This is the title of a talk that I gave at a Cafe' Scientifique http://www.cafescientifique.org/ over on the Isle of Wight last Monday (20-1-14), and there are other "bookings" too, as may be seen from the link http://ergobalance.blogspot.co.uk/p/available.html.
The talk itself was recorded:
and the Question and Answer session that followed it:
The subject is foremost in many minds due to fears that water supplies and air may become contaminated through fracking (Hydraulic fracturing), with detrimental health consequences, as is expounded in the film "Drill Baby Drill" http://ergobalance.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/a-halt-on-polish-shale-gas-and-leaky.html In the south of England, memories remain fresh of the protest at Balcombe, during which the Green Party M.P. Caroline Lucas was arrested http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/sep/25/green-caroline-lucas-charged-fracking-protest.
The whole matter of fracking needs to be perceived within the broader context of a declining supply of conventional crude oil. The procedure is another on the list of "unconventional oil" strategies, none of which anyone would bother with, were it not for the currently very high price of oil. Mostly it is shale gas (rather than oil) that has been derived through fracking, which initially caused the price of natural gas in the United States, where practically all such operations have to date been conducted, to plummet http://blog.rmi.org/natural_gas_boom_wont_stall_us_renewables though it has risen since. Fracking now accounts for 30% of U.S. domestic oil production and 40% of its gas production http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324634304578537801148740028.html.
Overall oil production in the U.S. has actually increased in the past few years as a result of fracking, which had been in decline since 1970, in accord with the predictions of Marian King Hubbert, made in 1956 http://www.hubbertpeak.com/hubbert/1956/1956.pdf.
I summarised the global oil situation in a previous article http://ergobalance.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/what-happens-when-oil-runs-out.html based on a lecture that I gave in London to the Conway Hall Ethical Society. Some points of this are worth reiterating, to provide a backdrop to the emphasis on fracking, which the U.K. government appears fully in support of http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/david-cameron-promises-fracking-tax-boost-for-councils-willing-to-approve-projects-9055280.html. This stance has, however, been seen by some as bribing local authorities with tax breaks to encourage them to allow hydraulic fracturing operations, even if their local residents are in opposition to it. The argument that fracking will otherwise benefit local communities may be spurious, depending on exactly how any tax revenue is spent, and wholesale fracking in the U.K. may not benefit the nation in establishing "energy independence" if the gas is sold-on to other countries, either in Europe or elsewhere.
The world's major 800 oil fields are showing an average production decline rate of -5%/year http://aspousa.org/peak-oil-reference/peak-oil-data/oil-depletion/ which determines the size of the "hole" that must be filled by a matching production rate of unconventional oil, just to preserve the status quo, let alone to permit a growth in supply. So long as this can be done, in principle all is well, but once the decline rate exceeds the production rate of unconventional oil, world production must peak. Sweet, light crude production did indeed peak in 2005 but this has so far been masked by unconventional oil production, and moreover by the duplicitous lumping together of different kinds of material with oil and referring to the whole lot as "liquids". Now the term "liquids" is often dropped, and "oil" inserted in its place. This is highly disinformative since the properties of these other liquids are quite different from crude oil, in particular their energy densities (calorific content) http://ergobalance.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/the-petroleum-rollercoaster.html The major growth has been in the production of natural gas liquids (in part in association with the production of shale gas), but since the principal component of NGL is ethane (with about half the energy density of oil), a ready substitute for oil, e.g. in terms of manufacturing petrol (gasoline) or diesel fuels, in not provided. The far smaller two-carbon nature of the ethane molecule, than those molecules principally present in crude oil, also means that liquid fuels cannot be produced from it by simple refining (fractional distillation), but would require unification through catalytic reforming http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/energy/oil-refining5.htm, with a poorer energy return on energy invested (EROEI).
As the EROEI falls, the input of energy must increase, to maintain overall oil production, thus using up finite energy resources at an increasing rate. More advanced technology must also be put in place, to deliver the input of energy and tap the reserve, so that collectively the cost of the oil supply increases. Since more than 80% of global primary energy is derived from the fossil fuels, there are implications for increased carbon emissions too. Clearly, there must be sufficient unconventional oil to be had in the first place, which must not only be technically recoverable but economically viable to exhume. However, it is the production rate that is critical, more than the size of the
reserve, since we are dealing with a dynamic phenomenon, i.e. the need to meet and replace a slowing existing production of conventional petroleum, rather than the static account of what may lie in the ground. Both underground (geological) and surface (technical, input, investment and geopolitical) factors will act as valves on production rates: "It is the size of the tap, not the tank" that determines how many barrels of oil can be produced per day.
It is the case that the EROEI for all unconventional oil production is worse than that for conventional oil production, including fracking for tight oil (which in popular discourse is termed "shale oil"). For comparison, conventional crude oil production has an EROEI in the range 10-20:1, while tight oil comes in at 4-5:1. Oil from deepwater drilling gives 4-7, heavy oil probably 3-5:1, and oil shale somewhere around 1.5-4:1. The EROEI for tar sands is around 6:1, if it is recovered by surface mining, but this falls to around 3:1 once the bitumen has been "upgraded" to convert it to a liquid "oil" substitute. If the bitumen is recovered from deeper in the earth, the EROEI is further reduced, and after upgrading the overall figure is nearer 1.5:1. Since by 2030, it is likely that we will have lost more than half our conventional oil supply, or four times the present output of Saudi Arabia, the prospect of filling this gap by oil production from unconventional sources is not compelling. It has been reckoned that the technically recoverable portion of light tight oil is approximately
10–15% of the global shale hydrocarbon resource in place, meaning that the majority of shale hydrocarbons exist in gaseous form http://www.sbc.slb.com/Our_Ideas/Energy_Perspectives/1st%20Semester13_Content/1st%20Semester%202013_Global.aspx. The ratio for conventional oil and gas averages globally to nearer 50:50 in terms of their energy content. It is not probable that tight oil from shale will provide more than 6% of current global total conventional oil production, to be measured against a more than 50% loss of its production over the next two decades http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-02-05/the-twilight-of-petroleum.
I was asked the question, "Can we use renewables to substitute our energy supply?" In truth, it is not the blanket term "energy supply" that is at issue, but an imminently declining supply of cheap liquid fuels. Indeed, the price of a barrel of oil has practically quadrupled during the past decade http://pages.kiva.org/node/10714 while production of actual crude oil has effectively flatlined, leading to the opinion that we are close to the ceiling of global oil production http://www.washington.edu/research/.SITEPARTS/.documents/.or/Nature_Comment_01_26_2012.pdf. Sources of energy such as solar and wind produce electricity, which does not provide a ready substitute for crude oil and the liquid fuels that are refined from it. Clearly there may be a relatively small number of electric cars, but electricity can't be used to run the 34 million vehicles there are on Britain's roads now, and building this number of electric cars etc. is simply not a practical proposition, in terms either of energy or other resources such as rare earth metals. Indeed, wind and solar power both require elements that have abundance/rate of recovery issues, which the Royal Society of Chemistry has termed "Endangered Elements" http://www.rsc.org/images/Endangered%20Elements%20-%20Critical%20Thinking_tcm18-196054.pdf
The latter factor, along with the vast scale that would be required, also applies to the potential use of renewable energy for unconventional oil production.
Although fracking has enabled the production of sizeable amounts of oil and gas in the U.S., there is no guarantee that a similar success will be met elsewhere, including the U.K., in part because the geology is different. Even in the U.S. it is the sweetspots that have been drilled and produced from, and the shale plays elsewhere across the continent are likely to prove less productive. A peak in U.S. tight oil production is expected to occur before 2020 http://peakoilbarrel.com/will-us-light-tight-oil-save-world/ and rather than the loudly trumpeted "100 years worth of gas" it has been claimed the U.S. has, the proved reserves accord more nearly to 11 years worth
Poland was thought to have the largest shale gas reserves in Europe, but these have been revised down from 187 trillion cubic feet to 12-27 tcf: at best, a mere 14% of the original estimate http://www.epmag.com/Exploration/Poland-Battles-Shale-Gas-Development-Woes_117400
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. 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. Nor are the critical production rates known until actual extraction of the gas is undertaken. 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.
Since there is no guarantee of how much shale gas will be produced in the U.K. and that there will almost certainly be much less oil produced than gas, there is the danger that adopting fracking wholesale will prove to be a distraction, and a waste of resources, of which time may prove the most precious. We may take little confidence therefore that the oil-supply problem will be overcome through fracking, and even if there are large volumes of gas to be exhumed, converting our transportation to run on it would be a massive challenge, and probably impossible within the likely time limits that are suggested by the rate of decline in conventional oil production http://ergobalance.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/the-petroleum-rollercoaster.html. There are many other uses for oil, than to provide liquid fuels, for which replacements must be found.
It would make more sense to begin in earnest the development of a parallel infrastructure, a Plan B, based on the anticipation of a loss of cheap transportation and hence building resilient communities, that are empowered through producing more of their essentials, e.g. food and materials, at the local level. Agroecology and urban permaculture are key components of such an approach. Thus we may begin to build a robust and tenable future, casting aside the illusion that fracking is our salvation and instead confronting directly the reality that our liquid fuels supply is dwindling, with all that implies. So to answer the question, "Why bother with fracking?", let's not bother with it at all.