Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Don't disappoint me

So I'm interested in finding out whether hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) for the purposes of extracting natural gas from shale formations is safe and efficient.  I begin with no opinion.  For the most part, in my experience, people are wrong.  So I'll just have to sort through it on my own.

In trying to find out, I read a lot of folks from the industries involves saying that it's perfectly safe, we've been doing this for years, for god's sake it's happening way below the water table, how can it be a problem, etc ...  This is marginally convincing, because it does turn out to be mostly true.  Fracking has been around long time, no one has really ever noticed a problem with it, and it does almost universally happen below the water table.  But then again, the N isn't huge here, as the process hasn't really been used in lots of geographies and at large scale.  Plus, you can't exactly trust the people most likely to benefit financially.

So I go and read some of the other side.  Vanity Fair wrote this article.  Basically it says that fracking will make your hair fallout and your teeth turn green.  Sounds grim, but how likely is that claim to be true on a wide scale.  Vanity Fair just exists to sell magazines after all, and this smells a little sensationalistic.  If you read through the article though, you do see a few claims that need addressing.  The process requires what sounds like a lot of water.  The water has to get trucked into some god forsaken PA town where they haven't even managed to put out the coal fire they started in the 60's.  That burns up a lot of oil, and of course uses the water.  And then to get the gas out you have to shoot the water down into the rock at high pressure with a bunch of chemicals and sand that fracture it.  These are not the nicest chemicals, and not all of them seem to stay way down in the well on all occasions.  In other words the article points out that we should probably think about whether this is safe and efficient or not.  Which was the question of course.  Which we still haven't answered of course, because the article has no fucking numbers in it.  Because, you know, numbers aren't as scary as green teeth.

But okay then, that's Vanity Fair.  If that was my go to source for information, I'd be even poorer than I am.  So I check out this engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea's lecture.  He's been around the science of this for a while, he's consulted for the industry -- certainly he will have something useful to say?  The lecture's got some numbers and some data and some more stuff to think about, but it is in fact a colossally awful and biased piece of work.  Go ahead and watch it and decide for yourself.  It does also brings up some good points.  You have to make lots of small wells for this process to work, so you have to end up with a landscape full of wells.  It takes a while to drill lots of wells, so there will be lots of noisy dirty activity in your backyard, if you happen to be sitting on the right to lease your privileged piece of geology.  And then you've got to truck waste in and pipe gas out, and deal with the potential toxic fluid leakages, and waste, and etc ...  Important stuff to think about undoubtedly.  But this guy's entire presentation is designed to scare, and not to inform.  Not to balance and calculate and weigh pros and cons.  Certainly not to suggest solutions that would alleviate whatever the problems are. 

I mean, how about a calculation of the carbon footprint of the trucks that carry the water compared to the emissions savings of producing more electricity with gas.  What if you used the gas to power the trucks, would that make carbon sense?  And how about the water issue.  I don't want a comparison between the amount of water fracking requires and the amount that goes over Schuchyll Falls in the time it takes me to quaff another Yuengling.  I want it compared to how much my neighbor dumps on his lawn and car every Sunday afternoon while I vomit.  And don't tell me that the fluid is really really really scary and has fangs.  Tell me how I can deal with that by changing it or storing it better or whatever.  It's so disappointing because this guy has the knowledge (if not the speaking ability) to be able to put together a good, fact filled presentation that says on the one hand this, and on the other hand that.  But everybody today is just like Truman, they all want a one-handed economist.  Truman would have loved environmentalists though -- I've never met one with two hands.  This guy just wants to scare you so that you keep the hell away from his trout stream.  So disappointing.  And yes, I know there are a million caveats to my annoyance here involving the difficulty of mobilizing and educating people, or dealing with government, or beating corporations with serious lobbying budgets, etc ... that would make you look less harshly on Herr Doktor -- but I also want some facts and context occasionally.  Why are the two so impossible to combine?

Back the drawing board I guess.  I still have no real sense if fracking at scale is honestly dangerous, or whether it's the equivalent of those complaints you heard circa 2002 about how ugly those cell-phone towers are, and ... are you there? ... hello ... reception is terrible around here. 


Al said...

Although I don't have any figures to back this up, the massive wind turbines that line the ridge behind Centralia are a happy reminder of how the whole darned human comedy keeps perpetuating itself, westward the underground toxic chemicals. In this photo they look a bit compressed, but without real smoke and fire shooting out of the ground beneath your feet, what doesn't?

Clark said...

I knew that eventually technology would find a way. With or without us monkeys.