Fracking as Crack: Our Dependency Culture

The room thermometer usually says ‘Cool – turn the heating up’, sometimes ‘Too Cold – danger of hypothermia’. It’s not freezing, about 12 degrees C. Why not turn the heating up? Just getting used to a life with less energy!

Fracking? The answer to expensive energy? So our windy politicians would have us believe. Windy? Aware that, like the ‘once they’re gone they’re gone’ posters promoting not-to-be-repeated bargains, we are selling off our planet’s energy stores far too cheaply and far too fast.

Millions of years to create, a handful of decades to burn. Then what? The answer from the business lobby is ‘don’t be alarmed, something will turn up’.

Politicians, too, like to use this argument about energy – but they rarely use it about money. They impose financial austerity because ‘we can’t leave our debts to our children and grandchildren’. We are not supposed to leave our descendants lumbered with debts, but it’s OK to leave them without oil or gas. Why is the ‘stewardship’ rationale not used for energy? After all, money is no more than a social construct, but fossil energy is part of our physical environment. Professor Stephen Hawking has said that our future is in space, not on Earth. Maybe one day we will find somewhere else to go, but it’s looking as though we will have rendered our present home largely uninhabitable before then.

And fracking – hydraulic fracturing — is not an answer. Fracking to release oil and gas is a dirty, polluting process that delivers very little energy gain. Relying on fracking is the equivalent of a heroin addict reusing filthy needles, because that’s what we have become, addicted to fossil energy.

The world’s supergiant oilfields like Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, long discovered and long exploited, have yielded an energy return of around 100 to 1. That’s what created Arab billionaires, oil wells gushing black gold in return for modest energy inputs. Nowadays, typical energy return from conventional oil is about 19 to 1. Tar sands, like the vast tracts in Alberta, Canada, have energy output between five and six times the energy required to extract the stuff. The acronym is EROEI, Energy Return On Energy Invested. Oil shale, the target of fracking, has a return of 1.5 to 1, up to 4 to 1 in the most favourable cases.

The implications have, I am sure, been grasped by our politicians, but they are not keen on sharing the insight with the rest of us. The unpalatable fact is that much of the energy resulting from fracking is absorbed by the process itself.

Wind, wave and hydro power all deliver far better EROEI than oil shale, typically 18:1 and 15:1 for wind and waves and between 11:1 to 267:1 for hydro power. Sad for hydro power prospects that we are running out of surface water in so many areas.

Water in vast quantities is needed for fracking. Water is the principal agent by volume, about one million to eight million gallons per frack, and a well may be fracked many times. One million gallons covers an acre to a depth of over three feet….  It’s not just water, of course, but hazardous chemicals too, sent on their way with explosive charges. Companies regard their chemical mixes as commercial secrets, and the fact that governments are prepared to allow toxic injections into the earth’s surface reinforces the addiction story. Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, methanol, naphthalene, lead, have all been identified in the USA, where pollution – poisoning – of aquifers is an unwelcome accompaniment of fracking. Water has to be transport to fracking wells, and waste water has to be disposed of somehow. It’s a very noxious business.

Fracking is not good news, it’s a proof that as a civilisation we have lost all sense of perspective, just like the drug addict stealing from friends and neighbours to buy their next dose. Fracking is more Edgar Allan Poe than fairy story, a symbol of a dark time.

 References

‘Natural gas fracking fires protest over pollution fears’, by Amy Goodman, www.guardian.co.uk, September 20th 2012.

‘Shale gas fracking Q & A’ by Fiona Harvey, The Guardian April 20th 2011.

‘Searching for a miracle: net energy limits and the fate of industrial society’, by Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute and International Forum on Globalization, September 2009.

The film Gasland by Josh Fox, http://www.gaslandthemovie.com

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