FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Is this what we want (or really need) as part of Painesville's future?
Shale gas: Not a 'game changer' after all
by Kurt Cobb
Newly accessible natural gas from deep shale deposits around the world has been touted as a solution to everything from oil dependence to climate change. But our actual experience with shale gas extraction is telling another story.
The natural gas industry would like you to believe that newly accessible gas previously locked away in deep shale deposits is set to make natural gas the dominant fuel of the 21st century. Presumably, that's because natural gas is cleaner, produces fewer greenhouse gases, and will supposedly be widely available at reasonable prices. Therefore, we'll be using it to generate more of our electricity, power more of our vehicles, produce more products from our petrochemical refineries, and generally replace oil as the world's primary fuel.
Can gas from shale really promise all of that? David Hughes, formerly a geoscientist with the Geological Survey of Canada for 32 years and now an independent consultant, believes that those promises are overblown. He outlines his concerns in a new report entitled "Will Natural Gas Fuel America in the 21st Century?" which he prepared for the Post Carbon Institute. Even though he has limited his study to the United States, much of what he says is applicable to the rest of the world.
So many of the claims made for shale gas are questionable that it's hard to know where to start. The key claim is that it will be plentiful. But strangely no particular price is attached to this claim. What would we have to pay for that bounty to be available? One driller I know says it's nonsense to tell the public that we will have extensive supplies of natural gas from shale without saying what it will actually cost. He said that natural gas selling for $5 mcf implies a much smaller exploitable resource than gas above $10 mcf, a level hit only briefly twice in the last decade.
The report cites estimates of what price it might take to get large volumes of shale gas out of the ground. Some of the easiest and highest flowing wells may make a profit at current prices around $4 mcf. But harder-to-get gas will likely cost more than $7 mcf and possibly as much as $11.50 mcf. What's clear is that ramping up shale gas production won't be cheap. As my driller friend opined, "We can have cheap natural gas or we can have plentiful natural gas, but we're not going to have cheap, plentiful natural gas."
But just how plentiful will that natural gas be even with high prices?
Forecasts from the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)--which have tended to be too optimistic--suggest that shale gas will only lift U.S. natural gas production modestly between now and 2035. This is because other sources such as conventional gas and coalbed methane are projected to experience significant production declines, -29 percent and -4 percent respectively, during this period. Except for a relatively small increase in offshore production of 9 percent, shale gas in the United States must make up for these declines first before it can add to our current rate of production. An increase of 26 percent total is expected for U.S.-produced natural gas through 2035. That's hardly a fraction of what would be required to fulfill all the promises made for natural gas. According to the EIA, gas will provide almost the same percentage of energy to the U.S. economy in 2035 as it does today.
This suggests that there simply won't be enough gas available for broad new uses such as natural gas-powered vehicles or natural gas-fired baseload capacity for electric utilities. Far from displacing oil, natural gas is likely to continue in its current uses: a fuel for heating buildings and for industrial process heat and a petrochemical feedstock.
Let's imagine for a moment (even though the facts don't support this) that the natural gas optimists are correct, that the United States has a 100-year supply of natural gas. Even if this were true, it's 100 years at current rates of production. But wait, the natural gas industry is proposing vast new uses of natural gas and expecting normal economic growth. That means that the rate of production must grow rather consistently over time if natural gas is to displace oil and meet all that new demand.
Simple spreadsheet calculations will tell you what you need to know about what happens to such claims under the pressure of a little exponential growth. At 2 percent per year growth (about what oil production grew prior to the plateau that set in in 2005), the 100-year U.S. domestic natural gas supply is exhausted in 56 years. If we assume that production peaks when about 50 percent of the resource is exhausted, this puts the peak within 35 years. Think about it. Even if the optimists are correct, with a production growth rate of just 2 percent per year, the country reaches a peak within 35 years! What will we do after that?
The picture gets acutely worse as the rate of production growth rises. A 3 percent rate implies exhaustion in 47 years and peak in 31 years. A 5 percent growth rates means exhaustion in 37 years and a peak in just 26 years. Now consider that domestic supplies are probably going to be less than claimed, and you'll see why shale gas simply cannot solve our energy problems.
What is preventing the huge ramp-up promised by the natural gas industry? As it turns out, while initial flows from fractured shale gas wells are very high, they usually decline by 65 to 80 percent within the first year. The second year sees another considerable decline. Therefore, flows tend to settle at very low levels. This means that in order to achieve growth in the rate of production, new well completions must expand quickly enough both to make up for these steep decline rates and to meet the need for growth in overall rates of production. The process is akin to trying to climb up a down escalator, one that is going down at a rather fast rate.
As the overall rate of production climbs, the number of new wells needed to maintain and grow production mounts exponentially. The task becomes more and more capital-intensive as larger and larger rig fleets have to be built and deployed on a continuous basis. At some point growth in production rates will have to level off as the growth of the oil and gas services industry becomes unsustainable due to constraints in both capital and skilled labor.
In addition, environmental concerns are likely to result in new regulations in many states with shale gas deposits. Such regulations add to costs as they slow development. These regulations essentially revolve around protecting drinking water aquifers and rivers from fracturing fluids injected under intense pressure into the borehole of the well. These fluids are what create fractures in the shale that allow the gas to flow to the wellbore. Much of the injected fluid returns to the surface and must be treated or disposed of. The rest stays in the formation, and there are fears that it could migrate to drinking wateraquifers via poorly sealed drill pipes.
Finally, while natural gas is touted as a fuel that is much cleaner to burn than coal, only conventional gas reservoirs (which are now in decline in the United States) produce natural gas with a vastly better greenhouse gas profile. Because the fracturing process allows a considerable amount of methane to escape into the atmosphere at the beginning of a well's life, the greenhouse gas profile of shale gas is much less favorable. Hughes' report references one study that claims that this so-called "fugitive" methane comes out in such great quantities that coal used for coal-fired power plants has a better greenhouse gas footprint. I'm not convince it's that bad. But, this unburned methane is 20 times more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere. That means large unburned methane emissions can reduce and possibly even negate methane's advantage as a climate-friendly fuel.
Where does that leave us? Well, only one claim made by shale gas proponents is unequivocally true: Natural gas is cleaner, meaning it is less polluting to burn at the burner tip than other fossil fuels. That's an important property, and one we should not ignore as we try to find a transition strategy away from fossil fuels altogether. But the claims of abundance, low price, and low carbon footprint must all be discounted considerably if we are to make a realistic assessment of the role shale gas will play in our future energy mix.
MORE FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — An explosion
that sounded like a sonic boom blew out walls of an unfinished power plant and set off a fire during a test of natural gas lines Sunday, killing at least five workers and injuring a dozen or more.
The explosion at the Kleen Energy Systems plant in Middletown, about 20 miles south of Hartford, could be heard and felt for miles.
Deputy Fire Marshal Al Santostefano told The Associated Press on Sunday night that no one was known to be missing amid the rubble from the damaged plant. Still, crews planned to spend all night going through debris in case there were any more victims. The cause of the gas explosion was unknown, and the investigation was to begin Monday morning, he said.
The explosion left huge pieces of metal that once encased the plant peeling off its sides. A large swath of the structure was blackened and surrounded by debris, but the building, its roof and its two smokestacks were still standing. Rescue crews had set up several tents alongside the site, which is a few miles from Wesleyan University on a wooded and hilly 137-acre parcel of land overlooking the Connecticut River.
The explosion happened around 11:15 a.m., Santostefano said. Mayor Sebastian Giuliano heard the blast while leaving church.
"It felt almost like a sonic boom," Giuliano said at an evening news conference.
Santostefano said 50 to 60 people were in the area at the time of the explosion, and multiple contractors were working on the project, making it difficult to quickly account for everyone.
One of those killed was Raymond Dobratz, a 58-year-old plumber from Old Saybrook, said his son, Erik Dobratz, who called the elder man "a great dad."
The 620-megawatt plant, which was almost complete, is being built to produce energy primarily using natural gas. Santostefano said workers for the construction company, O&G Industries, were purging the gas line when the explosion occurred.
ynn Hawley, of Hartland, Conn., told The Associated Press that her son, Brian Hawley, 36, is a pipefitter at the plant. He called her from his cell phone to say he was being rushed to Middlesex Hospital.
"He really couldn't say what happened to him," she said. "He was in a lot of pain, and they got him into surgery as quickly as possible."
She said he had a broken leg and was expected to survive.
Officials had not released the conditions of the other injured people by Sunday evening, although they said at least a dozen people had injuries ranging from minor to very serious.
The thundering blast shook houses for miles.
"I felt the house shake. I thought a tree fell on the house," Middletown resident Steve Clark said.
Barrett Robbins-Pianka, who lives about a mile away and has monitored the project for years, said she was running outside and heard what she called "a tremendous boom."
"I thought it might be some test or something, but it was really loud, a definite explosion," she said.
Work on the plant was 95 percent complete, the mayor said.
Kleen Energy Systems LLC began construction on it in February 2008. It had signed a capacity deal with Connecticut Light and Power for the electricity produced by the plant, which was scheduled to be completed by mid-2010.
The company is run by former Middletown City Councilman William Corvo. A message left at Corvo's home was not returned Sunday. Calls to Gordon Holk, general manager of Power Plant Management Services, which has a contract to manage the plant, also weren't returned.
Energy Investors Funds, a private equity fund that indirectly owns a majority share in the power plant, said it is fully cooperating with authorities investigating the explosion. In a written statement, the company offered sympathy and concern and said it would release more information on the explosion as it becomes available.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell visited the scene Sunday and announced late in the day that the state had imposed a temporary no-fly zone for a three-mile radius around the site to ensure that the safety of the search and rescue workers would not be jeopardized. The restrictions were put in place until Monday evening.
The state's Emergency Operations Center in Hartford also was activated, and the Department of Public Health was called to provide tents at the scene for shelter and medical triage.
Daniel Horowitz, a spokesman with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, said the agency is mobilizing an investigation team from Colorado and hopes to have the workers on the scene Monday.
Plants powered by natural gas are taking on a much larger role in generating electricity for the U.S. Gas emits about half the greenhouse gases of coal-fired plants and new technology has allowed natural gas companies to begin to unlock gas supplies that could total more than 100 years at current usage levels.
Natural gas is used to make about a fifth of the nation's electricity.
Safety board investigators have done extensive work on the issue of gas line purging since an explosion last year at a Slim Jim factory in North Carolina killed four people. They've identified other explosions caused by workers who were unsafely venting gas lines inside buildings.
The board voted last week to recommend that national and international code writers strengthen their guidelines to require outdoor venting of gas lines or an approved safety plan to do it indoors.
In February 2009, an explosion at a We Energies coal-fired power plant near Milwaukee burned six workers. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is still investigating.
In November 2007, an explosion at a Dominion Virginia Power coal-fired plant in Massachusetts killed three workers, and in January 2007 one worker and nine others were injured at an American Electric Power plant of the same type in Beverly, Ohio.