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Shale Gas: The Dark Knight in Shining Armor?

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With crude oil prices in the country reaching stratospheric levels, (it was a whopping $ 92.17 per barrel , at the time of writing) the recent shale gas discovery is being touted as the much-needed breakthrough. On January 27, 2011, Oil & Natural Gas Corp (ONGC) announced that it had hit upon a shale gas source at Icchapur, near Durgapur, in West Bengal, at depths of 1700 m below the ground. With a view to consolidating its position in the energy market, the company now plans to explore the shale reserves of Cambay, Kaveri-Godavari, Cauvery and Assam-Arakan Basins.

The shale gas, found in pore spaces and fractures of the shale rock, is extracted by a process known as Hydraulic fracturing or simply “fracking”. It involves injection of pressurized water (hence the term hydraulic), containing sand and chemicals into rock formations to fracture it, creating perforations for the efficient release of the gas. The sand, due to its granular nature, serves to keep the cracks open, while the mixture of chemicals takes the liquid to places, inside the cracked rocks, where the water cannot reach.

shale Gas

This discovery of indigenous gas resources can lead to seismic shifts in the global political scenario. As India gradually becomes self-reliant in the energy sector, it will signal the end of India’s perpetual dependence on Iran, Saudi Arabia and the other oil-producing countries for crude oil and natural gas (according to IAGS, it currently imports approximately 70% of its oil from Gulf countries).

In addition to that, it will obviate the need of investing billions of dollars in overseas oilfields; also India’s frantic search for potential oil suppliers can finally end. On the domestic front, shale gas boom could produce thousands of jobs, as seen in US, where, according to Energy Tomorrow, natural gas production in the Marcellus (Appalachian Basin) added 57,000 new jobs in 2009 itself. However, one needs an almost Panglossian optimism to believe that shale gas can be the answer to our country’s domestic energy-related demands.

Apart from the extraction technology itself being complicated and expensive, the amount of shale gas present should be enough so as to make the venture economically viable. In other words, shale rock formations should be spread over extensive areas. But that is just the tip of the iceberg, as far as shale gas extraction problems are concerned.

Hydraulic fracturing process can lead to substantial groundwater contamination on account of the various chemicals used in the drilling fluid (the fluid can seep into water tables if leaks are present in the casings). While it is still unclear as to what chemicals are being used by the ONGC in its drilling fluid, but diesel fuel (which contains benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene, and naphthalene) is the substance normally used along with other substances like methanol, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol. Among these, benzene is a human carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) while an exposure to toluene can cause brain, liver and kidney damage.

Moreover, after fracking, the fracturing fluid (containing toxic substances), has to be pumped out; the fluid returns to the surface from where it is pumped to a holding pond, which in turn creates the problem of toxic waste water disposal.

It has also been reported that at places in Louisiana, US, at the site of Shell’s shale operations, wells gave off such copious amounts of methane that people in nearby houses had to be evacuated, as methane, apart from being a highly combustible gas, can cause death by asphyxiation.

Contaminated groundwater, toxic waste water, methane gas pollution – constitutes every environmentalist’s worst nightmare – a nightmare which, in the absence of assurances from the oil-companies and the government, may very well turn into reality, if the potential hazards of the extraction process continue to be ignored.

  1. Altaf Rahman says

    Oh Yes !! I almost forgot another area of development which can reduce our dependence on oil imports.

    Efficient management of available machines and roads.

    In Coal fired Power Plants, West has gone past the “Super Critical” stage and now installin “Ultra Super critical” Plants. Conventional coal fired powr plants convert only 30% of the energy in coal to electricity and Supercritical plants convert upto 38%. Where as Ultra Supercritical plants convert 45% energy of coal to electricity. That means we reduce coal consumption by almost 33% which reflects in costs and profits. (Still technology is far away for us)

    Proper maintenance of machines (be it industrial plants or vehicles) will increase efficiency and reduce consumption of oil which can reduce our dependence.

    The most important negligence is in roads. Specially in traffic junctions of every city, town. Compared to developed world, our traffic snarls are too ugly. If we regulate traffic in a systematci way, we can increase efficient utilization of available roads by 25%. Traffic police can maintain strict rows to reduce congestions. With increased flow of traffic, with reduced application of brakes, higher efficiency of engines, the consumption can be reduced by 10-20%. I have seen the traffic flows in developed countries and India. The difference is indifference of traffic police.

    If the above two (maintenance of machines and regulate traffic) are maintained our oil consumption of 3 million barrels can be reduced by 10% to 2.7 million. Our imports can come down from 2 million to 1.7 million (15% reduction).

    The rest can be managed by new sources and technology which you and me mentioned above……..)

    Just my two paisa.

  2. Altaf Rahman says

    @ Neogi,

    I did not mean to reject any of your statements or even negetive about the theory. Let me tell you when I did my Engg back in 85, my project was on Non Conventional energy sources. However I developed this pessimistic view looking at the pace of development.

    I was only saying that if we take present facts (availability of resources and time required to develop new sources like shale gas and new technologies like nuclear and renewabl eenergy) it is a long term planning for which we dont even have a basis for projections (except may be for wind energy)

    Lets take neuclear energy and compare it to coal thermal. After we burn coal, we can simply throw the clinker and ash anywhere including infront of our houses, no problem. But with Uranium and Thorium, we can not reprocess (the technology is not there yet) can not store (requires ultra deep underground space) At the moment the whole world is just piling on the used neuclear fuel. I am not even touching the subject of expensive power source as it is not the subject of debate.

    Lets take renewable sources. The present solar power is so expensive only govts can buy solar power at more than 7 rupees per unit (just to encourage more units but no economic benifit). Wind power is so unreliable, we dont get same power from 2 wind towers side by side in a given day or even same tower can not produce same power every hr. It depends on wind flows. So it requires massive storage facilities the cost of which is almost equal to the tower itself.

    Basically what I mean to say is any source other than coal, oil and gas can only suppliment our needs, they can not be alternatives (atlest in next 50 yrs)

    People come up with more alternate sources for Arab oil and gas like bio fuels (bio diesel from veg oils and bioethanol from sugarcane and corn) Only they come close to replacing about 10-20% of present consumption.

    Another source is Pyrolisis oil (converting any organic matter-wood, paper, agro waste, to oil) Though it is interesting, it is still expensive unless the unit is big.

    Ocean thermal energy, utilizing geysers are fancy source available in few countries only in selective locations.

    The reality is though we dont like we have to depend on coal, oil and gas for some considerable time. And in these fields, India has manageable mining quantities of coal (we are now touching the limit and start importing coal too). In oil and gas, our imports will only increase.

    The most we can do is reduce dependence on imports from present 70% to lets say 50% with intensive exploration, drilling, pumping. (I am doubtful even for this as our govt has no spine in clearing projects at such fast pace). So the misery still continues.

  3. Altaf Rahman says

    A nice article @ Neogi,

    Our basket of energy sources has a new item in it. However I beg to difer in that it will lead to India attaining self sufficiency in energy sector.

    We have to note that the steps involved in “finding a source” to actual extraction” in quantity terms is too much.

    First they find a source. Then they come up with estimated reserves. The quantity shrinks when it comes to proven sources. It will further go down when it comes to extractable reserves. e.g. The KG Basin gas find is a 10 TCF (Trillion Cubic Feet gas). The extractable quantity is only 1 or 2 TCF.

    I want to address your sentence saying that “As India gradually becomes self-reliant in the energy sector, it will signal the end of India’s perpetual dependence on ……..”.

    I feel India will never be self sufficient. The present facts. India consumes 3 million barrels of crude a day. More than 2 million are imported. Consumption growth is 10% while output growth nil (except for Rajasthan crude bringing some relief) Same way India consumes 275 MMSCD (Million metric standard cubic meters) of gas. Production is 150 MMSCD including KG Basin gas of 60. Here please note that at the rate of production KG Basin will be dry in 15 years. To feed unstopable thirst of India (due to economy growth of 8%) we need more and more oil & gas which can not be met by domestic sources. We need to import more and buy O&G blocks agressively. Even if we hit jackpot like KG Basic again, it will take 6-8 years for professional companies like RIL to bring it to surface and 15 to 50 years for ONGC. (ONGC found gas in KG Basin onshore in 80s but it never was serious to extract anything even now)

    Also what little I know of Shale gas is not encouraging. We dont only pump pressurised water to release the gas. We need to pump high temp steam to push the gas. So the energy required to push the gas is too high to be economical (unless it is a vast field) I am not saying that Shale gas idea is a failure. We are at a point where we just found shale gas. We dont know the quantities, economics.

    I would like to inform you of a new source of energy which is causing excitement in energy sectors is “Gas Hydrates in deep sea”. The estimated reserves of the source is 50,000 times more than the entire gas, oil sources found till now.
    Let me give you interesting facts about this source. As every one knows, oil and gas are formed by organic material buried for millions of years and due to pressure and heat get converted to coal, oil and gas.

    Same way the dead animals of the sea since dawn of earth once they die, settle on bottom of sea bed. The decomposing organic matter converts to methane gas but due to the enormous pressure of water on it, it can not be in the form of gas but it combines with water to form crystals. All the oceans of the world have wide spread gas hydrates on sea bed. Each liter volume of such ice contains more than 150 liters of methane gas. The present technology can not bring it to surface. Once pressure is released on the crystal it expands so fast to 150 times that the crystal will explode. We need technology to work in deep sea to suck out crystals, bring them to surface in pressurized systems.

    I am sure by the time the world reserves of oil and gas are spent out, the technology will bring gas hydrates to surface and we can live peacefully for anotehr 50,000 years.

    Right now we have to depend on imports for 70% of Oil and 50% gas, 80% coking coal. No way out.

    I feel ocassionally we need articles on brick and mortar industry like steel, oil & gas, cement, infrastructure, cap goods to give diversity to trak readers.

    Just my two paisa :)

    1. Sriparna N. says

      To say that “India will never be self sufficient” in the energy sector, is a bit fatalistic, don’t you think?

      Shale gas may not be the answer, but you are wholly ignoring two other major sources of power – if we leave the fossil fuels (viz. oil, gas and coal) out of the equation (since India is dependent on its import and we are talking about India’s self-sufficiency here), then we are mainly left with Nuclear energy and Renewable energy.

      Let us take Nuclear energy first. India may be Uranium-deficient, but it has Thorium reserves of about 290,000 metric tons – the second largest in the world [Source: Ecoworld.com]. Moreover, the government has formulated a detailed approach on the civil nuclear strategy – as evinced by its nuclear deals, expansion plans, negotiations for the import of nuclear reactors, etc. As of 2010, the nuclear power reactors generate 4.7 gigawatts from 18 reactors across the country — this accounts for about 3% of the total electricity generation in India. By about 2035, it will be roughly 10%, says Mr. Srikumar Banerjee, head of India’s Atomic Energy Commission [Source: Nature.com]. While nuclear energy poses its own set of challenges, and a lot of hurdles need to be passed before India actually achieves that target, but with the present government going out on a limb to ensure that civil nuclear power strategy is effectively implemented, I think we can definitely hope that nuclear energy becomes the ultimate power source that experts think it can be.

      Coming to renewable energy – this is such a huge topic, that I don’t think I’ll be able to do it justice now (I’m a bit hard-pressed for time), but let’s just say, the prospects are bright.

      As far as Shale Gas is concerned, I never said India’s quest for shale gas extraction will be a bed of, say, tulips? (Roses are so passé.) But, jokes apart, I did state in the 5th paragraph, that this technology is “complicated and expensive”, and “the amount of shale gas present should be enough so as to make the venture economically viable”. But the costs are likely to decrease with time.

      I did read about the “Gas Hydrates in deep sea” – seriously cool stuff. Thanks for the info!

      As for diversity in content of this blog, I’ll see what I can do about it… :)

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