natural gas

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

A recent report has linked the disposal of wastewater from fracking to small earthquakes in Texas and other areas, including the Central and Eastern U.S.

“We have had no seismic activity for decades, and then suddenly when [fracking] has been brought in, we start seeing it,” said Andrew Dobbs, Central Texas program director for Texas Campaign for the Environment. “I don’t think this a stretch from the facts.”

Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, uses high-pressured water to release natural gas from underground rocks.

Researchers from the United States Geological Survey, a science organization based in California, conducted the report. They analyzed changes in the rate of earthquake occurrence using USGS databases of earthquakes recorded since 1970. The team found the average number of earthquakes jumped from 21 per year from 1972–2008 to 99 earthquakes per year from 2009–2013.

The largest of a series of earthquakes this year in Texas occurred in the Dallas-Fort Worth area with a 3.3 magnitude. 

“I’m not surprised,” mechanical engineering professor Michael Webber said. “There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that has revealed these earthquakes near the regions of wastewater injection.”

According to the report, the increase in seismicity has been linked to the injection of wastewater, a byproduct of fracking, into disposal wells deep underground. Although fracking is not directly related to the earthquakes seen in affected areas, wastewater injection has been found to be the cause.

Webber, deputy director of the Energy Institute, said the state legislature has been fairly inactive in response to recent earthquakes.

“There is room for the state to take action on it,” Webber said. “It involves finding a way to reduce the wastewater and minimize [its] injection. We need to figure out better locations on where to inject the wastewater.”

According to USGS’s report, evidence from case histories suggests the magnitude of an earthquake tends to increase as the total volume of injected wastewater increases.

“I think it’s a sign to continue [research and development] for other renewable sources, and I feel we shouldn’t be using natural gas as a crutch,” said Jaclyn Kachelmeyer, Campus Environmental Center director.

Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the effects of fracking on the environment. According to a statement on the agency’s website, the EPA is investigating how fracking affects natural water resources but does not yet have an investigation into its link to seismic activity.

Kay Bailey Hutchison, former senator and president of the Texas Exes, spoke at the KBH Center Symposium Friday. The symposium offered an interdisciplinary take on Mexican energy issues, exploring UT’s potential role in drilling opportunities in Mexico.
Photo Credit: Marshall Tidrick | Daily Texan Staff

Former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison spoke at the AT&T Executive Education and Conference Center on Friday during the Kay Bailey Hutchison Center’s Symposium on North American energy security, an event designed to discuss geopolitical issues in North American energy. The symposium was part of UT Energy Week, a conference showcasing emerging research in the energy field. Hutchison discussed about the future of energy technologies and the effects of the energy reforms in Mexico. After the event, Hutchison sat down with The Daily Texan for a Q&A.   

Daily Texan: Where did the idea for the Kay Bailey Hutchison Center come from, and what unique perspective does a multidisciplinary study of the industry with business, law and engineering have to offer, specifically?

Former senator Kay Bailey Hutchison: Honestly, John Beckworth, associate dean of the UT law school, thought of a joint business and law school energy center. I immediately loved it because I have been general counsel of a corporation, and I know so often that the business people do not understand the legal needs to make sure everything in the transaction is right. Conversely, sometimes the lawyers do not understand the needs of the business people to complete a transaction in a timely way so that they do not lose their deal or their customer. So, I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to have a joint center where law students in the energy field would learn about the business side and the business students would understand the legal side. [The Center] also has a particular focus on Latin America and the differences in the laws and legal systems. This could be very helpful for somebody who wants to explore or produce energy in another country. It was a perfect fit, and when they decided to name it after me, I was thrilled. 

DT: How would you gauge the success of the KBH center in achieving the goals that you mentioned?

KBH: Well, we have only been created since last summer, but we have come such a long way in a very short time. I think this inaugural symposium has been a huge success. We have had Mel Martínez, the former senator and cabinet member, and Bob Jordan, the former ambassador from the United States to Saudi Arabia. They have given great insights on international energy. Mel is the chairman of J.P. Morgan Latin America, so he showed us the corporate side. Bob Jordan was insightful because Saudi Arabia is doing so much right now to affect the price of oil globally. He also had some good insights on the new king and the new hierarchy in Saudi Arabia. The symposium has been a wonderful success. The panels have been good, the questions have been good. The audience is really asking questions and that is what you want in a good conference. 

DT: Has the KBH Center participated in the debate regarding the Keystone XL Pipeline?

KBH: I am a total supporter of the Keystone Pipeline, myself, but we have not taken a real position on that. It has been discussed in the symposium, and the [Obama] administration was represented here by an assistant secretary of state. The question has come up: Why would we not have a Keystone pipeline? Many in the room think that it would be an environmentally safer way to transport oil from Canada than the trucks that we are having to build new highways to accommodate. So that has been a real debate here and it has been very relevant.

DT: At a panel earlier this week, during UT’s Energy Week, experts agreed that for some issues, such as energy storage, regulatory agencies have fallen behind in developing regulation. Has the center tackled any of these issues and did you encounter any of these issues as a senator?

KBH: Absolutely. As a senator I encountered the new energy innovations. With solar energy, the biggest problem with using it was that it was so cyclical, and we could not store it. Even natural gas for cars. There has been so much that has emerged just in the last 10 years. I think the regulators are certainly trying to keep up with what is necessary in the regulatory field, but it is a work in progress. 

DT: Could you talk about some specific ways that you helped regulatory agencies catch up?

KBH: Well, for sure, the Kay Bailey Hutchison Center will be able to shed light on what is coming up in regulation in terms of what might be needed, what might not be needed, what would be a better way to regulate. We want to allow for creativity to grow and progress. [We] do not want to stifle creativity by regulating something that is not there yet because it is not ready. There has to be balance to assure that the new kinds of energy, clean energy especially, are not regulated to death before they are able to be useful. For instance, the lack of battery storage for solar panels is a problem. If we allowed battery storage we would be able to run manufacturing plants consistently rather than have to lessen output in peak hours. Battery storage is an area where the federal government is doing more research and it’s very important to develop that. But, we want to make sure that as we do, there are environmental rules that assure that we are doing it safely and in an environmentally friendly way. We want the creativity to emerge so we can start using solar energy more efficiently. The new technologies would apply in other areas as well.

DT: Obama has supported an all-of-the-above policy that supports natural gas as well as nuclear and other forms of energy. So, a lot of different forms of energy are being researched. What energy innovation are you most excited about?

KBH: I think it is essential to make sure that we are getting the oil and gas in an environmentally correct way so that we become energy independent. It is going to make us more competitive globally because our businesses will have lower-cost energy. This is an area where America has led. We creatively produce new ways to get oil and natural gas out of the ground and out of the water. So, I think oil and natural gas is probably the biggest area where we can move forward and truly towards energy independence. Solar power and wind power are also very promising. We do not have the mechanics yet to make it a big percentage of our energy use, but Texas is doing quite a bit in wind, as well as solar, and it is very efficient once it is up and going. If we could get the battery storage, it is going to be a real part of our overall energy independence. I am excited about that, and I am excited about Texas’ role in producing these new options. 

There is also another option — using currents in the oceans and the Gulf of Mexico. [We] can use currents to generate energy for use on land. That is something that is being experimented in the Galveston-Houston Area. The University of Houston is doing work in that area, as well as others.

DT: Today’s symposium has an international focus of stabilizing North America’s energy. What are specific energy initiatives in Mexico by Mexicans, Americans or private actors that you look forward to see implemented?

KBH: The exciting part of energy in Mexico is that they are opening it up. It used to be just PEMEX, the national oil company, that was able to produce oil and gas in Mexico. But President Nieto has certainly made strides in saying, “We want to open it up, we want foreign investment and we want more out of the ground, as well as the Gulf of Mexico.” He is making it happen, and the [Mexican Legislature] is going along with it, and they are in the regulatory stage now. I think the American companies are going to want to be a part of this. They are going to want to work, in some cases, with PEMEX, and, in some cases, independently. [The companies] are going to bid on leases in the northern part of Mexico that would be the continuation of the Eagle Ford find in South Texas that we think continues on in North Mexico. But also, in the Gulf of Mexico, there is a lot of opportunity. American and European countries are bidding and winning in the Gulf of Mexico for drilling in the deep water, but it is very expensive so that may be down the road because the price of oil is so low right now. But, the big question mark out there is safety and the drug cartels. No foreign company is going to want to come in if they are not going to be able to be safe and also be able to do business in a transparent way because we have laws that require that. This large criminal element in the drug cartels is really hurting so much of the tourism in Mexico, most certainly, and in some ways, business as well. 

Natural gas production is harmful to the environment because it contributes to methane emissions from drilling leakage, Colin Leyden, senior manager of State Regulatory & Legislative Affairs for Natural Gas at the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a panel Tuesday for UT Energy Week. 

According to Leyden, the Environmental Defense Fund is in favor of using natural gas as an energy source, but he believes the gas’ methane content is currently a liability. He said this is because it can contribute to global warming and be harmful to the public’s health. 

“There’s quite a bit of leakage of methane in the drilling process and, then, in some of the downstream portions in the pipelines and compressors,” Leyden said.

Unless the amount of methane leakage is 1 percent or less, the benefit of cleaner emissions from natural gas is lost, according to Leyden. The Environmental Defense Fund has participated in studies, some conducted in conjunction with the University, in order to figure out exactly how much methane is lost in drilling.

There has been a prolific increase in natural gas production over the past few years, according to Kevin Howell, chairman of the board of Illinois Power Generating Company. Despite the increase, Howell said economic fluctuation is consistent in the natural gas industry.

“This industry’s just had a history of kind of boom-bust cycles — we’ve been in a bit of a boom cycle here, there’s no doubt in my mind we’ll have a bust cycle again,” Howell said.

Danielle Murray, manager of Solar Energy Services at Austin Energy, said she believes it is important for the natural gas industry to pace its development based on the amount of funding it receives. There is a high risk on the economic side of the industry, because natural gas’s efficiency isn’t as high as energy sources like solar and wind, so its future is uncertain, Murray said. 

Andrew Reimers, mechanical engineering grad student, said he felt the panelists’ wide range of backgrounds enriched the discussion.

“The most important aspect of the panel is that it sort of covered a lot of aspects of the different people involved in that conversation,” said Reimers.

This story was originally written on March 18, 2014.

Lying hidden under the world’s oceans and permafrost may be the world’s next best bet for a source of natural gas, stowed away in the form of frozen crystal lattices of water and methane called methane hydrates. Researchers at UT are currently examining the resource in an attempt to ultimately figure out how best to extract it.

Methane is a natural gas that is already widely used today but only from sources other than methane hydrates. There is currently not a viable strategy for extracting methane from these methane hydrate reservoirs. Researchers at UT hope to make a first step in changing that.

Hugh Daigle, assistant professor in petroleum and geosystems engineering, and graduate student Michael Nole, along with other collaborators, were given a $1.7 million grant on March 14 from the U.S. Department of Energy to explore where these methane structures originate, how long it takes for them to form and the conditions that will be necessary for large-scale acquisition of the gas.

“We can make some estimates of where the methane is coming from,” Daigle said. “But specifically figuring out what the migration pathways are and what dictates the best reservoirs for these things is still a pretty open question.”

Daigle said the team will be developing a 3-D model, formed using data that has already been acquired by other sources, to represent the Walker Ridge area in the Gulf Coast of Mexico, where methane hydrate deposits lie.

Nole, under the supervision of Daigle, has been developing the 3-D model that will be the focus of the research. He has been working on the model for two months and will eventually utilize more advanced computing resources at UT.

“We will compare the results from the model to data [that has been acquired],” Nole said. “This will allow us to understand the importance of various mechanisms by which we believe methane hydrates are being formed,” Nole said.

They will be looking at two theories to help explain where the methane hydrates come from, termed short and long migration. Ann Cook, assistant professor in the School of Earth Sciences at Ohio State University, has been a pioneering voice in developing these theories. Cook said she will be creating a separate model to form data that will be added to Nole and Daigle’s 3-D model.

“In long migration, that’s analogous to how normal oil and gas reservoirs are charged,” Cook said. “In short migration, we’re talking about diffusion of methane from a really local source. The gas is made right there. … It moves literally several meters instead of kilometers.”

David Spence, law and business professor, said at a lecture Thursday that although fracking enables efficient access to natural gas, it also poses several risks to communities.

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a process that involves shooting pressurized water, chemicals and sand into deposits of bedrock — in this case shale — to extract natural gas for use as fuel.

Major risks Spence discussed include water leakage and contamination, higher air pollution levels and an increased potential for earthquakes in the area. Direct impacts on citizens include risks to the local quality of life, such as noise, local emissions and general road issues.

Spence said shale gas burns more cleanly than both oil and coal, causing the environmental benefits to outweigh the risks. In less than a decade, Spence said, shale gas has notably affected the fuel industry, reaching the commercial transportation sector in an extremely accelerated span of time.

“Shale gas production has revolutionized the energy industry,” Spence said. “We were importing almost 60 percent of our fuel in the 1970s, and thanks to recent innovations, prices have plunged, and the U.S. is able to now export some of its unused coal.”

Spence’s outlining of the potential arguments against fracking was apolitical and touched upon topics ranging from environmental to socioeconomic impacts.

Carson Stones, a master’s candidate at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, said Spence’s lecture draws students of all majors. 

“We come from all disciplines,” Stones said. “You can’t be an engineer or a businessman and expect to solve all the problems yourself.”

The U.S. is the leading producer of shale gas, and Texas has access to some of the cheapest natural gas in the U.S., according to Spence. 

“If prices stay cheap, [shale gas] could displace coal altogether and permeate into the private fuel industry, introducing new jobs to communities,” Spence said.

Varun Rai — assistant professor at the LBJ School and instructor of the UT Energy Symposium course, which organized the lecture — said he has high hopes for the program in the future.

“What’s interesting about shale gas fracking in particular is the sheer speed of its impact,” Rai said. 

Geology researchers at the University discovered that an Arkansas shale oil reserve will continue to be one of the country’s most prevalent sources of natural gas through 2050.

The Fayetteville Shale contains nearly 38 trillion cubic feet of gas, according to the study. Shale oil is extracted from fine grained sediment rock. The reserve produces approximately 1 trillion cubic feet per year. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. uses 23 trillion cubic feet of this resource each year.

“When you get into the scale of the amount of energy it takes to keep the country going, it is mind boggling,” said Eric Potter, an associate director in the Bureau of Economic Geology’s energy division. “On a cold day in Denver, it takes up to 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas to keep everyone warm.”

Potter and research associate Svetlana Ikonnikova both analyze the drilling private sector and helped determine the different technological approaches. Potter said the point of the study was to see the potential in the current techniques, and what the future holds for shale oil in Fayetteville, Ark., and across the country.

Natural gas supplies nearly one-fourth of all the energy in the U.S., and its consumption will increase 11 percent by 2030, according to the American Gas Association.

“Shale oil is very important,” Ikonnikova said. “Electricity is continuing to rely on natural gas, and how cheap it is really influences the industrial sector.”

According to the American Gas Association, natural gas is the cleanest and most efficient fossil fuel. Potter said it burns much cleaner than coal, and therefore is a better choice for the environment and atmosphere.

Sarah Seraj, civil engineering senior and president of Engineers for a Sustainable World, said natural gas doesn’t necessarily have a bad reputation among her organization. 

“Natural gas is not the worst option, but there is much room for improvement,” Seraj said. “The United States is studying renewable resources, which is good. Many places in Europe are 25 percent dependent on wind and solar power.”

According to Ikonnikova, natural gas is aiding society in multiple ways.

“Like any resource, there will be pluses and minuses for the environment,” Ikonnikova said. “But natural gas is helping the industry become more inventive.”

The UT Center for Electromechanics, a center which specializes in energy storage and power-generating machines, is expected to receive $4.3 million from the U.S. Department of Energy to further research usage of natural gas to power cars and trucks.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is housed in the U.S. Department of Energy and promotes research on innovative energy, will grant UT funds to develop a natural gas refueling station. UT researchers said the station will compress natural gas with a single piston in homes as opposed to a four-piston compressor, which is inefficient. If successful, this compressor will be fed by the same natural gas line that powers stoves and heaters in homes. In addition, the compressor can also be used to fill cars with natural gas, which is more efficient than gasoline.

Michael Lewis, senior engineering scientist at the UT Center for Electromechanics, said there is a pre-existing four-piston compressor system, but it is bulky and expensive.

“We will be researching to improve its efficiency and decreasing its cost,” Lewis said. “It can run off of power from a normal wall outlet and it is lightweight enough for a homeowner to install.”

Lewis said there are many beneficial aspects for a car to run off of natural gas, such as reducing dependency on foreign oil. Since there are many natural gas reserves on U.S. soil, this conversion can potentially lead to a vast number of jobs, and is also a cleaner source of energy than oil, he said. The Department of Energy will allocate $30 million to a total of 13 research projects across the nation involving natural gas. Texas A&M University is the only other school in Texas receiving funds from the department, and will receive $3 million.

Ray Zowarka, who is also a scientist at the Center for Electromechanics, said enabling a car to run off natural gas instead of gasoline is a fairly simple task. In the future, car dealers will be able to sell cars that have already been developed to run on natural gas.

“This is about a two-and-a-half year effort,” Zowarka said. “We have come up with a new way to build the compressor. We will start researching the ability to build this unit for less cost and less weight.”

Petroleum engineering sophomore William Martin said he is impressed with UT’s interest in pursuing cleaner and more efficient sources of energy.

“I like that people are beginning to have multiple options when it comes to the cars they drive,” Martin said. “We already have hybrids and we are continuing to expand our options.”

There is no direct link between fracking and contamination of groundwater, according to preliminary results of a study by UT’s Energy Institute.

Hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, involves shooting high-pressure water mixed with sand and other chemicals into shale rock causing it to shatter and release natural gas. Though fracking has been used for decades, environmentalists have recently become concerned the process may be polluting ground water, said Charles Groat, geology professor and Energy Institute associate director and project leader.

Research began in May to separate fact from fiction, Groat said. He said the Barnett, Marcellus and Haynesville shales, areas which range from Northeast Texas to the Northeast U.S., have been scientifically tested.

“The basic thing we found out was that the subject so many are concerned about is not actually happening,” Groat said.

Reports of groundwater contamination are rare, Groat said, and when they occur, fracking is not to blame. Rather, above-ground leaks, the mishandling of waste water and poor casing or cement jobs could be causing the contamination.

“If you spill something or something leaks, those are things you have to pay attention to,” Groat said. “Those are problems with anything, though, and not specific to shale fracking.”

This study covers a six-month period and Groat said much more research is needed to find the long-term, cumulative effects and risks of fracking. His study will continue for the remainder of 2011, but he said he recommends an additional baseline study be implemented to learn more about long-term effects.

“Things go on in and around the surface that we need to pay attention to,” Groat said. “Accidents happen, but being educated can prevent them.”

For the remainder of the study, Groat and his team will interview residents of fracking areas, review popular media concerns of fracking and make suggestions on government regulations of the method.

Electrical engineering freshman Shawn Bhalla said he will feel more comfortable about fracking when more research is done.

“I still think there needs to be more safety precautions set in place,” Bhalla said. “I think we will be able to frack with more efficiency [after more research is done.]”

Electrical engineering junior Leonardo Gomide said this study proves how much scientists still need to learn.

“This really shows how little we know about what we are doing to the environment and how quickly things change in the engineering field,” Gomide said.

Printed on Thursday, November 10, 2011 as: Energy Institute research disproves harmful effects of fracking

Laura Huffman from The Nature Conservancy listens to Kyle Sawyer of the El Paso Corporation speak during a panel discussion on the use of natural gas and hydrocarbon production at the AT&T Conference Center, Wednesday afternoon.

Photo Credit: Lawrence Peart | Daily Texan Staff

Switching to natural gas — which Texas produces more of than any other state — could result in an annual reduction of 30 million tons of carbon dioxide, said an industry expert Wednesday.

UT faculty, students and industry professionals attended a forum regarding natural gas use in Texas and non-traditional natural gas production. The discussion, hosted by the Webber Energy Group, the UT Energy Institute and the UT Energy Management and Innovation Center featured industry experts who spoke about the benefits, risks and opportunities presented by natural gas use.

Laura Huffman, executive director of the Nature Conservancy, said when deciding whether to use natural gas over other forms of energy, there are five environmental impacts to take into consideration. Huffman said the cost of energy must be considered as well as the reliability and the impact on the air, land and water.

Fred Beach, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy and the Webber Energy Group, said the switching of power generation to natural gas in Texas is one way to make a positive impact on the environment.

Beach presented his case study on the use of natural gas in power, transportation and residential sectors. The study focused on natural gas use in Texas because it is the largest state in gas production, consumption, infrastructure and knowledge, Beach said.

“If we can’t envision the increased use of natural gas in Texas, it can’t be done anywhere,” Beach said.

Roman Alvarez, senior scientist of the environmental defense fund, said not all environmental impacts of natural gas usage are positive. Alvarez discussed the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which breaks down a rock layer in order to release natural gas for extraction, and the air pollution that is caused by this process.

“Unfortunately, in a rush to harness natural gas resources, the industry’s practices have led many to question whether the public health implications and environmental trade-offs that have been increasing domestic gas production are too steep,” Alvarez said. “I spend most of my time looking at air pollution that occurs from leaks, venting and combustion that occurs all along in the natural gas chain.”

Chip Groat, associate director for the University Energy Institute, said during the forum that unconventional production of natural gas as opposed to the production of natural gas through petroleum formation, which causes fracking, can relieve some of the concerns associated with natural gas usage.

Groat discussed several factors that can affect the outlook of natural resources, specifically natural gas.

“The future projections of economics can influence whether the energy industry or companies are willing to invest in these resources,” Groat said. “Also, if there are any environmental concerns, real or imagined, that can cause people to have second thoughts about attacking some of these resources.”

Printed on Thursday, October 20th, 2011 as: Forum focuses on natural gas impacts

ZANESVILLE, Ohio — Job prospects in Cory May’s native eastern Ohio were grim — even for a hard-working Marine reservist willing to work hard or relocate.

“It’s either that or working minimum wage for the rest of your life, and let’s be honest, who really wants to do that?” said May, a 23-year-old who’s done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The natural gas industry has changed his prospects.

Vast stores of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shales running under Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia have set off a rush to grab leases and secure permits to drill using the extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

May took a two-week, 80-hour shale exploration certification course developed by the private company Retrain America at his local community college, Zane State. When he graduated, he’d interviewed for three jobs and taken a position cementing wells for Halliburton that will pay $60,000 to $70,000 a year.

Through a 3-year, $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor five communities colleges in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York formed ShaleNET, which recruits, trains and places people in natural gas occupations.

“As natural gas continues to expand, so do the needs for a local workforce with these skills that are going to be in need for the next 50 years, or even more,” said Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, representing energy and exploration companies.

Penn College of Technology, a member of ShaleNET, is offering classes in electronics, diesel technology or state-of-the-art welding, said Jeff Lorson, director of the college’s shale-related jobs center.

“We’re fortunate that in a lot of these cases these programs are full and with waiting lists,” Lorson said.

History suggests that such booms ultimately make the rich richer and leave the working class about as it was. A 2008 academic analysis of Census data after the 1848 California Gold Rush found “economic outcomes were generally small or even zero for miners but were positive and large for non-miners.”

Chuck Wyrostock, outreach organizer for the Sierra Club of West Virginia’s natural gas campaign, said the economic benefits of the shale boom may be similarly short-lived.
“There is some danger in young people getting trained in the area, when maybe five or ten years from now other factors will keep them from taking advantage of it any further,” he said.

The Penn State study anticipated shale-related jobs would be available for 30 to 50 years, but that many workers would have to migrate over time, following the drilling rigs as they move from place to place. Many of the early jobs in Pennsylvania have been landed by out-of-state professionals, especially from energy-rich Texas, and that has concerned labor groups.

Printed on Monday, October 17, 2011 as: Natural gas industry offers employment, degree opportunities