When it comes to fracking, I am a NIMBY. I would prefer that it not be done anywhere near where I live, due to a number of concerns, primarily involving threats to the water supply, as well as concerns about methane leakage and even earthquakes. Yet, I knowingly consume natural gas to keep me warm and keep my lights on. As I do, I am grateful that most power no longer comes from coal, due to the enormous threat to climate stability posed by the large-scale coal burning that has taken place throughout my lifetime.
Of course I am a big fan of clean energy and efficiency, but I also recognize the fact that our society has come to its present state on a very rich energy diet, one that renewables alone cannot provide. Someday, perhaps they will, but that is likely decades away. In the meantime, how do we proceed? Even as we transition to cleaner and more efficient technology, the world’s population continues to grow, as do a number of very dynamic emerging economies.
Natural gas produces roughly half the amount of CO2 as coal. Because of this, unless the carbon can be safely and effectively captured, we will want to eventually move away from gas as well. But since it is both cleaner and readily available (via fracking), it is widely considered the logical choice as a bridge fuel. Let the buyer beware however. I have previously cautioned that shale wells tend to give out quickly and will prove far more costly in the long run than what we are looking at now.
However, reluctant to fully embrace “new nuclear” without a sizeable list of legitimate post-Fukushima concerns, that leaves me close to an indefensible position. John Miller wrote a very informative piece last fall, published on the Energy Collective, that examines the impact of unilaterally ceasing all fracking operations in this country.
Given that domestic shale gas production has increased tenfold since 2006, the U.S. is projected to provide 9 percent of worldwide supply by 2040. We have, in fact, been transitioning from a natural gas importer to a natural gas exporter. Most imports have come from Russia and the Middle East. They are currently projected to fall to zero by 2020, but that trend would clearly reverse without fracking. In a nutshell, this would cause substantial economic disruption both at home and around the world at a time when most economies are far from robust.
That leads to the question I asked a couple of weeks ago: If we can’t make fracking unnecessary, can we at least make it safer? In that article I describe a number “green fracking” developments, some of which I originally mentioned here. One approach that sounds particularly promising is the use of propane gel to produce waterless fracking. The process uses a pressurized gel instead of water, which expands into a gas once injected that can be cleanly collected along with the liberated natural gas.
Since then, I have become aware of another effort by Solazyme to develop a green drilling fluid from algae. I have previously written about Solazyme and their efforts to develop biofuels from algae, notably for the aviation industry.
However, as producers of cellulosic ethanol have found, the road from R&D to full production is both long and challenging. Solazyme has cleverly branched into other markets–producing high-value oils for cosmetics, food additives and other chemicals, in smaller quantities–to keep the cash coming in as they continue to grow into a large-scale fuel producer. Earlier this month, Unilever announced a trial of Lux bar soap made using algal oil produced by Solazyme.
Solazyme’s latest announcement brings the versatile the company into the oilfield services market. It features Encapso, a highly effective, encapsulated lubricant that is far cleaner than its predecessors and can also be used to enhance drilling performance and production rates. By using the entire algal cell, the oil contained within is encapsulated. That means the oil will not flow until the cell bursts during the actual drilling process. That allows for more targeted application of the oils and reduces oil seepage. Since shale oil and gas wells tend to be short-lived, that means there will be lots of drilling.
At the end of the day, exploitation of shale gas and oil fields seems to be the economic reality of the day–and fracking a necessary evil, if you will. Indeed, there have been many necessary evils along our path of development, many of which have gone unreported. In today’s world there is far more awareness and more transparency, which means that these activities and their risks are now in the public eye. Pressure will continue to be applied to undertake these as cleanly as possible, and, at the same time, to keep looking for cleaner and safer alternatives.
Image credit: Andrea: Flickr Creative Commons
RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He writes for numerous publications including Justmeans, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, and Energy Viewpoints. He and Roger Saillant co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining romp that is currently being adapted for the big screen. Now available on Kindle.
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