S. Thomas Bond: The shale game in a nutshell
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Shale drilling has the dumbest industrial development in history. The technology was brought into existence, to some considerable extent, by Morgantown Energy Research and federal government subsidy and by one determined individual, George Mitchell. There was no scale up phase with examination of the effect on surroundings.
The estimate of vast quantities of gas available to new technology by Terry Engelder of Cornell University enabled an old industry in decline and short of reserves to tell a story to investors of a prospective bonanza. That brought oodles of money in from all over the world. Financial buccaneers over leased, over drilled, and now have had to slow down production because of a lack of market. Existing storage is full. It's as though all that gas has to come out of the ground before it goes out of style.
The moneymaking part of the business has been the top end. Down where the gas must be sold the business is stalled. Companies such as Chesapeake are hurting. Two quick answers are proposed. One is to move production to natural gas liquids, which involves vast additional investment to utilize it. The other is to ship United States gas to other countries where the price is much higher, enabling their industries to compete better, increasing the price here and burdening our industries since the price will go up here also. This means it will not last so long, either.
The industry is like that famous statue in the Bible, which had a head of pure gold, chest and arms of silver, thighs of bronze, legs of iron and feet of clay. Still the shale gas story is told over and over and elaborated further, because that's what it takes to make the money roll in at the top.
The other side of the story is damaged aquifers, sickness of people and animals and property damage that effects not only the owners, but eventually the public also. Damaged areas are withdrawn from production for an indefinite long time, essentially forever. The industry ignores this, claiming it never happens. However, there are simply too many affected people to ignore it, everywhere the technology goes, in some 32 or states and elsewhere in the world.
Shale drilling is capital intensive, that is, it takes a lot of capital relative to the labor required. Other measures, such as energy conservation, with known technologies, put a lot more of the investment into labor, which quickly reenters the economy.
Then there is global warming. Each year see new evidence for a warming world caused by emissions of burning hydrocarbons. Climate change is destroying the forest in the West because beetles are not killed in winter. Storms and droughts are getting worse yearly. They caused some 52 billion dollars damage this year in the U. S. The ocean is rising due to melting glaciers and ice toward the poles. And the ocean is becoming more acid, dissolving reefs, where fish are most abundant, because carbon dioxide makes carbonic acid when it dissolves.
Global warming is the "white elephant in the room." In other words something the people in power see, but can't discuss. Petroleum is the world's most wealthy industry. Some parts of it support global warming denial. All of it wishes to retain its almost unlimited freedom of action and high profit. It has sufficient influence through lobbying and campaign contributions, apparently, to throttle the discussion. In spite of the universal agreement among scientists, and wide spread acceptance of the concept among voters, it was not even mentioned in presidential debate this year!
When I was a student in organic chemistry at WVU, I remember Charles Lazzelle, the professor, say, "Its a shame to burn hydrocarbons. You can make such useful things from them." He would be dismayed that we haven't had any more progress in the 50 years since.
Without the profit and the jobs, shale drilling is an ugly thing. We need a crash scientific program for non-hydrocarbon energy and conservation, not more diddling with past technology in our crowded world.
Bond is a retired teacher, has a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry, and is a member of the Guardians of the West Fork and the Monongahela Area Watersheds Compact. He lives on and maintains a 500-acre farm near Jane Lew.