Friday, July 26, 2013

A Halt on Polish Shale Gas and Leaky Tar Sands.

I saw a screening of "Drill Baby Drill" http://www.lechkowalski.com/en/video/item/5/drill-baby-drill, a film by Lech Kowalski, at the Reading International Solidarity Centre (RISC) http://www.risc.org.uk/ recently. There is much to remark upon about both of these creations: the latter has a forest garden actually growing on its roof, in just a foot of soil (including a large cherry tree!), while the film portrays a resistance by a group of Polish farmers to the mighty oil/gas industry who wanted to drill for shale gas in their town of Żurawlów. They held out for 48 days, and finally drove the big boys away. The theme is an inspirational one, not only in a David and Goliath way, but that the group, who are not scientifically educated, manage to accumulate sufficient information via the internet to realise that what they had thought to be of great local and national benefit, carries a lot of hidden and unsavoury baggage with it.

They are patriotic people, and strongly in support of the promise that shale gas will drive and elevate the economy of Poland, to the benefit everyone, but I am left with the footage of interviews of those in the U.S. who have experienced fracking (hydraulic fracturing) first hand, and the suggestion that the millions of gallons of contaminated water in the shale gas wells will simply be left behind to percolate upwards, potentially leaking into the groundwater and contaminating the soil, rather than being carefully pumped out and disposed of safely. If this proves to be the case, it will be a rather grim legacy for the children and the grandchildren: a real "sins of the fathers" scenario.

It is this kind of prospect that often causes even those initially in favour of fracking, to change their hearts in rejection and opposition of it, especially in their own back yard. In "Drill, Baby Drill", although the farmers managed to prevent fracking taking place in their own town, "Big Oil/Gas" simply began drilling in another town just down the road, and so the battle may have been won but the war continues. In view of the volume of shale gas recovered in the United States, the strategy has been dubbed as a "bonanza" and even a "miracle", since shale gas now accounts for 40% of total U.S. gas production http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324634304578537801148740028.html.

For comparison, shale-oil (tight oil) production amounts to 30% of total U.S. home oil production. Clearly fracking in the U.S.is big business, but it is debatable how much can be recovered and exactly how miraculous this will be: i.e. a long term saviour or a flash in the pan. Rather than the widely trumpeted "100 years worth of gas", the actually proven reserves are nearer 11 years worth, and hence the case might be somewhat overstated http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/future_tense/2011/12/is_there_really_100_years_worth_of_natural_gas_beneath_the_united_states_.html.

Now, the geology is different in the U.S. than in Europe, and so we should not take the success of our transatlantic cousins as any kind of guarantee that we will be bestowed with a similar bounty. I am unsure about the environmental hazards associated with fracking, and I note that a scene in the film "Gasland", which purportedly shows a man going into his kitchen and lighting the water from the tap - allegedly, because it was so heavily contaminated with methane from fracking - has been confessed as bogus, or more generously put, that "its narrative is flawed" http://www.prwatch.org/news/2013/01/11943/fracking-industry-goes-after-promised-land-film. A film called "Truthland" http://www.truthlandmovie.com/ ensued in which a "mom" interviewed industry and academic experts, which led to a retraction of some of the claims in the original film, Gasland.  The Royal Society (the British equivalent of a national academy of sciences) has investigated the risks of fracking, and concluded that so long as it is "strongly regulated" the procedure is safe http://royalsociety.org/policy/projects/shale-gas-extraction/report/.

But will there be adequate control, when rapid profits are the order of the day, and can this really be guaranteed in all nations? One thinks of those children and grandchildren again. When corners are cut, fracked wells can become "leaky" with the risk of emitting methane into the atmosphere, and this is a far more potent greenhouse gas than is generally understood. Rather than the oft cited value that methane is twenty times worse than carbon dioxide, as a greenhouse gas, the heat trapping efficiency (radiative forcing factor) of CH4 is actually nearer to 100 times greater than that of COhttp://ergobalance.blogspot.co.uk/2008/09/global-warming-from-melting-permafrost.html and so this is another potentially unwelcome component of our energy legacy. Agreed that methane is oxidised in the troposphere on a roughly 12 year time-scale, but while it is around it is trapping heat very effectively, and its oxidation product is our old friend, CO2, with its accepted longevity in the atmosphere, and warming potential.

All, however, is not well with the shale gas industry in Poland. I had heard before that from 9 exploratory wells drilled in Poland came a gas so heavily contaminated with nitrogen (N2) that it wouldn't burn http://www.democraticunderground.com/?com=view_post&forum=1014&pid=121043. Now this is an important issue, since the quality of the gas is not known, irrespective of estimates of how much of it there may be to be extracted, until the material is actually recovered and analysed. As already noted, the rocks are different in the U.S. from those in Europe which includes Poland.  ExxonMobil moved out of Poland in June 2012 after drilling only two wells, while in May 2013, Canada’s Talisman and Marathon Oil, an American firm, also abandoned drilling for shale gas in Poland because the results were disappointing http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2013/07/shale-gas-poland.

Thus, we might not be so "lucky" over here in the rest of Europe or in other continents as in the U.S., although the U.K. government has given the go-ahead for drilling, but having removed the rights of local authorities to make decisions independent of central Government energy policy http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/fracking-controls-removed-in-dash-for-unconventional-energy-resources-8726869.html. This led to a protest in Sussex, one of England's leafier corners http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jul/25/anti-fracking-protesters-sussex-shale. Very likely, the resistance that was possible in Żurawlów in Poland, will not prove comparably tenable in the U.K.

Another point is that shale (oil or gas) wells tend to decline in their output relatively rapidly, maybe to half in the first year and to 20% by the end of the second year. "Drill Baby Drill" indeed, because to maintain output it will be necessary to drill well after well, year on year, in a compensatory capacity. It should be noted that fracking is nothing new, and the first such well was drilled in 1947. What is new is the combination of this technology with horizontal drilling, so that the well can be extended laterally, thousands of feet into the shale, and similar wells can be drilled by "rotating" the horizontal bore, in effect around the 360 degree circumference of the circle, thus extracting gas over an area of several square miles.

When a "mature field" is referred to, it really means an area that has been thoroughly pulverised! This is more reasonable to do in the U.S., which has been referred to as "MAMBA-land", meaning "Miles And Miles of Bugger All", where no one lives, whereas in the U.K. certainly, along with much of Europe, it will be necessary to drill under some quite densely populated conurbations, if widescale fracking does go ahead. But given the desperation to grab unconventional energy sources, I have no doubt that it will.

Speaking of desperation, I note that the Canadian oil sands (more properly called tar-sands because they contain bitumen, not petroleum) are leaking, and no one quite knows why http://m.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/07/alberta-oil-sands-have-been-leaking-six-weeks-and-no-one-knows-how-stop-it. The leak is reckoned to have been active for 9 weeks (at least?), and it seems to be from a tar sands extraction facility at Cold Lake, Alberta. Because it is so visible, most attention has been attracted by the surface mining operations there, but the latest piece of news refers to the underground side of the story.

Some 80% of the bitumen that is extracted in Alberta comes not from the surface but from further below, and superheated steam is injected downward, into the tar sands, in a process called "cyclic steam stimulation" or CSS, which melts the bitumen and allows it to flow to the surface. Sitting on top of the leaky spot are some 30 acres of swampy forest http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2013/07/19/nobody_understands_ongoing_spills_at_alberta_oilsands_operation.html where apparently dozens of animals have been killed. So far, 60,000 pounds of contaminated vegetation and 26,000 barrels of "watery tar" have been removed from the area.

The term CSS is slightly reminiscent of CCS - (carbon capture and storage), a strategy that is proposed to lead the way to "clean coal" - and it has been said that it is more eco-friendly than surface mining. However, CSS releases the most carbon that is incurred by the two procedures, because of the large amount of energy needed to turn water into steam http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=tar-sands-extraction-without-strip-mining One fifth of Canada's gas consumption is taken by its production of tar sands http://www.resilience.org/stories/2011-10-28/two-more-ethical-challenges-canadas-oil-sands and it has been suggested that nuclear reactors should be installed on-site to provide the energy instead http://ergobalance.blogspot.co.uk/2007/04/nuclear-powered-oil-sands.html

So: on May 21st (2013) springs of a watery bitumen-emulsion began to seep out of the earth from cracks that suddenly appeared in the ground (I wonder if there is a crack in the rock somewhere lower down - since what normally comes up to the surface is a a mixture of water and bitumen - and having escaped, this fluid has found a natural "conduit"). What is the cause exactly, and what might the longer term consequences be? Will it enter the groundwater? Most of all, what can be done about it... if anything?

14 comments:

Trim said...

G'day Chris,

Glad to see a new post and I find the subject very interesting for one primary reason and that is I believe the "fracking" of the world's shale represents the last great gasp of desperation by big oil and gas to hide the fact that the world's oil supply is coming to an abrupt conclusion. Fracking has given the industry an artificial reprieve and in my opinion is doing far more damage than meet the eye. As you have pointed out, nobody really knows how to estimate fracking reserves and I believe time will show that the reality of the situation is that the reserves are highly over estimated and therefore when the realization comes that fracking isn't the 100 year supply being touted, the abruptness of the decrease in supply will have a far greater impact on society than if we had accepted the fact that peak oil has already come and gone.

Chris Rhodes said...

Hi Ken,

I'd been thinking about this for a while, and the latest pieces of news promoted me to write something... and the bit about the tar sands leaking, where no one knows why or what to do about it!

So, I am beginning to wonder what the legacy will be from tar sands, shale oil (if we ever bother, given the low EROEI), fracking etc.

Interesting that the case of the rocks in Poland isn't looking too chipper, and I wonder if this will prove to be true elsewhere. I agree, the world is acting in desperation because peak "cheap" oil has definitely come and gone!

Cheers,

Chris

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