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Shale fracking gas english

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  • 1. September-October 2013 INDIA & YOU14 septembre-octobre 2013 INDES38 Environment Game Changer Gas, To overcome the challenge of climate cliff, Mother Earth has come up with a solution called ‘shale gas’ – a natural gas located deep below the earth’s surface in the shale – thin layers of rocks. Rajendra Shende Naturally!
  • 2. INDIA & YOU September-October 2013 35 T his is definitely poetic, for want of better narrative. Finally, Mother-Earth has come to rescue the humanity from the climate-cliff even though the same humanity exploited the very Mother- Earth for the selfish purposes that brought us to the cliff in the first place! Truly, the impending rescue operation demonstrates true motherly spirit, her magnanimity and her ‘giving nature’. The life-boat thrown is called ‘natural gas’ trapped more than 1 km or even 5 km deep down the earth in the shale, i.e. thin layers of rocks. Shale-methane is formed by the microbes which decompose the fossils of higher carbon compounds to its single carbon compound, i.e. methane. The process is aided by pressure of the rocks and also by the heat inside the earth. It was hitherto inaccessible to the mankind. To distinguish it from its commonly accessed methane, it is now baptized as ‘shale gas’. Even more Americanized name, etymologically related to the technology used to extract it-is ‘fracking gas’. It needs hydraulic pressure to crack the shale to access the gas. Bailing out by bellowing bed rocks Shale gas bellowing out of bedrocks is becoming the American trajectory of energy independence. If the whole world takes fracking as frantic as USA, the freak and revolution is certainly in making that may even lessen the burden of fuel, food and financial crisis. Humanity’s addictions to burning of fossil fuel from mother earth’s interior from the days of the industrial revolution resulted into increasing the concentration of CO2 –a green house gases (GHGs) -in the atmosphere that is responsible for the rise in the global average temperature of the earth. The rise in temperature and increase in the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has been strikingly related . World continued for last two decades to increasingly devour coal, oil and gas in spite of its far reaching and even fatal consequences highlighted by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of United Nations. Global anthropogenic CO2 emissions have seen an increase of about 45 per cent since 1990, which is the same percentage as in the 20 years before 1990. This increase is slap on the face of global consensus on stabilizing the concentration of CO2 in atmosphere. Such increase in, as per estimate of International Energy Agency, will lead to as much as 5.3 degrees Celsius in next few decades. Considering that global community is frantically trying to limit the temperature rise to 2 deg centigrade, such 5.3 deg rise would put all the countries in dangerous trajectory. Natural Gas is the cleanest fossil fuel. To produce same amount of heat or electricity we need half the amount of natural gas as compared to coal. When compared with oil the amount of natural gas needed is 25 per cent less. Power plants that burn coal also produce other pollutants like more than 90 times as much sulfur dioxide, five times as much nitrogen oxide apart from twice as much carbon dioxide as those that run on natural gas. Sulfur dioxide causes acid rain and nitrogen oxides lead to smog. The emissions of mercury- dangerous element that has disastrous health effects that prompted the international Mercury elimination treaty under United Nations-is negligible. Thus, methane gas or natural gas from fracking has come as an unprecedented opportunity to get respite from ever increasing GHGs. Gas-rush years: The grand debate Like gold-rush years, USA is witnessing ‘gas-rush’ years. The reserves of the shale gas are yet to be fully mapped and technology to extract it is yet to be mastered well. The estimates of the world reserves of natural gas vary widely. Today, the debate on shale gas is mainly focused on two issues. First, the technology of extraction of the shale gas, which causes environmental damages of extremely serious nature, is being hotly discussed by the scientists and environmentalists. Number of countries including UK and France has limited the fracking explorations only to the safe, healthy and nature preserving operations. Second, the geo-political changes that shale gas revolution would bring, have become the harvest of predictions and analysis of political pundits and are now close to the reality. There is third critical dimension, which is over looked by many, but not by the scientists, is the impact of extensive use of shale gas on climate change and sustainable development. Cracking the climate change: By fracking In a surprising turnaround, the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in the US has fallen dramatically to its lowest level in 20 years, and government officials say the biggest reason is that cheap and plentiful natural gas has led many power plant operators to switch from dirtier-burning coal. Many did not see this drop coming. It happened as a result of market forces rather than direct government action to reduce the emissions of carbon dioxide. Energy related US CO2 emissions in 2012 fell to about 1992 levels or even to 1990 levels, a base line stipulated in the United Nations climate convention. Interestingly, USA never ratified the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change and never took any obligation under the Climate change’s international regime. However it is now poised to meet the objective of the Kyoto Protocol of reducing the GHG emissions, thanks to fracking! Since 2005 the fracking boom has started production from shale, which is now 10 times higher than in 2005 (USA). In next 10 years USA will be Environment Natural Gas is the cleanest fossil fuel. To produce same amount of heat or electricity we need half the amount of natural gas as compared to Coal. When compared with oil the amount of natural gas needed is 25 per cent less. Thus, natural gas has come as an unprecedented opportunity
  • 3. net exporter of the gas. Last year, USA surpassed its peak production of 1973. Drillers in USA are extracting the natural gas at unprecedented rate. Supply has surged and even the prices have fallen. It is ‘ironic’ indeed that the shift from coal to gas has helped bring the US closer to meeting some of the greenhouse gas targets in the 1997 Kyoto treaty on global warming, which the United States never ratified. The European Union which is seen as the world’s facilitator for the climate treaty, has seen its emissions rise, partly because of an increase in coal- fired power generation in response to Europe’s high gas price.In 2005, coal was used to produce about half of all the electricity generated in the US. The Energy Information Agency said that fell to lower than 34 percent in 2012, the lowest level since it began keeping records nearly 40 years ago. One estimate for global reserves of natural gas –conventional and shale -is 450 trillion cubic meters of which shale Environment gas is 188 trillion. USA reserves of shale gas are estimated to be 25 trillion cubic meters and that of China 36 trillion. The countries with shale gas reserves in double digits are Canada, Mexico, Argentina, South Africa, and Australia. Those in the higher end of single digits are Libya, Brazil, Algeria, France and Poland. Those at the lower end of the single digit are Norway, India, Pakistan, and many of the other countries. Technology that extracts gas also extorts environment Shale gas extraction technology is not different than shale oil extraction that was first tried in 1947 and was commercially successful in 1949. It involves deep (1 to 6 km) vertical and then horizontal drilling to reach to the trapped fuel between layers of rocks. Fracturing of rock layers by highly pressurized liquid-normally water with sand and chemicals is needed to liberate the oil or gas by literally blowing the shale by explosion. The first known experimental use of hydraulic fracturing was way back in 1947, and the first commercially successful applications were in 1949. As of 2010, it was estimated that 60 per cent of all new oil and gas wells worldwide were being hydraulically fractured.Clearly, USA has global lead in the hydraulic fracking technology which is providing the opportunity for USA to be energy independent. Here comes the reflection on the environmental impacts of fracking. Like any other technology that has been put into societal use, there is always a flip side that results into adverse side-effects if technology is not handled prudently. In case of fracking the unintended and even not yet fully understood damages to the environment could be serious, far- reaching and long term. If not addressed effectively the world could create another monster like climate change. The possible and observed environmental damages could include contamination of ground and surface Reserves of Shale gas in the world (2011, in billions m3) Source : World energy outlook special on unconventional gas (2011) 56 57 16 30 33 12 4 North America Europe South America World: 208 Asia Pacific Middle EastAfrica Russia, Ukraine, Belarus September-October 2013 INDIA & YOU36
  • 4. Environment water during and after the extraction process. The process of fracking depletes the scarce fresh water reserves and natural flows due to its large and indiscriminate use in. Spills of chemically contaminated water and sand could have damaging impacts on surface soil and agricultural productivity. The health impacts due to such contamination are predicted to be serious, including unknown diseases, cancer, and air pollution. The threats of changing the layers of rocks and migration of gases from one trap into another could trigger run-away seismic activity. The safe handling of waste and its disposal would be challenging knowing its numerous locations and local impacts. Geo-politics: Happy days for G-2? Due to shale oil extraction, USA is expected to be well on the road to energy independence. That would totally change the politics in the Middle East, dedicated support to Israel, and efforts spent on balancing acts needed by USA towards China and likes. The same is true in case of China, though China is far away from commercially exploiting the shale gas. It is predicted that as the present decade progresses, by 2020, natural gas infrastructure would be well established and the oil process would fall. Russia and Saudi Arabia would experience destabilization in terms of the energy and geo-politics. If shale gas as energy supply were to determine the supremacy in the world politics, India would be down in the ranking. G-2, China and USA, would be two poles of the new world order. India has to get aligned with one of them and USA seems to be obvious choice, leaving behind India’s traditional leaning towards Russia as balancing hub while dealing with USA and China. European Union may benefit because of the lower oil prices and arrival of large quantities of liquefied natural gas from countries like Qatar and Russia as well as from USA. There is flip side: Europe would be disadvantaged politically as USA is likely to de-emphasize Europe as conduit for the safe transporting of the Middle East oil. Entering the unknown caves of shale What we tap for burning is formed underground by heat of the planet. Natural gas when burnt is less harmful than if leaks out. This is because the burning natural gas results into carbon dioxide- global warming gas with global warming potential (GWP) of one. Methane has GWP of 20 and when released into atmosphere it would cause the global warming 20 times more than carbon dioxide. Methane is also generated naturally as well as human activities on the earth’s surface, i.e. from marshes, from human made rice fields, landfills, manure lagoons, from stomachs of the cows and other ruminants. Termites emit methane too. Coal mines produce the methane to, which is explosion hazard. In oil wells it was considered as unwanted by-products and nuisance that need to be burnt as flare. The aging pipelines carrying natural gas in Europe, Russia and central Europe also contributes to methane release. Fracking itself may release natural gas by accident. The amount would depend on how large is shale gap. There are ways to estimate the quantity of such methane, but there is large uncertainty about its precise value. One important uncertainty comes from the methane gas that gets released through varied sources. One such source is land degradation and deforestation. But the dangerously important source is the melting of arctic and Antarctic ice shelf. It’s anyone’s guess how much of methane is trapped under the ice shelf there, but it runs into hundreds and thousands of billions tonnes. Many scientists consider this, as a ‘methane time bomb’ because the global warming would thaw the ice and that would further release global warming gas, which is 20 times as potent as C02. This feed back loop is considered to be ‘ dooms scenario’ for the humanity. Guiding the fracking: Best use of mother’s gift It is obvious that humanity has solution to the crisis of climate change- albeit temporary-in its reach but there are twists to straiten. It is ‘shale gale’! There are serious issues related to environment and there are opportunities to make progress and action on climate change mitigation, adaptation, poverty alleviation and social equity. It is a respite. Some countries are going to benefit more economically. USA would be energy independent by 2035. Other countries with that would result into paradigm shift in the world economy and geo-politics and trade balances. World is also likely to get less air-pollution and better health for its citizens. There is need for United Nations to focus more on the ‘environment friendly ‘ extraction of the natural gas though international for a and even multilateral environmental agreements. Technology advantage that USA has could be leveraged to get adverse impacts out of fracking- technology and make it acceptable for the environment. The money spent on subsidies and research to resolve climate issues could be prioritized to make fracking danger free. At the same time the long term solutions for the climate change like renewable energy research could be aggressively funded through the money saved from importing oil and other fossil fuels. That would be the right way to accept Mother’s gift. If shale gas as energy supply were to determine the supremacy in the world politics, India would be down in the ranking. G-2, China and USA, would be two poles of the new world order. India has to get aligned with one of them and USA seems to be obvious choice, leaving behind India’s traditional leaning towards Russia as balancing hub while dealing with USA and China. INDIA & YOU September-October 2013 37