Energy / Environment

Natural Gas Export…Shale we?

The Marcellus Shale is the name given to a geologic formation of sedimentary rocks, located in the North East of the United State of America. It is yet unclear on how much Natural Gas is contained in these rocks, however in 2012, the Environmental International Agency (EIA) estimated  the unproved technically recoverable reserves  to be close to 141 trillion cubic feet.


Facing such an abundance in natural gas, but also the recent Crimea crisis, a debate has developed between those who believe that the US should start exporting Liquefied Natural Gas to boost the economic growth of the country and those who believe that exporting LNG will have too much of an environmental cost to be done. With appropriate regulations, and the proper technology, LNG exportation could really become a “win win win” situation.

Firstly, in a world where we are facing the threat of climate change, natural gas stands as one of, if not the, cleanest fossil fuel resource. So exporting LNG can still be associated to an environmentally conscious initiative. According to the EIA, burning natural gas instead of coal reduces CO2 emissions by nearly 40 percent.

Secondly, exporting natural gas will greatly benefit the US Economy. According to a 2012 report from NERA and the Department of Energy: “Across all scenarios, the U.S. [is] projected to gain net economic benefits from allowing LNG exports”. Thousands of high paid jobs will be created (Marie Landrieu affirmed that nearly 200,000 jobs could be created, and that is only in her home state of Louisiana). The same study reveals that unlike the thoughts of many, it will not diminish the domestic supply but will stimulate it. Moreover, it will generate billions of dollars on a yearly basis – money that will greatly benefit federal and state government revenues.

The recent Crimea Crisis is a symbol of a world where Energy Security became one of, if not the most, important aspect of a nation’s economy. Russia is using its important energy resource as a weapon to force European countries to adhere to their politics. The USA, a nation that stands for Freedom, could offer Europe a release from President Putin grip by providing them with the LNG they need. At the same time, it would be a great opportunity for the US to strengthen relationship with ally nations.

Nevertheless, and very justly, environmentalists have raised concerns on how hydrofracking (a new technique that allow access to natural gas reserves that were once unreachable) is a serious threat to the environment. Indeed, hydrofracking uses water in which chemicals are added, making it toxic. Hence, according to a 2013 report from Environment America, fracking wells nationwide generated an estimated 280 billion gallons of wastewater in 2012. In a world where clean water is becoming more and more of a scarce resource, there is no doubt that this is a major issue.

However, greener fracking alternatives do exist, some of them are described in a recent National Geographic article as the following:

  • Using Recycled Water or Brine: While fracking typically uses freshwater, industry researchers have worked to perfect friction-reducing additives that would allow operators to use recycled “gray” water or brine pumped from underground. Halliburton’s UniStim, which went on the market about a year ago, can create a highly viscous fluid from any quality of water, according to Stephen Ingram, the company’s technology manager for North America. In northeastern Canada, one producer has tapped into a deep subsurface saline water aquifer for a portion of its supplies for hydraulic fracturing
  • Eliminating Diesel Fumes: The diesel-powered equipment used in drilling and pumping wells can be a worrisome source of harmful pollutants such as particulates, as well as carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. And diesel fuel is expensive. Last year, Apache, a Houston-based oil and gas operator, announced it would become the first company to power an entire fracking job with engines using natural gas. In addition to reducing emissions, the company cut its fuel costs by 40 percent. Halliburton has introduced another innovation, the SandCastle vertical storage silo for the sand used in fracking, which is powered by solar panels. The company also has developed natural-gas-powered pump trucks, which Ingram said can reduce diesel consumption on a site by 60 to 70 percent, resulting in “a sizable reduction in both emissions and cost.”
  • Treating Wastewater:  Halliburton has developed the CleanWave treatment system, which uses positively charged ions and bubbles to remove particles from the water at the fracking site. Last September, GE and its partner Memsys also tested a new on-site treatment system that allows the water to be reused without being diluted with freshwater, by employing a desalination process called membrane distillation.
  • Plugging Methane Leaks: A major fracking concern has been whether companies are allowing a significant amount of natural gas to escape, because methane—the main component of natural gas—is a potent greenhouse gas. The new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations that go into effect next year will require that all U.S. oil and gas sites have equipment designed to cut a wide range of pollutants, a step that the agency expects will cut methane. (See “Air Pollution From Fracked Wells Will Be Regulated Under New U.S. Rules.”). A study by the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force suggests that almost all of the methane leaks from the oil and gas infrastructure could be reduced at relatively little expense, often by simply tightening bolts or replacing worn seals.

Through proper regulations and technology adaptation, LNG exportations could definitively turn out to become a “win win win” situation. The first “win” will go to the economic growth of the country, as many jobs will be created, and government/federal revenues will be reinforced. The second, towards fighting the hostile influence of Russia in Europe, and strengthen diplomatic relationship with ally nations. Finally, the third “win” (and maybe most important) will go towards reducing the carbon footprint of the human activity on Earth, while still continuing this activity.