Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Post # 58: New Planets, Water, Fracking, and Energy

Water is the substance of life.  You and I are mostly water.  Life, as we know it, isn't possible without water.  Just yesterday NASA announced the discover of a new "earth-like" planet – Kepler-22b.  This planet joins a list of over 500 other recently-discovered planets that potentially have the right temperatures, atmospheres, and surface conditions to support life as we know it.  The presence of liquid water is a key metric of the "friendly-to-life" assessment.

As a young boy I occasionally accompanied my father and grandfather, who were involved in the operation of a rural east Tennessee water utility district, on visits to the large springs that were the utility's water source.  I was then and am still fascinated and amazed when I see enormous volumes of cool, clean water erupting from the ground.  There's something magical about a spring.

Some of you know I'm a supporter of the Nature Conservancy, and a long-time member of Trout Unlimited - a cold water fishery conservation organization.   As I sit here this morning typing these words, it's raining in East Tennessee.  It rains a lot in East Tennessee.  We are blessed with a abundant surface water - springs, ponds, streams, rivers, and man-made lakes.  Or at least we have been blessed in the past.  Surface water is a precious commodity.  In recent years Tennessee, like many of our sister states in the southeast, has experienced some unusual extremes in weather, and repeated periods of drought.   (Just last week, we experienced a period of heavy rain and flooding.)

I think a lot about water and energy-water nexus issues.  This is one of the reasons I'm so interested in the increasing using of fracking in the natural gas and oil production industry.  I'm not the only one watching this issue closely.  Witness the Wall Street Journal's article in this morning's edition.  Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a technique in which water (normally surface water), sand, and chemicals is injected into deep natural gas and oil wells as a means to extract more "dino-fuel" from the surrounding geological deposits.

A typical oil or natural gas well drilling project in the eastern U.S. shale deposits might use ~ 65,000 to perhaps 600,000 gallons of water during the drilling process, and another 5,000,000 gallons during the natural gas extraction process.  So, let's say ~ 6,000,000 gallons or so.  Sources I've consulted indicate this about the amount of water used by New York City in ten minutes, by a 1 GWe coal-fired power plant in less than a day, a typical golf course in about a month, or perhaps 10 acres of corn in a season.  But of course, the ultimate destiny (location, content, temperature, etc) of the water used in these differing applications is very different.

At this juncture, I'm not opposed to fracking.  But I am increasingly concerned.  Fracking is currently banned in France, and in portions of Australia, South Africa, and Canada.  The natural gas industry is working hard to keep fracking safe, and is adamant that the probability of a major leak into a near-surface aquifer is extremely low.  However, as I've mentioned before, the potential for a "Black Swan" event in which a fracking operation pollutes a major ground water aquifer is never far from my thinking.  Such an event could radically change the outlook for fracking in the U.S. and elsewhere – along with the rosy predictions for abundant natural gas supplies in the coming decades.

Just like nuclear power, one of the "costs" of fracking will be eternal vigilance on the safety and environmental protection fronts.  I'm not a geologist, but one has to wonder about the long-term disposition of these wells and whether there are "failure modes" that could provide pathways for ground water contamination over decades as the subterranean well structures age.

Access to clean air, clean water, and abundant energy are the most important enablers of a life on this planet relatively free from hunger, ignorance, and suffering.  So these issues are inextricably intertwined from cradle to grave on both the production and utilization sides of the equation.  We all have a stake in the continued safety of fracking - a process that seems destined to expand greatly as we seek to extract more oil and gas for an energy-hungry world.