12TH OCTOBER 2011
CONFRONTING THE GIFT HORSE
Those that have studied history will know that empires and civilizations inevitably come and go. They often rise because of new technology, and fall when the ruling group becomes complacent and is unwilling to exploit a more advanced technology. The ancient Egyptians rose with improved agriculture and fell when their neighbours had iron and they did not. The Romans, with military and engineering skills, were defeated by nomads who had a stirrup and horse collar.
Most Western societies progressed from the technical discoveries of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and their spread. There were always sections of society who opposed technology when it clashed with their settled way of life. They may be rulers, aristocrats or priests who felt threatened. They may be workers whose skills are to be replaced, like the Luddites.
A section of the middle classes during the 19th century developed a whole movement called Romanticism which deplored industrialization and longed for its abolition. The poet Wordsworth regarded a ruined abbey as somehow superior to a modern one, and wild daffodils as better than cultivated ones,
This movement has proliferated to the promulgation of the belief that humans are harmful to the "environment" and should leave the earth to the "endangered species" whose preservation becomes more important than that of humans. They have developed beliefs and supposedly "scientific" reasons why all human activity and even their numbers should be reduced. They have tried to pretend that "resources" are limited and they have succeeded in delaying most original technologies because of their fallacies.
Amongst these is the use of energy. They have developed a theory that exploitation of fossil fuels is harmful, as is nuclear power. They look forward to "peak oil" and they do their best to prevent new exploration. These efforts have recently been challenged by the discovery that oil and gas supplies can be much greater by the use of a technique called "fracking" which employs an explosive charge to open up the strata, helped by water pressure. The question is, how much poverty, unemployment, national default and general misery we are prepared to tolerate, if we give way to the specious claims of these spoilers.
Shale gas reserves suitable for fracking are widespread. A map of the suitable regions may be found at
It may be noted that as usual, New Zealand has been left off the map.
Prosperity in the USA owes much to the discovery of oil by "Colonel" Drake in Pennsylvania in 1859. There is no question that it "damaged the environment". If it had been shut down because of pressure from environmentalists none of us would be here today. If we allow them to shut down fracking those that do so will be replaced by others. One replacement will be China, but it was interesting to hear of recent activity in places like Papua New Guinea.
The following article by Matt Ridley explains why fracking is not only profitable compared with windmills, it is better for the environment a well.
Matt Ridley: Making Wind Farms Obsolete
Which would you rather have in the view from your house? A thing about the size of a domestic garage, or eight towers twice the height of Nelson’s column with blades noisily thrumming the air. The energy they can produce over ten years is similar: eight wind turbines of 2.5-megawatts (working at roughly 25% capacity) roughly equal the output of an average Pennsylvania shale gas well (converted to electricity at 50% efficiency) in its first ten years.Matt Ridley is a member of the GWPF's Academic Advisory Council. His report The Shale Gas Shock is available online here
Difficult choice? Let’s make it easier. The gas well can be hidden in a hollow, behind a hedge. The eight wind turbines must be on top of hills, because that is where the wind blows, visible for up to 40 miles. And they require the construction of new pylons marching to the towns; the gas well is connected by an underground pipe.
Unpersuaded? Wind turbines slice thousands of birds of prey in half every year, including white-tailed eagles in Norway, golden eagles in California, wedge-tailed eagles in Tasmania. There’s a video on Youtube of one winging a griffon vulture in Crete. According to a study in Pennsylvania, a wind farm with eight turbines would kill about a 200 bats a year. The pressure wave from the passing blade just implodes the little creatures’ lungs. You and I can go to jail for harming bats or eagles; wind companies are immune.
Still can’t make up your mind? The wind farm requires eight tonnes of an element called neodymium, which is produced only in Inner Mongolia, by boiling ores in acid leaving lakes of radioactive tailings so toxic no creature goes near them.
Not convinced? The gas well requires no subsidy – in fact it pays a hefty tax to the government – whereas the wind turbines each cost you a substantial add-on to your electricity bill, part of which goes to the rich landowner whose land they stand on. Wind power costs three times as much as gas-fired power. Make that nine times if the wind farm is offshore. And that’s assuming the cost of decommissioning the wind farm is left to your children – few will last 25 years.
Decided yet? I forgot to mention something. If you choose the gas well, that’s it, you can have it. If you choose the wind farm, you are going to need the gas well too. That’s because when the wind does not blow you will need a back-up power station running on something more reliable. But the bloke who builds gas turbines is not happy to build one that only operates when the wind drops, so he’s now demanding a subsidy, too.
What’s that you say? Gas is running out? Have you not heard the news? It’s not. Till five years ago gas was the fuel everybody thought would run out first, before oil and coal. America was getting so worried even Alan Greenspan told it to start building gas import terminals, which it did. They are now being mothballed, or turned into export terminals.
A chap called George Mitchell turned the gas industry on its head. Using just the right combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) – both well established technologies -- he worked out how to get gas out of shale where most of it is, rather than just out of (conventional) porous rocks, where it sometimes pools. The Barnett shale in Texas, where Mitchell worked, turned into one of the biggest gas reserves in America. Then the Haynesville shale in Louisiana dwarfed it. The Marcellus shale mainly in Pennsylvania then trumped that with a barely believable 500 trillion cubic feet of gas, as big as any oil field ever found, on the doorstep of the biggest market in the world.
The impact of shale gas in America is already huge. Gas prices have decoupled from oil prices and are half what they are in Europe. Chemical companies, which use gas as a feedstock, are rushing back from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Mexico. Cities are converting their bus fleets to gas. Coal projects are being shelved; nuclear ones abandoned.
Rural Pennsylvania is being transformed by the royalties that shale gas pays (Lancashire take note). Drive around the hills near Pittsburgh and you see new fences, repainted barns and – in the local towns – thriving car dealerships and upmarket shops. The one thing you barely see is gas rigs. The one I visited was hidden in a hollow in the woods, invisible till I came round the last corner where a flock of wild turkeys was crossing the road. Drilling rigs are on site for about five weeks, fracking trucks a few weeks after that, and when they are gone all that is left is a “Christmas tree” wellhead and a few small storage tanks.
The International Energy Agency reckons there is quarter of a millennium’s worth of cheap shale gas in the world. A company called Cuadrilla drilled a hole in Blackpool, hoping to find a few trillion cubic feet of gas. Last month it announced 200 trillion cubic feet, nearly half the size of the giant Marcellus field. That’s enough to keep the entire British economy going for many decades. And it’s just the first field to have been drilled.
Jesse Ausubel is a soft-spoken academic ecologist at Rockefeller University in New York, not given to hyperbole. So when I asked him about the future of gas, I was surprised by the strength of his reply. “It’s unstoppable,” he says simply. Gas, he says, will be the world’s dominant fuel for most of the next century. Coal and renewables will have to give way, while oil is used mainly for transport. Even nuclear may have to wait in the wings.
And he is not even talking mainly about shale gas. He reckons a still bigger story is waiting to be told about offshore gas from the so-called cold seeps around the continental margins. Israel has made a huge find and is planning a pipeline to Greece, to the irritation of the Turks. The Brazilians are striking rich. The Gulf of Guinea is hot. Even our own Rockall Bank looks promising. Ausubel thinks that much of this gas is not even “fossil” fuel, but ancient methane from the universe that was trapped deep in the earth’s rocks – like the methane that forms lakes on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.
The best thing about cheap gas is whom it annoys. The Russians and the Iranians hate it because they thought they were going to corner the gas market in the coming decades. The greens hate it because it destroys their argument that fossil fuels are going to get more and more costly till even wind and solar power are competitive. The nuclear industry ditto. The coal industry will be a big loser (incidentally, as somebody who gets some income from coal, I declare that writing this article is against my vested interest).
Little wonder a furious attempt to blacken shale gas’s reputation is under way, driven by an unlikely alliance of big green, big coal, big nuclear and Gazprom. The environmental objections to shale gas are almost comically fabricated or exaggerated. Hydraulic fracturing or fracking uses 99.86% water and sand, the rest being a dilute solution of a few chemicals of the kind you find beneath your kitchen sink.
State regulators in Alaska, Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming have all asserted in writing that there have been no verified or documented cases of groundwater contamination as a result of hydraulic fracking. Those flaming taps in the film “Gasland” were literally nothing to do with shale gas drilling and the film maker knew it before he wrote the script. The claim that gas production generates more greenhouse gases than coal is based on mistaken assumptions about gas leakage rates and cherry-picked time horizons for computing greenhouse impact.
Like Japanese soldiers hiding in the jungle decades after the war was over, our political masters have apparently not heard the news. David Cameron and Chris Huhne are still insisting that the future belongs to renewables. They are still signing contracts on your behalf guaranteeing huge incomes to landowners and power companies, and guaranteeing thereby the destruction of landscapes and jobs. The government’s “green” subsidies are costing the average small business £250,000 a year. That’s ten jobs per firm. Making energy cheap is – as the industrial revolution proved – the quickest way to create jobs; making it expensive is the quickest way to lose them.
Not only are renewables far more expensive, intermittent and resource-depleting (their demand for steel and concrete is gigantic) than gas; they are also hugely more damaging to the environment, because they are so land-hungry. Wind kills birds and spoils landscapes; solar paves deserts; tidal wipes out the ecosystems of migratory birds; biofuel starves the poor and devastates the rain forest; hydro interrupts fish migration. Next time you hear somebody call these “clean” energy, don’t let him get away with it.
Wind cannot even help cut carbon emissions, because it needs carbon back-up, which is wastefully inefficient when powering up or down (nuclear cannot be turned on and off so fast). Even Germany and Denmark have failed to cut their carbon emissions by installing vast quantities of wind.
Yet switching to gas would hasten decarbonisation. In a combined cycle turbine gas converts to electricity with higher efficiency than other fossil fuels. And when you burn gas, you oxidise four hydrogen atoms for every carbon atom. That’s a better ratio than oil, much better than coal and much, much better than wood. Ausubel calculates that, thanks to gas, we will accelerate a relentless shift from carbon to hydrogen as the source of our energy without touching renewables.
To persist with a policy of pursuing subsidized renewable energy in the midst of a terrible recession, at a time when vast reserves of cheap low-carbon gas have suddenly become available is so perverse it borders on the insane. Nothing but bureaucratic inertia and vested interest can explain it."
And here is the encouraging news for New Zealand, from New Zealand Climate Science.
"I can advise that several petroleum exploration companies are actively looking at shale gas potential in NZ.
At present almost all of the onshore eastern North Island (the "East Coast Basin", east of the main North Island ranges) is covered by petroleum exploration permits, or by applications for permits. Operators of these permits are investigating shale gas potential as well as more conventional (sandstone) reservoir targets.
More recently there have been applications for new petroleum exploration permits in the onshore Canterbury basin, as well as in Marlborough and Southland, specifically targeting shale gas. It is unlikely that the offshore basins are prospective for shale gas at present, but as the technology develops, it may happen. Across the Tasman, there is also great interest in exploration for shale gas.
For various reasons relating to geology, the eastern parts of NZ are probably more prospective for shale gas than the west, so there is potential for these exploration companies to discover and produce petroleum in areas outside of Taranaki, which is potentially of huge benefit to local economies as well as to the whole of NZ.
Concerning gas in aquifers and water wells, there are literally hundreds of natural (petroleum) gas seeps in NZ, for example there are at least 300 sites in the eastern North Island where natural gas bubbles to the surface. And I am aware of at least 6 locations where wells drilled in search of groundwater have encountered gas. One such well near Gisborne drilled long ago produced enough gas to supply energy to the whole township. Enterprising locals in remote areas managed to trap and utilise gas from natural seeps for cooking and heating least the last 100 years back. Any little earthquake (a far more significant shake than any seismic used for exploration) causes a greater (but temporary) rate of gas flow from these natural seeps.
Don't ever be fooled by claims that petroleum exploration, seismic activity, or "fraccing/fracking" somehow leads to gas suddenly coming into aquifers, it has been there (and leaking out) for many thousands, or more likely millions of years.
The onshore gas seeps are only evident where the gas happens to come to surface under some waterway, such as a river, stream, or lake. Methane and other petroleum gases naturally come to the surface by slow but persistent seepage in virtually all of NZ's onshore sedimentary basins (Northland, Waikato, Taranaki, Wanganui, East Coast, West Coast, Canterbury, Southland) and are detectable by analysing gas in soil or sub soil.
There are also numerous natural seeps of petroleum gas (mainly methane, but also other hydrocarbons) in NZ's much larger offshore continental areas. There are whole communities of organisms that depend on these (often deep) sea bed gas seeps for their whole energy cycle without the need for light, oxygen, or carbohydrates. There is very good evidence from the geological record that these natural offshore gas seeps have been active for at least the last 23 million years, and probably before then as well.
My whole point is that methane seeps are nothing new, and are beneficial to various parts of the natural biota.
I hope that the above is useful to the general discussion about shale gas, gas in water wells and the natural occurrence of methane and other hydrocarbons.
"To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact" Charles Darwin