28 November 2013

Quakers in the Country: Sandworm




After 500,000 miles as an over-the-road truck driver, I have taken on a new job.

I have become a Sandworm.

It's kind of an odd title for what I do, I suppose. My job consists of several tasks, and only one of them is actually tending the sand hopper. But as a newbie to the company, I'm still a worm, as the oilfield phrasing goes. So "sandworm" has a certain satisfactory ring to it, and it makes me laugh. But more specifically, I'm now working for a well completion company based only 14 miles from my house. In the vernacular, I frac gas wells.

"Fraccing," as it's called, is a technique for increasing the productivity of shale gas reservoirs, and is responsible for economic booms in several oil-producing regions in the United States, most specifically, Right Where I Live, in eastern Ohio. "Hydraulic fracturing" involves starting with a pre-drilled well and then pumping down a slurry of sand, water, and chemicals under immense pressure. The pressurized fluid travels down the well casing and emerges through perforations into the reservoir rock some eight to ten thousand feet below the surface, along a horizontal well bore some five or ten thousand feet more. As it enters the formation, the pressure opens small fissures, which are propped open by the sand being carried in. When the pressure is relieved and the well allowed to flow back into catch tanks on the surface, the cracks remain open, allowing oil and natural gas to bubble back up the well bore to be recovered at the surface and piped to a refinery.

The newbie job at a well pad is to tend the sand hopper, which is a big steel tub into which the sand is dumped from a conveyor belt. The job is very simple, and very important. The slurry being pumped into the well is pressurized to as much as 10,000 psi. If the sand hopper is allowed to empty completely through error or inattention, the pressure in the above-ground steel pipes spikes and may cause them to rupture or explode. Believe me, hundred-pound sections of steel pipe flying through the air high above a congested work site will get your attention real quick. Even if the pipe doesn't break loose, a stream of water at that pressure can cut through your leg like a knife. To keep people safe, nobody is allowed to walk around near the iron when it's under pressure, except one or two crew members specifically assigned to look for problems. That's fine with me.

There's a lot of controversy about hydraulic fracturing right now, and a lot of people trying to come to grips with a technology about which they know relatively little, and sometimes about which they have been deceived by various factions on both sides of the issue. Fraccing has been blamed for earthquakes, groundwater pollution, excessive truck traffic and road wear, environmental spills, noise and light pollution, and so on. Some of these issues are genuine and should be addressed. Some are not, and are the product of misinformation, ignorance, and occasionally outright deception. While we're thinking about it, though, it's important to remember that the process has been a part of American oil field practices for some fifty years, and is one of the chief means that our 21st century lifestyle is allowed to continue. By 21st century lifestyle, I'm talking about those things that we all take for granted: heat, light, transportation, and plastics, all of which depend on natural gas and oil wells.

Just as an aside, the oil fields aren't new to me. I'm from Oklahoma, and the farm my great-grandfather plowed behind a pair of mules was home to four oil wells during the time I spent there. The hollow thumping of the casing head gas engines driving the slowly-bobbing pumpjacks is an inseparable part of my childhood memories of the farm where three generations of my family were born and grew up. My father was an operations geologist, and would take me along on his route from well to well, where I would kick my heels from the steel bench in the doghouse, a few yards from the roaring Caterpillars and the swinging stands of drill pipe. As a teenager, my first real summer jobs were as a roustabout on drill ships anchored off the coast of Borneo. During college, I worked in the  Gulf of Mexico and sunny Caribbean Sea on seismograph boats doing both streamer work and backdown drag. One summer I spent in Custer County, Oklahoma, stomping geophones for a doodlebugger crew that still used dynamite as a sonic source, rather than the modern vibro-seis trucks. And my first job out of graduate school was as an operations geologist with Exxon Corporation in West Texas, where I worked with mudloggers and wireline crews to pick core points and evaluate reservoir potential in Permian Basin wildcats.

It's been a long and circuitous journey from then to now, but still, the oil fields and their culture are familiar and unmysterious to me. So I'm somewhat bemused by the hostility and fear that the process of well drilling seems to instill in many people, especially when they depend so heavily on its products for their own lifestyle choices. Obviously oil and gas are limited resources, and equally obviously there is going to have to be a transition from them to other sources of energy such as solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, and likely as not, nuclear. But until then we're stuck with what we have, and I believe we should use the extra time made available to us by the current shale gas developments to make these alternative sources a reality for more of us than just the editors of Popular Science. And of course the vast dependence of our culture on the availability of inexpensive plastics—which come from oil and gas wells—is seldom given the airing that it needs in this discussion. Plastics, industrial chemicals and lubricants, fertilizer, and pharmaceuticals are the elephant in this room that still has to be acknowledged.

These decisions came into focus recently when my Yearly Meeting decided to decline the offers made to it to lease oil and gas rights under the 270 acres it owns in Ohio. This decision was made during a called meeting of Yearly Meeting members, and all the points were given a chance to be aired, both for and against the question. In the end, the decision was made in unity, although what exactly that unity consisted of is still somewhat fuzzy. But made it we did, and we now have a responsibility to act upon that decision and become a part of the future that we chose to embrace.

What that action will be is problematic. I and the other members of my meeting heat our houses with oil and gas. We light our homes with oil and gas. We drive to and from meeting using oil and gas. And I'm typing these words on a computer made from oil and gas, using a desk lamp made from oil and gas, while in my kitchen my dinner is being cooked using oil and gas. As Friends, what shall be our witness about oil and gas development? Are we justified in refusing to be a part of the oil and gas development in our own neighborhoods, while remaining active consumers of the oil and gas produced in the neighborhoods of others?

To my way of thinking, this is an extremely important point that many Friends seem to push under the carpet. Remember John Woolman, that 18th century Quaker who rejected slavery and worked hard to make the rest of the Society of Friends do the same? Woolman provides an important example of how to make one's profession match one's practice. Not only did Woolman pioneer for the rejection of slavery, he refused to accept the economic benefits that slavery made possible. As a merchant clerk, Woolman refused to accept payment for writing a bill of sale that included ownership of a negro slave. Later, he sacrificed business opportunities and refused to write wills that listed slaves as property. When he travelled in the ministry among slave-owning Friends, he would pay the slaves for their services in attending him. Woolman even refused to eat from silver plates and cups, as he believed that slaves were abused in mining. 

What should be our own witness in this matter? For myself, the question is moot, as I personally support oil and gas development so long as we are simultaneously working towards sustainable alternatives. I am slowly introducing solar illumination to my own home, and will eventually install wind turbines. Our newly-drilled water well will use an electric pump at first, but eventually I plan to install a windmill and an elevated water tank to supply our house. Our household heat was formerly lump coal, is currently electric, but may eventually use our fifteen acres of hardwoods as a sustainable source for an outside boiler. In other words, I'm trying to be a forward-looking part of the solution, at least with respect to energy. 

But as part of the larger culture, what should the witness of the Society of Friends be? If we are against oil and gas development, how can we reconcile our profession with our practice? If we support it, what are we doing to transition our use to sustainable sources before we are driven to it by scarcity and price? And since so much of our foreign policy is driven by involvement in the oil and gas-producing regions of the world, how do we reconcile our views of oil and gas production with our beliefs about our political activities there?

The questions are important ones, and the answers aren't easy. But in the meantime, I'm home every night now, and my houseful of kids now has a father that they see a lot more often than when he was driving a truck 25 days out of thirty. So for me, the 14-hour workdays are worth it. But I'm concerned about the bigger picture, and I'm equally concerned that the Religious Society of Friends provide a witness to a forward thinking part of a solution, rather than to a self-centered and selfish part of the problem.

So far the solution to that dilemma is in doubt.




26 comments:

forrest said...

Hey, what's not to like about increasing an already-dangerous process of global warming with a braking distance hundreds of years and many degrees away...? Or adding directly to the amount of pollution going into our water sources? To increase the supply of energy we've been using for such utterly necessary, well regulated and purely beneficial purposes (Sarcasm is the handiest expedient for the nearly-inarticulate with exasperation!)

I don't know for sure that humanity will really end up driving over The Edge; but it's perfectly clear that we've been doing wheelies on it; and that we're more full of excuses for an already insupportable and unlivable way of life than an alcoholic wanting just one more.

kevin roberts said...

hi forrest

do you have a discussion point that you'd like to bring up? i'm interested in sharing what i know about the oil and gas industry. i have first-hand experience with many of the issues.

one point that is worth talking about is that oil and gas development would cease overnight if there were no customers standing in line to buy it. many of these customers are part-time environmental activists, and many are full-time members of the society of friends.

all of us share in the responsibility-- or guilt, if you like-- of making this an essential part of our shared culture, and of our own chosen lifestyles.

what should we be doing, ourselves, right now, to be a part of the future we say that we want to see?

forrest said...

I just brought up some points you should have thought of before you took the job.

When I talk about "global warming" I'm not just meaning 'survival of cute wild bunny-rabbits' -- I'm talking about the world your grandchildren (should your children be so fortunate as to grow up) will need to live in, with soil & water polluted with the byproducts of this stuff we gas-junkies are all "lined up to buy", sea level rises taking out coastal & other low-level cities, probably desperate conflicts over which tyranny will get to 'keep order' as life becomes increasingly precarious & unhealthy...

'Responsibility' [despite Bush's example] means 'being obligated to mitigate', not hiring yourself out to worsen the situation while pouring corporate 'talking points' into the public discourse.

kevin roberts said...

well, i took the job with full knowledge of how it interacted with my lifestyle choices, forrest. but it's not clear to me from your posts that you have done the same. can i ask you some questions?

-- do you eat store-bought bread? twenty-six cents out of every dollar for a loaf of bread pays for the natural gas used to synthesize the fertilizer that grows it. in fact, do you eat any food that you didn't grow yourself? farming is a major consumer of oil and gas for fuel, transportation, and packaging.

-- do you use a laptop or desktop computer, or a cell phone? these items are made from polyethelene, polystyrene, and polypropylene, all of which are synthesized from natural gas. in fact, almost everything you can touch that is made from plastic started out in an oil well. do you have plans for doing without these products and the materials they're made from? i mean doing without them right now.

-- do you use electricity anywhere in your life? illumination, heat, communication, transportation? again, oil and natural gas are where these features of our culture come from. what part are you playing in this industry?

-- do you use internal combustion engines-- car, bus, plane, or train-- to move yourself from place to place, or anything you own? do you purchase items at retail that have been transported this way? are you free from the use of fossil fuel?

the reason i'm asking these sample questions is that many, many people in the dominant culture are dead set against the use of oil and gas in our culture, yet are the entire reason it exists. many of them fail to see the close connection between their own lifestyles of oil and gas consumption and the industry that provides them with what they regard as essentials. they see the problem as being caused by someone else, and don't face up to their own determining role as the driving economic force behind the industry they condemn.

what are you, forrest, doing to pursue your "obligation to mitigate?" i already know that you depend on oil and gas to type responses to blog posts. how do you propose to mitigate your use of oil and gas in order to respond to this comment? see, it's not enough to say, "well, i ride a bicycle whenever i can," or, "i support alternative fuels . . ." you actually have to do without it to have the moral grounds to make absolute statements condemning its use.

i believe in renewable, sustainable energy, and i'm pursuing it in my own life. but i don't denigrate the industry that give me the freedom to make that choice without living in a tent and eating my food raw, in the dark, in the meantime.

what is your own witness, forrest?

Joanna Hoyt said...

Kevin,
Thank you for the questions your original post poses about how our profession and our practice fit together. I have been struggling with this question in my economic life since I was a teenager and first became aware of the ways in which my life damaged the world. I became a Friend because I read John Woolman's Journal and was heartened--and daunted--by his example.

I confess that I am still dependent on fossil fuels. I have worked to reduce this dependence by growing food for myself, my family and neighbors (no, we aren't completely self sufficient, but we keep moving closer), driving little (working at home, worshiping very close to home, running errands and going to church by bike when weather permits and taking longer trips by mass transit), heating with wood from our land, etc. No, it isn't enough. But it is a beginning.

Obviously I am also typing this on a plastic computer. One I bought used, as I try to buy most things, which seems more like recycling, but still...

I think that it need not be hypocritical, shallow or ineffective to advocate for a change before it is completely embodied in my life, provided that I admit my failings and work to remedy them. For instance, I am opposed to war although I am not free of anger, resentment, greed or unreasoning fear. And in the case of fossil fuels I believe that some changes could be more easily made with a different set of regulations being proulgated, and technologies being subsidized, from the top down, although that does not remove out responsibility to change from the bottom up.

I hear you about the both/and approach--moving toward sustainable energy eventually while embracing oil and gas exploration now. I hear the EPA and the Obama administration making the same case. I am afraid, though, that in practice this means we will keep extracting and burning fossil fuels until we have greatly exceeded the 2 C temperature rise that is the most scientists seem to think the earth can sustain without catastrophic changes making human life much more difficult, and/or until we have poisoned a large share of our water supply.

I do have particular objections to fracking (they seem to spell it that way in NY--sorry if that's incorrect). I am particularly concerned about methane emissions associated with LNG extraction, storage and transport, and about the deliberate use of water to mix with chemicals and inject and the accidental contamination of groundwater that can also accompany fracking or pipeline leaks. I live in NY and I have been writing and phoning the governor, the DEC, my state representatives etc. in support of the fracking moratorium and in protest of the attempt to allow LNG facilities in the state. I'd generally think it rude and not my place to go on about this to someone who works in the fracking industry; in this case you raised the question, so I hope this response is appropriate. I'm glad you've found work that lets you spend more time with your family. I'm aware that the inconsistencies in my own lifestyle and beliefs, among other things, show that I don't have any right to disparage other people. I do see this issue differently than you do. I keep trying to see it clearly, and to see what I am called to do next. May God put us both right.
Joanna

Keith Saylor said...

Hello Forest ... Thank you for your testimony. What a blessing that you are able to be your family now on a regular basis and all the blessings that result. Hold fast ans be well.

forrest said...

The obligation I recognize here is to learn and tell you what truth we all know, self-deceptions and propaganda aside; what you think or do about it is not my concern.

Over fifty years ago I was reassured by an astronomer that the greenhouse effect would not become a problem because the main infrared spectral bands of carbon dioxide were already saturated. It turns out, of course, to matter very much how close to the Earth's surface escaping infrared gets scattered, but it sounded good at the time.

I don't need to be a good person to tell you a practice is destructive and being used for bad purposes; I don't need to be an expert in a harmful process to be justly "afraid of" having it used.

"My witness"? Nothing spectacular -- although there is a weighty Friend in San Francisco whose witness, for several years now, has been a refusal even to accept rides in personal cars.

My own example, for whatever that's worth, was my programming career. I received a job offer from a software company here in San Diego; and I told them I'd be delighted if they could put me in their civilian division. My interviewer had had similar qualms and was very sympathetic, but the opening was in military work. I stayed with the Social Security interviewing job I had until I couldn't stand that anymore, then was unemployed for a fairly nasty time. Meanwhile, war continues, manufacture of murderous weaponry continues, the misuse of software for killing people continues. I regret that -- but preventing it, or satisfying any other irrelevant demands you think should exempt you from criticism -- simply wasn't the issue.

Robin M. said...

Kevin, I am grateful that your new job may allow you more time with your family. I hope you and Shawna will both have more time for writing!

kevin roberts said...

joanna, thank you for your polite and thoughtful response.

i'd like to address some of the concerns that you have about oil and gas exploration in general, and about fraccing in particular. as i mentioned in the original blog post, there are both real concerns and extensive misinformation.

you've mentioned methane emissions, the use of water as a fraccing fluid, and the risks of leaks during fraccing or pipeline transport. this is one area where the devil is in the details. methane is a strong greenhouse gas, and accounts for about 9 percent of human greenhouse gases in the US. but notice something very important: the emissions have nothing to do with fraccing—according to the EPA, the emissions come from "production, processing, storage, transmission, and distribution of natural gas."

http://epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/gases/ch4.html

it's a big jump from well completion to these other activities, although they often get muddled in people's minds. this is well illustrated by a recent piece from the Environmental Defense Fund, which posted this alarming headline:

EDF defends its controversial study of methane leaks from fracking wells,

while glossing over the truth buried deeper inside the article:

The problem is that right now there is very little hard data to go on to say with any confidence what the extent of the natural gas industry’s methane leakage problem is, or even where in the supply chain methane is leaking.

http://grist.org/climate-energy/edf-defends-its-controversial-study-of-methane-leaks-from-fracking-wells/

there is some indication that atmospheric ambient methane levels are higher near fracced gas wells. is this due to fraccing? (i doubt it.) to tank emissions and pipeline leaks? (probably.) if there's a link between fraccing and atmospheric methane emissions, i'd like to hear about it.

there has also been one peer-reviewed study that documented reservoir methane contamination in groundwater in pennsylvania. but the study didn't identify the source of the leaks, which i imagine are due to bad well drilling and casing techniques. what it did state was this:

We found no evidence for contamination of drinking-water samples with deep saline brines or fracturing fluids.

http://www.pnas.org/content/108/20/8172.short

so it seems that fraccing isn't the problem, but that bad production techniques are. there is no excuse for this, and the process needs to be cleaned up and those responsible be punished severely enough that it ceases to happen. but as i've said, this is not a consequence of fraccing, and an appropriate response to the real problems requires an understanding of what the problems really are.

joanna, you've expressed concerns about water use in the fraccing process, which certainly occurs. but you didn't give enough details for me to understand exactly why you object. can you expand on that? is it the use of water itself, or the chemicals that go with it? i can't respond to your concerns unless i know more about them.

thank you for your comments.

kevin roberts said...

forrest, from your comments i perceive that you have a sincere concern for the environmental future of our planet, and that you have the courage to speak up when you think your concerns need to be aired. this is laudable, and acting on such concerns has had a long history in the society of friends.

but i also perceive that you don't know very much about the industry you dislike—you have had three opportunities to say something specific and have avoided doing so each time. your opposition is based on emotion and not founded on any facts that you can share.

more importantly, your concern with oil and gas development is expressed primarily in criticizing other people, and suggesting what other people should do to solve the problem, while exempting what you, yourself, can contribute. this is a less salutary approach to the controversy, and is not one that will get you a lot of support among thoughtful people who are undecided.

nonetheless, i welcome your interest in this matter, and i encourage you both to learn more about the subject, and to look for ways to match your practice with your profession. i have several more posts in mind on the subject, and i will be interested to hear what you have to say.

thank you for your comments so far.

kevin roberts said...

hi robin

how is thee? it's very good to hear that you're alive and kicking.

i'm delighted to be home every night now, as my job starts only 14 miles from the house. but about free time, i dunno. i work around 90 hours per six day week. but then i do get three days off.

benefits, too. the kids have health insurance for the first time in ten years.

ciao

Joanna Hoyt said...

Kevin, thanks for your thoughtful response. I guess we're reading things differently. In the study you cited, I understand that a higher concentration of methane in groundwater near fracking wells does not constitute proof positive of causation, but it does suggest concern. As far as general methane leakage, this study
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-011-0061-5
seems to state that there is methane leakage at fracking wells, more than what is found at other oil wells. This may be due to mismanagement, sure--but our history does not suggest that all dangerous technologies will always be perfectly managed. I understand that some leakage also occurs in transport and storage, but I don't think that makes fracking less problematic--it;s still the first step in extracting something that's an ongoing source of methane emissions.

Water: my concern is twofold. First, isn't a substantial amount of water mixed with fracking chemicals and then stored as wastewater, taken out of the potable water supply, or am I misinformed? Second, there seems to be a strong suggestion if not proof positive of more widespread groundwater contamination. And while we use and want oil, gas and plastics, we really need water.

kevin roberts said...

hi joanna

thank you for the link. it's a useful paper to read, and the download is free. here's the take home:

Between 0.6% and 3.2% of the life-time production of gas from wells is emitted as methane during the flow-back period (Table 1).

i can tell you that after the well is fracced, the pressure is relieved and the fluids are allowed to flow back up the well for recovery and recycling. the fluids consist of a mixture of water and chemicals, as well as dissolved and free methane. at my company, they're directed into an open-top steel tank, from which they get re-used during the next fraccing stage. i asked our water guys the other night what they were going to do with it when we were finished with our current well, and they explained that they took it back to their facilities and hauled it out to the next well—ours or somebody else's—for re-use there. in some places some of it goes down into waste water injection wells. i think this is a lousy idea and should be stopped. chesapeake, the largest energy company in my area, apparently agrees, and recycles 100 percent or their fluids back into their operations.

anyway, a significant amount of methane seems to be released from the fluids during flow back. this is problematic, as you can't seal off the flow back tank without risking a bomb. one of our other crews was using a semi-closed tank for flowback recovery a few months ago, and the methane in the tank ignited. in a closed space it made for a huge and dangerous boom. still, three percent is a large amount of gas to be lost to the atmosphere during completion. i'll look into the matter to see whether these forms of fugitive losses are being addressed. right now i know that we aren't controlling them, and i think we should.

regarding the methane in the groundwater, let me repeat—it's not fraccing that causes groundwater contamination—it's split or rusted casing and bad cement jobs. none of that has anything to do with fraccing, which is a process performed by different companies at different times by people who have no control over casing or cement. certainly the fluids that bubble to the surface from a fracced well must pass through the casing that seals them off from the water table near the surface. but fraccing isn't responsible for the leaks, and directing attention at fraccing won't stop them.

even so, leaky wells can and should be repaired. this is something that should be addressed by attention to local regulation, which already has the power to require any energy companies to fix the problem. directing attention to fraccing because of groundwater methane leaks is to focus on an aspect of the job that can't do anything about it.

regarding water, yes, water is used to mix with the chemicals (about 5 percent of the volume) and the sand that runs down the well bore and into the surrounding rock. it isn't potable water—the water comes from local ponds and streams and is filtered to remove dirt and gunk. in my area the immense ohio river flows within a few tens of miles from all the wells being fracced, and pours more water past them in a single second than all the wells being fracced could use up in their entire completion process. but the local anti-fraccing and anti-trucking activists won't permit anyone to truck water from the river, which then takes it 1500 miles and dumps it into the gulf of mexico instead.

at any event, there is no shortage of it. in texas or maybe in north dakota, perhaps water consumption is an issue. but here in ohio, it rains 36 inches every year. there is simply no shortage of the stuff. the people who cite water consumption as a viable criticism of ohio fraccing are genuinely misinformed.

Mackenzie said...

First, I agree with you that we need to reduce/eliminate our dependence on these inputs. Unfortunately, it is difficult to purchase products made from alternate sources when such products do not exist! They do not exist because it is not cost-effective to research/use alternate sources as long as oil/gas are as cheap as they are. If the environmental costs (externalities) of oil/gas were internalized (for example, a carbon tax), the cost-motive to ignore alternatives would be eliminated. I am therefore in favor of regulations (whether to supply to influence price, or to price directly) that would make oil/gas undesirable for industry so that consumers will begin to see real options available. This is similar to the "well if we label what country it's from, consumers can then have knowledge to choose to buy American if they want" as a solution to labor prices and outsourcing failing when manufacturing has largely ceased in America. The answer to that would be tariffs.


On to particular things mentioned in comments:

I am confused by the declaration that electricity comes from oil and gas. It's by-and-large coal, especially in OH, PA, WV, etc. region. Of course, in about half the states in the union, one can call up their electric distributor and request wind power instead. In the others, lobby your state legislature for that option.

And of course, the question about store-bought food would be ignoring organic agriculture, which does not permit synthetic fertilizers (though transport is generally involved, statistically likely to be with petrol rather than electric). Meanwhile someone absolutely could home-grow food and still be using synthetic fertilizers. I usually cook my food in olive oil rather than petroleum-based oils, though ;-)

I did not know that the poly plastics came from natural gas, so that's interesting. I thought they were from petroleum (a rather different kettle of fish than fracking, at least in terms of how things go wrong when they inevitably go wrong). Either way, carrying a container and a set of utensils for eating out or taking home leftovers is a small improvement. It's not one I think would mean much overall, since industry, not individuals/consumers, are the source of most pollution, but it's a nice gesture. (I mean, I guess if you want to say "well you bought it from a company that didn't choose to use wind power in their factory, therefore it's your fault," you could, but ideal capitalism assumes perfect knowledge for all parties, and perfect knowledge is the last thing most corporations what potential customers to have, so there's no real way for any of us to know the source of a given manufacturer's electric power).

In your answer to Joanna, I do find it disingenuous to conclude that groundwater pollution is not as a result of fracking, when you acknowledge that fracking as currently done by many companies does have that side-effect. Just because it is theoretically possible to frack without contaminating the groundwater doesn't change the fact that groundwater contamination is the reality of the situation for many people living near these wells.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Kevin,

I'm glad to hear about the recycling of fracking fluid that some companies practice--that's better than it could be.

I keep hearing you making a distinction between the adverse climate consequences of fracking and the adverse environmental consequences of other parts of the process of natural gas extraction/ transport/storage/use. For me the issue is not so much about one particular step; it's about a perception that we need to be switching to renewable energy *now*, not after we have finished burning off the gas now accessible in shale formations, if we want a livable climate.

kevin roberts said...

hi mackenzie

thank you for your input.

you mention that it's difficult to purchase products made from alternate sources when such products do not exist. do you mean items such as plastics? if so, you're completely correct, but the appropriate answer is clear: if our chosen lifestyles cannot do without the products made from an industry we want to eliminate, we have a moral imperative to do without those products. just saying that it's difficult to do so now is not enough, if we plan to make others do without them eventually through taxes and artificial price increases.

there are non-petroleum alternatives to everything in our lives right now, and we can use the third world economies and lifestyles as models for how to achieve it. if third world solutions are unacceptable to us, then the important lesson for us to learn is that it is our lifestyle choices, today, now, that are nonsustainable, and the solutions should start with us, voluntarily, leading by example. i freely admit that some of these solutions will be expensive, awkward, inefficient and sometimes unpleasant, but if we are planning on coercing other people to reduce their use of fossil fuels by artificially inflating the prices they pay, then we obligate ourselves to voluntarily begin paying that price right now, to show that we are willing to apply our moral reccomendations to ourselves.

i believe in this very strongly, because i have firsthand experience with what happens when fuel prices rise. to use a good example, where i live in appalachia, many people are poor. multiple generations live under a single roof. teenagers work for minimum wages at fast food restaurants in order to give their paychecks to their grandparents to pay the mortgages for the joint home they all live in. the median household income here is 20 percent under the state level, at around $38,000 per year.

fuel prices make a difference to the daily lives of people here. higher prices are not an inconvenience, they're a direct hardship. my five children sleep on the living room floor all winter in my house, because we don't have the money to heat the upstairs bedrooms. some weeks we don't have enough money for gasoline, heat, or groceries at the same time, and we have to choose which we will do without. my wife tells me that the local police find a direct correlation between gasoline prices and motorists stranded on the local highways, because people are trying to stretch one more trip to work out of their tank before facing another $60.00 fillup.

the solution i propose is different. i believe that we should embrace solar, wind, geothermal, and tidal enery sources, and subsidize their research, development, and use. but i support positive incentives to encourage alternatives, rather than negative disincentives imposed on the existing infrastructure. subsidies persuade people by providing cheaper heat, light, and food, making their lives easier. taxes, user fees, and supply restrictions coerce people by making their lives harder. since the end will be the same, i vote for the carrot instead of the stick.

mackenzie, i believe i've about reached the limit of my 4096 characters, so i'm going to stop here and answer your other questions in an immediately following post. please stay tuned.

kevin roberts said...

hi mackenzie

back again. here are the answers to the questions that you asked just above.

I am confused by the declaration that electricity comes from oil and gas.

according to the united states energy information administration, coal plants produce 37 percent of america's electricity. natural gas is close behind, at 30 percent. nuclear and hydropower make up another 26 percent, and all the remaining sources comprise the last 7 percent. in my area, natural gas is so much cheaper than coal that major electrical generating plants are being built that are dual-fuel, so that the power can be generated by whatever is cheaper.

http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=427&t=3

And of course, the question about store-bought food would be ignoring organic agriculture, which does not permit synthetic fertilizers . . .

i worked in california's agricultural central valley as a commercial beekeeper, so i am extremely familiar with chemical use there. i kept yards of bees on organic farms throughout several counties, and most of the fertilizers were manufactured, derived from urban wastes and biomass such as eucalyptus clearings or seaweeds. i asked one of my growers about that, as i watched his giant vermeer compost machines (running on diesel) turn and grind up golfballs and tennisballs. he admitted that "sustainable" wasn't what he was able to do while still making a profit at organic farming.

I did not know that the poly plastics came from natural gas, so that's interesting. I thought they were from petroleum (a rather different kettle of fish than fracking, at least in terms of how things go wrong when they inevitably go wrong).

mackenzie, the difference between a gas well and an oil well is just proportions. gas wells produce gas, oil, and salt water. oil wells produce oil, gas, and salt water. 90 percent of all wells completed in the US today are fracced, whether they're oil wells or gas wells. there isn't any real difference, except in the local characters of the reservoir rocks
regarding plastics, ethane generates ethylene which generates polyethylene. styrene is made from ethylene and benzene (from petroleum). polypropylene comes from propylene which comes from both natural gas and oil. these chemicals can be generated from wet gas by cracking (breaking the molecules into smaller pieces) or by fractional distillation, if the molecules are already there. this is why wet gas is mre valueable than dry gas—it's got more raw materials.

by the way, things don't "inevitably go wrong . . . " with fracced wells, any more than they go wrong with any other type of well. if you've been told this, you've been misinformed and ought to go back and question your sources carefully.

Just because it is theoretically possible to frack without contaminating the groundwater doesn't change the fact that groundwater contamination is the reality of the situation for many people living near these wells.

as i understand it, there's never been a single study that linked fraccing with groundwater contamination, and only one that linked methane contamination to the presence of wells flawed well bores. that same very good study specifically stated that fraccing fluids were not present in the contaminated wells. i think it's important to distinguish between the segments of the industry that are responsible for the pollution that we'd like to clean up. if we don't educate ourselves as to what the real problems are, we're much less likely to solve them effectively.

perhaps the groundwater topic might be one that we could discuss separately, to give it a thorough airing?

mackenzie, thank you for your comments so far.

kevin roberts said...

hi joanna

i make a distinction between "fraccing" and "drilling" for the same reasons that i make a distinction between "ploughing" and "farming."

fraccing is just a particular technique used in the overall process of drilling a well, and is sometimes not even used. so to confuse the two onscures what is actually going on, and prevents us from disentangling the actual issues.

for example, it's not fraccing that contaminates groundwater, its bad cementing and deteriorated casings, in my opinion. but many people focus on fraccing and put their energies into fighting one irrelevant aspect of a biogger industry. stopping fraccing won't stop groundwater pollution if non-fracced wells are drilled instead. and they might just be.

Joanna Hoyt said...

Hi Kevin,
I do hear the distinction between fracking and the rest of the drilling process. I am saying that I consider the health/water/cliamte hazards associated with the extraction, transportation and use of LNG problematic. I object to the whole process (at the moment in my state the most active controversy is over LNG transport/processing not extraction), and to fracking as one step at which damage occurs and as a technique which has increased the financially profitable extraction of LNG. My objection does extend to other fossil fuels, and I keep adjusting my way of living to reduce their use.

I hear you about the unsustainability of much large-scale organic farming. I'm growing food organically for my family and the soup kitchen in the next town using hand tools and mostly homegrown resources (I do buy seaweed extract to spray...) I think that it is still possible for more people to grow and make more of what they need closer to home, and that this does make a difference in the world.

And I hear you about the ways in which rising fuel prices make life hardest for the people with least money. The part of rural upstate NY where I live is also poor. I'm lucky enough to have good land and no debts, so while my income is nearly nil I have all I need. I have neighbors in a harder place. The poorest of them can't afford vehicles, but heating fuel is still an issue.
The problem is that rising sea levels, spreading infectious diseases and other concomitants of climate change also hit poor people, globally, first and hardest, though they end up hurting us all eventually.
I think we need to move quickly into a way of living that allows people to have what they need without wrecking the world. I don't think it's impossible. At least here in Oswego County there is a lot of good land (not like Midwestern black-dirt land, maybe, but productive enough to live on) going unused, and a lot of necessary unpaid work going undone, and a lot of people out of work and struggling to feed themselves and heat their homes.
Part of the work of relocalization, of learning to take care of ourselves and each other with resources that are available locally and for the long term, has to be done on a very small scale. We're working on that part. I do think changing government policies to facilitate relocalizing work so people don't have to commute so far, and subsidizing wind, solar and other more readily decentralizable fuels, would also help. I am afraid that so long as our country keeps pursuing the quick profits of fossil fuels we won't do this work--and the more pollution we pump into our air and water in the meantime the harder it will be.

I don't know as much as I would like to about how the work should be done. I wish I were part of a community of faith that was seriously grappling with this.

Thank you again for framing the question.

Cat C-B said...

Oh, Kevin.

Friend, I love thee. I recognize there are few jobs available in our country right now, let alone ones that pay a living wage. I recognize that we are all complicit in the degradation of our biome, through climate change and pollution of other sorts.

I have no wish to debate thee intellectually on this matter; clearly, thee knows enough to know which sources to cite to prove thy point.

Friend, I believe what thee is doing is wrong. And I think thee knows it, or will, if thee listens quietly to God.

Statistics will only ever tell part of the story.

Forgive me. I'm a dreadful old heathen, and I have no moral standing to say these things. But they are from my heart.

kevin roberts said...

hi joanna

it's a hard issue to deal with, certainly. but we're dealing with a paradigm shift in how people are going to pursue their own lives. we can choose a path that forces people to live the way we want them to, but which goes against their own leadings and convictions. or we can choose a path that educates and guides them instead, and results in their support as an expression of their own beliefs. in one scenario, we win them to our side as allies. in the other, we make them prisoners to own beliefs and our own wills.

you're correct about new york state being the current lightning rod in this controversy. what happens in new york is very, very important because of two facts.

first, new york state initiated a five-year ban on hydraulic fracturing in 2008, which has resulted in a stop on natural gas development in the state, and the abandonment of leases by major energy companies.

second, new york state is the fifth largest consumer, by state, of natural gas in america, and a recently completed pipeline now brings natural gas directly into manhatten from pennsylvania, where it is produced by fraccing.

what should we make of this? which is the example we should follow?

at any rate, tomorrow will be decided today, as it always is. how we respond to our diminishing oil and gas reserves will reflect who we are and what we believe about choices, and who will be allowed to make them.

joanna, where you are in maryland has no shortage of quaker meetings. i don't know whether you are a member of the society, but i encourage you to find a faith community that is considering these matters.i know they're there, and you would benefit immensely by sharing your concerns among them.

kevin roberts said...

hey cat

don't think for an instant that i don't pay careful attention to what thee says, or that i see any need to ask for more explanation than what thee has been led to offer.

yet we are ever faced with choices about what our future shall be. and even when our visions are congruent, the paths we follow to them will differ because of the differences we see in the possible, in the moral, and in the beautiful.

i will consider what thee has said, and i will pray for guidance.

thank thee.

Janette Kok said...

Congrats on the new job, Kevin. I believe you will do good work with integrity to your beliefs. Thanks for helping to provide the energy I and others rely on. Blessings on you and your family.

Your old co-worker,
Jan Kok

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