The Times they need a changing

November 1, 2011

When a story becomes the story it may sell a few more newspapers for a couple of days but most editors know that this is not a good way to the future – unless of course ideologically driven or vested interest motives become barely disguised. And this is even more important if the reaction to the story becomes overwhelming.

For the fifth time the New York Times has run an article on hydraulic fracturing, dubbed fracking, as in the totally wrong statement 'a new drilling technique for natural gas production’. The articles, supposed to be exposés written by Times staff reporter Ian Urbina, have tried to link this widespread oil and gas well completion technique with a variety of ills, the most insidious of them all that drinking water aquifers might be contaminated. Other 'issues’ include spreading radioactivity. All the articles have attacked the very rationale for conducting fracking in the first place in that shale gas, the target of the recently enormous enhancement in industry activity, may not be what its cracked out to be.

The latter is easy to dispel. There has never been an energy resource that escalated its market share from essentially zero to 25% in just five years. This is what shale gas has done in US natural gas supply.

I do not know Urbina but I do know many journalists writing on energy. And I do know energy and how critical it is to the world economy. By coincidence I also know hydraulic fracturing, having worked on it professionally for at least 25 years, producing about 150 technical papers and eight books on the subject.

So what is the motive of the New York Times and Urbina? Last year more than 35,000 wells were drilled in the US and 120,000 hydraulic fracturing treatments were executed, almost four stages per well on average. Not one case of drinking water contamination was reported. Case closed one would think. The back story is even more remarkable: sixty years of fracturing, covering more than 1.2 million wells and the only 'news’ in this latest Times piece is from 1984 in West Virginia? Case closed again, one would reasonably think even further.

The anti-fracking crusaders, aided by off base documentaries, have never bothered to distinguish or explain, that leaking from the very rare, badly cemented or cased well, even if the well was fractured (almost all are) does not make fracking the culprit. There is no physics to support connectivity between the induced fracture, done thousands of feet underground, that would contaminate drinking water aquifers, found at a few hundred feet depth. An occasional 'scientist’ may be enlisted to offer a fanciful connecting theory whose possibility is just south of being hit by lightning. Communicating through the well itself, undesirable as it may be, has nothing to do with fracking.

So what gives here?

The New York Times and Urbina should fess up that the only rational reason for the exposés is one of two things. First option is an aversion to all fossil fuels in an era of presumed alternatives. A renaissance of natural gas in the US of all places does not bode well in future energy central casting. Fracking is an interesting culprit selection. It has been given a sinister moniker, it is indispensable to producing gas ('no frac-no gas’) and the physical modeling of fracture height migration is clearly beyond the capabilities of the general public and, of course, journalists.

The second possibility is an even more dishonest motive from the competitors to natural gas for power generation: coal and nuclear, both of which have huge public image problems of their own. The irony is that natural gas is environmentally and economically superior to either in a number of measurable ways.

The Times articles have spawned a paroxysm of response from the industry and of course all those who have never seen a fossil energy resource they like. Some countries, like France, outlawed fracturing but in a transparent sour grapes move. There was not much chance for France to produce natural gas from domestic reservoirs. The industry showed too much defensiveness and put out way too many announcements in what should have been easily discarded as nonsense. Even with markedly declining readership, the power of the mainstream press is still strong, especially if people think of it as such. It has made the story to be the story. Dignifying it can only bring out more of the same 'exposés’. OE

 

Michael J Economides is a professor at the Cullen College of Engineering, University of Houston, and editor-in-chief of the Energy Tribune. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect OE’s position.



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