A professor and engineer at New York’s prestigious Cornell University has called Statoil’s shale gas in the US “totally absurd.” Professor Anthony Ingraffea can’t understand why Norway, a small country already rich in energy resources, should resort to the highly controversial method of hydraulic fracturing.
The process, also known as “fracking,” is one of the most controversial environmental issues in the US at present, not least because it’s put local groundwater supplies at risk of contamination in areas where the drilling through rock is carried out. Newspaper Dagsavisen reported that Ingraffea thinks Statoil’s investments in shale projects in the US is “absurd” because Norway already has its conventional offshore resources of oil and gas, alternative energy sources form water, wind and wave power and a global reputation for environmental awareness.
Yet Statoil is involved in shale gas projects in the mountains of Appalachia, in North Dakota and Texas, and in Australia. Statoil’s involvement in oil/tar sands projects in Alberta, Canada also have stirred controversy both at home and abroad.
Shale gas is natural gas formed from being trapped within sedimentary rock formations called shale, often lying more than a mile below ground. The extraction process relies on huge volumes of chemicals being poured into the rocks to release gas trapped between the layers. It can affect the environment through the leaking of extraction chemicals and waste into water supplies, and also through release of greenhouse gas, particularly methane, during extraction, along with the pollution caused by the processing and use of natural gas.
‘100 times’ the amount of chemicals
Ingraffea, himself an engineer with 25 years of experience of the oil and gas industry, has been giving talks around the world about the geological risks of fracking and his attention turned to Norway last week.
“Why do you want to do something like this?” he asks rhetorically. He wants people to understand that fracking is different from any form of excavation that has ever been carried out in Norway, at sea or on land. The environmental effects are, he claims, enormous.
He points to how shale gas excavation uses “100 times the amount of chemicals” used in ordinary excavation, and produces “100 times the amount of waste.” It is also more expensive, and only becomes cost-effective if a large number of wells are drilled together, so that you end up “having a rig every half-a-kilometre in every direction.”
Professor Ingraffea was voted one of Time magazine’s “People Who Mattered” last year, along with a colleague at Cornell, ecologist Robert Howarth. Howarth produced one of the most controversial scientific studies of last year: A paper arguing that natural gas produced by fracking may actually have a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than coal. That study, strenuously opposed by the gas industry and many of Howarth’s fellow scientists, undercut shale gas’s major claim as a clean fuel.
‘Fear of the unknown’
Statoil predictably defends its shale gas excavation in both the US and Australia. It describes shale as a “key growth area that increases our long-term reserve base” and describes how large resources of shale gas across the globe “promise to supply cleaner fuel to growing global energy markets for decades to come.”
Torstein Hole, who leads Statoil’s land-based operations in the US, confirms that they drill between six and 10 wells in each of the three plays (group of oil fields) they are excavating there. He concedes there is debate in Norway around the environmental effects of the “shale gas revolution,” but that in his experience, people’s “fear of the unknown” diminishes once they are in possession of the facts.
Ola Morten Aanestad, information director for Statoil, claims no harmful chemicals are being released into the environment. “The point is that it is a closed system… water is re-inserted, re-circulated or treated by some other recognized method” he says.
Aanestad himself questions Ingraffea’s claims about the amount of chemicals used in extraction, but can only provide rather vague estimates from Statoil. “Our own people say that 20 million litres of chemicals (the amount Ingraffea says to be usual for extraction) is enough for between 160 to 1,050 of the land-based wells we drill in the US, not one” he told news bureau NTB.
Views and News from Norway/Elizabeth Lindsay
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