Bakken, Keystone XL, and fracking.

15 Jan

A couple of interrelated topics for today.  First, let’s dispense with the Keystone XL pipeline.  The myths about the Keystone pipeline are truly absurd and would be laughed at in a reasonably intelligent society.  We don’t have that, so let’s look at the claims and explain a few things.

Claim 1: the Keystone pipeline will bring the US to “energy independence”.  Rebuttal: the Keystone pipeline begins in the tarsands of Alberta, Canada.   Canada is noticably not part of the US.  The tarsands projects, and the oil thus produced, belong to the companies that work the fields.  Currently there are 64 companies operating several hundred projects. The majority of production now comes from foreign-owned corporations.  I do not know how Canada handles profit-sharing with its oil companies and I am not going to bother looking it up.  It is irrelevant, since the fact is that a Canadian or British or any other foreign-to-the-US company running Canadian crude through a pipeline – whether or not it crosses US territory – in no way results in free gas to the US.  The oil does not come from under American soil and does not belong to America.  Once the crude gets to Texas, a company such as Exxon might be paid to refine it.  The refined product is then placed on the open market for bidding.  The US may or may not choose to bid on the products.  (According to presentations to investors, Gulf Coast refiners plan to refine the cheap Canadian crude supplied by the pipeline into diesel and other products for export to Europe and Latin America.  –  The US does not get “freebies” from Exxon; that is not the way we handle our oil companies.  I.e., we do not have nationalized oil.  We invade countries with nationalized oil profits.  In any case, since this is Canadian oil (remember?) we would not have any right to it even if we did have nationalized oil.   Exxon may or may not form some sort of joint partnership with TransCanada and the other owners to share profits, or Exxon may simply be paid a refining fee for its services.  Regardless, the profits from selling the refined products belong to the oil companies involved, not to the US.

Claim 2: the Keystone pipeline will create jobs for America.  Rebuttal: it may create a few jobs.  Once the line is actually built, one can assume very few people will be needed to check the line or to make repairs along the way.  And poof!  The jobs are gone.  And the number of jobs being discussed is ridiculous anyway.  The pipeline will not create 20,000 American jobs.  The jobs to build the pipeline will mainly go to Canadians who work for the Canadian company that produces this oil.  TransCanada is a Canadian company, remember?  How many jobs does TransCanada think will be generated by building the pipeline?  Let’s ask them.  In 2008, TransCanada’s Presidential Permit application for Keystone XL to the State Department indicated “a peak workforce of approximately 3,500 to 4,200 construction personnel” to build the pipeline.  Since ’08, they have admitted that only a couple of hundred employees will be needed long-term for regular maintainance.  Where did the number 20,000 come from?  Someone made it up.  Here’s how: someone said, well, the construction workers will need to eat and some form of recreation.  Let’s assume that while the pipeline is being built, we will see new coffeehouses, restaurants and strip clubs (this is the truth; they included potential strip club jobs) opening up and doing business.  Let’s add those to the “jobs created” number.  Once the workers aren’t needed any longer, the strippers will lose their jobs, too, but after all, no-one has made the rash claim that these extraneous jobs will last forever.

Regarding the Bakken Formation shale oil field in North Dakota:  this is being touted as a wonderful source of fossil fuel which will lead to (what else?) energy independence for the US.  There is an e-mail going viral on the web which claims that this, for sure, is the answer to our woes.  The Bakken is all shale oil – so expensive to process that if it were our only source of oil (no matter how much oil is actually there, and estimates vary wildly on that), the price of gas would instantly quadruple.  Not to mention the little unpleasant fact that shale oil used more than a gallon of fresh water for each gallon of oil obtained.  Fresh water that is made toxic by the process and cannot be used for drinking or watering crops after being used in the shale extraction process.  Lots and lots of people are able to dispatch the claims made in that e-mail – this is but one:

Yes, there is indeed a lot of oil in the Bakken Formation, just as the email claims — BUT this oil exists in shale form. That means it’s locked in sand, gravel, and rock. The extracting of it is so galactically difficult and costly that the best estimates about how much can actually be extracted and used from the formation have ranged anywhere from 50 percent to 1 percent. The refining of it is also hugely difficult and costly compared to the refining of the light, sweet crude that just comes naturally to the surface during the early period of the developmental of a traditional oil field.

The email is also insanely slanted in its accusation that the only reason we’re not all dancing in the streets at our salvation from the energy crisis is because of those damned evil environmentalists who are threatening civilization by stopping us from tapping this messiah of an oil field. In fact, Bakken is being worked right now, and with a vengeance. Development of it has absolutely exploded over the past few years, and will only intensify…

Peak oil theory isn’t about the idea that “the oil is running out.” It’s about the end of cheap and easy to get oil. The crisis is found in the fact that our entire urban-industrial-technological civilization has been built upon, and can only continue to run upon, a foundation of cheap, plentiful, and ever-increasing oil. What’s going to happen is that this whole arrangement will start contracting and, maybe, imploding in interesting ways because of oil problems — not the problem of running out, which will never happen, but the problem of our cheap and plentiful supply shifting to a situation of ever-increasing cost and scarcity. Nobody in history has ever seen what’s going to happen over the next 20, 50, and 100 years, because the human race only started living on oil roughly a century ago (or actually a bit more recently than that; more like 1920 or 1930), so we’ve only ever known what life was like on the rising side of the oil supply curve, not on the falling side as we get into global depletion.

The fact that the Bakken Formation is being ferociously developed right now is actually evidence in favor of the peak oil scenario and its concerns, because we would never turn seriously toward working such a difficult deposit if the usual and traditional sources weren’t all drying up and/or being called seriously into question by geopolitical difficulties

The Bakken Formation is being “fracked” to get to the shale oil.  (Fracking is hydraulic fracturing.)  So now we get to fracking in general.  The process and some general notes (courtesy wikipedia) are as follows (if you want to skip the long wiki entry, jump to the end of the section between the lines of stars):

Hydraulic fracturing is the propagation of fractures in a rock layer caused by the presence of a pressurized fluid. Hydraulic fractures may form naturally, as in the case of veins or dikes, or may be man-made in order to release petroleum, natural gas, coal seam gas, or other substances for extraction, where the technique is often called fracking or hydrofracking. This type of fracturing…is done from a wellbore drilled into reservoir rock formations. The energy from the injection of a highly-pressurized fracking fluid creates new channels in the rock which can increase the extraction rates and ultimate recovery of fossil fuels. The fracture width is typically maintained after the injection by introducing a proppant into the injected fluid. Proppant is a material, such as grains of sand, ceramic, or other particulates, that prevent the fractures from closing when the injection is stopped.

The practice of hydraulic fracturing has come under scrutiny internationally due to concerns about the environmental impact, health and safety, and has been suspended or banned in some countries.

The technique of hydraulic fracturing is used to increase or restore the rate at which fluids, such as oil, water, or natural gas can be produced from subterranean natural reservoirs….
A hydraulic fracture is formed by pumping the fracturing fluid into the wellbore at a rate sufficient to increase pressure downhole to exceed that of the fracture gradient of the rock. The rock cracks and the fracture fluid continues farther into the rock, extending the crack still farther, and so on. To keep this fracture open after the injection stops, a solid proppant, commonly a sieved round sand, is added to the fluid. The propped fracture is permeable enough to allow the flow of formation fluids to the well. Formation fluids include gas, oil, salt water, fresh water and fluids introduced to the formation during completion of the well during fracturing…

An estimated 90 percent of the natural gas wells in the United States use hydraulic fracturing to produce gas at economic rates.

The fluid injected into the rock is typically a slurry of water, proppants, and chemical additives…  Sand containing naturally radioactive minerals is sometimes used so that the fracture trace along the wellbore can be measured. Chemical additives are applied to tailor the injected material to the specific geological situation, protect the well, and improve its operation, though the injected fluid is approximately 98-99.5% percent water, varying slightly based on the type of well. The composition of injected fluid is sometimes changed as the fracturing job proceeds. Often, acid is initially used to scour the perforations and clean up the near-wellbore area. Then proppants are used with a gradual increase in their size and/or density. At the end of the job the well is commonly flushed with water (sometimes blended with a friction reducing chemical) under pressure. Injected fluid is to some degree recovered and is managed by several methods, such as underground injection control, treatment and discharge, recycling, or temporary storage in pits or containers while new technology is being developed to better handle wastewater and improve reusability. Although the concentrations of the chemical additives are very low, the recovered fluid may be harmful due in part to hydrocarbons picked up from the formation…

Environmental concerns with hydraulic fracturing include the potential contamination of ground water, risks to air quality, the potential migration of gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals to the surface, the potential mishandling of waste, and the health effects of these. A 2004 study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into CBM wells posed minimal threat to underground drinking water sources. This study has been criticised for only focusing on the injection of fracking fluids, while ignoring other aspects of the process such as disposal of fluids, and environmental concerns such as water quality, fish kills and acid burns; the study was also concluded before public complaints of contamination started emerging. Largely on the basis of this study, in 2005 hydraulic fracturing was exempted by US Congress from any regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act…. As development of natural gas wells in the U.S. since the year 2000 has increased, so too have claims by private well owners of water contamination. This has prompted EPA and others to re-visit the topic.

There are…documented incidents of contamination. In 2006 drilling fluids and methane were detected leaking from the ground near a gas well in Clark, Wyoming; 8 million cubic feet of methane were eventually released, and shallow groundwater was found to be contaminated. In the town of Dimock, Pennsylvania, 13 water wells were contaminated with methane (one of them blew up), and the gas company, Cabot Oil & Gas, had to financially compensate residents and construct a pipeline to bring in clean water; the company continued to deny, however, that any “of the issues in Dimock have anything to do with hydraulic fracturing”.

One group of emissions associated with natural gas development and production, are the emissions associated with combustion. These emissions include particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxide, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Another group of emissions that are routinely vented into the atmosphere are those linked with natural gas itself, which is composed of methane, ethane, liquid condensate, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The VOCs that are especially impactful on health are benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene (referred to as a group, called BTEX). Health effects of exposure to these chemicals include neurological problems, birth defects, and cancer.

A Duke University study…2011 examined methane in groundwater in Pennsylvania and New York states overlying the Marcellus Shale and the Utica Shale. It determined that groundwater tended to contain much higher concentrations of methane near fracking wells, with potential explosion hazard…Complaints from a few residents on water quality in a developed natural gas field prompted an EPA groundwater investigation in Wyoming. The EPA reported detections of methane and other chemicals such as phthalates in private water wells…. In DISH, Texas, elevated levels of disulphides, benzene, xylenes and naphthalene have been detected in the air, alongside numerous local complaints of headaches, diarrhea, nosebleeds, dizziness, muscle spasms and other problems.

Groundwater contamination doesn’t come directly from injecting fracking chemicals deep into Shale rock formations well below water aquifers but from waste water evaporation ponds and poorly constructed pipelines taking the waste water and chemicals to processing facilities. The evaporation ponds allow the volatile chemicals in the waste water to evaporate into the atmosphere and when it rains these ponds tend to overflow and the runoff eventually makes its way into groundwater systems. Another way groundwater gets contaminated relating to fracking is from the temporary, and poorly constructed pipelines to transport the waste water to water treatment plants…

The New York Times has reported radiation in hydraulic fracturing wastewater released into rivers in Pennsylvania. According to a Times report in February 2011, wastewater at 116 of 179 deep gas wells in Pennsylvania “contained high levels of radiation,” but its effect on public drinking water supplies is unknown because water suppliers are required to conduct tests of radiation “only sporadically”… In Pennsylvania, where the drilling boom began in 2008, most drinking-water intake plants downstream from those sewage treatment plants have not tested for radioactivity since before 2006…

Water is by far the largest component of fracking fluids. The initial drilling operation itself may consume from 65,000 gallons to 600,000 gallons of fracking fluids. Over its lifetime an average well will require up to an additional 5 million gallons of water for the initial fracking operation and possible restimulation frac jobs.

Chemical additives used in fracturing fluids typically make up less than 2% by weight of the total fluid. Over the life of a typical well, this may amount to 100,000 gallons of chemical additives…Some of the chemicals pose no known health hazards, some others are known carcinogens, some are toxic, some are neurotoxins. For example: benzene (causes cancer, bone marrow failure), lead (damages the nervous system and causes brain disorders), ethylene glycol (antifreeze, causes death), methanol (highly toxic), boric acid (kidney damage, death), 2-butoxyethanol (causes hemolysis).

The 2011 US House of Representatives investigative report on the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing shows that of the 750 compounds in hydraulic fracturing products “[m]ore than 650 of these products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or listed as hazardous air pollutants”. The report also shows that between 2005 and 2009 279 products (93.6 million gallons-not including water) had at least one component listed as “proprietary” or “trade secret” on their Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) required Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).

The MSDS is a list of chemical components in the products of chemical manufacturers, and according to OSHA, a manufacturer may withhold information designated as “proprietary” from this sheet. When asked to reveal the proprietary components, most companies participating in the investigation were unable to do so, leading the committee to surmise these “companies are injecting fluids containing unknown chemicals about which they may have limited understanding of the potential risks posed to human health and the environment”…Another study in 2011, titled “Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective”…. identified 632 chemicals used in natural gas operations. Only 353 of these are well-described in the scientific literature; and of these, more than 75% could affect skin, eyes, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems; roughly 40-50% could affect the brain and nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems and the kidneys; 37% could affect the endocrine system; and 25% were carcinogens and mutagens. The study indicated possible long-term health effects that might not appear immediately. The study recommended full disclosure of all products used, along with extensive air and water monitoring near natural gas operations; it also recommended that fracking’s exemption from regulation under the US Safe Drinking Water Act be rescinded.

A report in the UK concluded that fracking was the likely cause of some small earth tremors that happened during shale gas drilling. In addition the United States Geological Survey (USGS) reports that “Earthquakes induced by human activity have been documented in a few locations” in the United States, Japan, and Canada; “the cause was injection of fluids into deep wells for waste disposal and secondary recovery of oil, and the use of reservoirs for water supplies.” The disposal and injection wells referenced are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act and UIC laws and are not wells where hydraulic fracturing is generally performed. [I.e.; the fracking wells are at different locations than the disposal wells.]
Several earthquakes, that happened throughout 2011 in Youngstown, Ohio, USA are likely linked to a disposal well for injecting wastewater used in the hydraulic fracturing process, say seismologists at Columbia University.

The use of natural gas rather than oil or coal is sometimes touted as a way of alleviating global warming: natural gas burns more cleanly, and gas power stations can produce up to 50% less greenhouse gases than coal stations. However, an analysis of the well-to-consumer lifecycle of fracked natural gas concluded that 3.6–7.9% of the methane produced by a well will be leaked into the atmosphere during the well’s lifetime. Because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas, this means that over short timescales, shale gas is actually worse than coal or oil

Hydraulic fracturing has become a contentious environmental and health issue with France banning the practice and a moratorium in place in New South Wales (Australia), Karoo basin (South Africa), Quebec (Canada), and some of the states of the US.

Hydraulic fracturing [in the US] for the purpose of oil, natural gas, and geothermal production was exempted under the Safe Drinking Water Act This was a result of the signage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, also known as the Halliburton Loophole because of former Halliburton CEO Vice President Dick Cheney’s involvement in the passing of this exemption. The result of a 2004 EPA study on coalbed hydraulic fracturing was used to justify the passing of the exemption; however EPA whistleblower Weston Wilson and the Oil and Gas Accountability Project found that critical information was removed from the final report.
Opposers of hydraulic fracturing in the US have focused on this 2005 exemption; however the more primary risk to drinking water is the handling and treatment of wastewater produced by hydraulic fracturing. The EPA and the state authorities do have power “to regulate discharge of produced waters from hydraulic operations” (EPA, 2011) under the Clean Water Act… Although this waste is regulated, oil and gas exploration and production (E&P) wastes are exempt from Federal Hazardous Waste Regulations under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) despite the fact that wastewater from hydraulic fracturing contains toxins such as total dissolved solids (TDS), metals, and radionuclides….

-wikipedia, Hydraulic Fracturing


Now you know more than the average bear about fracking.  Regarding earthquakes and fracking, you may want to read the following link: ” ‘There has always been a scientific link between fracking and earthquakes,’ U.S. Geological Survey spokesperson Clarice Ransom told AlterNet.” –

Regarding toxins in our waterways due to fracking:  Damning New Letter from NY State Insider: ‘Hydraulic Fracturing as It’s Practiced Today Will Contaminate Our Aquifers’.  A former technician responsible for investigating and managing groundwater contamination for New York State opens up about risks from fracking.  –

New EPA proposed guidelines on fracking:

See also David Sirota’s June ’11 article, (“…Meanwhile, the White House’s one seeming tilt toward caution — its panel to study fracking — ended up being a sham, as six of the administration’s seven appointments have direct ties to the energy industry…”):

In some communities, residents are being told they cannot legally stop fracking or the dumping of frack waste water into their groundwater:

But, but, but, fracking will save us and bring us to “energy independence”(!).  We need to tear the mountains up by the roots, get at what is under the rocks, use up all that fresh water, and dump the toxins back into our groundwater streams in order to have energy independence.  Who cares about some chemicals in the air and water or a few sick babies when shale oil/natural gas is the solution to, well, just about everything?  Lots of oil and gas under them there rocks, right?  It turns out there is actually not nearly as much as we have been led to believe.  In a sadly overlooked article in the NYT (June, ’11) by Ian Urbina, industry insiders admit they have no idea how much oil and gas are in the shale formations and doubt that extracting the fuels will end up being cost efficient.  If you take the time to read the entire article (please do – it is amazing what the industry insiders acknowledge to each other), you will view fracking in a whole new light.  You might even want to look into green energy, mass transit, and other such assorted non-fossil-fuel alternatives.

Natural gas companies have been placing enormous bets on the wells they are drilling, saying they will deliver big profits and provide a vast new source of energy for the United States.

But the gas may not be as easy and cheap to extract from shale formations deep underground as the companies are saying, according to hundreds of industry e-mails and internal documents and an analysis of data from thousands of wells.

In the e-mails, energy executives, industry lawyers, state geologists and market analysts voice skepticism about lofty forecasts and question whether companies are intentionally, and even illegally, overstating the productivity of their wells and the size of their reserves. Many of these e-mails also suggest a view that is in stark contrast to more bullish public comments made by the industry, in much the same way that insiders have raised doubts about previous financial bubbles.

“Money is pouring in” from investors even though shale gas is “inherently unprofitable,” an analyst from PNC Wealth Management, an investment company,  wrote to a contractor in a February e-mail. “Reminds you of dot-coms.”

“The word in the world of independents is that the shale plays are just giant Ponzi schemes and the economics just do not work,” an analyst from IHS Drilling Data, an energy research company,  wrote in an e-mail on Aug. 28, 2009.

Company data for more than 10,000 wells in three major shale gas formations raise further questions about the industry’s prospects….




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