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Monday, April 11, 2011

Fracking: Bad for You, Good for China

The Marcellus shale formation is a huge deposit of rock that formed from the floor of a prehistoric sea. And it's massive. Taking up a large chunk of (mostly) the northeastern United States, it stretches from Alabama to New York, laying under vast swaths of many of the states in between:

Marcellus area

Like any ocean, the ocean that formed the Marcellus was heavily populated by lifeforms, and this means that the lifeforms left behind organic chemicals -- which means fossil fuels. In this case, natural gas.


The Marcellus formation may very well be the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. In September, the Scranton Times Tribune reported that, in "the 12 months between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010, the state's 632 producing Marcellus wells released 180 billion cubic feet of gas -- an amount that more than doubles Pennsylvania's annual natural gas production from the years before the shale exploration began."

There's a challenge to extraction from the Marcellus, however. It's not what's called a "conventional" deposit -- meaning all the natural gas is in big pockets. The Marcellus is more like a sponge, with each tiny little hole being filled with methane. You could drill down and extract from one of these holes, but you'd get a soda bottle worth of gas out of it. Not worth the effort.

So the industry is using a technique known as "hydraulic fracturing" or "fracking." With fracking, you drill a hole into the shale horizontally, like a sewer pipe, then you pump water and chemicals into the hole under tremendous pressure. This fractures the stone, releasing the natural gas trapped in some of the many little sponge holes of shale.

The problem is that not all the gas goes where you want it to and this happens:

Every time you open a tap, every time you wash your clothes, every time you take a shower, you open a gas leak in your house. Needless to say, this is not the optimal situation. Not only is natural gas flammable, it's also poison.

But hey, natural gas burns cleaner than coal. Which means that if we can get enough of the stuff, we can fight global warming, right? Right?

The Hill:

Cornell University professors will soon publish research that concludes natural gas produced with a drilling method called "hydraulic fracturing" contributes to global warming as much as coal, or even more.

The conclusion is explosive because natural gas enjoys broad political support -- including White House backing -- due to its domestic abundance and lower carbon dioxide emissions when burned than other fossil fuels.

Cornell Prof. Robert Howarth, however, argues that development of gas from shale rock formations produced through hydraulic fracturing -- dubbed "fracking" -- brings far more methane emissions than conventional gas production.

Enough, he argues, to negate the carbon advantage that gas has over coal and oil when they're burned for energy, because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas.

This is actually the second bad bit of news for the industry; they've also been arguing that increased domestic production of methane means less dependence on foreign sources of energy. This has been proven not to be the case.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Drilling companies rapidly expanding their U.S. operations in places such as Pennsylvania's vast Marcellus shale formation repeatedly tout they are providing American jobs and securing the nation's energy future.

Yet, a Tribune-Review examination found foreign companies are buying significant shares of these drilling projects and making plans for facilities to liquify and ship more of that natural gas overseas.

A leading player in the natural gas grab is China, whose thirst for energy to fuel its industrial explosion is growing rapidly. Others include the governments of South Korea and India, and companies in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, Japan and Australia.

"They're going to come in, extract all this stuff for next-to-nothing, and make global profits off it," said Pittsburgh Councilman Doug Shields. "This is beads for Manhattan, in a global sense."

Pretty apt, except along with the beads we get a polluted environment and ruined drinking water wells. It's an even worse deal than beads for Manhattan.

The broader lesson here is that you can't trust corporate interests. When those interests conflict with your own, you're screwed. They'll poison your air, poison your water, and fight you with everything they have if you complain. And they lie. People in the Marcellus area were told that fracking is safe -- they're still being told that, as gas leaks out of their kitchen faucet -- and that all the extraction would mean jobs and money. What they didn't say is that it means jobs and money for China.

And this is the same story with all domestic extraction. Look at offshore drilling; it's turned out to be a big environmental nightmare. And where does all that oil extracted go? Into a big global pool, because it's a commodity. Increased production at home does jack squat for oil prices, because it's a drop in that global bucket. If we kept all the oil for ourselves, maybe we'd see a drop in price at the pump for a few months, but no, no, no -- an export ban would be "protectionism." Protectionism, for reasons that aren't very well explained, is bad.

So we'll keep poisoning the well at home -- literally -- to uphold China's standard of living.


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