The British Prime Minister, David Cameron has argued in an article in the Sunday Telegraph (on August 11th, 2013) that if we don’t back fracking technology then the country will miss an opportunity to help families with their bills and make the country more competitive. In his article the Prime Minister only makes the economic case in favour of using fracking to extract shale gas. He completely ignores the environmental costs of these economic gains, which will always be present as in any industrial process – the second law of thermodynamics tells us to expect these costs – a form of increased entropy. The environmental costs of fracking are still disputed. Companies and politicians with something to gain from its successful implementation argue that the costs are very low or insignificant. However, recent research has concluded that more than 100 earthquakes were triggered in a single year in Ohio due to fracking-related activities (J. Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, doi.org/nh5). The largest of these quakes was of magnitude 3.9 and was caused by pumping pressurised waste water into a deep well. There are also concerns that waste water from fracking might contaminate groundwater.
A joint report of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering has concluded that the fracking process can be successfully managed without significant risks to the environment or society. However, in France fracking has been banned. So, the arguments flow in both directions. As a society we are addicted to energy, and fossil fuels in particular, and hence we need sources of oil and gas. The risks involved in extracting shale gas by fracking are probably no greater than those associated with oil or natural gas; its just that they tend to occur closer to people’s backyard, which makes people more sensitive to them. Actually, the technology has been around and used for a long time; see John Kemp’s column at Reuters for an explanation of the process and its history. However, if we intend to use it on a larger scale then we need to guard against unexpected consequences and be ready to deal with the mess when things go wrong. When engineers succeed in these two goals then no one will notice but when they fail the public and many politicians will be quick to attribute blame to them, whereas it likely will be our addiction to fossil fuel that is to blame.
Last week we drove from the south through downtown Detroit on Interstate 75. Approaching from a distance along the shore of Lake Erie and the banks of the Detroit river, the city looks like many others in the US with glass-clad towers clustered together and stretching towards the clear blue sky. Close-up and beyond the glass skyscrapers, Detroit offers a different view of derelict apartment blocks, factory buildings and offices covered in graffiti with weeds growing out of them. These are not isolated buildings but whole city blocks. It is reminiscent of Hadron in Doris Lessing’s book ‘Mara and Dann’, in which twenty-five towers built for city administrators are left abandoned in preference for fine houses in large gardens. The mental picture that our drive brought to mind was from Lessing’s book; however, in searching out the book at home I remembered a similar image drawn by JG Ballard in ‘High Rise’ in which civilised life in a 42-storey degenerates as residents abandon all moral and social conventions and a hunter/gatherer culture of competing gangs developed.
Of course Detroit is infamous for having recently become the largest municipal bankruptcy when it filled for Chapter 9 Bankruptcy on July 18th, 2013. However, not all is doom and gloom in Detroit; it might be suffering from entropic decay but they know how to conserve energy (available energy). At Detroit Metropolitan Airport they are replacing more than 6000 light fixtures with LED (light emitting diodes) lights in the parking structures (multi-storey car parks) as well as adding an extra thousand for a total cost of $6.2 million (£4M). It is anticipated that the resultant reduction in energy consumption will be 7,345,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) worth about $1.2 million per year (£0.77M). According to Ali Dib, Director of Infrastructure & Engineering for Wayne County Airport Authority, the energy saved by the light replacements will be “equivalent to powering 880 U.S. households for one year, and the reduction of 7,000 metric tons of CO2 per year is equal to taking 1,350 passenger vehicles off the road.” Not something they would be very happy about you doing in the ‘Motor Capital of the World’. So the other way of looking at the CO2 production saved is that it is equivalent to 25,400,000 passenger air miles not flown or a thousand round-the-world flights.
Oh, and the LEDs will only need changing every ten years instead of every thirteen months for the current light bulbs.
For ‘Mara and Dann’ see: http://www.dorislessing.org/maraand.html And for reviews: http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/01/10/reviews/990110.10upch.html or http://www.theguardian.com/books/1999/may/29/books.guardianreview27
For ‘High Rise’ see: http://www.jgballard.ca/criticism/highrise.html
Information on changing light fixtures from The Metropolitan dEtroit, August 2013 (p.11) and http://www.themetropolitandetroit.com/
Passenger air miles CO2 production from http://www.transportdirect.info/Web2/JourneyPlanning/JourneyEmissionsCompare.aspx