That fracking issue

A discussion caught my eye over at Charlie Stross’ blog, that I’ll just copy here. The reason being that it was derailing the discussion at hand into a flame war. I invite the participants to have their flame war over here, if they want to:

While I don’t find the language very agreeable, I do like the technical content (I would like to have some links to sources as well). So, if the participants of the discussion would be so kind to keep the fighting words to a minimum – feel free to discuss the issue here.

daniel.duffy20 wrote orginially:

Sorry to all of you tree hugging hippie solar energy lovers out there, but 2013 is the year where natural gas from fracking achieves total dominance in the energy market. Its cheaper than coal (with less than half the GHG per kWh generated) cheaper than nuclear, and waaaay cheaper than solar, wind, tides, PVCs or biomass.

Permiting is not much of an issue (providing we get some stricter standards for siting brine disposal wells – or require brine recycling – and improve the quality of qell casing construction). We already have an extensive infrastructure in place to transport natural gas accross the coungtry. Its so cheap American chemical companies who rely on methane as a chemical stock) are exporting chemicals competitively worldwide. It has triggered an industrial renaissance in the Rust Belt where steel mills even in blighted Youngstown, Ohio are workin three shifts to meet demand for piping.

And you can forget about electrical cars. CNG vehicles are far more efficient, cost effective and environmentally safe.

All other forms of energy will be econmically marginalized. We already see the decline of coal in the USA with coal mines shutting down and coal burning elecgtrical plants closing.

After which three issues were raised:

“Its cheaper than coal”, well until the “fracking causes earthquakes” science is a bit better proven anyway.

Prompting the answer:

There actually was a rumbler outside of Youngstown, Ohio which was due to improper siting of deep injection disposal wells used to get rid of the used brine from the fracking operation (not from the fracking operation itself). The deep inject well was sited in a fracture zone.

Proper siting of deep injection wells (an accepted and proven technique for liquid hazwaste disposal) or recycling the brine solves this problem.

Another point was raised:

Rubbish. It isn’t as if it’ll last for decades, and anyway you’re completely ignoring global warming and oceanic acidification, which mean that all fossil fuel use needs to be minimised.

And answered the following way:

The USGS estimated last year that the eight-state Marcellus region contains some 84 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, recoverable natural gas, far more than its 2002 assessment of just 2 trillion. And that’s just one shale play. For example, we have just begun to tap deeper formations such as the Utica.

USGS and EIA estimates place proven and likely reserves at 100 to 200 years at current usage rates, and we’ve only scratched the surface. These are unbiased government agencies, green hippies with ideological axes to grind or greedy megacorporations.

But if you and people like Bill Powers are right, what’s the worry? We’ll be out of natural gas soon enough and then we’ll transiton to other energy sources.

Regarding “global warming and oceanic acidification” he added:

Then you should hate coal, not natural gas. As a chemical reaction, burning methane creates half as much GHG per BTU generated. Furthermore, natural gas power plants are 20% to 30% more efficient than coal in terms of kWh generated per BTU.

I for one hope that fracking puts the coal industry out of business.

Coal kills people, like at the Massey mine disaster over a year ago. Coal mining chops off mountain tops and fills valleys in Appalachia with acidic mine waste.

Its also better environemntally thatn solar based renewables. To produce the same amount of electricity generated by a single natural gas power plant whiose footprint (including the employee parking lot) is only a dozen acres you would need wind farms and solar arrays covering dozens of square miles. Each component will need access roads, regraded topogrpahy, drainage structures, utility hook ups and easements, etc.

That is a lot of destroyed habitat.

Environmentlists should love fracking.

And then there are the economic impacts of solar energy. The cost of a complete conversion to renewables will make us all poorer in real terms. The operating and capital costs (especially land requirements) of equivalent solar energy sources are such that these additinal costs would throw the world economy into a major depression.

But go ahead and be a Believer if you want and ignore the numbers.

I prefer being an Engineer.

P.S. If you actually want the hard numbers instead of hippie fantasies, for an in-depth, technical and financial analysis of renewable energy potential I highly recommend “Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air” by David MacKay.

See: http://www.withouthotair.com/

Finally:

And do these alleged costs [of fracking in comparison with other energy sources] include groundwater contamination?

I think not, since the industry spends lots of money and effort to keep that secret.

Which was answered:

This issue is solved with proper design and construction of the well casings. The “methane in groundwater that flames out of the kitchen faucet” problems occur at sites that have had poorly designed or installed well casings for those segments of the well hole passing through the shallow groundwater bearing strata.

Stricter standards and tougher regulation of well casing construction will (and has) solved this problem.

Below that, the well hole and horizontal drilling occurs literally miles below intervening impermeable bedrock strata that separate the fracking zone from surficial groundwater deposits.

Then after the facking is performed, the liquids are EXTRACTED from the fracking zone to allow for unimpeded migration of the natural gas to the well head. This extracted waste water becomes brine which has to be properly managed, recycled or disposed of (the other major fracking issue).

The chemicals mixed in the water and sand (in amounts measured in PPM) do include chemicals on the 40 CFR list. But these are mostly surfactants, rust inhibitors and chemicals far less dangerous to the environment than those found in a typical oil well or machine shop. There are some proprietary chemicals to be sure, and I would also like to see them made public.

But given the thickness and low permeablity (absent major pre-exisiting natural fracture zones) – and if the well casing is properly installed – there is no physcial danger to groundwater.

To believe otherwise is to be ignorant of both hydrogeology and basic physics.

4 thoughts on “That fracking issue

  1. Most solar/wind installation is driven by explicit pro-renewable legislation rather than low prices. So I don’t see cheaper natural gas really depressing solar installations. 2013 should be a record year for both natural gas and solar installs. Natural gas generators can ramp faster than coal, so they’re also a better partner for intermittent renewables after they’ve killed off coal.

    I would like to believe that nuclear is also gaining traction, but most of the good news in the thread on Charlie’s diary was about developing nations and Russia. In the USA, Canada, and Western Europe nuclear looks to be chronically behind schedule and over budget. The Bruce Nuclear station refurbishment in Canada completed this year — 3 years late and $2 billion over budget. The EPRs in France and Finland are ridiculously late and over budget. Completing Watts Bar Unit 2 in Tennessee is behind schedule and going way over budget. The AP1000 units being built at Vogtle in Georgia, USA are already falling behind schedule and facing cost increases, less than a year after license approval.

    A lot of the problems are probably due to re-learning skills that haven’t been used for a generation. But the first big wave of reactor construction had a lot of delays and budget overruns too. I don’t know how ratepayers are going to be convinced to support enough reactors to re-learn the skills when even generous initial time and cost estimates keep getting exceeded.

    To be clear, I don’t worry about nuclear reactors being dangerous or running out of fuel. I do worry about them becoming so late and expensive that they’re politically poisonous even in regions where people would otherwise support them (like the southern USA). And most of the times that I raise these points to pro-nuke folks their remedies are “deregulate,” “blame environmentalists,” or “wait for molten salt reactors, integral fast reactors, travelling wave reactors, modular factory-built reactors, or something else that has never been deployed commercially.”

  2. One of the major selling points of building small modular reactors (SMR) is that their reactor vessels can be manufactured in the USA and don’t need to be imported from Europe or Japan … go figure. The US hasn’t a approved building another nuclear power plant from 1979 to 2012, I’d suggest asking some Chinese or Russian engineers to come over and help out. Actually, I think that any major development of nuclear power in the USA will hinge on SMRs because they can be factory build and need much less on-site assembly.

    As for blaming the environmentalists, well they too have a point in many cases. The US has no viable concept of dealing with nuclear wastes at all (which includes all the militiary wastes that nobody dares to speak of). Permanent repositories don’t work when storage must take place in geologic time spans. This can be helped by reprocessing wastes and using Plutonium and other Actinides as fuel in nuclear reactors, where they can be fissioned and only storing fission products.

    This “closed” cycle has been developed to the point that it works, but it is universally opposed by anti-nuclear campaigners, as it would take a major talking point from the debate – fission products need to be stored for less than a 1000 year before decaying to the level of the original uranium ore. (The exact time depends upon the efficiency of the separation, which is broadly speaking a function of how much money and effort you want to spend on it. So it’s more a matter of proper regulation than heroic engineering.)

    And of course, in the US there is political pressure against reprocesing for proliferation reason … I’ll never understand that point though. I think it is well-established that the US does have nuclear weapons and the technology is mundane enough to be developed in any country that puts its mind to it and is willing to spend some money on physics and engineering books.

    Timeline:
    1933: Discovery of the neutron
    1939: Discovery of nuclear fission and possibilty of chain reactions at least via moderators
    1942: First self-sustained chain reaction (Chicago Pile 1)
    1944: Regular operation of 100MW+ reactors
    1945: First plutonium bomb
    (no enrichment of uranium required, though 0.9% enriched Uranium was used in the reactors)

    When you go from knowing the physical possibility to a working reactor within 5 years (with major funding only available since 1942) you know it is very mundane stuff. Just don’t tell anyone. It’s the best kept secret about nuclear weapons, hidden in front of everyones eyes, where nobody will see it.

  3. I agree that SMRs appear to offer many benefits, including requiring smaller chunks of financing. On the other hand nobody is yet building them or even has a commitment to build them. I guess I just need to wait another 10 years for the nuclear renaissance that I thought was starting back in 2003.

    I don’t think environmentalists can be blamed for current Western nuclear projects being late and over budget. Heightened environmental and safety standards can explain why initial schedules and costs are higher for a given reactor capacity than in the 1970s, but the slippage after scheduling with those heightened standards in mind lies with the actual nuclear industry and contractors.

    I think that the anti-proliferation argument against fuel reprocessing is weak, but reprocessing doesn’t really improve the economics or environmental profile of nuclear power in the foreseeable future. Uranium has proved more abundant than people feared in the early days of the nuclear industry. Reprocessing fuel is several times as expensive as enriching virgin uranium, and there are still transuranics left that decay slowly and aren’t easily destroyed in thermal spectrum reactors. If the spent fuel becomes attractive compared to virgin material in 50 or 100 years, fine, we’ll reprocess it then. Permanent storage that lets people walk away forever is a dubious goal. Above-ground dry storage has low and predictable costs, even if they are recurring, so it’s foolish to expend huge sums building containments that endure without maintenance through geological time. We don’t do it for arsenic, lead, mercury, or other materials that we know will be hazardous forever.

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