Drill & Spill: The Price of Cheap Energy
Modern economies are incredibly dependent on energy. In times of rising demand and price, people are desperate for cheaper energy alternatives. Any technology seems to be welcome and sustainable solutions are being developed in all parts of the world, yet they come at greater expense than the conventional fossil fuels. Exploitation of shale gas by fracking might be a transitional alternative, but what are the consequences for the energy market, for the environment and for us?
Induced hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses water, sand and a broad variety of mostly toxic chemicals that are injected in a wellbore at high pressure to create cracks and release formerly inaccessible fluids such as shale gas. Although this process is more expensive than conventional production of natural gas, it has triggered a gas revolution in the USA. As a result, prices for energy and also for hydrocarbons, which can be used as starting products in the chemical industry, have fallen, and one third of the natural gas demand in the United States is now covered by fracking. Consequently, the low prices of olefins and other hydrocarbons are challenging the European market and forcing lobbyists to demand for fracking in European countries.
The legal situation is vague and incomplete, as is knowledge on the consequences of the process for the environment. This is, as it seems, exploited by global energy and hydrocarbon selling companies that want to act and earn money fast to reclaim market shares from the renewable energy sector. Now, one can easily assume the consequences for globally set reduction targets for CO2 emissions.
There are numerous studies on the potential hazards that could result from the fracking process, including the generation of earthquakes and drinking water contamination. Naturally, the fracking companies claim to use secure and uncritical chemicals and the studies are just recording results of "sloppy drilling practices".
What Fracking Means
You might have read this before but the sheer numbers are alarming.
Every fracking job consumes around 10 million liters of water and sand, and up to 2 vol.% of additives; that is another 200,000 liters, or a fishing pond of considerable size, of chemicals. Afterwards, the process water containing gelling agents, corrosion inhibitors, biocides, friction reducers and many, many more additives is removed and disposed - quite a lot of waste that has to be cleaned up in a tedious, costly process. And then, especially in Europe, the waste water disposal is bound to tight restrictions. The question arises, can fracking really be effective and competitive in Europe without disregarding environmental law restrictions. In fact, it would be expected that energy prices would not go down at all. Moreover, Europe is a densely populated continent, which in consequence is limiting the requisite number of wells. It is hard to imagine tons of steel pipes, huge drills and endless tank convoys next to Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower or the Brandenburg Gate.
Can fracking really satisfy Europe's energy demand? Maybe yes. However, a drop of energy prices can hardly be expected. Does Europe really need shale gas? Right now, Europe would be better off continuing to strengthen renewables and starting to explore sustainable ways of processing shale gas. It will still be there in 20 years. The demand for gas and hydrocarbons will also remain. Additionally, any country that refuses to carry out fracking at present might become an attractive holiday destination in the future because of clear water and clean air, which - of course - will have its price.