more lights.  Put the air-conditioner on a higher temperature and the heat on a lower temperature.  Combine errands you run in your car so you don’t waste gas.  All this feels like environmental kindergarten, but it’s really the best way to deal with pollution and the depletion of natural resources.

What About Renewables?
“But there are also alternative sources of energy, Carol!”  Right.  Solar, say.  That has sounded attractive, especially as solar panels become less expensive.  But we learned not long ago that if there’s a fire in a house with panels on the roof, firefighters who might have to be on the roof can be badly injured by the electricity in the panels.  Oh, dear.  Wind?  By its very nature, wind is intermittent and cannot be counted on to deliver specified amounts of power at any specified time.  Birds fly into the blades of the windmills.  For wind, the timing issue can be at least partially dealt with by installing storage devices.

These alternative sources are thus not perfect.  Obviously they have the great advantage of being “renewable” and also not carrying the burden of carbon emissions.  But delivery is not perfect.  Also, they account for very little of the world’s energy consumption, providing only 1.8% of the world’s total in 2011 and 2.2% in the US[1].  There is also hydroelectric, which certainly yields high quality energy, but long ago reached its generating capacity.

So we are sent back to our look at fracking as a source of meaningful energy growth to – literally – fuel the world’s population and economic growth.

If you are particularly interested in the issues about fracking, go right away to a brand new book, The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World, by Russell Gold.  It was published just a couple of weeks ago by Simon & Schuster[2].  Gold is a senior energy writer for the Wall Street Journal.  Despite the impression one might get from his affiliation and the book’s title, the discussion is balanced.  Is fracking good, or is it bad?  His answer would be, “Yes”.

Positive Views on Fracking
Why is fracking good?  In particular, the fracking that brings out natural gas has several benefits.  While it’s still a fossil fuel, natural gas has the least carbon emissions of the three, crude oil, coal and gas, by a sizable margin.  Its CO2 emissions per BTU of energy are about 45% less than coal and 25% less than gasoline.  So it’s clearly the fuel of choice for heating and numerous other uses.  According to Russell Gold, backers of wind and solar believe energy production facilities using a mix of natural gas and the renewable source will work very well together; when the wind is still or clouds cover the sky, an associated natural gas plant can operate intermittently, while coal plants must be on consistently.  Gold also argues that the availability of ample supplies of natural gas gives developers of the renewable sources time to build their own production plants.  Finally, as we mentioned above, in this time of world turmoil that particularly involves many oil producing regions, the US can substantially reduce its fuel imports.  It can even export some fuels.

Fracking Negatives: the Environmental Ones
Fracking has drawbacks.  These are of two kinds, we realized, in reading Gold’s book.  First, the environmental issues, besides the fact that natural gas is still a fossil fuel.  We became uneasy reading the description of how fracking is done: a hole is drilled down about a mile into dirt and rock and then turns horizontal for another several thousand feet.  Cement is poured into the hole to make a pipe.  Water, lots of water, mixed with chemicals, is poured down the pipe.  The water coming out at the end of the pipe exerts such enormous pressure on the surrounding rocks, that they crack – they fracture – and natural gas comes out of the cracks and flows to the surface.  There are thousands of these wells in any given shale deposit.  It is water pressure, not any explosive, that is used to make the cracks, so the process is “hydraulic fracturing”.  Much of the water can be recycled in the fracking of other nearby wells, but the water is a brine and if it spills, it makes a huge mess.  The drilling goes down to what is known as “source rock”; on rare occasions, people at the surface can feel modest earthquakes.  This doesn’t sound good to us, although writers in a New York Times piece have argued that the quakes are so small that hardly anything is felt and certainly no damage is done.[3]  Hmmm.

One problem that really does seem to be less than many people believe is water supply contamination.  Fresh water sources generally lie several hundred feet below the surface.  Fracking wells are far deeper.  The NY Times writers point to a study in Pennsylvania in which only one water well in 200 showed any evidence of contamination.  Many complaints turn out to involve water that was already contaminated, but not complained about until the disruption from the fracking.  Over time, however, gas may leak into water sources if the fracking wells themselves are not carefully constructed.

Fracking Negatives: the Personnel Ones
This last point  brings us to the other kind of drawback to fracking.  Apparently, judging from the stories in Gold’s book, oil companies have not been particularly cordial or careful in many of their fracking operations.  We won’t outline the details here, but it seems that on many occasions, speed overtook manners as the oil company operators moved into a community in a huge hurry to dig as many wells as fast as they could.  The point can be made by highlighting the contrasting story of one town in north Texas, Bartonville, that finally got a grip on the situation and gathered citizens and oil company employees together to make some simple rules: don’t trundle truckloads of water through people’s backyards at midnight, erect sound barriers around drilling pads to limit the noise, whatever the time of day the drilling took place.  This has helped this community tremendously.  In addition, though, some of the haste has made waste too in the quality of materials used, especially the cement.  Efforts are now in process to develop tools for testing that before bad cement lets gas out of the pipe and into a water aquifer.

Should There Be Fracking in New York and Germany?
So we’re left with a hard question.  There are shale deposits in New York State – an extension of the Marcellus Shale that is in Pennsylvania.  Fracking brings good paying jobs as well as income to the owners of the land where it takes place, factors that are huge helps to local economies.  But the topic is so controversial in New York that the state energy commission has postponed promulgating rules until April 2015 – after the next state-wide elections this November.  There are shale deposits all across Europe, especially in France.  But France has already banned fracking.  And 40% of its energy needs are met by nuclear power plants; is that safer?  In Germany, solar and wind provide a much larger portion of energy needs than in other countries, but they still only made 8% of the total in 2011.  Fracking hasn’t been banned there, but there is an indefinite “moratorium”.  At the same time, of course, Russia threatens Ukraine with huge hikes in the cost of its natural gas or a complete embargo.  So the political advantages of being able to produce natural gas locally become more evident – and more urgent.

As we said, there is no neat conclusion.  Russell Gold suggests that oil companies are starting to get more careful, to realize that headlong rushes into people’s backyards with half-baked cement won’t really do anyone any good.  Indeed, he just wrote in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal[4] that investors now appear to want the companies to conduct operations more prudently from a financial point of view and with more focus on quality.  The wildcatters and the wildcatters’ backers are perhaps growing up.  As they mature and balance their approach, perhaps the gas can flow more easily and more safely.

In the meantime, turn off the lights when you’re not in the room and buy a hybrid car!

[1]Data on fuel use in various countries all come from the U.S. Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration.  “International Energy Statistics”: Accessed April 19, 2014.

[2]Russell Gold.  The Boom:  How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World.  New York: Simon & Schuster.  April 2014.  Available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and independent booksellers.

[3]Susan L. Brantley and Anna Meyendorff.  “The Facts on Fracking”.  The New York Times,   March 13, 2013.  Accessed April 18, 2014.

[4]Russell Gold.  “The New Winners and Losers in America’s Shale Boom”.  The Wall Street Journal.  April 21, 2014.  Page B1.

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