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Good and Bad News about the Safety of Natural Gas Fracking

A new study of possible hazards from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas extraction was published today on the site of the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences. The study, which appears to have been thorough, has both good and bad news for those, like me, who believe that natural gas has a huge role to play in our energy future. Obviously we need to pay attention to all the news, not just the part we like. The good news doesn't need mitigation; the bad news requires at least further investigation and perhaps mitigation. In the words of the authors: "We conclude that greater stewardship, data, and—possibly—regulation are needed to ensure the sustainable future of shale-gas extraction and to improve public confidence in its use."

The study by Stephen G. Osborn, Avner Vengosh, Nathaniel R. Warner, and Robert B. Jackson found no evidence that the fluids injected deep underground for fracking are leaking into nearby water wells; that's the good news. However, they did find concentrations of methane (eg. natural gas) that were much, much higher in water wells near natural gas wells (fracked and unfracked) than in other water wells in the same geological formations which are not located near sites where there has been drilling for natural gas. Although methane in drinking water, which can and does occur naturally, is not classified as a health hazard, it was found in concentrations which could pose a fire hazard in wells near drilling sites. The authors are scrupulous in drawing a distinction between naturally occurring methane in the local groundwater and that which is probably the result of drilling; they analyze both the chemical nature of their samples and use valid statistical techniques for concentrations found near and far from drilling.

Back to the good news for a minute. The authors tested for both upward migration of the chemicals used in fracking and for pressure from fracking forcing existing fluids up through the bed rock into the aquifer. They point out that there is typically one to two kilometers of rock between the formations which contain the natural gas and the deepest water wells; however, there is cracking from past seismic activity, so it was worth looking for possible seepage. There wasn't any.

So how did the methane get into the wells? Here's their answer:

"Methane migration through the 1- to 2-km-thick geological formations that overlie the Marcellus and Utica shales is less likely as a mechanism for methane contamination than leaky well casings, but might be possible due to both the extensive fracture systems reported for these formations and the many older, uncased wells drilled and abandoned over the last century and a half in Pennsylvania and New York [where they did their study]… More research is needed across this and other regions to determine the mechanism(s) controlling the higher methane concentrations we observed."

It sounds likely, but not certain, that more research will indicate that the methane leaked into the ground water as the natural gas was brought to the surface. If this proves true, it's good news because better well-casings are already being used and casings can presumably be made as good as they need to be. If this isn't true, if this gas is leaking upward through the bedrock because of the drilling activity, we need to know that as well. It may be that new techniques are needed. It may be that there are some areas where the local geology makes drilling or fracking unsafe.

Because there does need to be public confidence that vastly increased fracking is being done safely, it is a good thing that Energy Secretary Chu appointed a panel of qualified people "to identify, within 90 days of beginning their work, any immediate steps that can be taken to improve the safety and environmental performance of hydraulic fracturing. They will also develop, within six months of beginning their work, consensus recommended advice to the agencies on practices for shale extraction to ensure the protection of public health and the environment."

Chu said:

"America's vast natural gas resources can generate many new jobs and provide significant environmental benefits, but we need to ensure we harness these resources safely. I am looking forward to hearing from this diverse, respected group of experts on best practices for safe and responsible natural gas production."

We don't want a vast expansion of fracking, then some sort of scary incident that stops all fracking, then years of uncertainty and continued use of imported oil that could have been displaced by domestic natural gas. We do need to monitor the results of fracking and develop best practices. There are risks associated with any form of energy production or extraction; we need to know them, weigh them, and mitigate them where possible. We can't bury our heads in the shale.

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Natural Gas Disrupts the Energy Industry

The Pickens Plan Bill: The Wrong Way to Get the Right Result

What's the Transportation Fuel of the Future ?

Hey NYTimes, Where’s the Link?

It's no longer acceptable online to make a naked assertion on a controversial subject without at least a link to back it up, at least not for anyone practicing serious journalism and writing a news story. But here's what appeared in the New York Times online today in a story by John Broder headlined Energy Dept. Panel to Revise Standards for Gas Extraction:

"…the practice [hydraulic fracturing] also pours millions of gallons of dangerous chemicals into the ground and into wastewater treatment systems, which in some cases cannot remove all the potential toxins. There are also numerous documented cases in which fracking fluids leaked into aquifers [emphasis mine] and contaminated drinking water."

The article doesn't cite any of the "numerous documented cases"; it doesn't link to any source for this assertion. Although there have been allegations that fracking fluids leak into aquifers, there are good reasons why this is unlikely (see here) and I've never seen a "documented" case that it happened. I also believe he actually means millions of gallons of water which contain some toxic chemicals. Now I can be wrong and would like to know it if I am. I would've liked to follow a link from the NYTimes story to some documentation. But there is no link.

I understand why it's hard to put citations in print stories and this story also did appear in the paper edition. But paper now needs to be treated as the degenerate form of the story – the web makes it easy to link and easy for a reader to check sources and get more information. Links belong in online stories.

I modify my posts for print and sometimes have to remove links. If I think they're important for credibility, I put the text of the link into the article, although sometimes editors take those long strings out. If we're going to pay papers for online access (which I'm willing to do), we should expect good online practice to be followed. BTW, there is also no place for comments on this story in the online NYTimes, so I can't complain there.

Subsequent information:

Good and Bad News about the Safety of Natural Gas Fracking

Gazprom is Concerned about the Effect of Shale Gas on American Housewives

"Every American housewife is aware of shale gas, but not every housewife is aware of the environmental consequences of the use of shale gas. I don't know who would take the risk of endangering drinking water reservoirs." – Alexander Medvedev, Director-General of Gazprom Export, interview with the Daily Telegraph, 12 February 2010.

Although retrieving natural gas from shale formations using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) does NOT create a serious risk to drinking water (details here), shale gas is a huge threat to Russian ambitions in general and Gazprom in particular. In 2008 Gazprom produced 17% of the world's natural gas supply according to their own reports. They accounted for 10% of Russia's gross domestic product that year. They operate the world's largest natural gas pipeline network. You may remember how Gazprom flexed Russian muscle by cutting off gas supplies to the Ukraine during January of 2009 and, in doing so, reduced transshipments to parts of Europe. You may also remember concern over Europe's dependence on Russian natural gas.

Since then the price of natural gas, which used to track the price of oil on an energy equivalent basis, has fallen by half (you know what's happened to oil prices after the recession-linked decline). Thanks to the huge new reserves of natural gas now retrievable at low cost from massive shale formations using horizontal drilling and fracking, it looks like the price of natural gas will stay relatively low for decades to come despite the fact that its use to replace oil and coal is likely to skyrocket. So much for Gazprom's dream of world domination unless they can join forces with other competitive energy suppliers to convince the world not to use new techniques to unlock shale oil.

The US, where these techniques were developed, is the first to exploit shale gas widely and is rapidly expanding its production. Back in 2003 Alan Greenspan said:

"Today's tight natural gas markets have been a long time in coming, and futures prices suggest that we are not apt to return to earlier periods of relative abundance and low prices anytime soon… Access to world natural gas supplies will require a major expansion of LNG [Liquified Natural Gas] terminal import capacity."

Greenspan was wrong about lots of things. Some LNG import facilities were built (none are in use); now natural gas is so cheap and abundant here that the US may soon be an exporter. At least one import terminal now has the approval it needs to become an export terminal.

Although the first great success with shale gas has been here in the US, there are many similar shale formations which are also likely to be highly productive in Europe in particular and the world in general. This prospect leaves Europe a means for freeing itself from a scary dependence on Russia – and for saving money. France, however, has banned fracking for now – perhaps because, with the majority of their electricity coming from nuclear power, they are not under immediate pressure to find new or carbon-reduced sources.

All of the above comes from "The Shale Gas Shock", a well-documented report on natural gas written by Matt Ridley and just published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (which doesn't necessarily endorse the opinions in the report). It is frankly pro shale gas and the technologies used to extract it (as am I), but its sources are well-documented. For example, the report quotes a prediction from the US Energy Information Administration saying that electricity from a new natural gas plant (opening in 2016) is likely to cost $63/megawatt-hour compared to $95 for a new coal plant (without carbon capture), $97 for onshore wind turbines ($243 offshore), $114 for new nuclear, and $211 for solar photovoltaic.

Somewhat more inflammatory is a comparison of the landscape impact of natural gas rigs and wind turbines:

"A gas drilling rig, like a wind turbine, is an intrusion into a rural area. However, it need not be on a hilltop like a windmill and can be hidden in a rolling landscape. With each wellhead capable of producing gas from up to 12 wells, or about 50 billion cubic feet over 25 years, the output of one drilling pad is equivalent to the average output of about 47 giant 2.5MW wind turbines (which also last about 25 years), and is continuous rather than unpredictable and intermittent. Yet the footprint of a shale gas drilling derrick (about 6 acres) is only a little larger than the forest clearance necessary for a single wind turbine (4 acres), requires vastly less concrete per kilowatt-hour, stands one-third as tall and is present for just 30 days instead of 25 years."

What's missing from this otherwise apt comparison is the fact that, after 25 years, the wind will still be blowing but the gas in that area will be gone (unless even newer recovery methods are invented).

If you're concerned about the fluids used in fracking, other environmental impacts of natural gas extraction, or just want good view of the possibilities, the report is well worth reading.

Related Posts:

Legislators Putting Benzene, Toluene, Xylene and Ethylbenzene in Their Cars

Natural Gas Disrupts the Energy Industry

The Pickens Plan Bill: The Wrong Way to Get the Right Result

What's the Transportation Fuel of the Future ?

Subsequent information:

Good and Bad News about the Safety of Natural Gas Fracking

LTE Insufficient from the Start – Boingo IPO Propitious

The trouble with planning way ahead is that the world changes before you execute. The major wireless carriers have been planning their 4th generation LTE (Long Term Evolution) rollouts for a long time – that's how they do things. Now, even as Verizon Wireless is doing an aggressive rollout of LTE, it's becoming clear that LTE networks will not be able to slake the data thirst of a world full of smart phones and tablets. Whoops.

According to Gizmodo, early tests of lightly loaded LTE sites are showing blazing data rates over 10mbps, certainly fast enough for streaming video to a small screen and satisfactory even for larger streams. But, the better it is, the more it'll get used. It's very unlikely that urban sites will be able to handle the number of smart phone and tablet equipped video-streaming customers who will want to use them simultaneously once LTE devices are widespread, Phil Leigh explains part of the problem on insidedigitalmdedia.com:

"…the iPad's screen is seven times larger than that of the iPhone. Thus it is much more likely to be used for streaming video and other rich media applications. Simultaneously its owners will require higher resolution images in order to get a satisfactory viewing experience. Similarly, the iPhone-4's FaceTime video calling feature is expected to be so popular that AT&T Wireless banned it from the company's cellular network."

Since adjacent sites need to avoid stepping on each other's frequencies, you can't just deploy more and more sites, even if the economics were favorable, in order to solve the too-many-customers problem. Penalizing customers for using the data service you just sold them is not a very good long term solution for carriers either. Phil Leigh again:

"AT&T Wireless' decision to impose usage sensitive pricing on iPhones and iPads portends turmoil in The Wireless Internet. Consumers dislike metered pricing and are much less likely to increase usage of services that require it."

So what's the answer? Will we be in a hell of slow downloads and constantly-pausing videos? Will we rarely be able to hear anyone anywhere because of network congestion?

No, those bad things won't happen; it's likely that WiFi will save us. We already see the carriers encouraging us to connect our phones via WiFi or even our home broadband connections. Rumored reasons for AT&T's plan to buy T-Mobile include not only being able to obtain more radio spectrum but also to get control of T-Mobile's vast WiFi network and create more places where AT&T devices can connect automatically without using capacity on the cellular network.

You can deploy a very dense network of WiFi hotspots and make it more and more dense as it gets more users. WiFi hubs are designed to compete constructively with adjacent hubs; WiFi uses radio bandwidth much more efficiently than cellular technologies because WiFi grew up in the wild west of unregulated spectrum, not in the neatly (over)engineered garden of the licensed spectrum, where each company owns its own radio space. WiFi is used mainly at low broadcast power, which turns out to be a good thing when you want to crowd in more transmitters – think lots of little circles with less users in each circle than the big circles with lots of competing users around a cell tower. And WiFi devices being consumer devices are cheap, cheap, cheap so cost is not an obstacle to deploying many of them. As we need more bandwidth for WiFi, it will easily move into the newly freed TV white space because this is also free-for-all unlicensed spectrum.

While the use of WiFi instead of cellular radios gives the big carriers a way around the inadequate capacity of their coming 4G networks, it also diminishes the value of those networks and the expensive spectrum licenses that the carriers already bought. A Telco 2.0 executive briefing asks "Public Wifi: Destroying LTE/Mobile Value?" and answers "By building or acquiring Public WiFi networks for tens of $Ms, highly innovative fixed players in the UK are stealthily removing $Bns of value from 3G and 4G mobile spectrum as smartphone and other data devices become increasingly carrier agnostic."

Which brings us to the Boingo IPO scheduled for this Wednesday; their ticker symbol on NASDAQ will be WIFI. According to Ryan Kim writing on GigaOm, the company operates 325,000 hotspots in more than 100 countries.

"The goal is for Boingo to help carriers offload their data needs on to Boingo's network, helping them stay ahead of the crushing demand for wireless broadband. Even with the rollout of 4G services, Boingo is a good position to participate in the growing consumer appetite for wireless connectivity. The company believes its scalable and global network will provide a reliable way in which to increase capacity for operators."

I haven't done enough research to recommend for or against buying, but it's an interesting proposition. Also ironic that companies like Boingo may prosper by selling the use of free unregulated spectrum to the very companies that own huge, expensive swaths of the regulated space.

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The Return of Over the Air Television

Just ordered a TV antenna; who woulda thunk it? But it's not your father's rabbit ears. Over the air television even has an acronym now: OTA. OTA is digital; it can be higher def than cable or satellite. And it's free!

OTA is how I'll get my local stations once I take down the dish.

I thought I was going to get all my content on the Internet once I went dishless but now not so sure. The local newscasts I care about are only available as segments online and I enjoy watching the whole show. NFL games aren't available online at all. The series we watch happen to be mainly CBS and are available online but they disappear after a couple of weeks or have to be purchased; possible but I'm not sure why I'd want to do that.

It's also not a good use of online bandwidth – at least the over-the-air bandwidth from my wireless ISP– to stream video as a regular thing. Real high def is simply too much to receive in real time with today's wireless ISP technology; even lower definition puts a big strain on ISP resources, which will, at some point, justify differential pricing. I wouldn't mind paying somewhat more for better service but it does seem an inefficient use of radio spectrum to have millions of different streams of the same show at slightly different times when the show can be broadcast once to everyone who is interested in it.

Not that I intend to watch shows when they're actually broadcast. Tivo and other DVRs freed me from the tyranny of the broadcast clock long ago. Assuming that the antenna works well, I'll buy an OTA-compatible DVR so that our favorite shows will be available when we want to watch them.

Finding out what kind of antenna to order and where to point it is easy. You fill out the form below on antennaweb.org. You'll get a chance to drag your house to a more exact location on a Google map if needed.

The web site then tells you what over-the-air stations are available to you (there were more than I thought), how big and fancy an antenna you'll need, whether you can use an indoors antenna or will probably have to go outside, and which way to point the thing for which station. Fancy antennas come with a remote to rotate them in case all the stations you want aren't on top of one nearby mountain as they are for us. There is even an OAT antenna device coming soon for the iPad and iPhone.

Certainly we'll be getting some shows over the Internet or on DVD which aren't on local TV. No Vermont stations carry the Mets, for example. But looks like over-the-air TV will be part of the mix for cordcutters and dishdroppers.

Will let you know more about our experience with it when I get the antenna installed.

Related posts:

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Cutting the Cord; Dismounting the Dish

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