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Global Warming and Potential Water Contamination Resulting from Fracking for Hydrocarbons: A Relationship?
Contaminated water, presumed to be from drilling into and fracturing (fracking) hydrocarbon-bearing rock strata, has been in the news for some time now. And so have global warming and air pollution issues associated with transporting and burning fossil fuels. Are these headliners connected? Of course.
Before I delve into the issues, be it known that we all use fossil fuels. I don't know of any exception. Here's the basic scenario: find the fossil fuel sources, recover them, and then process, distribute, and use. Each week, my wife, Mary, and I routinely consume, on average, about 8 gallons of gasoline even though we drive conservatively and strive to leave the smallest footprint we can on the environment. We recycle about a pound of plastic derived from petroleum every week. And we generate about half the carbon dioxide (CO2) as the average two-person American household (America's per capita CO2 production is around 22 tons per year). But, that means Mary and I still release around 22 tons of this greenhouse gas to the atmosphere each year. I don't feel especially virtuous at the moment.
Like it or not, fossil fuels provide most of the energy needed to run the global economies. There are alternative energy sources, but America and most other countries have infrastructures and attitudes that don't accommodate them very well, so they only deliver a small amount of energy needed to meet the global demand.
Global consumption of oil continues to exceed 80 million barrels per day (America accounts for about 20-22 million of those barrels) and global consumption is increasing, thanks in part to the emerging Chinese and Indian economies. So, at least for the foreseeable future, fossil fuels are us and we are them. And should our grandchildren ever ask what we did with all that oil and natural gas, we can say that we burned up most of it as if there was no tomorrow for them.
Until around 10 years ago, projections for when the world would reach "peak oil" ranged anywhere from two years to 30+ years in the future. (Peak oil happens when more oil (or natural gas) is consumed than can be supplied.) But it isn't talked about much anymore. New technologies have changed the equation. Bill McKibben once said in effect that, because we keep improving our fossil fuel extraction technologies, we shouldn't expect our planet to save us from ourselves anymore.
Predictably, we're behaving more and more like oil and natural gas are limitless, just like we did before the OPEC oil embargo in the early '70s. I fear that humankind will lose its incentive to move beyond fossil fuels because convenience and profit trump health and environmental concerns. And this includes coal, - one of the most dangerous and dirtiest fuels ever. America produces nearly 40 percent of its energy from coal.
Fracking's Impact and Transportation Issues
Horizontal and directional drilling and fracking release oil and natural gas from source rocks and not just reservoir rocks. This technology is the big game changer, along with more exacting methods for locating and quantifying reserves. In the United States, oil and gas wells are proliferating. Generally speaking, hydrocarbons in source rocks are not sufficiently recoverable using conventional drilling and extraction methods, but they yield their treasure when they are fracked. Underground blasting typically starts this process. Then copious amounts of water, sands consisting of specific grain sizes and minerals, and chemicals known only to the oil companies are injected into the wells under pressure. The sands help keep the newly fractured rock porous, allowing crude oil, made more fluid by the hot water and chemicals, to flow to the well pipe, along with varying amounts of natural gas, chemicals and contaminated water. This stew has to be contained, separated, and treated -- ideally without polluting soils, the atmosphere, and water systems. Drilling rigs are prone to spills resulting from the mishandling of chemicals, leaking oil and gas, and failed containment ponds.
Equipment and materials handling at each of these steps also increase the chances for accidents. Once above ground, the hydrocarbons and chemical residuals must be stored before being transported via trucks, pipelines, and trains to refineries. And much of the hydrocarbons will find their way to us, the consumers, as refined products. Hopefully they won't spill or erupt into flame along the way or in our hands. And when we use them, is it too much to ask that we don't use them frivolously?
With a closer look, we'll find that this scenario really isn't very benign. Fracking liquids require copious amounts of fresh water that's often diverted from other uses. Waters laden with dissolved minerals like what are typically intercepted in the target rocks won't work because they leave deposits in pipes or they corrode pipes and containers. This water, often salty and laced with drilling chemicals, has to be dealt with somehow. The high-temperature and high-pressure fluids also could escape from the drilled rock strata. And although most hydrocarbon source rocks are a mile or more deep, they may be shallower in places, and they may contain faults that angle toward the surface. Faults, and any permeable strata overlying the source rocks, could become conduits that allow gas and fluids to migrate and contaminate groundwater and surface waters. Natural gas, and oftentimes other gases such as propane, butane, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide, can escape during drilling and hydrocarbon recovery.
One dismal fact about the Bakkan Oil Field in the Williston Basin is that over a fourth of the natural gas now being produced there along with the oil must be wasted -- flared off because there is no infrastructure to get it to processors and distributors. There are plans to capture and use this gas, but they haven't been implemented yet. And why is that? Because it isn't worth enough money. Bakkan crude, on the other hand, is, and the oil companies put that infrastructure in place to get it from point A to point B as quickly as possible, regardless of such external costs as gas flaring. This is a sour commentary on this form of capitalism in which profit trumps all other concerns. To get a fuller perspective on the Bakkan oil boom, go to http://wwwp.dailyclimate.org/tdc-newsroom/2014/02/bakken-oil-play.
And if any of us thinkd that fracking is someone else's issue somewhere else, think again. There are huge numbers of these wells scattered across at least half of America, from New York and Pennsylvania to California. Colorado alone has more than 1,500. Fracking for oil in California is diverting precious fresh water desperately needed for domestic use, fish habitat, and agriculture. To get a perspective on California's situation, read Jeremy Miller's article, "The Colonization of Kern County" (Orion, January-February, 2011). Transporting oil and natural gas to refineries involves thousands of miles of pipelines, numerous trucks, trains, barges, and tankers. Many of the transportation routes bisect communities, follow waterways, or are waterways. Even here in rural north Idaho, Mary and I are not entirely safe. On average, at least one mile-long (or longer) Burlington Northern-Santa Fe train carrying 100 tank cars or more of crude oil passes within three miles of our home and a quarter-mile from the Sagle School every day. More oil trains are planned within a year or two.
Prior to reaching our area, the trains cut through Sandpoint, then cross our high-value Lake Pend Orielle on a mile-long bridge built several decades ago. In the mix of BNSF traffic are several trains carrying coal from the Powder River Basin, each over a mile long, as well. Their numbers could soon reach upwards to 40 every day. (Amtrak's passenger train, The Empire Builder, is getting squeezed out.) After leaving our area, the trains cross the region's great Rathdrum Aquifer that supplies drinking water for some half-million people. BNSF also maintains a large yard atop this aquifer where diesel locomotives are refueled. From there, the oil and coal trains bisect the heart of Spokane, then make their way down the ecologically vital Columbia River and through other population centers to terminals and refineries on the West Coast. Accidents or big spills anywhere along this route could be catastrophic.
Although accidents are rare, transporting crude oil and natural gas poses major risks for human habitation areas and water bodies, regardless of how they are moved. When spills of crude and toxic chemicals occur in or near waterways, they almost invariably cause dramatic risks to human health and long-term damage to aquatic habitats. If they occur in or near population centers, destruction of property and human fatalities are likely. The tragic destruction of Lac-Megantic, Quebec on July 6, 2013, by a runaway oil train provides testimony to the destructive power of spilled crude, in this case from the Bakkan field. That tragic event, along with a few other recent train derailments and spills (Aliceville, Ala. on Nov. 8, 2013; Casselton, N.D. on Dec. 30, 2013; and Plaster Rock, New Brunswick on Jan. 7, 2014) indicate that crude from this source could be more combustible than from most other sources. Am I safe to assume that fracking the Bakkan formation involves flammable chemicals that liquefy the crude so it will flow more easily, but might this also increase its flammability? On or before the mix is received at the refineries, I presume that the admixed fracking chemicals are recovered and reused. Are they?
Escaping natural gas is extremely flammable, and concentrations within its explosive range will blow up in the presence of any ignition source. It can also attain an explosive concentration almost immediately upon escaping into any enclosed space. If ignited, a small amount can disintegrate an entire building. When comingled with drinking water, it escapes at the tap, creating the risk for an explosion in the home. This is why the gas that can't be recovered at the wellheads must be flared. Natural gas does have a vast distribution system -- from wellheads to purifiers and distributors, then finally to our stoves and furnaces. Would it really cost too much to capture and connect this flared "waste gas" to existing distribution systems?
Energy Conservation's Role
Here's another way to tie contaminated water, either directly or indirectly, to fracking for hydrocarbons: What if there's a long delay between fracking and any associated consequences? What can we do if we come to realize that, after a number of years, those gases, and fracking fluids laden with chemicals and heavy metals have migrated into and contaminated aquifers and surface waters?
Meanwhile, burning fossil fuels keeps adding CO2 and other effluent to the atmosphere. Yet, in spite of these huge "what ifs," we can't seem to stop our headlong rush to keep finding and consuming more oil, gas, and coal. But we have been warned that one probable consequence of our greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, could bring massive population dislocations due to rising sea levels, increasing occurrences of drought and floods, shortages of food and potable water, and intensifying storms.
Since we can't seem to wean off of fossil fuels (and I doubt that we will any time soon), I believe that reducing energy consumption offers our best hope to slow the release of greenhouse gases and reduce the befouling of our land and water. And even if other people worldwide don't reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stop polluting their environment, we can. We can set the example for countries such as China and India instead of espousing the tired excuse that we shouldn't have to compromise our "economic engine" if they don't.
Here are a few specific examples of what we can do now to conserve energy: Get a home energy audit. Once we know where our homes are leaking heated or chilled air, we'll know where to install more insulation and which windows and doors to replace. Downsize if possible and help to create a trend to smaller homes. Build more-efficient office buildings. Extend the lives of our vehicles and gadgets by using and maintaining them carefully. Use less plastic and buy fewer plastic things. Combine errands that require a vehicle, making one trip fill the needs for several. Better, let's get out and walk or bike whenever and wherever possible. Use LED bulbs. Reduce our water consumption by at least 50 percent. However we do this, know that it can be done; water conserving strategies are all over the web. And let's encourage friends and family to recycle everything recyclable. Refining aluminum from recycled cans requires only a tenth of the electricity needed to smelt bauxite, the raw ore. Such steps will save coal, oil, and gas, probably more than what's currently being produced from the Williston and Powder River Basins.
But we also need to believe that consuming fossil fuels at a much more modest rate is the moral and ethical thing to do. And cutting back on energy consumption will bring indirect benefits to air, habitats and water quality. One such benefit: slowing the extraction of fracking sands from surface pits. These vast pits strip away large areas of habitat and disrupt surface water and groundwater systems. And there would be less transporting of fossil fuels and their hydrocarbon products, reducing chances for accidents and spills. And we might even be able to cut back on hydropower, leaving more water for aquatic species, such as salmon. Now, let's roll up our physical, ethical, moral, and political sleeves and get busy.
Douglas Toland is the author of "This Life's Tempestuous Sea." Toland is currently retired after a career as an Alaskan environmental specialist. After living in Alaska for 25 years, Toland and his wife now live in Bonner County, Idaho. His book is available online at Amazon.