Archive: fracking

December 31st, 2013 | By Glen Hiemstra | Posted in Art & Society, Environment & Energy, Innovation, Science & Tech | 1 Comment

To 2014 and Beyond

Happy New Year to all our visitors and fans.

Looking ahead, here are some thoughts to add to the endless lists of 2014 anticipations – if you like these things see Mark Anderson’s top ten for 2014, or Thomas Fry’s 33 for 2030, or David Brin’s speculations on the year ahead. Brin is an exception but most of these kinds of articles are lists of technologies and anticipated developments. I know these lists ‘sell papers’ as we used to say, and provide a certain kind of infotainment. But I don’t take them too seriously except as brain teasers. Check them out if you want.

Me? I expect the big stories of 2014 will include…

…a shift in politics to debating how and how much to increase Social Security in the United States. This meme broke through in 2013, and moved the Overton Window over by a surprising margin, away from “how to cut Social Security” and at least to ‘how to maintain it.” This shift in the political winds cannot come too soon as we face an impending retirement crisis and looming wave of elder poverty.

…a dawning realization that fracking, however successful in the next decade or two at tapping previously hard to get oil and gas, has not fundamentally changed the longer term (21st Century) energy picture in which conventional (and thus cheaper) oil has peaked, and thus we face a mostly more expensive future in energy. Cheap gas is the exception but the energy picture still demands that civilization prepare for the fossil fuel phase out to come. Negotiating this passage will literally determine whether modern civilization is maintained.

…a continuation in the downward curve in solar energy cost per watt generated, meaning that it becomes more likely that solar will become a dominant supplier of electricity sooner than later. The electrification of the transportation fleet will gain momentum in 2014.

…space exploration and exploitation will proceed more aggressively in 2014. The success of China on the moon, and the amazing drive of SpaceX and other private companies in space will make the next half-decade a likely dawn of the next era in space, the era that leads to truly occupying space.

…it is hard to know when or if a weather event will tip the balance of public concern toward a crash effort to mitigate, slow down, and prepare for global warming. The latest, and most dire, predictions suggest that this had better happen soon.

Photo Credit: Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance and Mother Jones

Photo Credit: Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance and Mother Jones

…finally, a global struggle with and about the deep issues of privacy versus security, continued drift to richer and poorer society, and the future of employment and work, will likely heighten in 2014. There is a reason, which is more than artistic or admiration of the actors, that the Hunger Games series has already placed its first two films in the top 20 grossing films of all time and is a world-wide phenomenon. There is a hunger for change that is rumbling. The fact that life imitates art in way that reeks of parody but is all too real just adds to the pressure. (In this case activists hanging a banner to protest a proposed pipeline were charged under an absurd terrorism statute – thus precisely proving the point of the banner.)

2014 will be a year of great opportunity and great challenges – not all that different than 2013 or, I suspect, 2015.

Let’s have a great year!

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April 10th, 2012 | By Glen Hiemstra | Posted in Environment & Energy | Comments Off

Re-thinking the Future of Energy

Last week I attended an excellent monthly breakfast program of the Washington Clean Tech Alliance. The April program featured a panel on the future of natural gas. I attended because I am very interested in whether the energy picture has changed as much as it appears, in the past three years.

In 2006 when I wrote my last book, Turning the Future Into Revenue, I began the energy chapter with the following words, “The world is running out of oil. Just in time.” At that time, two years before oil prices hit their (so far) historical high of $147 a barrel, investors and institutions were catching up to peak oil, the knowledge that at some point we will have used up half the oil in the world and started down the back side of the supply curve. The only question is when. It seemed to many observers, circa 2006-2009, that the halfway point had been reached. It is still safe to say that the cheap and easy oil days are mostly behind us, but the energy picture has become more complex recently.

Hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas bearing shale rock, or fracking, when combined with improved horizontal drilling has begun to push the peaks forward in time. The biggest change in the energy picture, we learned last week, comes from shale gas. At the same time I was writing about energy in 2006, the natural gas industry was warning utility commissions that big price increases were on the horizon, because of short supplies, increases that would take the price per million BTU’s to $14. The U.S. and Canada were gearing up to build port facilities to import liquefied natural gas. Today the price hovers a bit below $2, because there is a glut of gas being developed in the shale oil fields in North America, and instead of anticipating import facilities, the focus is on the need for export facilities.

This chart, from the Energy Information Agency, illustrates how much more natural gas is anticipated by 2035, and how much of that comes from shale fields. At the WCTA session that I attended, there was confidence expressed that the gas is there and recoverable. The larger concerns focused on how to develop sufficient demand for all the gas by switching much electricity production and transportation to natural gas. In addition there is concern that the price has been driven so low that exploration and development will slow, having become uneconomical.

On the risk side there are concerns about water supply, as it takes a lot of water to produce a barrel equivalent of natural gas. While gas is cleaner than coal or diesel at the point of combustion, there is concern that gas leakage at the well head can make it actually a dirtier fuel in terms of green house gases, although the industry assures us that this is a technical issue that can be fixed by best practices. And of course there is concern about long run contamination of ground water from fracking chemicals used to force the gas from the shale rock. Again, the industry assures everyone that the shale is so much deeper than ground water there is little chance of contamination through migration. However, since the fracking pipes are left behind when a well plays out, leaving a long term channel between layers of rock, it seems reasonable to predict that some migration will occur in the very long run.

Regardless of the long-term risks, it is pretty safe to assume that an energy hungry world will continue to develop these resources. Whether there is really a 100-year supply, as industry advertising insists, is open to conjecture. But, on the whole, natural gas appears to offer a cleaner and cheaper bridge to the long-term energy future.

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