Thursday, March 21, 2013

Help Crowd Source The High Cost Of Cheap Gas

Camera Technician Francois gets up close and personal with the huge skies of the Karoo Desert of South Africa while on a shoot for the High Cost Of Cheap Gas film project.

I have been working now for almost two weeks to crowd-source funding for the new film The High Cost Of Cheap Gas.  We are only 13% funded with nearly half the funding time elapsed.  We are looking for conscientious companies, NGOs and individuals to assist in raising the rest of the money.  Please send this along to your networks and freinds who may be able to help.  This is the fist time I am working through my network  to raise money like this, so its been a good learning experience, but it would be great if we could reach our funding goal as well!
Click Here or cut and paste this link far and wide:
Jeffrey Barbee EX: Johannesburg

So what is Fracking?

The High Cost Of Cheap Gas
by Jeffrey Barbee
1 of a series of articles about Natural Gas Development in Southern Africa
Accompanying Photographs Available

As natural gas production fans out from America to the United Kingdom, Poland, and now South Africa, real questions remain about it’s long-term benefits and long-term effects.  The latest research suggests that operations like fracking, drilling and producing natural gas are  much more damaging than previously thought, both to the people around the sites and the environment which supports them.  Mis-information campaigns and a lack of clear knowledge about the process have made it hard for people to understand what the real problems with this development are. Scientists and communities are starting to wonder whether the current price of gas covers the damage that the extraction of it will cost in the long term.

What is Gas Production?

Natural gas production in shale formations consists of essentially three stages.  Drilling is done with huge rigs like the ones used to drill oil wells.  The rig drills many wells from one pad,  as close as a few meters away, using directional drilling techniques to fan out the wells like an octopus from the drill pad as much as ten kilometers away in any direction horizontally.  Companies like Shell say they have been drilling and hydraulic fracturing safely for sixty years, but this is misrepresenting the facts.  Horizontal drilling is new and only came into industrial use about twenty years ago in Texas and Colorado.

Once the drilling is complete, the rig is taken away and service trucks bring millions of liters of water, sand and chemicals to the site where they are mixed and injected under great pressure in  a process called hydraulic fracturing, also called hydrofracturing or simply fracking.  At roughly two thousand to four thousand meters deep, past where the drill hole becomes horizontal, the pipes have holes where this extreme pressure drives the fluid into the shale and cracks it, releasing the methane gas and other chemicals.

Once the wells from the pad have been fracked, some 20-80% of the millions of liters of polluted water mixed with fracking fluids return up the well shaft to the surface where the toxic liquid must be disposed of, often in settling ponds next to the drill pad where the liquids and volatile compounds can evaporate into the air.  The rest of the mixture remains in the well, the silica sand propping open the cracks and the chemicals slowly leaching away into the ground or coming up with the methane and dirty water.

For the 8 to 20 year life of the well, trucks must take away this polluted waste mixture that emerges with the gas. The waste can be 50% of everything coming up the well, mostly volatile organic compounds mixed with polluted water and the remains of the fracking chemicals.

The potential problems with this process are not just relegated to the fracking of the well, as many believe, but every aspect of production, from drilling to final well closure.  The most clear danger is when fracking fluids and trapped gas leak out of the sides of the well shaft into the water table though cracked well casings.  Dr. Van Tonder, a geohydrologist from the University of the Free State explains that when they frack the wells so close to one another, the small earthquakes caused by the fracking  the cement well casings crack. The deep water and trapped gas will migrate up through these cracks and into the drinking water aquifer he says. “In 50 to 100 years, all the wells will leak, this is a given”.

Surface Pollution

The fracking chemicals are mixed on the surface and stored in large ponds that must be very carefully insulated from leakage, which is sometimes not done.  American energy analyst Randy Udall says, “We dont have a clear idea, is this water really being safely handled? and clearly in some circumstances, it is not.”  Udall has studied the gas industry in western Colorado’s Garfield Country for fifteen years and believes that there is not sufficient environmental oversight to guarantee that companies are not polluting. 

The ponds next to drill sites also evaporate off large amounts of chemicals into the air, and researchers believe this also extremely dangerous.   Dr. Theo Colborn, a medical doctor who founded the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, recently completed a study about the chemicals used in natural gas production.  Of the 353 identified chemicals, 25% cause cancer, 45% affect the brain and nervous system as well as the immune system and heart, and 37% of them affect the endocrine system.  As alarming as this may be, it seems it is the endocrine disruptors that should have everyone very worried.  This class of chemical causes severe physical and mental disorders and interferes with fetal development in the womb. It can also harm the very genome that we pass along to our unborn children, harming generations of offspring both in humans and animals around drilling sites.

Once the well is drilled, fracked and in production it can still be invisibly polluting.  A new study from Cornell Univeristy in the USA has found that during production as much as 9% of the methane and compounds like benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylenes may leak out of the wells.  This seriously besmirches the green pedigree of natural gas, and according to the study’s author, makes it even more of a danger to global warming than using coal for power generation.

One of the more misunderstood dangers from natural gas development is the simple arithmetic behind the development of a well. For many wells where water must be trucked to the drilling site, it takes as many as 2000 truck visits to frack a well.  In South Africa Shell plans to develop ten wells on one drill pad and fifty pads to a development.  So one pad can take 20,000 large truck visits, and the entire development? Thats one million large heavy vehicles using public roads and releasing tons of diesel smoke that contains arsenic, benzene, and other pollutants over a ten year period.

Raymond Claasens is a Khoi San farmer in the Klein Karoo near Barrydale and he is concerned about the unseen dangers of shale gas drilling: “So it can bring in a lot of jobs, a lot of money, but what about the land? what about the environment we depend upon? As I see it, it is going to bite us back if we do this”.

In rural areas where wells are being fracked, large amounts of diesel smoke containing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like these mix and react with sunlight, creating ground-level ozone.  In Wyoming the US Environmental Protection Agency says natural gas expansion has pushed ground level ozone readings to four times the federal limit and has given the industry three years to correct the problem.

The latest science coming out of the gas fields of America seems to bring into question many of the industry’s activities and much of their research that suggests this is a benign and green answer to coal or oil usage.  Since many of the effects of natural gas development are only felt decades in the future, it is telling that only after ten years does the peer reviewed science emerging from the large scale developments in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming show serious side effects to natural gas drilling. 

Award-winning journalist and film maker Jeffrey Barbee is working on a project about natural gas development around the world. Right now he is crowd sourcing funding for a film about fracking the Karoo desert. 

EX Jeffrey Barbee, Johannesburg
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