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Minds Meet on Shale Gas/Fracking

Highlights from a workshop on the environmental and social implications of fracking.

A group of the nation’s leading experts on energy and the environment are at Duke this week attending a workshop to try to ferret out the facts (and tamp down the hype) around shale gas and fracking, the controversial method for extracting natural gas trapped in shale deposits. With yesterday’s sessions held as a public forum and today’s held in private, the two-day workshop aims to find agreement on next steps to better understand the impacts and how they might best be mitigated.

For a topic that has elicited much emotion and passion from environmentalists and energy industry representatives alike, yesterday’s session was remarkably tame, even by scientific workshop standards. Speakers dispassionately presented their data and interpretation of same, and any disagreements were aired in the most collegial of terms. Anticlimactic, I imagine for those who were hoping for drama, but as one who was hoping to get a better sense of the state of the science, I found it to be quite informative.

Video will be available online Wednesday. In the meantime, here are a few highlights.

ExxonMobil: Fracking Is a Big Part of the Future

Michael Parker of ExxonMobil opened the session with a summary of the company’s most recent energy outlook, projecting national, regional and global energy demands out to 2040. ExxonMobil projects that:

  • global demand will, not surprisingly, rise — by about 30 percent by 2040;
  • the largest part of that growth will come from natural gas, with demand to increase by 60 percent;
  • a good deal of that increase will come from unconventional gas reserves (i.e., shale gas via fracking); and
  • most of the increased production of natural gas in the United States will be from unconventional sources like shale gas from fracking.

Interestingly, worldwide demand for coal is expected to peak and begin a gradual decline.

In the United States, ExxonMobil expects that natural gas will overtake coal by 2025 as the second most-used fuel next to oil — the uptick in use will come from electricity generation as natural gas continues to erode the use of coal. Driving the switch from coal to natural gas will be economics — since its advent, fracking has helped make gas-powered power plants a better economic bet than coal-fired ones. (ExxonMobil also expects that “policies that impose costs on higher-carbon fuels” will encourage the shift to natural gas.)

Another interesting part of Parker’s presentation was the national perspectives. Again not surprisingly, driving most of the rise in global energy demand will be China’s and India’s economies. But I was surprised by U.S. projections: While U.S. population is expected to grow at an annual rate of about 0.7 percent out to 2040, and gross domestic product by 2.4 percent, energy demand is projected to decrease annually by about 0.2 percent, thanks largely to improved efficiency in our energy use.

Does Fracking Undermine Drinking Water?

This is a huge question with only a tiny bit of data — enough to raise some questions, but not enough to provide definitive answers.

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Duke's Avner Vengoshat at Duke fracking conference, Jan. 9th

At yesterday’s workshop, Duke University’s Avner Vengosh summarized his data from Pennsylvania and New York that provide circumstantial but not yet slam-dunk evidence of methane contamination of some wells in the vicinity of fracking.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s David Jewett described a new national study on “”Hydraulic Fracturing and Its Potential Impact on Drinking Water Resources,” which the agency launched in hopes of resolving this question. (See here for details.)

Of special note in Jewett’s presentation was his announcement at the outset that he would not discuss the so-called Pavillion groundwater study, a study carried out by EPA scientists who found evidence of compounds associated with shale gas drilling and fracking in drinking water wells in Wyoming. The report is undergoing peer review, and until that’s completed, EPA is not talking about it (in the meantime a draft report [pdf] is available).

Shale Gas: A Global Warming Goodie or a Baddie?

The accepted wisdom is that natural gas is a winner compared to the other fossil fuels. The reason is simple: On an energy-unit-to-energy-unit basis, burning natural gas emits less carbon dioxide (CO2) than does coal or, to a lesser extent, oil. But Cornell University’s Bob Howarth and colleagues challenged this contention based on the following:

  • The key hydrocarbon in natural gas is methane;
  • Methane is a much more effective greenhouse gas in its own right than CO2; and so 
  • If enough methane is lost throughout the system, from losses at the wellhead to leaks from pipes and storage facilities during transport and delivery (collectively referred to as fugitive emissions), then, from a global warming point of view, natural gas may not be such a great choice.

Whether that last point is correct or not depends upon the size of the fugitive emissions. In their April 2011 paper, Howarth and colleagues argued that fugitive emissions from shale gas extraction are quite large and, so, jumping on the fracking bandwagon would be a poor choice for our energy future.

Since last April, several new papers on the issue have been published — the most recent by a Cornell colleague disputing Howarth et al’s fugitive emissions numbers. Yesterday, Howarth defended his numbers and reiterated his conclusion. The bottom line here is: The dearth of data on fugitive emissions means we need to get busy getting these data to resolve this issue.

Driving home the importance of getting a better handle on fugitive emissions was a really interesting set of statistics Howarth presented at the end of his talk: 40 percent of U.S. methane emissions come from natural gas systems and account for 19 to 44 percent of our total greenhouse gas emissions

The Takeaway: We Gotta Get Natural Gas Right

After yesterday’s session, a small group of us retired to the Faculty Commons for a glass of wine, dinner, and conversation. We were treated to a short talk by Richard Newell, a Duke professor and the director of Duke’s Energy Initiative, who returned last fall from a stint in the Obama administration as the head of the Energy Information Administration. Richard provided a fascinating overview of the issue from the perspective of someone who has spent the last two years trying to make sense of the nation’s long-term energy future.

Some relevant history: Hydraulic fracturing is as old as … well if not quite the hills, let’s just say it’s not new. A kind of hydraulic fracturing was first done in the late 19th century using nitroglycerin (see here, here and here [pdf]). Horizontal drilling is also not all that new, dating back to the 1950s. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the two were put together, and the application of the process to extract shale gas didn’t really begin until the middle part of the last decade, but since then, it’s become a game changer — initially responsible for a percent or two of all natural gas production, it’s now producing about 30 percent of U.S. supply.

The economic impact has been huge. For instance, in 2006, the federal government was discussing ways to accelerate the construction of billion dollar port facilities for processing imported liquified natural gas because it was believed we faced an imminent natural gas shortage that would put our electricity supply at risk. Today we have an overabundance of natural gas, prices are down and few are lining up to invest in such a facility.

Another point Richard made: The global shale gas resource is huge, so large that exploiting it will dominate supply and therefore set natural gas prices at least for the next decade. So from today’s perspective, shale gas is here to stay, a resource that will be exploited. So we’d better get it right.