Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Fracking: great for wind and solar power?

“Nobody disputes that cheap natural gas would be a good thing for the economy. The question is, is this a sustainable new development that can be counted on for decades to come, or simply a bubble brought on by a land grab and drilling frenzy?”
— Jeff Goodell, author of “Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future”
Last Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 4, the fracking regulation law. It requires more disclosures on alternative drilling methods for oil and gas in California. Hopefully, it will prevent fracking’s most harmful consequences.
If your vision of our future is one where we all drive zero-emission vehicles (or ride on public transit systems powered by clean forms of energy) and where our energy is produced from sources that emit no effluents and don’t threaten us with radioactive waste, chances are strong you instinctively oppose fracking.
It’s also likely true that, other than its being a source of cheap natural gas, almost everything you have heard about fracking is bad:
That it injects harsh chemicals and acids into the ground; that it defiles millions of gallons of fresh water for every well (though no more than a conventional well uses); that it could harm groundwater and surface water; that it might cause earthquakes; and that it is a source of new air pollution.
Yet you may have never thought of the benefits of fracking — especially for our state.
What is unquestionable is that we — here and elsewhere — are a long way from a pristine energy future where fossil fuels no longer power our cars, trucks, buses, trains, ships, airplanes, homes, schools, stores, factories, farms and cities.
Yes, we can and will continually put up more solar panels and wind turbines. In 2012 alone we added 13.2 gigawatts of wind energy.
Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, recently wrote, “Nationally, we’ve doubled our wind power to 60 gigawatts, enough to power nearly 15 million homes, and we generate five times more solar power than we did just four years ago.”
Yet as a percentage of all the energy we consume in the United States, renewables are still a small share. According to the Institute for Energy Research, “Solar energy provides two-tenths of 1 percent of the total energy consumed in the United States.” Wind accounts for 1.4 percent. And all renewables — mostly hydroelectric and wood burning — produce just 9.3 percent of the energy we consume.
That means, of course, that 90.7 percent of our energy is coming from coal, petroleum, natural gas, nuclear and other non-renewable sources.
Jim Hansen, who is Al Gore’s climate adviser, wrote in 2011, “Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and (the) Tooth Fairy.”
But if our goal is to gradually get off of unclean forms of energy, the question is what do we do in the interim?
It’s not the case that our huge increase in the production of oil and natural gas — due to fracking — is displacing clean forms of energy. It is mostly reducing our consumption of imported oil and much dirtier domestic coal. That strikes me as a good exchange.
U.S. oil imports have fallen (fairly steadily) from more than 10 million barrels a day in 2005 to under 8 million barrels a day in 2013. Over that same span, U.S. crude oil production has increased from around 5 million to nearly 8 million barrels a day.
From 2005 to 2012, our production of coal fell from 23.2 to 20.6 quadrillion BTUs, while domestic natural gas production increased from 18.6 to 24.6. The result has been a steep decline in the price of natural gas — from $7.20 to $2.80 per million BTUs.
According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, “Lower natural gas prices have shaved about $10 billion a year from the utility bills of poor families. … The windfall to all U.S. natural gas consumers — industrial and residential — was closer to $110 billion. This is greater than the annual income of all of the residents in 14 states in 2011.”
One place there has been little increased production from fracking is California. Of the 50,000 wells in production in 2012 only 560 employed hydraulic fracturing.
It is not the case that the regulatory burden is making fracking economically unfeasible in our state. Rather, the problem is our geology.
While California’s Monterey Shale formation holds 15.4 billion barrels of recoverable shale oil (approximately two-thirds of the recoverable onshore reserves in the lower 48 states), fracking, so far, does not seem capable of releasing it efficiently.
According to the companies that have tried different methods — including steam injection and carbon dioxide injection — no one has yet mastered the Monterey’s “jumbled rock formation.” But it seems likely, with so much oil and gas available, someone will figure it out.
When they do, fossil fuel production in our state will become a much larger industry than it is today. The economic benefits — including a source for billions of dollars of tax revenues for California — will be substantial.
If our future is to be one with clean renewable energy and zero-emission vehicles, more fossil fuel production in California, ironically, could help us get there faster, as taxes on it subsidize more solar and wind energy.