Thursday, January 23, 2014

Why Bother With Fracking?

This is the title of a talk that I gave at a Cafe' Scientifique over on the Isle of Wight last Monday (20-1-14), and there are other "bookings" too, as may be seen from the link

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" In the south of England, memories remain fresh of the protest at Balcombe, during which the Green Party M.P. Caroline Lucas was arrested

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 though it has risen since. Fracking now accounts for 30% of U.S. domestic oil production and 40% of its gas production
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

I summarised the global oil situation in a previous article 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 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 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) 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, 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 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

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 while production of  actual crude oil has effectively flatlined, leading to the opinion that we are close to the ceiling of global oil production 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"
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 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

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 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"

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 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.


Michael Stephenson said...

In the Q&A section much was made of adopting an agrarian society and using the Isle of Wight to set an example.

Good idea in principle, but I shudder at the naivete when I hear them speaking as if it would be ever be allowed by our capitalist parliamentary democracy.

It is completely at odds with capitalism, it would be seen as revolutionary, calls for land reform would soon come and would be resisted by force, as is evidenced by all the foreign policy actions undertaken by the US/UK alliance, in South America and South East Asia since WW2. The Contra death squads against the Sandinistas seems an appropriate example.

Even if Caroline Lucas were voted PM, and wasn't corrupted, you think they would allow a Socialist Agrarian revolution to take place? There would be a military coup.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

I don't think there will be a smooth transition from where we are now to that ideal, and idyllic state of existence. yet, things must change, as we lose the resources that underpin current societies and civilization.

My fear is that things will begin to unravel, perhaps by an economic crash, and we will find ourselves in a state of martial law. Perhaps this is why the troops are coming home?

So, I believe that technology will fail us and we will end up living along the lines of an agroecological approach, but the means for getting there are likely to prove harsh.

Michael Stephenson said...

I agree that it will require an absolute nose dive in living standards before even the public starts to begin considering a post capitalism agrarian society as desirable.

I just wonder if the people in the Q&A advocating these agroecological solutions really grasp how dangerous and subversive their ideas are considered to be to the powerful.

Whether they know what has been done to peaceful agrarian societies the world over for the danger they represent.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

I suspect that few have really come to terms with the implications of losing even 20% of our oil supply.

If we lose more than half of it in less than two decades, and with no proper planning ahead, and remaining in denial as to what is likely to come, the result will be calamitous.

The tendency is to look at the agrarian future as if it is in place, and to ignore the bit in the middle - the chasm that must be crossed. That said, it is more positive to focus on the final outcome and the benefits of that.

The Transition Town people use a method called "back-casting" where they envisage the future they would like and then move back year by year, to identify the courses of action at various stages, that are necessary to bring it about.

Undeniably, this is idealistic and I agree with your first point, that there will be considerable resistance to change, mainly from those with most to lose - i.e. in terms of money and power!

Michael Stephenson said...

I think people just can't conceive of what the Western democracies are really capable of doing to their own people when really pushed.

When imagining this future I imagine a lot of Green voting middle class suburban people just picture The Goode Life.

When they need to be prepared to be on the receiving end of all the most awful bits from a John Pilger documentary.

Optimism about the agrarian future is great, but people's eyes need to be open the nature of power and the tactics they will use to properly resist when the time comes.

There is a lot to be learned from countries like Nicaragua.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

As said, I think we might end up with a state of martial law, to hold things in some semblance of order.

Yes, the Goode Life. Of course they weren't really living sustainably, but their had generous neighbours! :-) They had cut their use of energy etc. tremendously though.

I'm not sure how it will all pan out, but I am fairly certain we are entering a new phase of human experience.

Michael Stephenson said...

I anticipate a lot worse than martial law.

If you haven't watched Pilger's The War on Democracy, you really should give it a watch.

There is an overlong bit at the beginning about the brief 2002 coup against Chavez, I have skipped that.

Hope to see you at my local Cafe Scientifique (Stockton) at some point, I hear it pulls one of the largest audience of all the CS in the country.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

I've seen the documentary and it is deeply unsettling. It may well all turn our badly for us, and some be "sacrificed" to benefit those with the power.

I've given probably 30-odd CS talks, and many other venues, so if you want me to give a talk up at Stockton, maybe you could recommend me?

This talk always draws a big crowd, and so if your attendance is excellent anyway. we could expect quite a bonanza! :-)



Michael Stephenson said...

I've fired off an email, I don't know the organisers personally so I hold no sway in that regard.

Looks like they are booked up until August

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Sounds like a well-organised programme then.

They can get back, as they wish, but it's a topic that usually is popular.


Michael Stephenson said...

In case you have not seen it, I came across this documentary recently

"The Power of Community. How Cuba Survived Peak Oil"

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Dear Michael,

thanks for this. I have indeed heard of the Cuban situation, and seen this video, and they are the only nation to have survived a "peak oil" experience.

I understand that the economy in Cuba now is complex, but at the critical time, the Cubans pulled together, and used every available space to grow food inn.

I have also heard it said that the Fukushima disaster in Japan created a similar situation for a while, as supply lines were breached. Again, the people seem to have pulled through.

I hope that the resources that we have within us as humans will win out, but the sooner we begin to build a Plan B, the better, since the longer we delay so doing, the less of our material resources we will have left to support the task.



Michael Stephenson said...

I fear the promises given to people of the future by our consumerist culture and media propaganda not being fulfilled will leave many far too hopelessly depressed or in complete denial to do what the Cubans did in our country, and of course the media will continue to lie to the public long after the reality becomes clear to most sensible people.

Would be nice to see the media bubble be pricked a little more often and by people other than Russell Brand.


Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Maybe we should get Russell Brand on the case! :-)

I suspect you are right. The Cubans didn't have the consumerist culture and mentality, so tough though it must have been, they could adapt.

My fear is that the approach in our culture will be to just grab whatever anyone needs/wants, and the hell with everybody else.

Real change and cooperation may well come, but only when anarchy has been found to fail.

Michael Stephenson said...

In all seriousness attempting to get Russell informed on this issue and talking about it in public would be quite the coup. What is the best introductory video you know of? Heinberg's talk at Totnes perhaps?

The west will most certainly use imperialism destroying country after country to export the consequences elsewhere for as long as possible, of course getting bitchslapped by Putin twice in the last 12 months on Syria and Ukraine shows that they might not be in the position to do this for much longer anyway.

I dislike when people use anarchy in the negative, as I find some Anarchist theory very appealing and appropriate for the kind of society I envisage being created. In particularly anarcho syndicalism, I fear any kind of top down system of power in such a society will result in serfdom and even slavery.

In the media people always talk about how people should come up with new ideas or shut up, when these ideas have been discussed to death a century ago and the idea which "won" is fundamentally unsustainable as Marx pointed out in Das Kapital. How about they shut up for a change and let people discuss some old ideas?

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

He would be listened to!

Heinberg's stuff is very good and Rob Hopkins speaks very eloquently about Transition Towns.

I agree that there are some attractions in "anarchy theory", but maybe we need controlled anarchy not mayhem and chaos, which is what I fear may come.

I think all "sensible" ideas and skills, both old and new should be welcomed!

Michael Stephenson said...

Most anarchist theory is about creating order without authority rather than the mayhem people associate with it. Anarcho syndicalism to my mind is an extremely good fit with transition towns. Perhaps it could do with a rebranding so as not to scare people off.

Professor Chris Rhodes said...

Yes, it has the same egalitarian quality! I think you are right that rebranding/renaming it would assist its appeal.

Michael Stephenson said...

The people who believe in anarchism associate the word with freedom, not mayhem, so I think a rename is probably off the cards.

Interesting peice by Dr Nafeez Ahmed on his Guardian blog today about how the Iraq war was a response to peak oil, not that that's any surprise, but nice to see it in a more mainstream location.

Anonymous said...

Just came across this blog & thread.
Michael, I didn't hear any reference to a agroecoligical socialist utopia being proposed within the Q&A.
What was said was a scaling up of regenerative agriculture and addressing the 'Common Agricultural Policy' to reward farmers for using such methods and also creating many more needed jobs in the process of doing so, furthermore....the techniques of regenerative agriculture are ecologically-and therefore economically-savy, ergo..profitable! which, after all, is *the* bottom line for any capitalist motivation. Current methods being used are completely unsustainable, costly, degrading and unaccountable, thus...any capital activity taking place within the confines of high-input convention, will simply cease to be, so it either switches, and makes profit, or continues.... and collapses, eco-socialist utopia?....or hard nosed business acumen for an 'economy of ecology'?

PS..France is now adopting carbon sequestration agriculture, otherwise known as regenerative agriculture, since the Paris talks.

Here's a taster of that black carbon farming.
No death squads required and a little bit more advanced than the admirable efforts of Cuba.

Kind regards.

Beyond hyperbole.