very often that someone starts his career as a geologist and then winds up as
governor, but John Hickenlooper, the governor of Colorado, can make that claim.
“We had fracking when I was a working geologist in 1981,” he told me on Monday.
“It was very primitive. What really changed the world is when we got horizontal
drilling. It was a technique that allowed you to recover a lot more natural
“But,” he added, almost poignantly, “it’s been polarizing.”
That’s for sure. During the last election two weeks ago, four Colorado
communities voted to ban hydraulic fracturing (to use the proper terminology). A
fifth town, Longmont, voted against fracking a year ago, resulting in a lawsuit
brought by the oil and gas industry and joined by the State of Colorado. It is a
state where the owner of a parcel of land doesn’t necessarily own the mineral
rights underground, which is a source of enormous tension. Colorado has tens of
thousands of wells — an economic boon — and also some of the most vocal
anti-fracking activists in the country.
Which perhaps helps explain why Monday’s announcement that Colorado has come up
with rules to regulate the leakage of methane from fracked wells has not exactly
been greeted with hosannas. But it should be.
Methane leakage is the Achilles’ heel of hydraulic fracturing. For all the fears
that it might contaminate the water supply — a possibility, yes, but not likely
— it is methane leakage that can moot the advantage of natural gas as a cleaner
fuel than coal. It is well established that when natural gas is combusted, it
has both environmental and climate change benefits — starting with the fact that
natural gas emits half the carbon of coal.
But that advantage disappears when too much methane leaks during any part of the
production process. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, “Methane is at
least 28 times more powerful than CO2 as a greenhouse gas over the longer term
and at least 84 times more potent in the near term.” (Methane gradually loses
its potency as a greenhouse gas over time.) “Our interest in natural gas as a
bridge fuel is undermined when methane leaks,” says Dan Grossman, the
environmental fund’s Rocky Mountain regional director.
A bridge fuel is precisely what many in the environmental movement don’t want,
of course. After all, natural gas may be cleaner, but it is still a fossil fuel
— and thus, in their view, part of the problem because they believe that an
abundance of natural gas could delay their long-sought nirvana of a world
powered by alternative energy sources.
Meanwhile, here in the real world, new wells are being drilled every day,
natural gas is becoming more abundant and the country is coming to depend on it.
There is simply no way America is going to turn its back on natural gas.
Which is why the E.D.F. approach makes so much more sense: rather than calling,
Don Quixote-like, for an end to fracking, it is working with states like
Colorado to make it safer, more transparent and cleaner.
In 2011, for instance, it helped negotiate rules governing the disclosure of the
chemicals in fracking compounds — a deal that was sealed with Hickenlooper, the
industry and E.D.F. representatives sharing a stage. In Wyoming, it has
negotiated rules to require groundwater testing near wells to detect any
possible contamination. In Texas, it was involved in coming up with regulations
for well integrity. And, on Monday, along with Hickenlooper and some industry
players in Colorado, it announced a set of proposed rules that would govern —
and reduce — methane leakage. In each case, E.D.F. is pushing other states to
adopt these rules, which, taken together, would help ensure that natural gas
will live up to its promise of being a better, cleaner fuel.
The rules proposed on Monday in Colorado are both tough and sensible. Producers
will have to test for leakage on a regular basis, monthly in some cases. They
will have to avoid methane venting from wells. They will have to retrofit the
valves on wells to minimize leakage. Why would industry go along with tougher
regulations? Precisely because so many people are skeptical about fracking. It
needs to be able to show that it is going about it in a manner that is safe and
Shortly after Hickenlooper announced the proposed rules in a press conference, I
called Sam Schabacker, the Mountain West regional director for a group called
Food and Water Watch. He hadn’t yet read the proposed rules, but that didn’t
stop him. These new rules were just a “smoke screen,” he said, designed to fool
the public. E.D.F. was giving industry “a veneer of respectability.” Then he
added, “We believe that fracking is inherently unsafe and should be banned.”
A few weeks
ago, a group of scientists led by David T. Allen of the University of Texas
published an important, peer-reviewed paper in the Proceedings of the National
Academy of Sciences. The subject was our old friend hydraulic fracturing — a k a
fracking — that infamous process that allows companies to drill for natural gas
trapped in shale formations deep below the earth’s surface.
Thanks to the fracking boom, America is on the verge of overtaking Russia as the
world’s largest producer of oil and gas, as The Wall Street Journal pointed out
a few days ago. Supporters of fracking (like me) tend to focus on the economic
and foreign policy blessings that come with being able to supply so much more of
our energy needs in-house, as it were. Critics, however, fear that fracking
could have grave environmental consequences. And they worry that the abundance
of natural gas will keep America hooked on fossil fuels.
Ever since April 2011, when Robert Howarth, Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea
of Cornell University published a study that purported to “evaluate the
greenhouse gas footprint” of fracking, there has been an additional fear: that
the process of extracting all that gas from the ground was creating an emissions
problem that made coal look good by comparison.
The primary problem, according to Howarth and his colleagues, was the amount of
methane — somewhere between 3.6 and 7.9 percent of the natural gas produced,
they estimated — that escaped into the atmosphere. Methane turns out to be a
powerful greenhouse gas, “72 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20
year period,” according to the Environmental Defense Fund, which instigated the
University of Texas study.
Howarth’s study, however, was purely an estimate. Because there was very little
hard data, Howarth, who is openly anti-fracking, had taken no actual
measurements himself but had pieced together his numbers from the existing
literature. What was needed was somebody who could put instruments directly on
the wells themselves and come up with hard figures that couldn’t be
second-guessed. That’s where David Allen and his team came in. Enlisting the
cooperation of nine companies that in many cases were using the best available
well-completion technology — technology that will be mandated by the federal
government by 2015 — they concluded that the methane leakage during the
production of natural gas was a mere 0.42 percent. In some parts of the process
the emissions were lower than government estimates, but in other parts they were
The study soon became a kind of fracking Rorschach test. Jack Gerard, the head
of the American Petroleum Institute, sent a blast e-mail to Capitol Hill
claiming that the study proved that “hydraulic fracturing is safe for the
environment,” when it did nothing of the sort. (Indeed, the scientists are
planning 15 more studies that will cover every stage of natural gas
The anti-frackers, meanwhile, quickly dismissed the validity of the study
because the nine companies involved had both cooperated and helped pay for it.
Steve Horn, a climate change blogger, dismissed the study as “ ‘frackademia’ —
industry-funded ‘science’ dressed up to looked like objective academic
analysis.” The question of why a study that necessitated industry cooperation
and money is inherently less valid than a study produced by scientists who are
openly opposed to fracking was left unanswered.
No matter who backs which study, the studies with the most valid, replicable
data will win out. That’s how science works. The reason the Environmental
Defense Fund wanted this study done is precisely so that unassailable data,
rather than mere estimates, could become part of the debate over fracking. You
can’t have sound regulation without good data.
“This study is one of the more important things I’ve done in my career,” Allen
told me, “because what we do with the shale gas resource is one of the more
critically important environmental and economic decisions the country is going
As it turns out, the one anti-fracker who didn’t scoff at the University of
Texas study was Howarth himself. “Allen et. al. have done a fine job of
characterizing emissions in the sites they have studied,” he wrote in a news
release. He described Allen and his team to me as “quality scientists” who had
produced “valuable information.”
The E.D.F.’s goal is to get overall methane leakage to 1 percent or lower, using
a combination of technology and regulation. That would make natural gas
unarguably better than coal for the climate. When I spoke to Howarth, he
expressed skepticism that a leakage rate under 1 percent was possible. But he
also said that if methane leakage could “reliably” be brought under 1 percent,
“I would be much less worried about developing shale gas.”
The New York Times
By ANTHONY R. INGRAFFEA
N.Y. — MANY concerned about climate change, including President Obama, have
embraced hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. In his recent climate speech, the
president went so far as to lump gas with renewables as “clean energy.”
As a longtime oil and gas engineer who helped develop shale fracking techniques
for the Energy Department, I can assure you that this gas is not “clean.”
Because of leaks of methane, the main component of natural gas, the gas
extracted from shale deposits is not a “bridge” to a renewable energy future —
it’s a gangplank to more warming and away from clean energy investments.
Methane is a far more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, though it
doesn’t last nearly as long in the atmosphere. Still, over a 20-year period, one
pound of it traps as much heat as at least 72 pounds of carbon dioxide. Its
potency declines, but even after a century, it is at least 25 times as powerful
as carbon dioxide. When burned, natural gas emits half the carbon dioxide of
coal, but methane leakage eviscerates this advantage because of its
And methane is leaking, though there is significant uncertainty over the rate.
But recent measurements by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
at gas and oil fields in California, Colorado and Utah found leakage rates of
2.3 percent to 17 percent of annual production, in the range my colleagues at
Cornell and I predicted some years ago. This is the gas that is released into
the atmosphere unburned as part of the hydraulic fracturing process, and also
from pipelines, compressors and processing units. Those findings raise questions
about what is happening elsewhere. The Environmental Protection Agency has
issued new rules to reduce these emissions, but the rules don’t take effect
until 2015, and apply only to new wells.
A 2011 study from the National Center for Atmospheric Research concluded that
unless leaks can be kept below 2 percent, gas lacks any climate advantage over
coal. And a study released this May by Climate Central, a group of scientists
and journalists studying climate change, concluded that the 50 percent climate
advantage of natural gas over coal is unlikely to be achieved over the next
three to four decades. Unfortunately, we don’t have that long to address climate
change — the next two decades are crucial.
To its credit, the president’s plan recognizes that “curbing emissions of
methane is critical.” However, the release of unburned gas in the production
process is not the only problem. Gas and oil wells that lose their structural
integrity also leak methane and other contaminants outside their casings and
into the atmosphere and water wells. Multiple industry studies show that about 5
percent of all oil and gas wells leak immediately because of integrity issues,
with increasing rates of leakage over time. With hundreds of thousands of new
wells expected, this problem is neither negligible nor preventable with current
Why do so many wells leak this way? Pressures under the earth, temperature
changes, ground movement from the drilling of nearby wells and shrinkage crack
and damage the thin layer of brittle cement that is supposed to seal the wells.
And getting the cement perfect as the drilling goes horizontally into shale is
extremely challenging. Once the cement is damaged, repairing it thousands of
feet underground is expensive and often unsuccessful. The gas and oil industries
have been trying to solve this problem for decades.
The scientific community has been waiting for better data from the E.P.A. to
assess the extent of the water contamination problem. That is why it is so
discouraging that, in the face of industry complaints, the E.P.A. reportedly has
closed or backed away from several investigations into the problem. Perhaps a
full E.P.A. study of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water, due in 2014, will
be more forthcoming. In addition, drafts of an Energy Department study suggest
that there are huge problems finding enough water for fracturing future wells.
The president should not include this technology in his energy policy until
these studies are complete.
We have renewable wind, water, solar and energy-efficiency technology options
now. We can scale these quickly and affordably, creating economic growth, jobs
and a truly clean energy future to address climate change. Political will is the
missing ingredient. Meaningful carbon reduction is impossible so long as the
fossil fuel industry is allowed so much influence over our energy policies and
regulatory agencies. Policy makers need to listen to the voices of independent
scientists while there is still time.
Ingraffea is a professor
of civil and
University and the president of Physicians,
The New York Times
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Mitchell, the son of a Greek goatherd who capped a career as one of the most
prominent independent oilmen in the United States by unlocking immense natural
gas and petroleum resources trapped in shale rock formations, died on Friday in
Galveston, Tex. He was 94.
His family confirmed the death.
Mr. Mitchell’s role in championing new drilling and production techniques like
hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is credited with creating an unexpected
natural gas boom in the United States. In a letter to President Obama last year,
Daniel Yergin, the energy scholar and author, proposed that Mr. Mitchell be
awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“It is because of him that we can talk seriously about ‘energy independence,’ ”
he said. (Mr. Mitchell did not receive the award.)
Mr. Mitchell combined academic training as a petroleum engineer and geologist
with a gambler’s cunning to become an influential businessman worth $2 billion.
He was a petroleum industry spokesman, then a persistent voice for
“sustainable,” or environmentally responsible, economic growth. On 27,000 piney
acres north of Houston, he built a town called The Woodlands partly to
demonstrate his ideas.
The most significant chapter in his life came last. In the 1980s and ’90s, when
many energy analysts foresaw only irreversible declines in hydrocarbon supplies,
Mr. Mitchell got busy poking holes in Texas dirt on the hunch that they were
wrong. Marshaling mostly existing technologies, he began fracturing shale rock
formations in fields where he had long pumped oil and gas at shallower depths.
After 17 years of trying, Mr. Mitchell finally hit pay dirt with gushers of gas
in 1998. The flow was so prodigious that a competitor thought that the
announcement was a practical joke. The $6 million that Mr. Mitchell had put into
the project was “surely the best development money in the history of gas,” The
Economist magazine said.
The success enabled him to sell his company, the Mitchell Energy and Development
Corporation, to the Devon Energy Corporation for $3.5 billion in 2001. Included
in the sale were the results of years of drilling more than 10,000 wells, many
of which still yielded hydrocarbons.
Fracking uses water and chemical injections to force more oil from reservoirs.
Both the Gas Technology Institute, a nonprofit research organization, and the
federal Energy Department worked with Mr. Mitchell, giving him technical help
and some financing. He also received federal tax credits.
Techniques for hydraulic fracturing vary, but Mr. Mitchell’s involved drilling
straight down, then making a 90-degree turn thousands of feet underground to
penetrate shale formations horizontally. A high-pressure mix of chemical- and
sand-laced water was then injected, releasing trapped gas.
Fracking and other unconventional techniques have doubled North American natural
gas reserves to three quadrillion cubic feet — the rough equivalent of 500
million barrels of oil, or almost double Saudi Arabia’s crude inventory. The
increase came after four decades of declines. Gas is also being economically
produced in northern states like New York, which had been considered barren of
The same techniques worked for oil extraction. The Oil and Gas Journal reported
this April that a well that would have produced 70 barrels a day using
conventional drilling can produce 700 with fracking. North Dakota’s oil boom is
Environmentalists and landowners worry that the new techniques will pollute
groundwater and cause other environmental problems, particularly as they are
deployed in virgin territories. Industry promises that good engineering
practices will curb abuses, and some independent studies support that view.
“We can frack safely if we frack sensibly,” Mr. Mitchell and Mayor Michael R.
Bloomberg of New York wrote last year in an op-ed column in The Wall Street
Mr. Mitchell’s roots reached back to Greece, where his father, Savvas
Paraskevopoulos, tended goats before immigrating to the United States in 1901,
arriving at Ellis Island at the age of 20. He worked for railroads, and
gradually moved west. When a paymaster got tired of writing his long name and
threatened to fire him, Mr. Paraskevopoulos took the paymaster’s name, Mike
Mike Mitchell settled in Galveston, where he ran a succession of shoe-shining
and pressing shops. When he saw the picture of a beautiful woman in a local
Greek newspaper, he headed for Florida, where she had settled, according to
family lore. He persuaded her to abandon her fiancé and marry him. They lived
above the shoeshine shop.
George Phydias Mitchell was born in Galveston on May 21, 1919. His mother died
when he was 13, and he finished high school at 16. No college would accept him
at that age so he went to another high school for a year and brushed up on math.
At Texas A&M University, he scrambled for tuition money until he started selling
gold-embossed stationery to students lonesome for sweethearts back home. He
finished first in his class in petroleum engineering and was captain of the
He worked for Amoco in the oil fields of Texas and Louisiana, before joining the
Army Corps of Engineers and overseeing construction projects. After his
discharge, he started an oil company with partners, including his brother
Johnny, who strolled Houston in jungle shorts and a pith helmet. The brothers
did many of their early deals at a drugstore counter.
When a Chicago bookie offered the fledgling company a deal for an area north of
Fort Worth known as “the wildcatters’ graveyard,” they bit. They quickly drilled
13 successful wells, and bet everything they had to expand their holdings in the
area to 300,000 acres. That became the backbone of a company that hit oil or gas
on 35 to 40 percent of the 10,000 wells it drilled.
In the 1960s, Mr. Mitchell, looking to diversify, bought 66,000 acres of mostly
undeveloped real estate within a 50-mile radius of Houston. In 1974 he created
The Woodlands, a 27,000-acre forested development 27 miles north of Houston,
helped by a $50 million loan from the Department of Housing and Urban
Development. More than 100,000 people live there today. The Exxon Mobil
corporation is building a 385-acre campus for 10,000 employees there.
Partly motivated by a desire to solve urban problems, Mr. Mitchell visited the
Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and the Watts section of Los Angeles when
planning the project. In 1997, he sold Mitchell Energy’s stake in The Woodlands
for $543 million. He said in 2001 that it had not achieved the ethnic mix for
which he hoped, but recommended that it be annexed by Houston to increase
In his early 20s, Mr. Mitchell met two twin sisters, Cynthia and Pamela Woods.
He first dated Pamela but married Cynthia, with whom he created the Cynthia and
George Mitchell Foundation. It has given more than $400 million to a variety of
causes. Mrs. Mitchell died in 2009.
Mr. Mitchell is survived by his sister, Maria Mitchell Ballantyne; three
daughters, Pamela Maguire, Meredith Dreiss and Sheridan Lorenz; seven sons,
Scott, Mark, Kent, Greg, Kirk, Todd and Grant; 23 grandchildren; and five
great-grandchildren. His wife’s twin sister also survives him.
HAMMERFEST, Norway — For a quarter-century, energy executives were tantalized
by vast quantities of natural gas in one of the world’s least hospitable places
— 90 miles off Norway’s northern coast, beneath the Arctic Ocean.
Bitter winds and frequent snowstorms lash the region. The sun disappears for two
months a year. No oil company knew how to operate in such a harsh environment.
But Norway has finally solved the problem. The other day, on an island just
offshore, a giant yellow flame illuminated the sky here. It was just a temporary
flare for excess gas, but it signaled a new era in energy production.
Across the bay from this small fishing town, where reindeer wander the streets,
one of the world’s most advanced natural gas plants is coming to life.
Within weeks, gas will start crossing the ocean in specially designed ships,
feeding into the pipeline network for the American East Coast. Before Christmas,
furnaces in Brooklyn and stoves in Washington will be burning the gas. It will
be the first commercial energy production from waters north of the Arctic
As global demand soars and prices rise, energy companies are going to the ends
of the earth to find new supplies.
In Kazakhstan, petroleum engineers are braving wild temperature swings in the
shallow waters of the Caspian Sea to tap the biggest oil discovery of the last
30 years. They are drilling wells six miles deep in the Gulf of Mexico. And on
the island of Sakhalin, off far eastern Russia, they have drilled horizontal
wells through miles of rock to produce oil from a stretch of ocean notable for
But as the industry extends its reach, the quest is becoming more arduous. The
cost of producing new oil and gas is rising fast, and companies are troubled by
worsening delays. Drilling rigs are scarce. Engineers, geologists and petroleum
specialists are in critically short supply.
And the politics of oil and gas are getting trickier, with producing countries
demanding a bigger share of the revenue and growing angry about project delays
that postpone their payments.
Industry executives say their ability to keep up with global demand is badly
“We’re facing bigger risks and bigger difficulties when we go into new frontier
regions,” said Odd A. Mosbergvik, a senior manager at the dominant Norwegian
energy company, StatoilHydro. “But this is why the oil industry is for big boys.
It’s a big gamble.”
The industry’s new reach is shifting the economics of energy extraction.
According to a recent study, discovery and development costs, a key indicator
for the industry, tripled from 1999 to 2006, to nearly $15 a barrel.
Last year alone, companies spent $200 billion developing new energy projects
worldwide, according to the study by the consulting firms John S. Herold Inc.
and Harrison Lovegrove — an amount larger than the economies of 147 countries.
These higher costs mean that the industry needs higher energy prices to finance
new projects. They are also constraining its ability to expand quickly.
“There are no easy barrels left,” said J. Robinson West, chairman of PFC Energy,
an industry consulting firm in Washington. “The only barrels are going to be the
There is plenty of oil and gas still in the ground, energy executives say. But
global consumption is rising so fast that they must keep looking for new
sources. Despite worldwide concern over global warming and the role of fossil
fuels in causing it, United States government specialists project that global
oil and gas demand will increase by some 50 percent in the next 25 years.
At the same time, the big discoveries of the last three decades, like those in
the North Sea and on the North Slope of Alaska, are drying up. This is leading
oil companies to remote places like Hammerfest.
The United States will need to import about a fifth of the natural gas it uses
by 2030, mostly in a liquefied form shipped across the seas in tankers. Such
imports are expected to swell more than sixfold from 2005 to 2030, according to
the Energy Information Administration. And consumption is rising fast in the
economically booming Asian countries.
Producing oil and gas in polar regions is not entirely new, of course. Russian
engineers have been doing it in Siberia for decades, with mixed results, and
Alaska’s North Slope was long the most important United States oil field.
But those fields are on land. The Norwegian field is the first Arctic project to
tap oil and gas reserves far offshore, in water more than 1,000 feet deep, where
traditional exploration methods would be too costly.
The gas field, 340 miles north of the Arctic Circle beneath a stretch of ocean
more commonly known as the Barents Sea, is called Snow White — Snohvit in
Norwegian, where energy projects are named after mythical characters. Though the
field was discovered in 1981, oil executives long considered Snohvit out of
reach, because of the Barents Sea’s shifting ice packs, brutal waves and extreme
“This is considered an unfriendly place, even by Norwegian standards,” Mr.
Another big problem the engineers faced here was that Snohvit is situated
hundreds of miles from Norway’s traditional pipeline network.
Over the years, Statoil considered many ways to get at the gas, including huge
offshore platforms armored against the waves, but discarded them as too costly.
Building a vast undersea pipeline that would take the gas south along the
country’s stretched coastline was also out of the question.
Statoil engineers eventually came up with an ingenious solution. They installed
production equipment directly on the seafloor, with no rigs breaking the
surface. The wellheads are linked by 90 miles of pipe to a small island just off
Hammerfest. Anti-freeze is injected into the pipes to prevent the natural gas
from clogging on its way to shore.
On the island, Melkoya, Statoil built a processing facility to separate the brew
of natural gas, oil, water and carbon dioxide that flows out of the field. The
natural gas is cooled to a temperature of 260 degrees below zero, shrinking its
volume to one-six hundredth and turning it into a liquid that can be shipped in
Construction of the liquefaction plant over the last several years involved
22,000 workers, one of the largest industrial projects in Europe, and cost
nearly $10 billion, up from $6 billion when the project was begun in 2002.
“We did not have the experience to operate in an environment like this,” Mr.
The field is so large that it could eventually supply nearly 10 percent of the
demand for natural gas demand in eastern states of the United States. Dominion,
an energy company, has expanded a gas import terminal at Cove Point, Md., to
accommodate the Arctic gas, according to Donald R. Raikes, its vice president
for marketing and customer services.
By the end of October, Statoil’s gas will begin flowing through a network of
pipes to a stretch of the country from Maryland to Massachusetts, the largest
consumer market in the United States, with some 16 million residential customers
and 5 million industrial clients.
With the plant nearly ready, Statoil maintains that the Barents Sea could turn
into a major oil and gas region in coming decades. Indeed, the world’s
fast-rising use of fossil fuels, by contributing to global warming, could
eventually make the Arctic more accessible for oil and gas production.
In Hammerfest,residents have welcomed Statoil’s project, hoping it will offset
declines in fishing. Modern buildings are rising to house the influx of gas
workers. New taxes from the gas plant are helping finance a cultural center.
Statoil hopes to double its capacity on Melkoya by 2015. That will require
finding new gas fields in the Barents Sea.
Hans M. Gjennestad, strategy manager at Statoil for the Barents region, said,
“We believe this resource potential may contribute significantly to the
long-term security of supplies of Europe and the United States.”