October 8, 2013 11:25 am
America is now, or will soon be, the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, says the Wall Street Journal. Saudi Arabia is still the world’s largest source of oil alone. But Russia and the U.S. aren’t far behind at all. Russia puts out 92 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil output. American pumps 88 percent as much. When you take natural gas into account, Russia and the U.S. leap far ahead of the Middle Eastern nation. The shale gas boom, driven by hydraulic fracturing, horizontal drilling and high energy prices, has launched the U.S. towards the top spot, with all sorts of consequences, including upsetting long-established trade and political agreements. If you’re just looking at coal, though, the U.S. loses out to China. China makes nearly half the world’s coal. Natural gas burns more cleanly than coal or oil, and as the U.S. has started using more gas and improving energy efficiency, the country’s carbon emissions have steadily dropped. But, the coal that America replaced hasn’t gone unused—it’s just being shipped to Europe. American fossil fuel production, says the Wall Street Journal, “is about demand and the cost of production. Those are the two drivers.” For the climate’s sake, then, the idea that the global demand for fossil fuels may be waning—spurred by dropping prices for renewable energy and more efficient energy production—is a reassuring one. More from Smithsonian.com: Where in the World Will the Fracking Boom Visit Next? Oil May Finally Be Hitting Its Peak Researchers Find Fracking Might Cause Earthquakes After All Japan Just Opened Up a Whole New Source for Fossil Fuels
August 1, 2013 1:51 pm
Like Dylan, cars and buses are going electric. But planes are having a harder time making the transition. Electric planes exist, but they’re tiny. But electric planes are not the only option for greener flight, Wired reports. In Wisconsin, Aviat Aircraft just debuted the first aircraft that runs on compressed natural gas (CNG).
While still a greenhouse gas, natural gas is less polluting than the low-lead fuel many planes run on today. It’s also cheaper, meaning pilots may be pretty eager to adopt the potential new fuel alternative.
While the cost savings is an added benefit, CNG will dramatically reduce the pollutants emitted by smaller airplanes that are now burning the typical aviation gasoline known as 100 low lead.
Aviat converted one of its Husky airplanes to fly on both 100LL and CNG, and they flew it to Oshkosh from the factory in Afton, Wyoming. The airplane is equipped with both tanks and can run on either fuel at the flip of a switch.
Aviat told Wired that the plane actually ran better when using natural gas rather than aviation gasoline—the engine remained cooler.
Around 190,000 small aircrafts are flown in the United States, whether for crop dusting, recreation or travel. The biggest impediment to getting the industry to adopt compressed natural gas, Wired reports, are the infrastructure challenges, like installing new tanks in airplanes and fueling stations at airports.
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July 25, 2013 10:37 am
Throughout the day on Tuesday, Hercules 265, a drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, was evacuated, after a blowout from the natural gas well it was digging made it too dangerous for workers to stay. At the end of the day Tuesday, the rig caught fire, and yesterday the platform started to collapse. The underwater natural gas well is leaking, says the Associated Press, and stemming the flow could take weeks.
With the memories of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster still fresh in many people’s minds, it’s hard not to make comparisons. But, for what it’s worth, says the Associated Press, authorities are assuring that this current leak will be nowhere near as bad as that from the BP spill. For one, the Hercules platform fire is in relatively shallow water, which should make it easier to deal with. The AP:
“A gas well’s not going to result in any kind of major pollution — perhaps not even significant pollution if it’s burning,” said Ted Bourgoyne, the former chair of Louisiana State University’s petroleum engineering department. He now runs the consultancy Bourgoyne Enterprises Inc.
Federal inspectors said a light sheen was spotted around the rig on Wednesday evening, though authorities said it quickly dissipated and the fire aboard the rig continued to be fed by natural gas. A sheen was spotted shortly after the blowout began on Tuesday but it, too, quickly dissipated.
Gas wells often also have oil or other hydrocarbons as well as natural gas. Officials and scientists agree the latest mishap shouldn’t be nearly as damaging as the BP oil spill that famously sent crude oil oozing ashore in 2010.
Natural gas, says NPR, isn’t as bad as oil because, unlike oil, natural gas and water do mix. Natural gas also evaporates. If the gas is leaking from the sea floor—as opposed to from the platform—then it is possible that “gas could be flowing into the ocean,” says NPR:
But natural gas is mostly made up of methane, and in deep wells, the methane would most likely dissolve before it gets to the surface.
“Once dissolved, it’s eaten by bacteria. “Methane is the best thing they can eat,” [University of Texas, Austin petroleum engineer Tadeusz] Patzek says.
In the Deepwater Horizon accident, lots of natural gas as well as oil escaped into the water before the Macondo well was capped. Scientists determined that methane-eating microbes degraded much of that gas without evidence of serious harm to the environment.
And, of course, natural gas is easier to deal with than oil, since it doesn’t float on the surface and foul beaches or animals.
But while natural gas may be less visible than oil, that doesn’t also mean it is harmless. Oil spills cause a number of very obvious effects on the landscape: Oil tends to stick around as tar balls or to get spread as a thick coating on coastal wildlife. Sea birds caked with oil are an iconic image, as are dead dolphins.
The consequences of a natural gas spill can still be dire, says Russian toxicologist Stanislav Patin in the synopsis to his 1999 book Environmental Impact of the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry. Following a leak, says Patin,
Gas rapidly penetrates into [fish] (especially through the gills) and disturbs the main functional systems (respiration, nervous system, blood formation, enzyme activity, and others). External evidence of these disturbances includes a number of common symptoms mainly of behavioral nature (e.g., fish excitement, increased activity, scattering in the water). The interval between the moment of fish contact with the gas and the first symptoms of poisoning (latent period) is relatively short.
Further exposure leads to chronic poisoning.
And, the warm, oxygen depleted waters in the Gulf of Mexico could make it worse: “ Numerous studies show that the oxygen deficit directly controls the rate of fish metabolism and decreases their resistance to many organic and inorganic poisons,” says Patin.
So, this might not be the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, one of the most signficant oil spills of all time, but a natural gas leak can still be dangerous for the local ecosystem–especially if the leaking well is not swiftly brought under control.
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June 26, 2013 12:05 pm
On the Marcellus shale, water wells within less than a mile of gas drilling sites are more likely to have higher concentrations of methane in them, a new study found, indicating that the drilling could be contaminating groundwater.
The study’s authors did not find traces in the water samples of the fracking chemicals used to extract shale gas, but the presence of methane does indicate that some of the gas is likely leaking out of cracks in the well casing. Nature News reports:
The study, led by researchers at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, expands on an earlier analysis of drinking water in northeastern Pennsylvania, where energy companies have used hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to crack the Marcellus Formation and release gas. In that work, the researchers found that contamination rates increased with proximity to wells.
Their latest analysis, published on 24 June, goes a step further, by tying the chemical fingerprint of the groundwater contaminants to the gas being siphoned out of the ground some 2,000–3,000 metres below.
The team found methane in 115 of 141 sampled wells, which they traced back to shale gas using carbon-isotope ratios. While low levels of methane, as found in this study, do not necessarily represent a health threat, Nature News writes, at higher levels methane in water can lead to problems, including water from the tap becoming flammable.
The authors think the leakage is indicative of faulty well construction rather than fracking itself, and they told Nature News that they hope that their study serves as a wakeup call for the industry to increase its safety and regulation standards.
The Marcellus Formation spans beneath parts of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. While the Marcellus Formation is the largest shale gas basin in the States, more than two dozen other significant deposits are spotted around the States. The U.S. is increasingly counting on shale gas to meet energy needs and is also exploring the possibility of selling the gas abroad.
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March 13, 2013 10:44 am
Found deep underwater in coastal oceans worldwide, a slushy mix of natural gas and water ice is on path to becoming an energy source of future, reports the BBC. Japanese researchers announced that, for the first time, they have managed to successfully extract useful natural gas from the mix, known as a methane clathrate.
Previous work on methane clathrates found on land have been used to produce natural gas, but this is the first time that ocean floor deposits have been tapped. The stores of offshore methane clathrates around Japan, says the BBC, are estimated at around 1.1 trillion cubic metres of the mix, enough to supply “more than a decade of Japan’s gas consumption.” The United States Geological Survey, says The Washington Post, estimates that gas hydrates worldwide “could contain between 10,000 trillion cubic feet to more than 100,000 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.”
Some of that gas will never be accessible at reasonable prices. But if even a fraction of that total can be commercially extracted, that’s an enormous amount. To put this in context, U.S. shale reserves are estimated to contain 827 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Japan says that the technology to usefully produce natural gas from methane clathrates is still around five years off.
Burning natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than burning coal, and replacing coal or other fossil fuels with natural gas is often looked at as a a way to limit global warming. However, fossil fuels are still fossil fuels, and burning this new source of energy could do a wondrous amount of damage. The Washington Post:
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there’s more carbon trapped inside gas hydrates than is contained in all known reserves of fossil fuels.
…Bottom line: It could prove impossible to keep global warming below the goal of 2°C if a significant fraction of this natural gas gets burned.
“Gas hydrates have always been seen as a potentially vast energy source, but the question was, how do we extract gas from under the ocean?” said Ryo Matsumoto, a professor in geology at Meiji University in Tokyo who has led research into Japan’s hydrate deposits. “Now we’ve cleared one big hurdle.”
The other big hurdle is deciding whether this is a path worth following.
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