Time on Shale Gas

Another sensible article on shale gas, its value in the energy demands of the modern world and the environmental dangers of its extraction? Surely not.

But yes, it is.

Bryan Walsh gives us a few thousand words on the natural gas boom (poor choice of word, I guess), the need for alternative energy sources, the benefits and the difficulties that it has brought to the communities where drilling is taking place and the the awkward balancing act between powering and protecting our lifestyles.

Along with the Scientific American article I pointed to here, this has to rate as one of the most balanced pieces of reporting I have read on this often hyped and unnecessarily emotive subject.
Walsh takes in both sides and, importantly, doesn’t conclude by coming down on either. After all, that’s not for a journalist to do: that’s the politicians’ decision based on the evidence set down before them.

And, once again, I must stress that I am not fighting for the oil companies here – merely for people to have all the information laid out objectively in front of them before they choose sides in this debate.

“The gas is out there, and it can be accessed,” says Dean Oskvig, president and CEO of Black & Veatch’s energy business. “But we do need to solve the environmental issues surrounding that extraction.”

If that can be done right, shale gas really could change the way we use energy for the better. But even if it does, the industry will still fundamentally remake parts of the U.S., and of the world, in ways we won’t always like. But that’s the price of extreme energy, and it’s one we’ll continue to pay until we can curb our hunger for fossil fuels or find a cheap, reliable and clean alternative to them.

Opponents of fracking will pay heed to the 1,218 violations issued the Pennsylvanian Department of Environment “for offences ranging from littering to spills on oil sites” last year, but what this article emphasised to me was that fracking is as safe as any other industrial process if it is done properly. The vast majority of issues around pollution stem not from wells exploding or aquifers being polluted (a “huge concern” for the Karoo groups, but as Walsh mentions, there are actually no proven instances of the latter), but from the mismanagement of waste water. That such a simple part of such a complex process can be the cause of so many problems is inexcusable, but it should also be easy to remedy.

Walsh also compares the localised pollution from fracking with the more generalised pollution of coal-powered electricity generation: a methodology which is especially relevant while the problems at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant continue.

The economic benefits are also taken into account – from both sides. Obviously, while there is profit for the comapnies doing the drilling (otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it, durr) there have been both positive and negative economic effects on local communities:

“I think it’s been a good thing overall,” says John Sullivan, a commissioner for Bradford County. “But I just wish we could keep the economic benefit and minimize everything else.”

As Walsh says: “Good luck with that”.

Sullivan’s pipe dream is an ironic parallel to those who feel that we can produce enough energy through renewable sources such as wind and solar to bypass the need for fracking – either here in SA or anywhere else in the world. Yes, of course, I agree that that would be the ideal solution, but it really isn’t possible given the demands of our society. And yes, of course, I agree that it would be ideal if we could radically alter those demands, but as Eskom’s call for saving electricity back in 2008 proves, you’re smoking your socks (an environmentally damaging activity, incidentally) if you think that’s going to happen, as well.

Anyway – despite Time’s horrible habits of linking to other articles in big red letters every two lines, putting adverts everywhere and breaking it up into five pages – this is an informative article which weighs up both sides of the fracking debate and is well worth a read, either as a first introduction to the subject or for those seeking more facts and figures and further questions posed by our need for alternative energy sources.

3 thoughts on “Time on Shale Gas

  1. For another entertaining read try an older article from the Marcellus by  Holman W. Jenkins Jr that could have been written for the Karoo

    Americans (sort of) Love Fracking

    My favorite bites:

    “fracking divides neighbor from neighbor…roughly speaking the penurious locals from the weekend residents and the gentlemen farmers”

    “it has fired up environmental groups who have a nose for salable controversy to raise donations”

    “those who value pastoral poverty and bucolic quietude over all this grubby commercialism will just have to adjust”

    Appeals to patriotism, wild eyed calls that the sky is falling, editorial cartoons featuring “Shell”s in various deformed orientations and, well, outright falsehoods don’t carry much weight by me. 

    Perhaps the “frack fraccing” crowd should take up the challenge of their  arch-enemy frac guru Professor Michael Economides who wrote in an editorial last September (environmentalists wrong on hydrofracking):

    “I would like to see a calculation, any calculation from anybody that is affiliatled with thse groups that can show fracture height migration of ten thousand feet”.

    Or perhaps these same people might systematically debunk – one by one –  the thousands of refereed articles in the SPE (society of Petroleum Engineering) Journal discussing – over decades- the science of how fracs are designed, controlled and are safe.

    Well frack opponents? Anyone?

    Or will your response to me be to yell “Gasland” really loudly and claim I am a stooge?

    (cue yells of “Gasland” and “stooge”)

    Actually you see, I took 6000’s advice and started reading.

  2. Quick tip to make a Time web article more reader friendly: Click on the “Print” icon just under the heading. This takes you to a single page version of the article stripped of all advertising.

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