Stop Demonizing Natural Gas
In July 2014 a helicopter flying over the Yamal Peninsula spotted a perfectly round hole in the Siberian taiga. The Internet lit up with the same old tired arguments. Was this more proof that the permafrost was releasing heat trapping methane into the atmosphere or was the hole just another impact crater?
Most scientists agreed that the slick sides of the hole and the lack of partially melted rocks cast out of the hole proved that it had been caused by a methane bubble exploding up out of the earth not by a comet smashing down through the tundra.
But the arguments missed the true significance of the event. It was yet more proof that there are massive amounts of frozen methane hydrates under the seafloor and huge methane fields under every continent on the planet.
It was a bubble of methane that blew up the Deepwater Horizon oil rig leading to the BP oilspill. Both the Soviet Union and the United States went on high alert several years ago when they thought that either India or Pakistan had exploded a nuclear missile in the India Ocean. Scientists finally determined that a frozen chunk of methane hydrate had probably dislodged from the ocean bottom and exploded in the massive fireball detectable by underwater listening devices and overhead satellites.
The clinching argument for many anti-frackers is the visual of a Pennsylvania farmer turning on his water tap and igniting natural gas, the commercial name for methane. What is seldom mentioned is that everyone in that neighborhood remembers how much fun it was to light the methane that naturally flared out of the spigots in the girl’s room restroom years way before anyone thought of fracking the Marcellus shale.
So, if we are ever going to solve our climate change problem we need to take another look at natural gas. It is about time too.
Natural gas was the world’s first fossil fuel. In 252 B.C. the provincial governor of Sichuan, Li Bing, discovered how to drill wells to retrieve brine for making salt. The wells were as deep as 300 feet. But the drillers soon discovered that evil spirits emanated from the wells causing explosions and making workers sick.
But, by 100 A.D. the drillers found out that this invisible substance would burn and they had started using it to heat the brine. By the Middle Ages they had perfected all the basic techniques of percussion drilling still used today to drill for oil and gas.
The Sichuan drillers would place a bamboo tube down a hole they had dug, then repeatedly drop a heavy 8 foot long rod with a sharp metal bit down through the tube. This would allow them to drill several hundred feet deep to the gas and brine reserves below. When the gas rose to the surface drillers would divert it through more mud-lined bamboo tubes to the distant salt works. The Sichuan countryside was soon covered with a spidery web of bamboo pipes used both for both home plumbing and transporting gas. The governor also started taxing the operation to expand his empire. Sound familiar?
The Sichuan example points to the extreme versatility of natural gas. You can use it as it is, right out of the ground. It doesn’t have to be refined like oil. It can also be cooled into liquefied natural gas, separated into propane or simply be pumped through pipelines to cities and homes.
Modern day drillers also have a lot of experience storing natural gas because it is a seasonal fuel that was traditionally used in the winter to heat homes. The gas would be extracted in the summer then pumped back into salt domes for storage until its price rose again in the autumn. Of course this made it a commodities trader’s best dream as well.
The other great advantage of natural gas is that it doesn’t have to take millions of years to form like oil or coal. The Massachusetts Water Resources Authority uses month old natural gas collected in its eight giant egg-like methane collectors to help power its waste treatment plant and Chinese farmers use week old methane collected from their pigs’ manure to cook with.
Oil companies are also experimenting with using natural gas to power their oilrigs and transport vehicles so they wont have to ship expensive diesel into remote drilling areas. These measures prevent methane from escaping into the atmosphere where it can be 30 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
But from an environmental point of view the greatest advantage of natural gas is that it emits four times less carbon per unit than coal and two times less than oil. This is the reason that U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have dropped for 4 out of the last 7 years. During the same time countries like Germany and England have increased carbon emissions because their cap and trade policies didn’t generate enough income to pay for the renewable energy facilities they had promised the world they would build.
So why does natural gas have such a bad reputation? From what its critics call fracking. Fracking uses a lot of water and causes earthquakes. This sounds dangerous but to date none of the earthquakes have caused major damage. But they have certainly sold a lot of earthquake insurance and undoubtedly lowered property values. But I wonder just how low your property rate can go if it is found that you also own mineral rights to a multi-million dollar gas field?
Most of the problems associated with fracking stem from the fact that we are doing it too fast and too furiously. It has been estimated that natural gas adds a billion dollars to the US economy every day. However, a lot of the natural gas presently being produced should stay in the ground, both to save for the future and also until drillers have the time to build pipelines and compressors to transport the fuel.
If modern drillers had continued to treat gas as a valuable commodity like the early Sichuanese, we would not be in the pickle we are in today. Up until recently oil companies have regarded natural gas as nothing but a dangerous nuisance, better to be flared off than exploited.
Just four years ago, the last thing an oil driller wanted to encounter was a gassy well. As we have seen it was a kick of natural gas from a gassy well that led to the BP oil spill. Chunks of frozen methane coming up through the wellhead also nearly exploded the funnel and surface vessel being used to remove the leaking oil.
Today, the brightest lights you see at night from the International Space Station are fires above Middle Eastern and Indonesian oil wells. The drillers are flaring off millions of cubic feet of natural gas because it is cheaper to burn it off than to build pipelines to ship it to market.
Even North Dakota is flaring off so many of its 1,500 new wells that they outshine the city of Minneapolis several hundred miles away. The industry has probably flared off close to fifty years worth of natural gas through this profligate practice and emitted millions of tons of carbon dioxide in the process.
Although environmentalists and governments have tried to limit the practice, it is still legal. In North Dakota you can only flare off natural gas during the first year of production, but this is also when most of the gas comes to the surface anyway. Oil companies can also easily get exemptions in following years if they have not yet been able to construct pipelines.
Then there is all the gas that has escaped into the atmosphere through sloppy extraction techniques and leaky pipelines. It is estimated that huge amounts of natural gas leak out of pipelines below old cities like Boston, causing both global warming and dangerous gas explosions.
So, if we stop demonizing natural gas it can be the bridge we need to lead us from the present age of petroleum to a future age of wind, solar and a hundred percent clean hydrogen gas. But to get there we have to treat natural gas it like the valuable resource it is. If we start using natural gas wisely and sparingly it can help us get out of the environmental and economic trap we have constructed to catch ourselves.
William Sargent is director of the Coastlines Project in Ipswich. He is a consultant for the NOVA science series on PBS and the author of 20 books about science and the environment. Islands in the Storm will be released in August. His books are available in local bookstores and through www.strawberryhillpress.com and Amazon.com.
Read more in; Storm Surge; A Coastal Village Battles the
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