Natural Gas and Fracking

image courtesy of Fuzzy English via Creative Commons Some natural gas wells have seriously polluted water and air in localities near the wells or downstream from waste disposal sites. Yet it appears that a vast majority of natural gas wells have been constructed and operated pollution free. The challenge for the future is to eliminate instances of careless well construction and operation.

Natural gas is an affordable, available fossil fuel that can contribute less to global warming than coal or oil, per unit of energy delivered. This fuel is an alternative until the time when still cleaner energy sources become practical on a massive scale. Natural gas is efficiently extracted using horizontal wells and hydraulic fracturing, nicknamed fracking or fraccing.

Fracking. Hydraulic fracturing uses a pressurized fluid, often mostly water, combined with sand and small amounts of other substances, to slightly open small cracks in rock layers. The sand remains behind after the pressure treatment, to keep the cracks open so they can release trapped gas, oil or mineral solution.<1>

flame image courtesy of Fuzzy English via Creative Commons

 

image courtesy of Mikenorton via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

image courtesy of Mikenorton via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

 

Risk

Well construction and operation must be performed with strict safety standards to avoid pollution, and avoid excessive gas leakage that can contribute to global warming. Many gas wells have been operated carelessly and dangerously, while most have been operated carefully and safely. There are also potential dangers from pipelines, surface transport and shipping, handling of liquified natural gas and handling of compressed natural gas – though in practice, most such activities have been conducted safety.

 

Value

Directly burnable as a gas, natural gas is suitable for heating, cooking, electricity generation, industrial, and selected transportation uses – and in the manufacture of plastics and chemicals. Natural gas is primarily methane, along with some impurities, extracted or released from underground, from under the sea floor, from coal, or from decaying biomass. For some countries, including the U.S., large domestic natural gas resources in shale formations offer increased interim energy independence.

The fuel can be cooled to form a liquid that occupies only about 1/600th the volume of the gas form, or converted to conventional liquid fossil fuels, enabling it to be efficiently shipped and stored. Natural gas can also be compressed as a gas to a volume about 1/100th of the uncompressed gas, for use as a vehicle fuel.<2><3><4><8>

 

Careful Extraction

If natural gas is not carefully extracted and handled, excessive methane can be released into the atmosphere, making natural gas a greater contributor to global warming than oil or even coal. Per unit of mass, methane is a much stronger global warming gas than is CO2. Along with methane, leaks, spills and inadequate disposal of other substances encountered or used during well construction and operation can seriously pollute water and air in localities near wells.

There is considerable evidence that poorly built or poorly operated wells pose significant global warming and pollution threats. Perhaps among the least responsible operations are those of some smaller companies and contractors in Pennsylvania, where well operations have experienced a long history of controversy over lax regulation and numerous instances of potentially serious pollution from chemical and radioactive materials.

Poorly planned use of water for hydraulic fracturing can threaten local water supplies and, where water is trucked, congest or threaten local roads. To date, waste water disposal from hydraulic fracturing wells has likely caused numerous small earthquakes.

There is also considerable evidence that those wells and facilities which are safely constructed and operated pose neither a global warming, local pollution, nor hazard threat. The Norwegian North Sea is considered one of the most responsibly regulated and monitored areas of operation.<5>

Governments and companies have good reason to act responsibly, as natural gas becomes a larger part of world energy supply. Gas well incidents in Pennsylvania, along with oil and gas well incidents in the Gulf of Mexico and other locations, have generated intense public pressure against fossil fuels of any kind, including natural gas. No responsible government or company wants to become the villain in a future incident.

 

Speculating About the Future

Use of natural gas as a fuel involves release of considerable atmospheric CO2 while consuming a non-renewable resource. For natural gas to continue as a major part of the long term supply of clean energy, a different technology is needed: one that emits no, or very little, CO2. Various alternative technologies have been considered. One example is GasPlas cold plasma processing to extract hydrogen from methane.<6>

Future technology may also be developed to extract methane from vastly abundant methane hydrate deposits under the sea floor. Methane hydrate is a pressurized water ice that contains methane. Although methane hydrate is a non-renewable source, it is plentiful enough to last for a very long time.<7>

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Notes:

<1>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydraulic_fracturing
<2>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natural_gas
<3>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquefied_natural_gas
<4>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compressed_natural_gas
<5>”The UK, Norwegian and Dutch sectors of the North Sea operations area has had a very positive impact on reducing toxicity of chemicals with cooperative agencies of the governments of Norway and the UK leading the way.”
http://www.kgs.ku.edu/PRS/Fracturing/Frac_Paper_SPE_152596.pdf#page=35
http://www.ptil.no/about-us/category877.html
<6>http://www.gasplas.com/w3/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=135&Itemid=163
< 7>http://energy.gov/fe/science-innovation/oil-gas-research/methane-hydrate
<8>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_policy_of_the_United_States#Natural_gas_2

 

Categories: Huge Changes

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