Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Gland plans

Petroleum kingpin and charming grandpa T. Boone Pickens has a plan. He wants to substitute natural gas for oil in as many sectors of the American economy as possible, and high on the priority list is the U.S. trucking fleet. According to Mr. Pickens, this makes sense. Good economic sense, and good environmental sense.

Not everyone agrees.

"It just doesn't make sense," says Phil Maelipeck, petroleum engineer and director of refining operations at Valero Energy in Houston, TX. Maelipeck does understand that natural gas can replace liquid petroleum in nearly every automotive application, but as for the trucking initiative, according to him, “the numbers aren’t there.”

And while Natalia Raquette, senior scientist with the Sierra Club, concedes that emissions from natural gas combustion are lower than those of every other fossil fuel, according to her the benefits end there. "Natural gas production causes terrible environmental damage. At every stage of production you poison the land, you poison the air, and it’s especially tough on fresh water supplies."

Geoffrey Vanderschpul agrees. He’s a physician by training, who for the last ten years has headed up the mining research group at The Endocrine Disruption Exchange. His team has been studying some of the hundreds of chemicals involved in natural gas mining and processing, and they are as dangerous as they are numerous.“The list is as long as your leg,” Dr. Vanderschpul says. “And they are some of the nastiest and most reactive compounds known to man. They’re injected deep into the earth and mixed right into the water table.”

Is there any alternative?

“Sure,” Dr. Vanderschpul says. “Burn coal.”

Is he serious?

“Not really, but at least taking it out of the ground is straightforward. You send a guy into a hole and he comes back up later carrying a bucket.”

Natural gas is different. The process is complex, it's hazardous, and it's energy costly. Drilling muds used to condition drill bits and carry rock cuttings from the bore-hole contain volatile organic compounds and heavy metals. Pressurized fluids used to displace the gas are equally hazardous. In addition, says Maelipeck, the amount of energy consumed in physically heating a gasfield to facilitate product release is staggering, and there are unavoidable byproducts from continuous operation of massive pieces of diesel-powered mining equipment. Then there is the difficult task of dealing with millions of gallons of waste, most of which is carried by truck to enormous earthen pits, where the chemicals are allowed to slowly outgas. According to Maelipeck, and The Endocrine Disruption Exchange website, each evaporation pit has “the potential to become a superfund site.”

But there are some who are more optimistic, and Aubrey McClendon is one of them. He expresses unequivocal belief in natural gas as the key to American energy independence, and he should know. He’s CEO of Chesapeake Energy, the largest independent producer of natural gas in the United States. Mr. McClendon spoke to the Man-Bunny Matrix at his home in Oklahoma.“Natural gas is the future,” he told reporters, sautéeing frog’s legs on his kitchen’s massive gas range, and apparently unaware that bunnies do not eat frogs. “The most important thing environmentalists can do is to find a way to turn that frown upside down, because gas is not going away.”

But according to Phil Maelipeck, that’s beside the point. Would bringing natural gas online as a transportation fuel help? Yes, but not enough. Not enough to justify the effort, and not to enough to cover the expense. He says, “Diesel consumption amounts to about 15% of overall US petroleum demand. And only a fraction of that goes toward long-haul trucking.” Following what Maelipeck contends is the logic used by McClendon and Pickens, “What I’d like to see are battery powered airplanes. That would be great.” Maelipeck acknowledges that such technology is possibly centuries away, and that commercial airliners account for an even smaller fraction of U.S. petroleum demand, but he insists the battery-powered airliners would be “really great, really neat.”

But Dr. Vanderschpul isn’t smiling. Or even frowning upside down. “This is important,” he says. “The science around this stuff is disgusting, even hideous. We’re seeing enormous increases in endocrine disorders, in birth defects, in multi-organ malignancies that were previously considered rare.”

Dr. Raquette is more direct. “I respect an energy executive’s right to earn a living. But when the pediatrician is cutting out his baby grandson’s ovaries, he’s going to have to wonder if it really all was worth it.”

“Listen,” McClendon says, setting out a steaming casserole and decorating it with parsley. “I’m as concerned as the next guy. We have natural treasures in this country you won’t even find anywhere else, but the Earth is doing fine.” Between bites of frog he adds, “Case in point: in just one afternoon I netted this whole meal myself near one of Chesapeake’s central evaporation pits.” His guests ignore the pile of legs and nibble tentatively at the garnish, and McClendon says, “There’s got to be what, twenty, maybe twenty-five legs in this casserole?”

And what’s so special about that?

“Four frogs. Tops."


un-natural said...

Wonderful post and a much-needed belly laugh. Will be linking from our blog.

One question re this statement:
"In addition, says Maelipeck, the amount of energy consumed in physically heating a gasfield to facilitate product release is staggering."

To the best of my knowledge, that process refers to certain methods of extracting oil, not natural gas.

Old NFO said...

Goooooood one! Thanks for the laugh!

AMAMMAL said...

You are correct. On behalf of the editorial board I can attest that this was poetic license on their part. Rabbits can be sloppy fact-checkers sometimes.