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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:

Monday, May 05, 2014

Some Follow-Up on Fracking

In response to our Earth Day article on fracking, three helpful readers posed questions about natural gas and fracking or gave us additional information resources.  This topic is a hot one and press reports and journals present new material nearly every day.  To wit:

1.  Reader Chris wants to know what difference fracking has made in US production of petroleum and natural gas.  In other words, is it such a big deal in our overall energy supply situation?

The answer is "plenty" of difference.

See this graph of production data from the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (shaded areas are recession periods).

This includes crude oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydroelectric and other renewables; you can see the upturn in 2007, a pause during the Great Recession and since then a sharp uptrend.  Earlier years had seen at best a flat pattern in these production numbers, with crude oil in particular falling consistently.

Now, if we are producing more of our own energy, are we then using more energy?  Well, no.  What our increased production has meant is a pronounced decline in imports, as visible here:

In fact, the amounts imported during 2013 have returned to 1997 levels.  So the new production from fracking has already eased our dependence on foreign energy producers.

2.  Our article mentioned the potential for exporting fuels.  Reader Carolyn wants to know how it might work to export natural gas.  There are two aspects to the reply, one physical and the other regulatory.

From the physical standpoint, it obviously sounds impractical to ship natural gas in ships across oceans, doesn't it?  A quick Google on "how to export natural gas" brings us to a whole discussion by Shell Oil Company, which in fact does just that around various parts of the world.  They do it by chilling the gas into a liquid form; there are liquefaction plants in seaport cities and gas arrives at those plants via pipeline.  The gas is super-cooled to -260 degrees Fahrenheit (-162 degrees Celsius); this shrinks the volume some 600 times and produces a clear, toxin-free liquid, known as liquefied natural gas or LNG, which is easily shipped in tankers.  At the receiving end, it is heated at "regasification" plants and sent off in pipelines to final users.  The U.S. has imported lots of natural gas this way for decades.  [Source:]

Now, the reverse is happening in the U.S.  Several liquefaction plants for exporting are either in the planning or construction stages in Louisiana, Texas, Maryland and Oregon.  But there is an important regulatory constraint:  according to a recent USA Today article, exporting natural gas requires a "public interest" ruling from the Energy Department if the buyers are located in countries where we do not have a free trade agreement.  So shipping to Europe, China, India and Japan, among others, must undergo extra regulatory processes.  Altogether, 31 plants have applied for this approval and the ones just mentioned have received at least a conditional OK.  One in Louisiana, owned by Cheniere Energy, is in final construction stages and should open next year. [Source:]

3.  Reader Mary, who lives in Colorado, calls our attention to a very informative website,  While the material is geared specifically to Colorado, much of the information is general and is accompanied by extremely helpful diagrams and pictures.  For instance, one of the diagrams is a cross-section showing how much farther below ground fracking occurs, compared with the location of groundwater.  Mary's own comments highlight one of the benefits of fracking that we also mention, the good jobs the drilling industry provides that can help people move up and succeed economically.

4.  We can elaborate on a couple of other points in our article.  One, we referred briefly to earthquakes that might be caused by fracking.  The U.S. Geological Survey announced last week that it plans to map "manmade earthquakes" in more detail, since the rate of seismic activity has increased in the last few years when fracking has been taking place.  The earthquakes are small, with Richter Scale magnitudes of around 3.0, but there are more of them.  Notably, the quaking seems to result from disposal of the wastewater used in the fracking, not from the fracking itself.  So all this bears keeping up with.  Source: []

Two, we can point out that our general concluding mandate, "use less energy!" need not mean we have to feel deprived.  Here is a picture of a new BMW vehicle, the i8, which will be on sale in the U.S. in the fall.  It is a plug-In hybrid made of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic; this material is as strong as steel and weighs markedly less, more than offsetting the added weight of the necessary lithium-ion batteries.  While carbon fiber has been used in cars before, such as Lamborghinis and McLarens, this is the first adaptation of mass production for a carbon fiber body shell.  This sports car goes from 0 to 60 mph in 4.2 seconds, the same as a Porsche 911, but its gas mileage is 50-60 mpg, similar to a Toyota Prius.  Now, we won't all want to buy one; the price will evidently be something like $135,700.

We describe this to highlight that these environmental issues are technological.  Engineering and chemistry can work on them.   So innovation can advance products to meet new issues of the day and we don't have to sit in the dark and creep along in a slow car to save fuel.  We can still have fun.  [Source:]

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Anonymous Chris Johnson said...

You never mentioned methane leaks in your two fracking posts. Isn't this a huge problem, one that negates natural gas' carbon advantage?

5/07/2014 9:43 AM  
Blogger Carol S. said...

This Reader Chris -- not the same Chris as the one mentioned in Item 1 above -- asks an important question. See our reply in the later post "Fracking and Methane".

5/10/2014 3:44 PM  

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