Hydraulic Fracturing, more commonly referred to as fracking, has now gone international. The USA has been fracking for decades, but now Egypt, South Africa, the United Kingdom, China and Mexico are exploring the previously difficult to recover gas and oil reserves.

Fracking can be neatly defined as “the process of drilling down into the earth before a high-pressure water mixture is directed at the rock to release the gas inside. Water, sand and chemicals are injected into the rock at high pressure which allows the gas to flow out to the head of the well.”

There are two aspects to the fracking debate, namely the political and the environmental. The Stanford News has reported how the debate is skewed as both need to be taken into account, but are often conflated.

Geopolitics

The USA has long pursued a policy of energy independence because after the oil crisis of the early 70’s, dependence on oil from the Middle East was seen to present certain risks. A discussion in Davos at the World Economic Forum in 2013 titled “Unconventional Gas and Oil – Changing the World’s Energy Map” on the policy implications of the shale boom for the USA, underlines the importance of this issue.

Bill Richardson, former US Secretary of Energy compiled a report on Fracking and Oil Policy, which raised the following issues: if USA increased gas exports to Europe it would increase its political leverage. Energy exports from the USA to Asia, especially to Japan and South Korea would be seen as supporting allies. It costs the USA around $200 billion protecting Middle Eastern and Persian sea-lanes. Reducing dependence on Middle East oil wouldn’t mean withdrawal of support, but less dependence. The International Energy Agency in Paris reported that the USA exported more fuel than it imported for the first time in 25 years.

The turmoil in Ukraine as the TransAntlantic Trade and Investment negotiations take place in Europe, underlines the dangers of dependence on Russian gas. As much as fracked gas might not be ideal, dependence on Russian gas presents different risks.

Environmental

France has banned fracking on environmental grounds, but relies on nuclear power, which raises other environmental issues. The most important factor is water use, both quantity and the threat of contamination of ground water and aquifers.

Michael Brune, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, emphasizes that because reducing American dependence on Middle East oil and Russian gas are prime benefits of shale gas, other hazards of fracking are ignored. For example, “fracking enjoys exemptions from at least seven major national statutes, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. If fracking is so safe, why can’t it be held to the same standards as everyone else?” Brune quoted figures of 17,000 violations nationally between 2007 and 2010. Downplaying the dangers means fracking will expand with little oversight. Evidence of groundwater contamination is accumulating, as are accounts of tap water catching fire as shown in the documentary, Gasland, in 2010.

Despite this, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan from the American Council of Science and Health believes that there have been “zero confirmed” cases of groundwater contamination in 50 years. The importance of this controversy becomes clear when one considers the recent Stockholm International of Water Institute survey that shows that nearly half of shale gas reserves are in areas that are arid, and that 1.7 billion people live in areas where groundwater is under threat.

The perils of ignoring the risk are illustrated in California where in the past month a huge scandal has erupted after eleven wastewater injections sites were suspended in July, and subsequent tests showed extensive contamination of the aquifers that sustain Californian agriculture. This is at a time when the state is experiencing a serious drought.

Since most shale oil is in arid regions, World Resource Institute (WRI) estimates that 40% of technically recoverable gas reserves are in water short areas.

However, Paul Reig, lead author of the latest World Resources Institute report and the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI), do not advocate a ban on fracking, but rather a call to alert people that water management policy is crucial. Fracking might not be perfect, but “may provide a stepping-stone to cleaner energy.”

Ben Ratner of the Environmental Defense Fund, a USA-based non-profit organization, believes that establishing policy and using science to manage fracking natural gas are better options than out-right opposition. ”We think natural gas can be an exit ramp from coal, but we have to do it right,” he told National Geographic.

Avner Vengosh, Professor of Geochemistry at Duke University, shares this view. The recent Stanford study Vengosh co-authored emphasizes “the importance of government policy on waste water management.”

Innovations and Technology

National Geographic ran an article in March about the amazing new technologies that are being developed to make fracking more environmentally sound; waterless fracking, recycling water, and cameras that spot gas leaks and redesigned vents that reduce methane emissions. James Hill, Chief Executive of FracGas says, “using hydrocarbons to produce hydrocarbons is a cycle that is sustainable.” GasFrac, an Alberta based company is exploring waterless fracking. The technology replaces water with a gel made from propane – a naturally present hydrocarbon.

In Egypt, Shell and BAPETCO used foam instead of water for the first time to frack in the Western Desert.

In the USA, Apache and Shell have both made significant efforts to recycle water and to buy effluent water to use in the fracking process.

The other big move is to replace diesel powered drilling equipment with natural gas drilling equipment. Apache is the first company to have powered an entire fracking job with natural gas powered engines. Texas University‘s Professor Dave Burnett runs the Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems Program and says, “Switching to natural gas is the innovation that is catching on most rapidly, because it provides a clear economic benefit.”

Halliburton has introduced Sand Castle silos to store the sand used for fracking which is a vertical storage unit powered by solar panels. The company is also using natural-gas-powered pump trucks which Stephen Ingram, Halliburton’s North America Technology Manager says, “will result in a sizeable reduction in both cost and emissions.”

The other great technological innovation to reduce methane emissions is replacing pressure -monitoring pneumatic controllers with lower-bleed designs, which could dramatically reduce emissions. Methane gas is a major contributor to greenhouse gas.

The main environmental benefit is replacing coal which would cut carbon emissions and reduce overall pollution. Although fracking does require more water than conventional drilling, coal power uses twice as much water from mining to generation. Remarkably, the “green” corn –derived ethanol uses 100 times more water per unit of energy.

Conclusion

Short-term gains might cause long-term problems. Professor Ted Patzek, Chairman of Petroleum Engineering at Texas University, raises two further issues relevant to Egypt. Firstly, that supply has outstripped demand and lower prices mean less profit. Secondly, that fracked wells have a short life and then suffer a steep decline. He warns that fracking will provide, but not at the expected rate. Trey Scott of Trinity Mineral Development, seems to echo this by predicting that “things look good for the next five or ten years.”

The debate has clearly shifted from a for-or-against stance, which is good. The Economist hosted an online debate in October 2014, with Amy Myers Jaffe, the Executive Director for Energy at University of California for fracking, and Micheal Brune opposing, which attracted a huge response. Simon Wright, the moderator, reminded the audience that all extraction has consequences and it is a question of risks and benefits. Jaffe, an energy expert, provided an equation that with the world having used 113,900 terawatt hours of fossil fuel energy to fuel economic activity over the past decade, replacing that would require over 6,000 nuclear power stations. Also, renewables will take time to get established and could lead to issues around land use and waste. The bottom line is “we are going to use fuel and that fuel is going to have environmental impacts.”

Fracking will increasingly become the method for extracting thst fuel.

 By Virginia Crawford

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