Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) sat down with Chevron's Vice President of Policy and Planning Rhonda Zygocki on Monday at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco to discuss, among other things, the recent boom in natural gas hydrofracking (or simply "fracking").
Natural gas as "magic bullet"
Zygocki spoke of a "fundamental shift in the energy landscape" over the past few years that is driven by "innovation and shale." Until the innovation part of the equation arrived on the scene in the form of horizontal drilling and hydrofracking, shale, in all its abundance in the United States, was little more than a "nuisance." But with the new technology, says Zygocki, operators like Chevron (and between 1,000 and 2,000 other drillers) have "been able to unleash the greatest energy story in decades."
Declining natural gas prices and energy imports, increased job growth and - dare we say it - energy independence are all a part, according to Zygocki, of a new "energy renaissance" provided by natural gas now unleashed from its former shale prison, a renaissance that will spill over into the greater economy and light the path to the future. Calling for responsible development and strong regulation, Zygocki sees the coming century full of energy abundance and economic opportunity as the nation sits at a pivotal energy crossroads.
There are undeniable benefits to shale gas, especially compared to coal, imported oil and most especially to the environmental catastrophe of the Alberta tar sands. But the rush headlong into full-scale shale fracking isn't the quite the magic bullet Zygocki describes and ultimately not, as Fred Krupp argued, the best long-term energy solution nor without serious short-term risks to human health, ecosystems and climate.
The risks of shale hydrofracking
"There is no question that shale gas represents a big economic opportunity for this country," Krupp said, "and has created a lot of jobs. There's also no question, if you visit the shale gas fields as I have, that there have been more than a few instances where people who live around these operations have been harmed," citing one instance of a woman he met in Pennsylvania forced to abandon her family farm due to the noxious fumes from a nearby drilling operation.
The problem with the gold rush-like boom in shale gas, explains Krupp, is managing the explosion in drilling operators, many of whom might throw caution to the wind in the push for short-term profit. Even if companies like Chevron manage their operations responsibly, there are countless more than can't or won't:
"There's so many operators," say Krupp, "that even if the best forty are doing everything perfectly there's still another couple of thousand because it's such a fragmented operation. So, while the economic benefits are obvious, I guess the environmental implications of not doing this right, in some cases, are equally obvious if you spend the time to look."
For example, says Krupp, for too long, too many in the industry claimed little or no chemicals escaping from the fractures. "And while that is largely true, there have been thousands of cases of the chemicals going into groundwater because the surface fill and because the well casings lack integrity. In some cases companies haven't even tested whether the cement is well-formed."
Measuring methane leakage
Another potential risk from natural gas production that has gained attention in recent months is fugitive methane emissions, or methane leakage. Natural gas is mostly methane, when it burns it produces less carbon emissions than other fossil fuels, offering a potential climate benefit by offsetting much more carbon intensive coal-fired energy production. But when uncombusted methane leaks from wells, pipelines and storage facilities, the resulting emissions of the gas can turn the potential climate positive into a climate negative. Methane doesn't linger in the atmosphere like CO2, but has a much greater impact over short-term radiative forcing than does CO2. Over a 20-year span, one pound of methane is 72 times more potent than CO2 for increasing the retention of heat in the atmosphere. Obviously, reducing the amount of fugitive methane emissions is key to capturing the climate benefits natural gas could offer.
Industry estimates a leakage rate of around 1.6 percent, but studies from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado at Boulder have measured leakage at specific locations anywhere from 4 percent to as high as 9 percent. Current EPA estimates of methane leakage is 2.3 percent. EDF's Steven Hamburg cautions that the divergent numbers are preliminary and Zygocki admits that despite the low industry estimate on fugitive emissions, the real issue is "we don't have a good grasp on the measurement."
Krupp claims fugitive emissions throughout the natural gas infrastructure is more along the line of 3 percent, too high to claim the climate benefits gas of most gas proponents:
"EDF, having done the analysis, sees natural gas as better than the alternatives under lots of scenarios if we can get the total amount of natural gas that we pull out of the ground, we can get the fugitive emissions from all parts of natural gas infrastructure, down below 1 percent," Krupp said. "That's what the math shows."
Getting it right
Krupp served on a panel commissioned by former Secretary of Energy Steven Chue to study and advise on best practices for the shale gas industry. Understanding that shale gas will likely become an ever-greater part of the nation's energy mix, EDF seeks to help industry and government "get it right." Krupp laid out three steps outlining how that can be accomplished in the coming months and years:
- Protect local communities from groundwater contamination, air pollution and other local impacts from drilling operations.
- Guard against fugitive methane emissions throughout the life-cycle of drilling, extraction, transportation and consumption of natural gas. Not properly measuring and containing these fugitive emissions "accelerate global warming tremendously, especially in the next 20 years when we most need help keeping the temperature rise down."
- Understand that we are indeed, as Zygocki says, at a crossroads for our energy future. At a time when utilities are deciding how to proceed as they grapple with new EPA regulations, growing public concern about climate change and, perhaps more than any other factor, facing a totally new market dynamic from the shale gas boom, it is imperative that we "do all we can to accelerate the deployment of truly clean energy; solar, renewable, geothermal and energy efficiency."
"If we do all that - get the rules right to protect the locals, clamp down on fugitive emissions so we do harvest the climate benefits of switching from coal to natural gas, and prevent the lock-in of new natural gas plants by doing a lot of things to promote these other sources of clean energy - then this could end up being a good thing for our country not only economically, but also environmentally."
The shale boom is on, and isn't going away anytime soon, on that both the environmental advocate and energy executive agree. But turning the short-term economic benefits of shale gas production into a component leading to a long term strategy for a sustainable economic and energy future remain in question. And now is the time to address that question.
Image credit: danielfoster, courtesy flickr