Just days after the US Environmental Protection Agency issued its long-awaited fracking report, Stanford University announced that it would undertake a comprehensive research effort aimed at resolving several areas of concern in the natural gas industry. However, part of the aim is to grow the global market for natural gas, which doesn’t seems seem like a particularly sustainable way to address the core issues raised in the EPA fracking report.
Stanford’s Natural Gas Initiative
The press release focuses on one issue in particular, that being fugitive emissions or methane leaks. A Stanford research team is already at work on developing faster, cheaper, and more effective ways to detect methane leaks from natural gas fields, using a combination of infrared imaging (for now by helicopter, but we’re guessing drones in the future) and software that can recognize plumes.
That’s all well and good, but fugitive emissions are a problem all up and down the natural gas supply chain, including the nation’s aging network of local distribution pipes in cities. We’ll be waiting to see how NGI proposes to tackle that end of the problem.
In the meantime, NGI’s other leadoff areas of focus should set off some red flags. One of the new research initiatives will support the lobby for increasing US exports of natural gas to Europe and Asia. Natural gas exports are a huge issue for communities that will host the brunt of new transportation, storage, and processing facilities. No word yet on what research NGI is planning in that regard.
Another initiative involves using electrochemical processes to convert natural gas into higher-value products. The press release references methane to replace gasoline and diesel, and we’re guessing that the research could also lead to better, cheaper methods of converting natural gas to plastics.
That would be a great help to ExxonMobil, for one. As of last year, the company was doubling down on its shale gas assets, probably with an eye to supplying its new gas-to-plastics facility in Baytown, Texas.
It’s also worth noting that an MIT study last year pointed out that replacing diesel with methane will do more harm than good, greenhouse gas-wise, because modern diesel engines are “relatively clean.”
As for replacing gasoline with methane, we’re all for CNG (compressed natural gas) and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, but only when you’re talking about biogas and other renewable sources. Otherwise, given the swift rise of battery-electric vehicles, it looks like consumers are voting with their feet when it comes to replacing gasoline with another fossil fuel.
Where were we? Oh, right. A fourth NGI initiative has to do with ensuring that existing fields are tapped out to the maximum possible, which suggests that the end result would be more drilling.
To round out the group, another team at NGI is researching alternative, low-impact fracking fluids. We’re putting that in the all-well-and-good category, since it doesn’t address the intrusion of methane into formerly methane-free water supplies, and it doesn’t address the earthquake issue.
Reducing the toxicity of fracking chemicals also doesn’t address radon contamination, as identified by a Johns Hopkins report earlier this year.
Anyways, you get the idea. Judging from this first group if research efforts, NGI is putting the cart before the horse. The focus is on getting more drills into the ground, before the industry resolves its issues.
About That EPA Fracking Report
That brings us to the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) fracking report. To some observers the report seemed like a love-letter to the natural gas industry, but we’re sticking to our guns and calling it a cry for help — or better yet, a call for Congress to do its job and close a gaping loophole in federal water safety protections.
Last week, National Public Radio teased a statement out of EPA clarifying that the fracking report is a “state of the science” report, not a policymaking guide (just like we said, right?). Here’s the money quote from EPA:
EPA set out to conduct a national study to determine whether there was potential for impacts to drinking water resources from hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas, and if so, to identify the drivers for those impacts. EPA did just that: this state-of-the-science draft assessment identifies specific instances where hydraulic fracturing activities have impacted drinking water resources, and most importantly, highlights key vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.
Whenever NGI gets around to announcing research initiatives that address those vulnerabilities, or that support the lobby for eliminating fracking loopholes from federal law, we’ll keep you posted.
The New Natural Gas Initiative: News Dump 101
Not for nothing, but NGI was formed earlier this year and just held its first symposium back on April 6. Its major issues and aims were outlined in a press release about the symposium.
However, Stanford waited until last Friday, June 12 to issue the general press release describing NGI and its natural gas industry goals. If that sounds like a between-semesters Friday news dump to you, join the club.
The core mission of NGI is to grow a sector of the fossil fuel industry, and that has already prompted some backlash on campus. An April op-ed in the Stanford Daily alluded to the fossil industry-related funding stream that supports NGI:
…They are pulling their support for climate deniers and painting themselves as responsible energy leaders developing cost-effective solutions for the coming decades. The Stanford Gas Initiative fits perfectly within that strategy.
The organization Fossil Free Stanford also called out Stanford and NGI back in February, for this:
The latest addition to the Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing (APIR-L) Environmental Subcommittee, replacing an economist who studies climate impacts, is Professor Mark Zoback. Dr. Zoback is the Director of the Stanford Natural Gas Initiative, and Senior Advisor at Baker Hughes, one of the world’s largest oilfield services companies.
Last year Stanford announced that it would divest from coal, and in January 300 professors at the university signed a letter urging withdrawal from oil and gas, too. We’re guessing that most of them had probably cleared out of campus on break by June 12.
Image Credit (screenshot): Courtesy of US EPA.