Will shale gas turn out to be an energy sink?

If you externalize the costs of a business activity, it means other people pay the costs–environmental, social and otherwise–and you get the profits. It goes on all the time in extractive industries such as oil and natural gas and mining. And, it is also a natural strategy for manufacturers who dump their pollution into the air and the water. It’s even practiced in finance where the executives of Wall Street banks have managed to collect the bonuses made off a phony boom in the last decade and saddle taxpayers with the losses of the inevitable bust caused by bad and often fraudulent loans, misleading derivative contracts, and leveraged speculation in stocks and commodities.

If the loopholes are there, you can be assured that people in business will take advantages of them. That’s exactly what is happening in the business of shale gas drilling. Drillers are exempt from federal clean air and water regulations under a bill shepherded through Congress in 2005 by none other former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney in his capacity as the then vice president of the United States. (Halliburton is one of the world’s largest providers of drilling fluids for shale gas drilling and other oil and gas drilling operations.) That means the drillers can externalize the environmental costs of these hazardous fluids and other materials needed to fracture the shale and thereby free the natural gas. They can foist those costs on nearby residents in the form of ruined water supplies, toxic air pollution, poisoned land, and health problems for humans and animals.

The environmental and health horrors associated with shale gas drilling are now in the news on a daily basis. But I have begun to think about the issue in another way. All of these externalized costs have an energy cost. And, the toxic fracturing fluid–millions of gallons of which are pumped into each and every shale gas well–will stretch out the time frame during which such costs are borne. No one knows what will happen to the half of that fluid which never returns to the surface during operations. There is concern that it could migrate to drinking water aquifers and destroy the drinking water not just for the few who happen to live near a drilling site, but for people living in huge swaths of the United States by polluting water sources for large cities such as New York.

Now, of course, that water could be cleaned up if it becomes toxic. Already shale gas drillers are having to provide filtering systems for people whose well water has become contaminated. In some cases, even this isn’t enough, and water must now be trucked in to families whose water is no longer fit to drink even with filtering.

In order to judge whether shale gas will provide any net energy to society, we must first decide where to set its system boundaries. It is hard to know exactly where to stop spatially: Should we, for example, include the energy needs of a family dependent on a worker at a subcontractor that provides software services to the driller? But, it is even harder to know what time frame to use.

One thing is certain. The legacy energy costs of doing shale gas drilling will not disappear anytime soon. The country and its people could be paying the externalized costs of such drilling decades after it ceases to provide any material benefit to society.

If New York city is forced to expend considerable energy to purify its water to clean out toxic chemicals leaching from wells in its watershed 50 years from now, how shall we then judge the presumed bounty of energy that shale gas supposedly represents?

The same kinds of questions have been raised about nuclear energy. If one takes into account the entire energy cost over time of building, operating, decommissioning, and then protecting decommissioned plants and their wastes–wastes that will remain dangerous for conceivably tens of thousands of years–it is possible to understand why some people claim that nuclear energy provides no net energy to society. Rather, it burdens future generations with huge legacy energy costs. We who are alive today get to externalize the energy costs of nuclear power by foisting them on future generations. This is probably the only way that one can consider nuclear power–as it is currently configured–an energy source rather than an energy sink.

I believe we may ultimately find that shale gas is nothing but an energy sink. It will provide net energy for a while to those who are living now while burdening future generations with huge cleanup costs that, in terms of energy, may equal or exceed the energy gain we are currently receiving from this supposedly “clean” energy source.

2 Responses to Will shale gas turn out to be an energy sink?

  1. Mark April 6, 2011 at 7:32 am #

    There are already toxic gasses and liquids in shale plays. Pumping more of the same in there won’t hurt anything when done properly. It’s comparable to pumping gas into your car gas tank. If you were to pump it improperly and spill it all over the ground, it would cause pollution that the gas station, not the person buying the gas, would have to clean up.

    Compared to the number of frac jobs done, the pollution caused by them is very, very low. Those that do cause pollution make the front page every day because people don’t understand the process and the media hates oil companies.

  2. cogeo April 6, 2011 at 9:20 am #

    I believe your argument is well-proven by not only industry but the EPA and many states to be at the least questionable, if not baseless. First, start at the consumer; the benefits of cheap energy provide warm homes, electricity, and security. That is not factored into your cost. Backing up to the actual drilling of this resource; jobs. For every hole drilled there are approximately 50 direct jobs ranging from those of professionals in offices and on the well site to first-job kids feeding workers at the local fast-food dump, grocery stores, etc. There are plenty examples of communities where the natural gas industry lifted them out of stagnancy to a robust and thriving community. Recession virtually skipped these communities. You have not factored that in. Now add the jobs created in areas not currently considered for drilling. Towns and cities which produce the steel for drilling; rigs, pipe, casing. The towns and cities which build cars and trucks for the industry. You have not factored that in. Now, how is it that before the global warming craze natural gas was considered clean burning and not now? Oh, the EPA labelled CO2 a pollutant. If it is truly a pollutant, like nuclear waste, then let’s think about a solution. Well, let’s bury everything with CO2 in it, never again to rear its ugly and polluting head on God’s green earth. You would bury every plant, every animal, every inch of concrete, and every limestone cliff, not to mention a nearly trace amount of it in our atmosphere. Can you see the absolute ridiculousness of this argument? So remove the factor of illness caused by CO2. Where you DO have a point is in the very temporary drilling and completion phase of natural gas drilling. Current best practices, such as those employed in the huge gas fields in Colorado’s mountains, have been found effective in solving the problem of site spills and water contamination. They do provided you don’t fall for that “Gasland” porn. As I write, I am sitting mere feet from a beautiful trout stream on a drilling rig. We have erected berms upon berms, and retention ponds for stormwater, (not to mention a closed system so we don’t need earthen pits anymore)to the extent that I feel very comfortable that we have absolutely protected this precious resource (and you should know that I am a fanatical trout fisher). But are there excesses? Yes. That is what you and I are here for. We vote for strong but sensible regulations to keep the operators who do not take their roles seriously. Fines for ruination of waterways should far exceed any gain from the production of gas. Set levels of fines at a minimum of $50 million, for example, and no operator on earth will bat an eye at the triple redundancy and constant vigilance required on these projects to keep them contained. Last, the frack fluid argument and the Cheney blah-blah-blah is old history. Cheney is no longer a force to be reckoned with except in the minds of those who blame everything on Bush/Cheney. Even when he was CEO he was not the guy who turned the valves. Let’s go ahead and ban the laundry list of “bad” chemicals is this mystery flud. Across the board, Kurt, let’s ban ‘em! Anionic surfactants used to reduce friction, well, we ban frack fluid, or less than 10% of it, but we also ban Dawn Dishwashing Liquid (you know, the duck- and otter-washing soap we use when these animals get into oil spills), and we also lose this “nasty” chemical to water purification plants and the food industry (polymers are part of the ice cream you and I eat). If you are so concerned about the mysterious contents of frack fluid, go get some and run it to a lab. Then let’s ban biocides, less than 1% of frack fluids. And let’s keep that nasty stuff out of our hospitals, nursing homes, our homes and schools, and buildings throughout the country. Let’s ban the sand that is pumped too, since it is part of the “frack”. Sand is the doom of all humanity! Ban window glass, ban windshields, and ban beaches and sandboxes while we’re at it. Look, there is very little proof that the natural gas industry is upsetting anything but liberals, so let’s end this and just say that we need to develop our resources wisely, cleanly, and without the current “anti-” hysteria. Natural gas is a win-win for our society, our country, our here and now for energy. Let’s cut the sniping of my industry and have this out in congress one way or another. We’ll either have a recovery and jobs or we will slip into history as yet another failed economic power; kind of like that monument to the collective cause, the USSR.