Hoover Dam’s power plant uses smart grid technology to conserve energy when it can and make more when needed. People say, “Even if all we say about fossil fuels is true, shouldn’t we try to make things more efficient so we will use less?” (I will now refer to fossil fuels as TECHMAPS. See my July 7 article at CFACT.org as to why.) Of course, we should and we are across the board. All of our machines are continually becoming more efficient, but there is a paradox here. As we make things more efficient and we drive down the price on any product, we actually consume more of those goods.
When we were kids most of us had one TV. As they got cheaper, we added more TVs to our homes. The average household today has 3 TVs. That is just the average, many homes have more. And that is just counting TVs, not other viewable screens on phones, tablets, and computers. We have become more efficient, driving down the cost of every technology with a screen to the point where many homes have ten or more. So, the idea that we are going to become more efficient and therefore use fewer products and less energy is a myth.
Unfortunately, in the real-world people do not use less energy when they can easily afford more. We don’t conserve anything until it is painful. Yet, this fact doesn’t stop many politicians from saying ridiculous things like, “We will conserve our way out of this energy crisis”. That is truly just a throwaway line. It is untrue because you cannot separate price from conservation. If it is expensive, we will conserve. Some politicians openly say we need to make energy more expensive. Barack Obama said that about coal. Well, what does that do to the poor who must spend a much larger percentage of their income on energy? So, the only way to get people to conserve is to create pain, which will punish the poor. That is just the reality of it.
One of my favorite terms to challenge is this idea of finite resource. What people do not understand is that there is a limited amount of oil on the earth, but that limited amount is gigantic. There is likely enough oil on the earth to last us centuries more. At least a trillion barrels. Therefore, the resource is finite but our ability to extract it is not. In1909 it was predicted that we had 25 million barrels of oil left. In 1919 it was predicted we had 2 to 5 years of oil left. In 1937 it was said we were near the end. In1943 it was said we have reached Peak Oil. In 1956 it was said we had 15 years left. In 1974 my colleague M. King Hubert said the end of oil was in sight. This continued for years until the new boom hit thanks to hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.
The shale revolution happened because a few pioneers in the oil and gas industry thought maybe we could get oil out of shale rock which is a dense rock that has a lot of oil but it’s not permeable enough to move it through. The advances of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing fixed that problem, unleashing a flood of oil and natural gas. Human ingenuity will always drive us. We will always find more and better. We will continue to improve. Consequently, it is not about finite resources. We need to think about infinite resourcefulness to go deeper and farther to find the energy we need to survive and thrive.
The basic process for fracking is that on oil company drills a hole down a few thousand feet using flexible steel pipe that will bend three degrees per hundred feet. In 3,000 feet of vertical depth the drill pipe can be bent to a horizontal plain. Then the pipe can drill an additional two or three miles on a more or less horizontal plain. Then water is forced into the hole moving through perforations in the pipe along with some sand and a small mixture of chemicals. Less than one percent of the total solution are chemicals that act to kill bacteria and reduce friction.
When water is forced into the formation it cracks the rock and increases its permeability to the resident oil allowing the oil and gas to flow back up to the surface through the same drill pipe. The rock being fractured is typically two thousand feet below the surface or more and it in no way interacts with drinkable ground water resources that are generally a few hundred feet beneath the surface. The idea that hydraulic fracturing is polluting ground water is untrue. There is not a single documented case of groundwater being contaminated directly from the hydraulic fracturing process.
Did you hear about the movie GasLand? In that film there was a scene where a man lit his sink water on fire. This supposedly proved hydraulic fracturing had created a pathway for natural gas to get into the groundwater. Except, that was not the case. Natural gas had been seeping into the water supply naturally long before there was any drilling in the region. Colorado regulators investigated and found drilling did not cause the problem. In the filmmakers second film, GasLand2, a man was shown holding a flaming hose that was supposedly hooked to a water line. It wasn’t. In a lawsuit it was proven that the hose was hooked to a natural gas vent.
We have now hydraulically fractured 2.5 million wells since 1949 and 1.2 million drilled horizontally with no incidence of groundwater pollution. Even Obama’s EPA admitted this in Congressional hearings after five years of investigations. The results were released in June of 2015.
I might add that there are as many as seven layers of casing that separate the flow of oil and/or natural gas from the surrounding rock.
TREMORS And SHAKY GROUND
Oklahoma and Texas began experiencing an increase in seismic activity about a decade ago. People jump to the conclusion that it is a result of hydraulic fracturing of wells in the area, but it is much more likely that this is a case of correlation and not causation. There is a lot of drilling going on in places like North Dakota and Pennsylvania where there is no seismic activity. After years of study it seems the seismic activity in Texas and Oklahoma is much more likely due to natural geologic forces.
However, some tremors have been directly connected to the disposal of “produced water”, water that comes to the surface along with oil and natural gas. Where the seismic activity comes into play is where this water is pumped back into the ground through disposal wells. In some situations, this process can lubricate the rock and create slippage of fault structures. Cornell University did a study of 4,500 oil wells in the area and found only four were connected to seismic activity. Even four is too many. Since this connection to produced water disposal was discovered, the oil and natural gas industry and state regulators have made changes limiting the amount of water that can be disposed of in these wells.
The alarmists also like to talk about earthquakes because it sounds scary. However, a proper description of the vast majority of seismic activity in Texas and Oklahoma due to deep injection wells should be described as “tremors”. These are small geologic movements, most of which cannot be felt on the surface.
Finally, opponents of the oil and natural gas industry like to complain about the use of fresh water during hydraulic fracturing. The industry does use a significant amount of groundwater when hydraulically fracturing a well, but it is a small fraction of that used in most areas for irrigation, municipal water supply, and golf courses. The technology has evolved to the point where in most wells a high percentage of the water is recycled and reused. Some companies are even using a desalination process to use produced water in hydraulic fracturing, which greatly reduces the use of fresh water. As technology advances, the industry’s consumption of fresh water will continue to drop.
The efficiency paradox will always be with us, but so will the efficiency benefits that accrue when humans put their brainpower to solving problems.
Note: Portions of this article have been excerpted from the movie FRACTURED with permission of the producer and narrator Mark Mathis. The movie is available at Clear Energy Alliance.com. It contains the most informative 90 minutes of education on energy one could hope for.