A Fracking Concern

They’re going to be making steel in Youngstown again. Taken in isolation, this is great news, pointing to progress in an area that has struggled economically for the past 3-4 decades, and – as the story linked above – points out, lost half its population since 1950.

The steel mill, however, will be producing parts to use in hydraulic fracturing, fracking for short. This process is gaining support in the midwest as a means of economic recovery, through extracting natural gas found in the Marcellus Shale Formation.

Youngstown Sheet and Tube
The old Youngstown Sheet and Tube factory.Photo by bobengland, using a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommerical 2.0 License.

Much of my interest in writing about this subject comes from a desire to know more about it. Instinctively, I question whether investing in non-renewable energy is the best long-term strategy for any region. There are renewable energy opportunities in Ohio and the Midwest, and places like Austin, Texas are investing in clean energy manufacturing, which might put them even further ahead in the long run.

Lending more support to the clean energy apporach is the increasing number of signs that solar energy will be price competitive soonthis map says in about 12 years for the major Ohio cities, and sooner for much of the rest of the United States. Cities and regions that are investing now are likely to have a leg up going forward.

Leaving the economy aside for a moment, there are serious environmental concerns about the process (Wikipedia has a well-sourced list, and the pros-cons are well-debated here), most of which would have their effect felt close to home. The public health and safety concerns of residents shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated.

Deindustrialization of Youngstown is well-document, and I can’t begin to understand the affect this has had on the region. Coming from a region with a resource-heavy economy that has experienced booms and busts in my lifetime, I can empathize. The immediate economic returns of resources – in particular energy – are hard to resist. Given the history of the past few decades, and in light of the recession of the past few years, I don’t fault any citizen or city in that region for jumping at a possibility for economic growth.

But resources and their boom/bust cycles cause instability, and I think most citizens want predictable, reliable economic growth. Would clean/green industry, or other paths to economic development be a better investment in the long run? There are lots of possibilities for the Midwest, and many urban enthusiasts – including myself and the author of this excellent post – have been pleasantly surprised by what we found when visiting cities like Cleveland. Fracking might be the option right now, but I’m thinking a bright future for former industrial centers may come from other sources.

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7 Responses

  1. Hi Alex,

    I work in the field and have been researching fraccing for quite some time now.

    In my mind the more important question is what are we going to do to manage the water. Copious amounts of water consumed on a frack job. The issue is how to treat the fracc flow back and produced water for re-use and potentially for other beneficial uses such as agriculture and even drinking water in exceptionally arid locations. However, dealing with high salinity is a major technical issue.

    I suggest you check out the US EPA who has released some major documents on fraccing.

    David Burnett and his team Texas A & M are at the forefront on desalination treatment of flowback and produced water.

    Lastly, the Petroleum Technology Alliance of Canada (PTAC) is conducting a study on regulations for fraccing and water management.

    So much to digest and so little time to read.

    Good luck

    • Thanks Jarrett! Are there any good examples of successful water reclamation and re-use?

      • Absolutely. I am not aware of any projects, outside of academia that will treat the water to potable drinking quality standards.

        However, large investmens have been made by a great number oil and gas companies to recycle and re-use the fracc water over and over again and to reduce the overall volume used in their operations.

        http://watercanada.net/2010/shell-dawson-creek-agree-on-reclamation-plant/

        http://www.dawsoncreekdailynews.ca/article/20100821/DAWSONCREEK0101/100829998/-1/DAWSONCREEK/water-agreement-made

        http://www.capp.ca/getdoc.aspx?docID=198958&dt=NTV

        As well, companies are increasingly being pushed and looking to use lower quality water in their operations (i.e. brackish or non-saline water in the range of 500 > 4,000 ppm TDS; saline water has a TDS > 4,000 ppm). Potable drinking water’s TDS is <500 ppm, a quick google search shows the TDS in Calgary's Glenmore reservoir is 228 ppm TDS.

        Using higher TDS and contaminated water in drilling operations can cause fouling of equipment, lower formation injectivity and impact well production.

        During drilling and well abandonment, regulations require that non saline water (potential potable) and potable water be protected from contamination from fluids coming up the wellbore. THis is achieved by setting surface casing at a sufficient depth during well completion to ensure it covers to the depth of non-saline water (see ERCB Directive 20)

        Studies are being done on regulating water use and management in drilling operations and I expect the ERCB and BCOGC to release regulations sometime in the near future. However, it is not simple and their are lots of technical issues to be worked out.

        Hope this helps

  2. ProPublica has a comprehensive look at fracking where we live: http://www.propublica.org/article/oh-canadas-become-a-home-for-record-fracking/single Abd have you seen The Fracking Song, produced by Jay Rosen’s NYU students: http://www.propublica.org/article/fracking-music-video

  3. Thanks Karen. I hadn’t seen either. The video is great!

  4. There are a few problems with betting your community in green energy:

    1. In many cases it’s not yet economically viable. You point out solar power is about 12 years away from profitability. That’s a long time for a community to be poor.

    Some people advocate government subsidization early on to get over this hump, but then we sometimes end up with failures like Solyndra.

    2. There are many different renewable/green energy technologies. Which one will ultimately be acceptable? We don’t know. Wind power is one of the most viable technologies and looked like the early winner. However, once power companies started to build them in southern Ontario, residents were unhappy claiming they damage health (scientifically there is no evidence of this). Property values have plummeted wiping out the worth of families. People wanting to move away from the wind turbines can’t without losing most of the value of their homes. All of a sudden, wind power investment has become radioactive.

    And we haven’t even considered if the power modality will even generate return in the long run.

    A community choosing solar, geothermal, etc. power is setting themselves up for bankruptcy if the technology doesn’t pan out.

    3. Early investment in a technology usually means that you’re the first one to have obsolete technology. Once green technology is profitable, the early adopters, rather than having a head start, often have the least efficient and costly technology and can’t compete.

    Part of the problem with green technology is that it gets hyped up by environmentalists who, rightly, want it ready to go by tomorrow. Unfortunately, technology development is slow and often halting, and green technology is probably only a long term solution. Short term, energy production and economic development needs to rest on other options.

    The one alternative is to tax carbon-emitting power generation heavily so that green power can be competitive. This obviously depresses the economy as a whole somewhat, so there are costs to this if your goal s economic growth.

    Finally, it should be remembered that power generation is generally a relatively small faction of greenhouse gas emissions. For example, if Canada were to somehow drive its power generation emissions to zero, we still wouldn’t even be half-way to meeting our Kyoto targets. Transportation, for example, is a much more significant source of carbon pollution.

  5. [...] article was written by Alex Abboud. It originally appeared on his blog and was reprinted with [...]

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