Can hydraulic fracturing work?

Hydraulic fracturing, for good and ill, is revolutionizing energy production worldwide, but like many changes in the energy industry there have been many reports of negative consequences for people, ranging from leaks of gas to the air to dumps of unknown fluids into drinking water supplies.

Many political and business leaders have expressed support for these techniques as a way of bridging towards long-term energy solutions. Natural gas is generally thought to be cleaner than, for example, coal, putting out more energy per unit, less carbon dioxide, and lower amounts of pollutants like sulfur that can contribute to acid rain.

However, it hasn’t been established that is the case for natural gas produced through this process. Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping a mixture of sand, water, and chemicals into the ground at high pressure, breaking the rocks and inserting the sand such that it maintains open channels for the gas to flow through. That is a very different process from simply tapping a freely-flowing natural gas reservoir.

There are multiple steps where things can go wrong. The wells could be poorly lined, allowing leaks. The fracking fluid could escape or be disposed of improperly, contaminating drinking water supplies. These are just some of the potential issues, and we already know some things are regularly going wrong. For example, this technique has been employed heavily in Texas and measurements have found huge releases of methane to the atmosphere already (see here:https://www.facebook.com/TheEarthStory/posts/608083292586052

But even if we imagine a world powered by renewable electricity, there are still consequences. It takes a lot of rare metals and significant mining to produce most of the renewable power stations currently available. 

A new study focused on the United Kingdom by scientists from the University of Manchester tried to look at the issue assuming both a best and worst case scenario. They scrutinized a variety of estimates for how much stray gas and pollution is released in both well-regulated and poorly-regulated cases and compared the results to those observed in other types of electricity, including renewables. The type of study is called a “life-cycle analysis”, an attempt to view the consequences of a type of energy production by considering every single step in the process.

In the worst-case scenario, hydraulic fracturing is a disaster. Counting the release of methane into the atmosphere, natural gas drilling can be even worse for driving climate change than coal burning since methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. If the gas leaks out, it is just awful. It doesn’t produce the same sulfur, but other uncontained components can be equally toxic and the chemical mixtures are a large potential spill hazard. 

On the other hand, one of their surprising conclusions is that based on analyses of actual wells and field sampling, there may be a way to do this right.

Every process for generating energy, from coal to renewables, has a life cycle of pollution generated. If you count up the waste of renewables, mostly produced during mining, and compare it to the best-case scenario, actually observed for some unconventional natural gas wells, burning the gas actually produces less overall pollution than the renewables. The energy releases from the mining and potential ground pollution are nonzero and compared to that, if the drilling companies are actually under control, unconventional natural gas production could be possible as an actual, fairly clean fuel.

In the view of those authors, the difference is regulation. A highly regulated system, monitored to make sure gas isn’t leaking and fluids are highly controlled, could actually help the world’s energy supply become cleaner, at least from the perspective of the atmosphere.

On the other hand, that’s an ideal we just haven’t seen. So far, unconventional gas production around the world has been nowhere near as regulated as it needs to be to meet this standard. In my next post, I’ll cover a newly published example of this problem from one of the areas of active hydraulic fracturing, Pennsylvania.


Image credit:http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydraulic_Fracturing#mediaviewer/File:Rig_wind_river.jpg

Read the original study:http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306261914008745

Press report:


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