Friday 28 September 2012

A few quick things....

Firstly, it seems the Guardian didn't read my last post, because they've gone and published this. I love how, when it comes to a choice between the International Energy Agency and Greenpeace on assigning the contribution shale gas has made to the US's substantial CO2 reductions since 2007, the default assumption is the Greenpeace must be right and the IEA wrong. It's not like Greenpeace have a conflict of interest in downplaying shale gas contributions to CO2 emissions reductions or anything. Meanwhile, the IEA, as an international body with a duty of care, years of experience, and who actually have environmental protection as part of their remit, can't be relied upon?

I'll let John Hanger have the last word on the matter:

As usual, the doom-mongers say that shale gas can't possibly have an impact on our energy markets. Maybe their models are right, but this would completely discount the on-the-ground evidence from the US, where it's had a significant impact. But anyway, maybe there won't be enough shale gas to make a dramatic impact. But it can only help push things in the right direction - shale gas production will help stabilise volatile gas markets and reduce prices by boosting supply. This effect may be large, or it may be small, but I'd rather take my chances on a small benefit that could become a larger benefit, rather than just giving up before we even begin. And if companies want to take the risk by investigating money into shale gas exploration, that's their choice (I'm sure they did at least a little bit of research on the issue before sinking all that money in).

I should add that the rumour going round is that the next BGS shale gas reserves estimate is likely to be significantly upgraded. This is just a rumour at the moment, but it wouldn't surprise me.

BTW, I do love the contradiction inherent in so many anti-shale-gas commentaries - "shale gas would contribute considerably to our greenhouse gas emissions when we should be going renewable, but anyway there's not enough shale gas there to make an impact on our energy markets, so we shouldn't bother". Well, which is it? There's either enough down there to fry us all, or there isn't and we should be perfectly happy to let these companies waste all their money looking for something that will never be economic.

Finally, an interesting blog post from the US from someone in the heart of fracking country that is well worth a read. The author talks about how the money from shale gas exploration has helped her keep the family farm going, and about the wider economic boost that the area has experienced, while pointing out how exaggerated all of the shale gas scare stories really are.

The blog begins by talking about the new Matt Damon movie, the Promised Land, which is based around shale gas (Damon plays a company man tasked with getting the locals to sign gas leases, which goes swimmingly until all the pollution kicks off). There are some interesting rumours circulating about a final twist in the plot. Apparently, the OTT environmental campaigner turns out to be a company plant intending to discredit the environmental movement by smearing its members. I've no idea whether this will turn out to be true, but it seems pretty far-fetched to me!!! I guess we'll have to see.....

Sunday 23 September 2012

Another predicatably one-sided Guardian article

Isn't it frustrating when an organization that you otherwise identify with can be so completely dunderheaded over certain important issues. The Green Party's anti-scientific attitudes to homeopathy and to GM foods spring immediately to mind. And once again, my paper of choice (the Guardian) prints (yet another) poorly researched and in some aspects downright false articles about shale gas and fracking. So once again, my comments:
But evidence is mounting that fracking pollutes groundwater with a witches' brew of toxic chemicals, creating imminent threats to public health and safety. It has even caused earthquakes in Ohio.
One report from one test well in Wyoming. And some methane contamination from a poorly cemented well in Dimock, now dealt with and methane levels below acceptable limits once again. Does that count as 'evidence mounting'? I guess so. From several hundred thousand fracked wells across the US. No mention of the head of the EPA's views on shale gas. As for the earthquakes in Ohio - they were caused by waste-water injection, not fracking. Waste-water injection is a common practice throughout the oil industry. And if you're really against water injection, pass a regulation requiring companies to treat all their water at the surface - which is also common practice in many situations.
The detonation of explosive charges, coupled with the infusion of high-pressure fluids, fractures the shale, allowing the gas to bubble up to the surface.
The 'how-shocking-is-fracking' brigade love mentioning the explosives. Sounds dangerous, right? Truth is, explosives have been used to complete oil wells for as long as for ever. The explosives are not to blow the rock apart - they are small directed charges to pierce holes in the steel well-bore casing. It is the high-pressure fluid that moves into fractures and pushes them apart. Proppant (usually sand) is then injected to keep the fractures open, allowing the gas to flow to the well, where it rises to the surface.
The components of the fluids used for fracking are considered protected trade secrets, although they are known to contain toxins. Where the fracking fluids go is a key question.
The details of every chemical pumped down every well in the US is available on this website. It's getting to the point that one begins to suspect the journalists who still push the 'fracking-chemicals-are-trade-secrets' line are not just poorly informed/poorly researched, but outright promulgating lies to make their articles sound more dramatic (and thereby garner a larger following). As for this 'toxic witches' brew' - the latest fracking fluids are in fact safe to drink. Another thing that really bugs me is the use of the word 'cocktail' whenever people describe the fracking fluid (as in this 'cocktail of chemicals') - if someone handed my a cocktail that was 99% water and 1% active ingredient, I think I'd be finding a new barman!

As for where the fluids go? Between 30% to 50% come back up the well, meaning the rest is still in the ground, in the shale formation. These shale formations contain gas (of course). The gas will have been there for hundreds of millions of years. Natural gas, being buoyant and low viscosity, is one of the mobile fluids you can have in the subsurface. If the formation has been capable of trapping gas for 100,000,000 years, I'm pretty sure it can trap saline brines, which don't have any buoyancy force acting on them, and are much more viscous than gas. So in short, we know where the fluid has gone - it's trapped in the shale formation.
Fracking entered the national debate when the award-winning documentary Gasland, made by film-maker Josh Fox, showed how people living near fracking operations could easily set their kitchen tap water on fire.
Gasland did win plenty of awards, but mainly for it's artistic qualities (which, fair play, is really well shot) not for journalistic integrity. No mention of the state regulation findings that the gas coming out of the 'flaming faucets' was biogenic in origin, not thermogenic, meaning that it was gas from shallow bacterial processes, not related to the shale gas at depth (they have characteristically different isotopic signatures). Methane in water supplies is a common phenomena in many artisan wells across the US, and has been for centuries. Josh Fox knows this, but didn't consider it relevant to mention in his film. Gasland is not journalism, it's storytelling. Which is fine, but the Guardian is a newspaper, so it's supposed to do journalism.
Like every good journalist, and appropriately, in this post-Citizens United era, Fox follows the money
That would be the money flowing into his bank account as environmental groups around the world rush to buy screening rights and speaking engagements, on the basis of his film which strikes just the right controversial, highly unbalanced tone?

As I've said a million time now - shale gas extraction IS and industrial process, and as when any industrial process starts up in a new place, there should be a fair and rational discussion to weigh the potential risks and benefits. Which is why it's disappointing that the Guardian seems to be only interested in writing about scare stories and falsehoods.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Shale gas and emissions of greenhouse gases - finally put to bed

Burning methane (whether from shale gas or elsewhere) produces half as much CO2 per unit energy as coal. So switching from coal fired power stations to gas leads to significant reductions in CO2 emissions. This is why 5 to 10 years ago, every environmentalist was calling for a 'golden age for gas'.

However, methane itself is a potent greenhouse gas: 75 times more potent than an equivalent mass of CO2 over 20 year timescales, 20 times more potent over 100 years (the potency goes down over time because methane comes out of the atmosphere faster than CO2, meaning that if equivalent masses are released, the methane gets removed faster). So, if while extracting methane you end up releasing lots of it to the atmosphere, it can cause more warming than you save by burning gas instead of coal.

This was the suggestion made by Howarth, a professor at Cornell. Since then, the debate has rumbled on, with a number of rebuttals, including from Howarth's colleagues at Cornell. Nevertheless, I still see the 'shale gas is as bad as coal for the climate' line being trotted out regularly in news reports and discussions about shale gas.

However, I think the shale-gas and climate change issue can finally be put to bed. A new report for the European Commission has been produced, looking at the life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions for European shale gas. It runs to 158 pages, so I can't tell you I've read it all, but here are the highlights. These number are based on an assumption of a loss of 1 - 5% of the methane at the well head during the fracking process - generally accepted numbers for most people. So, what does that mean?

1.) Shale gas isn't as good as conventional European gas (i.e. from conventional fields, mainly in the North Sea and onshore Netherlands). GHG emissions from shale gas are 4% - 8% higher than conventional gas. But that was hardly surprising. However, our conventional gas fields are all beginning to run out.

2.) European shale gas may well be better than gas piped from Russia or Algeria, or shipped in as LNG. Obviously, it takes energy to transport gas from these distant places in to Europe, increasing the amount of GHG emitted per unit of energy you generate. So European shale gas has emissions 2% - 10% lower than piped Russian or Algerian gas, and 7% - 10% lower than gas imported as LNG. This is REALLY interesting - it says that if we plan to burn gas (even as a backup to large wind farms and solar), it should be our home-grown European shale gas, rather than gas imported from afar (not to mention the geopolitical implications of having to give Mr Putin et al all our money).
3.) Shale gas is significantly better than coal. Not surprising to people who have studied that numbers from previous studies, but hopefully if enough reports say this, I'll get to stop reading in newspapers and environmental publicity that shale gas is more dirty than coal. Emissions from shale gas-fueled electricity are 41 - 49% lower than emissions from coal. That's a really significant chunk we could take out of our GHG emissions just by switching from coal fired power to gas.

And is there evidence to back this up? There sure is! US CO2 emissions are plummeting as cheap shale gas displaces coal from the electricity generation market. While some of the 9% decrease in CO2 emissions can be attributed to improved efficiency reducing demand, and increased renewable energy sources, the major bulk (77% by John Hanger's estimate). Wouldn't it be nice if we could have cheaper energy bills while reducing our CO2 emissions over here in Europe?

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Export and Import: CO2 emissions and shale gas

When we talk about climate changing greenhouse gas emissions, we often tend to look at the emissions on a country-by-country basis. This is a list on a country-by-country basis.

These figures are calculated based on the amount of fossil fuels burned within a country's borders - how many coal fired power plants and diesel trucks they have pumping out CO2. But is this really the most appropriate way of considering these figures? Surely what matters is who the fossil fuel is burned for!

China, at 7 billions tonnes of CO2 per year, now tops the world CO2 emission rates. However, a significant proportion of what China produces is in fact consumed by us, here in the west. As a family growing up we used to joke that Santa must live in China, because that's where it says all the toys were made. So do some of these emissions really belong to us? To whom do we apportion the emissions? To the Chinese who are making the products, or to us, who are consuming them? It's not an easy question really. But lets face it: the fossil fuels are being burned for our benefit, just in a different country.

This brings us on to the potential importance of shale gas. Early estimates show that China could have significant shale gas resources. Energy companies are already beginning to invest. Production of Chinese shale gas would displace coal energy production, slashing CO2 emissions as we have already seen in the US. Encouragement of shale gas technologies will therefore play a vital role in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.

And let's face it, it's the global emissions that count for global warming. We could cut UK emissions down to 0, but that wouldn't stop climate change unless China, the US, India et al. cut their emissions as well.  And no matter how many wind turbines we build on Donald Trump's golf course, that won't help us reduce the CO2 that is attributable to us but being emitted in China.

What we can do is what the UK has always done: use it's world leading engineers and scientists to develop and improve new technologies - in this case safe extraction of shale gas - enabling us to sell our expertise to the rest of the world. This would help our economy, and it's the only way we can reduce the CO2 emissions that are being produced for our benefit inside countries like China.

Postscript: Thanks to Owain S for drawing my attention to this issue

Saturday 1 September 2012

Latest shale gas developments around the world

An update on the latest shale gas developments around the world:

UK: Cuadrilla have applied to drill their first lateral well on the Fylde peninsular. Lateral wells go down into the ground but bend to go horizontally along the rock strata. This is the first drilling to go ahead after the 2011 tremors. It's good to see things getting moving again after a long pause. I'm assuming that this well will aim to test the productivity of the Bowland shale - whether they can get decent and sustainable gas flow rates.

China: Shell plan to invest $1 billion a year in Chinese shale gas. This is really significant news! Although not well explored, China is likely to have significant volumes of shale gas resource. China is currently the world's largest CO2 emitter, mainly from the thousands of coal power plants built to power and growing and increasingly wealthy population. If shale gas can take off, replacing coal in electricity generation, and we see a similar rate of progress to that seen in the US, then these emissions could be substantially reduced over quite a short period (as well as significant improvements in air quality which, as anyone who's been to Beijing in the last 10 years can tell you, is a serious problem there). China is an ideal place to exploit shale gas - wide open continental interiors, sparse population, and a government accustomed to developing infrastructure on a large scale.

Argentina: It looks like Argentina may have made some significant shale gas and shale oil finds. Shale oil is important, because it is much more valuable than gas, so it entails a greater profit if shale oil as well as gas is found. Worrying if you live on the Falklands though, the thought of Argentina getting wealthy on the back of shale oil....

US: Gas drilling is set to resume in Dimock. Dimock has been the headline case for the US anti-fracking movement, the ground zero of fracking-induced pollution. In 2009 a poorly cased well allowed methane migration into a fresh-water aquifer (note that methane was the only thing that migrated, no fracking fluids were ever found to be migrating. Drilling was then suspended and Cabot (the operating company) have been subject of a number of lawsuits. Now things have been settled, the well has been recased, and methane levels in the aquifer are back to normal levels, and drilling is about to restart. The eyes of those both pro and anti fracking will be on Dimock again, to see if the drilling company can get it right this time.