Helping America Navigate a New Energy Reality

Natural gas, coal, frac water, and ignorance

By on 14 Mar 2011 in commentary

You and I use a lot of energy. Every second of each day and night we devour 100 times more energy than we need to live. If I were to eat that much energy as food, I would be a 50-foot long bull sperm whale, weighing 40 tons. There are 300,000 sperm whales worldwide, half of them bulls (females are much smaller), and 300,000,000 Americans (females are about the same size). Our Earth cannot feed and protect 300,000,000 male sperm whales. She is simply too small.

Our voracious appetite for energy must be either extinguished or quenched with local sources of energy (and, no, wind turbines and PV cells are too small to provide even a single ample energy meal per day).

So here are some of the choices we have: We can drill and hydrofracture deep gas wells, and produce natural gas closer to where we live, or we can go after coal leftovers. We can also opt not to use fossil fuels and live differently, more Amish-like. For example, we can opt to live in well-insulated houses that are 400 square feet, not in cheap, drafty, 4,000-square-foot McMansions. We can opt to eat 2,000 kilocalories per day from vegetables and fruit, not from meat and processed food-like edible substances. We can opt to heat our shower water with the sun, not electricity or natural gas. We can opt to drive a bicycle, motorcycle, or a tiny car, not a monster truck or SUV. We can opt to turn down our heaters, and not use air conditioners. We can opt to recycle aluminum and plastic bottles, instead of tossing them mindlessly into trash bins. But most of us cannot opt to live and shop two miles from home. Most of us cannot opt to use light rail, metro, or train to get to where we want. In short, it will be quite difficult to live Amish-style in Manhattan or Philadelphia.

Short of becoming neo-Amish people, here is how it looks when they drill a natural-gas well in your neighborhood. The owners of the house behind the pit claimed that their water well got polluted by the drilling, but they only measured water composition in their well a year-and-a-half after drilling ended.

This is how this well might look later on, after the drilling equipment is gone:

And this is how your neighborhood might look like when they blow it up to recover coal from mountaintops.

In which of these two neighborhoods would you rather live?

Here is how Kurt Vonnegut described what happened in West Virginia:

The surface of the State had been demolished by men and machinery and explosives in order to yield up its coal. The coal is mostly gone now. It had been turned into heat.

The surface of West Virginia, with its coal and trees and topsoil gone, was rearranging what was left of itself in conformity with the laws of gravity. It was collapsing into all the holes which had been dug into it. Its mountains, which once found it easy to stand by themselves, were sliding into valleys now.

The demolition of West Virginia had taken place with the approval of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the State Government, which drew their power from the people.

Here and there an inhabited dwelling still stood.

(Breakfast of Champions, Chapter 14, p. 123)

There are only 190 miles from Philadelphia in Pennsylvania to Morgantown in West Virginia, but the ravaged mountaintops in West Virginia may as well be on the moon.

Once we burn the coal obtained from blowing up one neighborhood, we may then flood another one with coal-ash sludge. Natural gas does not do such things.

By the way, did I mention Kentucky?

Frac water versus all water in Pennsylvania

In Part II of his work, “Wastewater Recycling No Cure-All in Gas Process,” published by The New York Times on March 1, 2011, Mr. Ian Urbina states that

[I]n the year and a half that ended in December 2010, well operators reported recycling at least 320 million gallons. But at least 260 million gallons of wastewater were sent to plants that discharge their treated waste into rivers, out of a total of more than 680 million gallons of wastewater produced, according to state data posted Tuesday.

First, 320+260=580, not 680, as Mr. Urbina writes, but that’s a minor problem. Second, let’s do the arithmetic:

580 million gallons of wastewater over 1.5 years is equal to 580/1.5/365=1.06 million gallons of wastewater per day, on the average. Out of this volume of water, 320/1.5/365=0.58 million gallons of water per day was recycled, and the remaining 0.48 million gallons of water per day was sent to water purification plants for processing and discharge into rivers.

Now, let’s compare 0.48 million gallons of treated wastewater with daily withdrawal volumes of surface water in Pennsylvania in 1995 (water withdrawal volumes change very slowly and usually grow):

  • In the Ohio River Basin (the west 3/8 of Pennsylvania), 1,450 million gallons of water
  • In the Susquehanna River Basin (the middle 1/2 of Pennsylvania), 508 million gallons
  • In the Delaware River Basin (the east 1/8 of Pennsylvania), 905 million gallons

So if all fracturing (I’ll leave the spelling “fracking” to English majors who don’t know any better) wastewater after treatment were discharged to any of these basins, it would be:

  • 0.48/1,450 = 0.03 percent or 3 parts in 10,000
  • 0.48/508 = 0.09 percent or 9 parts in 10,000
  • 0.48/905 = 0.05 percent or 5 parts in 10,000

If the fracturing wastewater were discharged uniformly into surface water, it would be:

0.48/(1450+508+905) = 0.02 percent or 2 parts in 10,000.Now, statistics lie and the wastewater discharge would not be uniform, but one can see that water use for hydrofracturing and the subsequent discharge of some of this water into rivers are minuscule. One could also compare this discharge with the public water supply in Pennsylvania of 1,550 million gallons of water per day, but the conclusions would be the same.

Over 17,000 golf courses in the USA irrigate about 1.3 million acres, constituting 1.5% of all water use, according to a 2006 publication; that’s 1.5 parts in 100 on the average, or 75 times more water than that used for hydrofracturing gas wells in Pennsylvania. Golf courses are also notorious sources of toxic herbicide and pesticide runoff, atrazine for example, a well-known endocrine disruptor. This runoff ends up directly in the rivers and public water supply sources. To my knowledge no one wrote a three-part investigative article on this subject.

Since most of the alpha-radioactivity in the treated discharged hydrofracturing water is radon, a short-lived gas, most of it would bubble into the air away from humans and mix with a much larger supply of radon from soil. If the maximum measured concentrations of radium and uranium in wastewater were diluted only 1,000 times, not 10,000 times, they would be below the drinking-water limit.

Thus, as I have warned previously, the real danger to water consumers in Pennsylvania is well water which may contain many times the maximum “safe” radon concentration of 300 pCi/L. That water, however, does not come into contact with the produced hydrofracturing water.

Tad W. Patzek is a professor and chair of the Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. His blog is at http://patzek-lifeitself.blogspot.com/.

2 Comments

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  1. Steven Kopits says:

    Great article!

  2. Bill Simpson near Slidell LA. says:

    Outstanding article. I hope you sent it to the Times author. Those cheap ammonium nitrate explosives can be dangerous to the environment. Of course, it would be too expensive to move all that rock around without cheap oil.

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