Frac, Baby, Frac . . .

Drilling rig
Creative Commons License photo credit: eMaringolo

As I’ve blogged before, technology has played an important role in keeping Wealth Alchemist at bay.  I recently came across this study–The Shale Gas Shock (pdf)–that thoroughly vets the pros and cons of this new hydraulic fracturing technology being used to squeeze natural gas out of shale rock.

Put simply, this technology essentially dispells any notion that the “peak production” of fossil fuels is just over the horizon.  And it’s no surprise that independent, wildcatters, not large, state-owned oil companies, are the ones responsible for this remarkable new technology.  As long as the US continues to protect private property rights and the pursuit of profit (no guarantees there), then technology will continue to push back the Wealth Alchemists.

The study, while 36 pages, is remarkable easy to scan through and I encourage everyone to do so . . . it’s worth the trip.  From the study’s introduction:

Shale gas is proving to be an abundant new source of energy in the United States. Because it is globally ubiquitous and can probably be produced both cheaply and close to major markets, it promises to stabilise and lower gas prices relative to oil prices. This could happen even if, in investment terms, a speculative bubble may have formed in the rush to drill for shale gas in North America. Abundant and low-cost shale gas probably will – where politics allows – cause gas to take or defend market share from coal, nuclear and renewables in the electricity generating market, and from oil in the transport market, over coming decades. It will also keep the price of nitrogen fertiliser low and hence keep food prices down, other things being equal.

None the less, shale gas faces a formidable host of enemies in the coal, nuclear, renewable and environmental industries – all keen, it seems, to strangle it at birth, especially in Europe. It undoubtedly carries environmental risks, which may be exploited to generate sufficient public concern to prevent its expansion in much of western Europe and parts of North America, even though the evidence suggests that these hazards are much smaller than in competing industries.

Elsewhere, though, increased production of shale gas looks inevitable. A surge in gas production and use may prove to be both the cheapest and most effective way to hasten the decarbonisation of the world economy, given the cost and land requirements of most renewables.

Can Technology Keep Wealth Alchemists at Bay?

Wealth Alchemists have done a lot of damage to our economy by encouraging consumption over the accumulation of wealth.  Fortunately, technological shocks have given a needed shot in the arm in favor of wealth.  Today we can produce more goods and services using fewer workers and fewer inputs than in the past.  Thanks to advances in technology, we are able to support increases in consumption and wealth.  Two recent articles caught my eye that beautifully illustrate this process.

The first article isn’t really beautiful, it actually stinks–literally.  It deals with a new process to deal with garbage.  According to the Economist magazine, atomising trash eliminates the need to dump it and generates useful power too.

DISPOSING of household rubbish is not, at first glance, a task that looks amenable to high-tech solutions. But Hilburn Hillestad of Geoplasma, a firm based in Atlanta, Georgia, begs to differ. Burying trash—the usual way of disposing of the stuff—is old-fashioned and polluting. Instead, Geoplasma, part of a conglomerate called the Jacoby Group, proposes to tear it into its constituent atoms with electricity. It is clean. It is modern. And, what is more, it might even be profitable.

For years, some particularly toxic types of waste, such as the sludge from oil refineries, have been destroyed with artificial lightning from electric plasma torches—devices that heat matter to a temperature higher than that of the sun’s surface. Until recently this has been an expensive process, costing as much as $2,000 per tonne of waste, according to SRL Plasma, an Australian firm that has manufactured torches for 13 of the roughly two dozen plants around the world that work this way.

Now, though, costs are coming down. Moreover, it has occurred to people such as Dr Hillestad that the process could be used to generate power as well as consuming it. Appropriately tweaked, the destruction of organic materials (including paper and plastics) by plasma torches produces a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen called syngas. That, in turn, can be burned to generate electricity. Add in the value of the tipping fees that do not have to be paid if rubbish is simply vaporised, plus the fact that energy prices in general are rising, and plasma torches start to look like a plausible alternative to burial.

The second article deals with the application I recently discussed in terms of natural gas–hydraulic fracturing technology–being applied to oil fields in the U.S.  It turns out this technology is working out better than expected and is opening vast new oil fields according to Yahoo News:

A new drilling technique is opening up vast fields of previously out-of-reach oil in the western United States, helping reverse a two-decade decline in domestic production of crude.

Companies are investing billions of dollars to get at oil deposits scattered across North Dakota, Colorado, Texas and California. By 2015, oil executives and analysts say, the new fields could yield as much as 2 million barrels of oil a day — more than the entire Gulf of Mexico produces now.

This new drilling is expected to raise U.S. production by at least 20 percent over the next five years. And within 10 years, it could help reduce oil imports by more than half, advancing a goal that has long eluded policymakers.

Wow, so in the near future we may be creating new power from our trash and reducing our dependency on Middle Eastern oil . . . take that Wealth Alchemists.