In recent days, powerful voices in the energy establishment, voices that have compelling roots in Oklahoma, have almost in unison proclaimed that our recent quakes have no nexus to our exploding in-state gas fracking operations.
"Fracking, otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing, is a technique that was first used in the 40s. It injected large amounts of water, under high pressure, combined with sand and small amounts of chemicals, into shale formations -- this fragments underground rock, creating pathways for otherwise trapped natural gas (and oil) to find around and float through to the well." --From Daniel Yergin's book "The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World"
Yergin's fascinating book chronicles the transformation of seemingly hopeless attempts to extract natural gas from concrete like shale formations: he details the mostly hapless attempts by a handful of energy outfits in the '80s that finally came to fruition in the early '00s, only after Oklahoma's Devon Energy Corp bought out Houston based Mitchell Energy -- including its radical new "light salt fracking" process.
Devon fused Mitchell's process with its own pioneering horizontal drilling systems and its mastery of 3D sub-surface imaging, and modern gas fracking was born. Interestingly, Mitchell Energy's nearly twenty year epic to master shale gas extraction was helped by a bevy of 1980 windfall profit tax credits to encourage unconventional natural gas drilling.
In any case, Lincoln County, the originating space for the quakes many experienced on Nov. 5 and 6, is the venue, according to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission for 118 injection rigs.
Nationally, since the early '00s, what writer/energy doyen Yergin calls the "Shale Gale" has commanded billions in new investment dollars, crafted an energy technology revolution (the only really big one so far in our new century), produced lots of cheap energy and thousands of new jobs.
But the unconventional "gas revolution" is also fostering monsters: fracking may botch urban water aquifers; accelerate greenhouse gas/climate problems; and require humongous water volumes.
"Human induced seismicity": the handle that policy wonks have given to quake activity associated with a still small but growing number of suspect events, looks to be on the rise here and elsewhere. A novel hazard that could have horrifying consequences if seismic anomalies become more frequent or more intense: something that is clearly imaginable in a world where a presidential "gas futures" panel headed by former CIA Director John Deutch, estimated that 100,000 new wells are expected over the next 2-3 decades to fulfill the "new gas" promise.
Deutch's study group issued a thick pile of recommendation last week:
"If action is not taken to reduce the environmental impact accompanying the very considerable expansion of shale-gas production expected...there is a real risk of serious environmental consequences," the panel said in a statement. "Some concerted and sustained action is needed to avoid excessive environmental impacts of shale-gas production and the consequent risk of public opposition to its continuation and expansion."
Last week, I had an email exchange with one of America's premier experts on human induced quakes: Dr. Leonardo Seeber of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory:
"I saw the New York Times article a couple of days back quoting the state seismologist (Austin Holland) as saying that seismicity in Oklahoma has been much higher during the last decade than before and that he does not know why. This is very surprising because the same person has stated in a prior publication that triggering of earthquakes by the gas recovery operations is at least a viable hypothesis.
While statistically there is very little doubt that the hydrocarbon recovery operations are triggering earthquakes, it is generally difficult to prove it for individual earthquakes.
Liability concerns by powerful commercial entities are promoting a state of denial about the issue of triggering earthquakes. This is rather unfortunate because it prevents use of available knowledge and more research to understand the processes involved and to minimize the hazard from these triggered earthquakes."
Oklahoma's state geologist, Austin Holland, has just released a new paper on a set of recent quakes in Oklahoma's Garvin country area: he looked at events that occurred last August. Holland's piece suggests hydraulic fracking may have had a signal role in recent quakes here in Oklahoma, quakes that again predate the events of last week, but bear real, if feebler similarity to the ones we felt in Tulsa a few days ago.
Holland lists other instances of industry-created quakes near Fort Worth, Tex.; Denver, Col.; Guy, Ark.; Rangely, Col., and Paradox Valley, Col. Recent BBC reports also document quakes induced by fracking near Lancashire, UK.
I spent the better part of one day last week talking with an old friend who is an earth scientist/geologist -- Dr. Bruce Langus, an energy professional with massive experience in oil and gas, and environmental policy. He was a principal founder of Tulsa's ALL Consulting: an intellectual powerhouse firm that does energy systems, oil and gas work, and environmental analysis and engineering for energy companies for the feds and for state and local government.
He and other observers imagine that we will eventually switch to an energy mix with a huge role for renewable and alternative energy sources. But like the Deutch gas "reform" panel, he feels that a failure to attend to a range of increasingly evident challenges might crash "new gas" and quash our march to a better energy future.
Langus' outlook: Ham-fisted federal constraints on "new gas" could come if industry resistance to smart regulatory efforts like drill site digital monitoring, and making seismic data from these sensors available to state and local officials are not agreed to and properly executed;
He also believes energy industry actions such as building richer earthquake history data sets for all drilling sites (especially those with very fragile seismic properties); industry investment in paleoseismicity nascent method for reconstructing quake histories from ancient archaeology, sedimentary rock sets and biotic remnants at existing and promising new sites needs to happen.
The question...can government come up with agile regulatory policies and clever incentives that would make extensive production of "new gas" fully consistent with other goals like quality air, safe water and policies that mitigate our climate crisis? And while some very serious folks will not concede it yet, we also need a "gas revolution" that doesn't consign us to a new tectonic hell.
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