Getting Gas Wrong


In an economy full of problems there are still a few high points. One of them, as you may have noticed if you pay attention to your utility bills, is that natural gas prices are relatively low. Back in mid-2008, natural gas prices hit record highs. The market reacted as it is supposed to: exploration took off, production increased and now, almost two years later, the cost of natural gas has stabilized at a comfortable level, amid normal seasonal variations. We shouldn’t have to worry about this sector of the economy, but there is a dark cloud looming on the horizon in the form of yet another environmental initiative that the Obama administration is pushing forward, one that has the potential to cut domestic natural gas production, cost us jobs and revenue and force energy prices upward.

There is quite a bit of natural gas and oil trapped in shale and rock formations located thousands of feet underground. The tried and true technique of “hydraulic fracturing” has been used for about sixty years to coax these hydrocarbons to deep wells, where they can be recovered. In simple terms, hydraulic fracturing fluids are pumped down into a deep well under pressure. The fluid consists mostly of water and sand, with a small amount of other chemicals. As the pressurized fluid is distributed along a horizontal plane, it creates micro-fractures in the rock holding the natural gas. The sand particles hold these fractures open, allowing gas to flow along the path of least resistance up into the borehole of the well.

There are more than a million natural gas wells that utilize hydraulic fracturing in the United States. About ninety-five per cent of natural gas wells in the country use this form, or an analogous form, of reservoir enhancement to recover energy. The process is an important – some would say vital – piece of the puzzle if the nation is going to maintain some degree of energy independence. However, the technology caught the attention of Barack Obama’s EPA, which recently confirmed that it is “studying the issue”. When uttered by members of this administration those three words generally sound rather ominous and this is no exception. “Studying the issue,” whatever the issue, typically means more regulations, more restrictions and higher costs. When it comes to a part of our economy as vital as the energy sector, one has to wonder: how many more studies and subsequent “recommendations” can we afford?

Why is the EPA studying hydraulic fracturing? For environmental reasons of course. Scattered, unconfirmed and wholly anecdotal claims that hydraulic fracturing has contaminated drinking water in a few locations across the nation spurred the EPA into action. From a scientific point of view, it’s hard to understand why the EPA would lend any credibility to these tales, much less allocate $1.9 million dollars to take another look at a technology that has been studied to death, not only by the oil and natural gas industries, but by the EPA itself. A 2004 EPA study concluded that hydraulic fracturing didn’t present any threat to human health and the environment, but of course that was George W. Bush’s EPA, so any of its decisions are subject to a Barack Obama do over.

There are a number of reasons why it’s just plain silly to spend almost two million dollars to reconfirm what we already know. Chemically, as noted above, hydraulic fracturing fluid is overwhelmingly water and sand (or ceramic, or some other inert solid used to keep rock pores open). Other chemicals, which are often proprietary, represent a very small fraction of the whole. Geologically, the formations holding the gas and oil are located thousands of feed underground, under layers of different strata, while drinking water aquifers are typically no more than a few hundred feet below ground. The natural gas recovered, like the fracturing fluid, will naturally follow the path of least resistance and flow to the bore hole that’s been drilled for that purpose, rather than try to find a tortuous path through all of the layers of rock and sediment containing it. Plus, consider this: even as the EPA looks at ways to restrict an important means of producing energy, they’re simultaneously developing regulations that encourage another segment of the power industry to inject chemicals deep underground without the kind of relief valve that a bore hole represents. Carbon storage and sequestration is the leading, EPA approved way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. In this case, carbon dioxide is injected deep underground at high pressures, but because there is no well to relieve the pressure, it’s free to find fractures that will carry it, and any contaminants from the stack gas that remain, into aquifers.

The Environmental Engineering Committee (EEC) of EPA’s Science Advisory Board is in charge of studying hydraulic fracturing. The EEC has sixteen members, fourteen of which are academics and two of which are consultants. Not a single industry expert sits on the committee. The energy industry will be free to comment on the committee’s work of course, but is Obama’s EPA likely to pay serious attention to experts who represent evil corporate interests?

According to a study conducted by IHS Global Insight, a ban on hydraulic fracturing would cost the United States $374 billion in lost Gross Domestic Product by 2014, would result in the loss of about 3 million jobs and would require a sixty per cent increase in imported oil and natural gas to make up the difference. Placing restrictions on the fluids that can be used for hydraulic fracturing would be slightly less painful, but painful enough. In that scenario, IHS’s study foresees a $172 billion reduction in GDP, 1.4 million jobs lost and a thirty per cent increase in energy imports.

It should be noted that hydraulic fracturing is already regulated on the state and federal levels. Studying the practice once again will lead to one of two results. Either the EPA will conclude that existing regulatory protections are sufficient, which doesn’t seem likely given this administration’s record when it comes to environmental issues, or the EPA will deem it necessary to pile another layer of crippling regulations onto an industry that has been one of the few bright spots in a floundering economy.

  • poptoy

    AS A RETIRED OILFIELD WORKER I CAN SAY THIS. THE EPA HAS GOT TO BE CRAZY TO GO AFTER THIS OR THE ADMINISTRATION HAS AN AGENDA THAT IS UNFAVORABLE TO ENERGY PRODUCTION IN THIS COUNTRY.

  • Dan

    Completely inaccurate. Hyd. fracturing as used in the shale has been used for less than ten years, not sixty. in a conventional well there are about 30 to 40 thousand ga;llons of water used whereas a shale well requires 3 million gallions. in the conv. well about 85% of the drilling liquids are recovered whereas in a shale well only 15% of the fluids are recovered with the remaining 85% available to disrupt drinking water supplies.

    • http://www.frackno.com Tom

      What Dan say is quite accurate. Fracking has only been used in any large scale since 2002 and in every part of our country where it has been used is experiencing polluting of ground water and of the air. And there are only a very treatment centers for the waste water from these fracking operations (3 to 5 MILLION gallons per well – over 100,000 wells – you do the math) – the whole operation has not been studied even cursorily and it is time we look into this process which has destroyed much of the region that I live in.

      • owyheewine

        Dan and Tom must read the same lefty envirowhacko blogs. You know the guy is repeating drivel when he misspells fracing. Fracing has been used for decades. The difference in current operations is that in recent years drillers have developed a technique that allows them to drill wells that actuall change direction thousands of feet underground. Wells don't just go straight down anymore. Fracing is still the same. Liquid is pumped under high pressure into the producing zone. Now, when the liquid is forced out, it produces vertical cracks instead of horizontal cracks. Whoopy doo.
        I have no doubts that some less than honest drillers hav eno properly cemented wells to prevent contamination of higher aquifers, but banning fracing because of a violation or 2 is like saying that all people need to be put in jail because a few commit serious crimes.

  • USMCSniper

    President Obama has the right solution and we right wingers just don't understand! It is Crystalium Dilithium, also known as radan is an element, a member of the hypersonic series, mostly occurring as crystalline mineral. It is used to power the warp drive systems of many starships. Dilithium regulates the matter/antimatter reaction in a ship's warp core because of its ability to be rendered porous to light-element antimatter when exposed to high temperatures and pressures. It controls the amount of power generated in the reaction chamber, channeling the energy released by mutual annihilation into a stream of electro-plasma

    • Stephen D.

      Sniper. Time to "Beam up"??

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/Stephen_Brady Stephen_Brady

      Sniper, I heard the other day that Obama is mothballing Starfleet. He doesn't think it's fair that we have starships and Equatorial Guinea doesn't. Demmed progressives …

  • badaboo

    Rich Trzupek would be whining no matter what the energy policy .No one's gonna run tractor trailers OR cars on LNP . Rich knows that but what the hell , the Administration does what Republican and Conservatives have been whining about for years , but noiw they find fault with it ….Go green ? Go Solar ? Windmill ? It's all the same …WRONG ,WRONG ,WRONG .__So now another phony argument ….drilling offshore will cause LNP prices to destabilize ? __Energy Dependence on Arab Oil …ever hear of that Rich ? We've done little or nothing since they put the screws to us in '73 . Everyone's known about the Shale in the West for decades , and everyonmed's also known that the technology to make it economically pheasable is not yet there , and it aint as if everyones not fighting over water in the West and Southwestern States . We've dammed rivers for hydro-electric power , so big choices must be made in order to [ as the previous poster enlightened ] exploit the shale . Again , an argument is raised no matter how contradictory to your own already established positions , for the sole purose of being contentious .

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/johncarens johncarens

    I can think of no better example of a manufactured crisis than what does, or does not, happen to well water when we attempt to free naturally occurring terrestrial gas. Doesn't the federal government in general, and the Barack Obama in particular, have enough damned problems to take care of without bothering with this sort of crap?

    To ask the question, of course, is to answer it, especially if you are an authoritarian Maoist statist radical leftist: No, they don't have enough to do. This collection of oligarchical monsters in Washington will not rest until they have utterly destroyed the mercantile underpinnings of this magnificent society. This includes completely benign sources of energy, such as natural gas.

    Make no mistake: This radical administration despises the traditions of this society, and wants them destroyed– root, branch and leaf. There is no better expression of the freedom our people enjoy than the free availability of fuels and energy: They provide EVERYTHING our modern society needs to remain, well, free and modern. It is essential for these disgusting, anti-freedom, anti-individual, anti-liberty thugs to limit the availability of all energy and fuel, thus limiting personal mobility and individual movement.

    As a nation, we really need to wrap our minds around how alien, how foreign the Barack Obama cult is to our American institutions. And, rather like Alice through the looking glass, everything that to normal, liberty-loving Americans that might seem murderous, wantonly destructive, hurtful, petty, ugly and stupid, to Obama is loving, beautiful and adorable. This is especially true of seemingly pedestrian and prosaic things such as natural gas, grocery bags and lightbulbs– things that are touchstones to a heretofore normal American life. They must be ripped out, and thrown on the Marxist fire of the bourgeoisie. It is truly nothing more complicated (or terrifying) than that.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/JosephWiess JosephWiess

    I swear, Obama's plan is to break this country and put us all out of work. He's taxing, double taxing, and value taxing. He doesn't care, since it doesn't effect him.

  • Thunder

    Stupak, if you can still read;

    After being pro, just after being against – you are "retiring"? With a huge pension, funded by us???
    You are still a two-legged lying sac of rats manure. Even if you, suddenly, decide to stop fib-b-b-b-b-b-bing!

  • Delfin J Beltran MD

    I wish that the obamination and his fellow travellers were just misdirected or crazy or stupid BUT they are doing just exactly what they have plotted to do for nearly a century – Capitalism and Freedom, are the antithesis of their goal of population control. All the fears that create the core of these malignant demonicrats stem from the philosophy that the growing population of the world will exceed its ability to feed itself. Everything must be controlled so the select autocracy and their slaves who have been reduced to the lowest common denominator can get enought to eat. There is nothing good about the enemies of the people.