If you live in the United States — almost anywhere in the U.S. — there may be a gas well coming to a site near you. Even on property you think you own, a gas well may be on its way.
Then there is the problem of how much air and water pollution that neighborhood gas well will bring with it. So far pollution has brought the most public outcry, largely because it is the issue that environmentalists are concerned with.
The new abundance of natural gas is a bonanza, but it is not a free lunch. Gas wells near or in your backyard are dividing communities, particularly in rural areas, and could eventually divide the environmental movement.
For decades natural gas has been the benign fuel without the pollution of coal, the geopolitical ramifications of oil, or the politics of nuclear. In fact, natural gas is almost too good to be true — or it has been until this latest chapter in its history opened. New supplies and new ways of liberating them are tarnishing the image of gas as the best energy available.
Traditionally, drilling for gas was like drilling for oil. A hole went deep into the ground until it penetrated a big cavern of gas with tributaries, which would yield more gas if the rock there was broken up. This rock-breaking was called hydraulic fracturing, and this was accomplished by injecting various liquids including water, chemicals and gas that had seeped to the surface outside of the piping.
Fifty years ago, there were even two experimental programs to use nuclear detonations for fracking gas. That method didn't go forward.
Since then, things have come a long way in the search for more gas and new technologies have evolved. Chief among these are seismic mapping and horizontal drilling. The former gives geologists a very exact picture of what is underground, and the latter makes the collection of it much more efficient.
Horizontal drilling finds the lock and fracking turns the key. Whereas once drillers put down one straw and sucked, now they put down one straw and then send out others horizontally in many directions.
Thus enabled, gas can now be exploited where it was previously unreachable — in shale rock. But to get the rock to give up its harvest, fracking is essential. With it come problems, and gas — if you will — loses its innocence.
Fracking is environmentally contaminating:
a. The fracking agent along with the methane could seep into drinking water and alarm farmers and communities.
b. Methane tends to escape around the well and is a major greenhouse gas.
c. A gas well using fracking demands millions of gallons of water. Many pollutants, like mercury and nitrates, are borne to the surface with the discharged water, which is then held in leach ponds.
This negates the big environmental virtue of gas that it burns with half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal and none of the nitrous oxides. The lunch tab has gone from nearly free to quite pricey.
The problem for the environmental movement is that it has favored natural gas for electricity production over its bete noirs: nuclear and coal.
The problem of an unwanted gas well landing on land you thought you owned is an historical one which recognizes "split estates." This was a concept in law that the land had two values: the surface and the oil and gas contained under the surface.
These two estates could be split and a landowner could sell the rights to the subterranean estate. Historically, many have done so. Now with the value of shale gas rising in 30 or more states, homeowners are finding that grandpa or a previous owner may have tried to capitalize too early by selling the underground rights.
As Amy Mall of the Natural Resources Defense Council told a meeting on fracking in Washington this week, the law's results can be devastating. A family in Wise County, Texas, lost all value in their 10-acre holding when a gas company, which leased the mineral rights from neighbors who had bought them earlier, set up a rig and occupied five acres of land for their operations.
This is part of the back story on the new bonanza of natural gas that is giving so many so much hope for our energy future. The new gas is not your father's gas and while it is a boon, it is not all blessing. — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate
Tired of high gasoline pump prices? Wondering why, with our fearsome energy hunger, all the energy seems to be in the Middle East?
That was yesterday's story.
Almost overnight — well, in a few short years — the energy picture has been changing. We are not energy beggars anymore. We have energy bounty — and that does not include the energy from wind and sun, or the controversial energy from the atom.
Now we have plenty of the most versatile of the hydrocarbons — more versatile than coal, and oil. It is natural gas; and it is going to change the face of America remarkably quickly, whether it is used to make electricity for electric cars or is burned directly in cars.
Natural gas is the new oil, maybe the new gold, and certainly the most exciting energy development in a long time.
Indeed, it is a Cinderella story: a hopeless orphan who is now the belle of the ball. Originally, natural gas was found in conjunction with oil and was regarded as something of a nuisance. It was mostly cursed and “flared” or burned at the well; and it is still flared when there is no way of moving it to market, either in a pipe or as a liquid. Cities favored a low-grade gas made from coal for lamps and heating because coal could be transported by rail.
But natural gas turned out to be a wonderful feedstock for fertilizers and many other manufactures and chemicals. It also demonstrated its superiority over coal gas for heating and cooking, and a network of pipelines spread across the nation.
Even as the usefulness of natural gas spread, so did the political desire to control it. The Federal Power Commission, the predecessor of today's Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, issued what became known infamously as the Permian Basin decision. It said that natural gas in interstate commerce had to have the price regulated by the federal government.
The result was two classes of gas, interstate and intrastate. It was a disaster, coming as the demand for gas was rising.
Then came the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, which meant that gas was wanted for things oil had been used for up until then. Growing gas demand coincided with severe shortage not only in the pipelines, but also in proven reserves in the ground — low regulated prices had cut into exploration. The outlook for gas was bleak.
By 1977, the Carter administration had declared natural gas a “depleted resource.” There was panic. Newspapers listed all the good things we got from natural gas. Congress decided it was too useful to be burned, and it passed the Fuel Use Act.
Henceforth, gas was to be husbanded. Pilot lights on domestic cooking stoves were banned, as were all decorative uses of flames. Even the eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery was nearly extinguished.
In 1987 natural gas was deregulated, and the companies started exploring and drilling again. The gas shortage transformed itself into a “gas bubble.” When I told a meeting of Wall Street analysts in the early-1980s that natural gas would again be used for electric generation they were disbelieving. As I left the building, one analyst said to another, “Very droll, but he doesn't know what he's talking about.”
But it did happen, and in a big way; not only was more natural gas being sought, but technology was set to change the amount of gas available and the way it could be used.
The first technological advance was a very efficient, gas-burning machine for utilities, the aeroderivitive turbine. Then came horizontal drilling, which allows a single gas or oil well to stretch out tentacles for miles in every direction. This drilling technology opened up old gas and oil fields for further exploitation and made new ones very profitable.
The final jewel in the natural gas crown was the ability of drillers to start breaking up rocks in the shale band — between 6,000 and 9,000 feet below the surface — in areas that were not before thought to contain gas. The Marcellus field, extending through Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio, may turn out to be the largest shale field currently being developed.
El Dorado enow — except for environmental concern about the chemicals used to break the rock, in a process called fracking. Also, groundwater has been affected in many locations; and there is video of tap water burning.
But proponents of natural gas point out that it has half the greenhouse emissions of coal, and few or no nitrous oxides. Natural gas is set to do for the United States what North Sea oil has done for Britain and Norway. — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate