The last few days have seen Singapore’s Grand Copthorne Hotel play host to the 4th annual Shale Gas Conference, which NRGLab’s Ana Shell attended. Shale gas is a relatively new and emerging energy technology (hence this being only the fourth meeting), but one which is increasingly making waves in the press in the US, the UK, and around the world as the technology continues to be tested. You may have seen it mentioned along with the term ‘fracking’, slang for the process of extracting gas from shale rocks beneath the Earth’s surface.
Speakers included executives from companies currently exploiting shale gas deposits, regulators from the governments of China and Indonesia, as well as people from a range of other related professions – including law, finance, and geology. The keynote speech was delivered by Francois Nguyen, the Director of International Energy Policy at Alberta Energy. The Canadian province of Alberta happens to be one of the world’s key frontiers for alternative energy at the moment due to their development of tar sands deposits.
The talks were generally full of optimism for the new technology and the possibilities of making big breakthroughs in the North American market in the coming years, but the final panel discussion did touch on a theme that illustrates some of the problems and limitations of shale gas. The panel was called “Wastewater Management Methodologies.”
Extracting shale gas, much like extracting tar sands, creates a huge amount of waste water. ‘Fracking fluid’ is pumped underground in huge quantities to help free the gas from its geologic prison. This water needs to come from somewhere, and needs to go somewhere afterwards – potentially affecting the drinking water of communities in the vicinity.
And this is where the problems with shale gas lie – like most of our old industrial technologies, shale has the potential to provide a lot of wealth, resources, and energy for some, and a whole lot of nothing for many others, including the communities that live near the fracking sites. The conference was the perfect indicator that companies around the world see the potential for profit in shale gas, especially as an alternative to increasingly expensive (and difficult to find and extract) oil. But fracking means that rather than drilling offshore for liquid gold, these companies will be coming to agricultural and greenbelt areas that happen to have valuable gas beneath them, and fracturing that land using high pressure water pumps and other polluting equipment. The 2010 documentary Gasland showed some of the potential effects on local people, including water so contaminated with gas that it becomes flammable. Other studies have suggested an increased risk of earthquakes due to the geological changes being wrought in the name of shale. But it seems that in our energy-hungry, profit-driven society, we must continue to cling to fossil fuel technologies, no matter what the cost to people’s health and the environment.
There is hope, however. Alternative technologies are being developed – including through the work of NRGLab – that will become increasingly cost-effective and popular as time goes on and our resources dwindle. David A Yoxtheimern, an EMS Extension Associate at Penn State University, USA, delivered a impassioned speech on Water Treatment. He presented a plan for whole cycle treated water (to distilled) to cost as little as $10 per 1 bbl, with 100-200 ppm. Also in attendance at this year’s conference was Keith Reeves, a Regional Exploration Manager for Dart Energy, who believes that local people are not only well educated, but easily trained as well. In fact, he prefers using locals to expats, which are far more expensive to hire. Fracking then becomes an economic boost for communities that might otherwise be struggling to adapt to the globalized 21st Century.
One day, the idea of undertaking as difficult and dangerous an operation as fracking for shale gas will seem ridiculous – why hurt so many people for such a small profit when there are much easier ways to get our energy? We can only hope that that day is not too far off, and continue to work to bring it nearer. Because the future is what we make of it. And thanks to the organizers of the Shale Gas Conference, creative and innovative minds like Francois, David and Keith – not to mention the brilliant scientists working with NRGLab – finally have a platform to express concerns, voice their ideas, and collaborate on the energy crisis currently looming over mankind.