I attended an interesting presentation on “fracking”- hydraulic gas extraction- in UCC last week given by David Manz from Canada on the subject of “Gas Well Fracturing (Fracking)- Corporate Social Responsibility and Shared Value.”
Manz has been involved in developing the Biosand Water Filter (BSF) in more than 65 countries around the world and also in the treatment of so-called “produced water” from the shale gas fracking industry. This is water that returns from the gas wells after being pumped down with sand under pressure to open up small fractures in the shale rock which allows the gas to be released.
This was an interesting talk and I am just putting up a few notes of interest that I talk during it.
Manz gave the opinion that the chemicals that are pumped down with the water in the first place- which include lubricants etc- do not pose any particular environmental problem (despite claims to the opposite from the anti-fracking lobby)- they are generally chemicals that are commonly used in many industrial activities and do not in themselves pose special environmental hazards. The water that returns from the well is however often seriously contaminated, with drilling mud and some of the gas itself- hence his operation to clean it up.
This is generally done on-site. The water is stored in lined holding and settling ponds right next to the well-heads; various technologies including different filtration systems and membrane systems are used to clean and recycle the water. The gas wells themselves provide all the energy used in the treatment process.
One interesting point he mentioned was that the actual gas itself varies in its make up from well to well, and you do not know what you are getting precisely until it emerges. Sometimes other products including ethanol can be separated from the natural gas, and, surprisingly, these products can sometimes be more valuable than the gas itself.
It was also impressive at how relatively small the footprint of a well-head can be, and that once the gas is extracted after several years, how well the area can be restored.
Fracking takes a lot of water- anything from 1-10million gallons per well- but this is still relatively little water compared to many other industrial users.
Multiple horizontal wells from a single well-head are the key to the recent success of fracking in North America, which makes the drilling operations both much more economic and much less of an impact.
Manz pointed out that the regulatory authorities need to require high-quality treatment practices- otherwise the companies will take the cheapest route out- but also emphasized that it is really not in the companies’ interest to cause pollution or environmental damage more than is strictly necessary, and pointed to the commitment made by Tamboran, the company applying for a license to prospect for shale gas in Leitrim, to “monitor groundwater quality, air quality, noise emissions, and seismic activity before, during, and periodically after all of its well site operations” as well as abide by other regulations. Tamboran claim that they will employ slick water techniques that involve no chemicals in the water.
I asked him how much gas there was in North America- we hear claims of “100 years’ supply” while some peak-oilers claim this is just hype and it will be gone in not much more than five years.
Manz was clear that there is a lot of gas there, and not all of it has yet been found- “at least 50 years supply, maybe 100years.”
Asked about his views on the prospect in Leitrim, Manz was thoughtful He had driven through the area in Leitrim several times himself, and said revealingly that fracking operations there “would be highly disruptive- to say the least”- Leitrim, where 100 acres is a large farm, is not Calgary, Canada, where farm holdings may be measured in the square miles. Nor are there wide freeways to accommodate the hundreds of trucks carrying water and heavy equipment to the well-head. However, if a careful consultation process is engaged with and all the implications looked at, with an absolute requirement from the outset of complete transparency, then “the benefits- of jobs and cheap energy- could be huge.”
Fracking is sure to continue t be controversial, and the potential impact on small communities and the environment in lovely Leitrim may be considered too high a price to pay. But with the UK Environment Agency coming out in favour of fracking over there this week the pressure for Ireland to look at exploiting this valuable resource is likely to grow, particularly if the alternative is economic stagnation, unemployment and ever higher energy costs.