FRACKING Revisited: What lies ahead (or beneath) and the idea of a FRACKING CHALLENGE

Last summer, precisely six month ago, I wrote a blog article on hydraulic fracturing at the height one of the contentious periods between the industry and the public about this issue.  The adversarial relationship between the two groups have not abated since, maybe just dampened for now by the piles of snow on the ground, out of sight and partially out of mind.  This is sure to erupt once again once spring thaw arrives.

Anything good happened in the last 6 months?  Not a thing.  Really!  The same issues remain.  The politics and the drama you can read elsewhere.  The industry continues, bowing to some regulatory pressures in some cases, moratoriums, public discussions, but the business goes on.  Even politicians are divided, some trying to sit on the fence, some seemingly concerned, but wary of the economic repercussions of bringing the industry to a halt.  Both sides have strong convictions and even that is not worth a story line here.

Practically everything humans do, even those done with the best of intentions, carries unintended and often unforeseen consequences.  Even a simple new design for baby cribs get recalled for flaws found only when thousands began using it and accidental deaths occur.  The same happens to new drugs that came into the market, backed with world class research and extensive clinical trials on thousands of patients, only to be withdrawn later because, when millions use it, then other medical problems emerge.  When the spraying of the pesticide, DDT, to kill mosquitoes was banned for the sake of protecting other non-target species from being decimated, millions of Africans died of malaria instead.  Even for the best and noblest of reasons, things happen we never planned for.

a1 cartoon kids talking 300x254 FRACKING Revisited:  What lies ahead (or beneath) and the idea of a FRACKING CHALLENGEI also think that it is an uphill battle for the industry to change public perception that fracking is good for the country and good for the environment at the same time.  Even a billion dollar public relations campaign will not change that. Not that I would want PR executives and lawyers to lose out in this process. Somebody has to spend for the Audis, the Mercedes Benzes, Lear jets and box seats at the Superbowl.  They are part of how our economy flows.

Getting our oil from elsewhere overseas carries an environmental price too.  Do you think it’s OK for some countries to have their aquifers destroyed to extract oil to ship to America, but not OK if ours are damaged?   Does the environmental degradation of the Niger Delta, the deserts of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates or Iraq less important?  There are living things there too besides people.  These organisms may not look so cute or cuddly, but deserve the right to exist.  How about marine life in the Gulf of Mexico and the new gas fields being discovered along the continental shelves and out in the open oceans?  Pollution in China eventually reaches the United States; just takes time to get here.  The same is true that desert storms in Africa bring polluted particles to Europe and beyond.  We live in one Earth, interconnected in so many ways that even pollution is a shared experience for all.  Our Fracking issue is a mirror of what is happening throughout the world and how we deal with this may set the framework on how the rest of world can manage the same issues. 

Human beings are great problem-solving species. That is why we are dominant on Earth. We are also a great problem-making species too—but we have the ability to correct our mistakes.  This Fracking problem is no different.  The Halliburton technology was a ground breaking (pardon the pun) in extracting shale oil.  No one cared about it for decades until when the boom came and thousands of wells start springing up all over the place.  And, just like the crib story, things happen.  Is the contamination problem ubiquitous throughout the industry or is it just a few bad apples spoiling the rest of the bushel?  I can’t say for sure.  Can the technology be improved so that even some bad apples can’t ruin things for the rest of us?  I am sure it can.  This is not rocket science.  We are not curing cancer or growing new hair on balding scalps.  This is engineering, chemistry and geology.  Americans are good at these.  We can certainly make a better mouse trap.  And, we should.

The answer to this problem will not come from tweaking the fracking fluid formula a little or carting them offsite and hoping for the best; and it is not lambasting the industry, yet clamoring for cheap oil and gas at the same time.  The answer lies in collectively finding a better way, another method and an improved ‘out-of-box’ idea that can change the scenario in the years to come.

a1 Fracking Selenium Graphics schematic with pic proppants 265x300 FRACKING Revisited:  What lies ahead (or beneath) and the idea of a FRACKING CHALLENGEYes, there have been some innovations in the past 6 months.  But they are not ground breaking.  They won’t change much how things are done.  Even our work at Poseidon Sciences on developing covalently bound biocides that never leave the ceramic beads (proppants) to keep the fractured shale from clogging with bacterial slime is just part of the incremental step toward eco-safety.  Perhaps the newest idea I have seen from industry is the use of LPG technology (liquid petroleum gas, not propane as one would automatically think, but a mixture of petroleum and natural gas in liquid state) by GASFRAC Energy Services Inc. (Alberta, Canada) instead of the conventional hydraulic fracturing fluid.  The company claims that the new process avoids the contaminations normally associated with fracking fluids since all of the LPG are recovered after the fracture stimulation.  Only time will tell if there might be unintended consequences here too, but certainly it is a step in the right direction, if all goes well.

When it is energy and the environment, time seems to be of the essence.  We don’t always have the luxury to wait.  As I think through these issues tonight, how does one create a ‘crash program’ to solve this issue?  Certainly waiting for the universities to come up with solutions will take time and money too.  To get a grant (assuming there is money appropriated for it) takes at least a year, even if one’s idea is so great and if you are in the right academic environment to get it.   An entrepreneur with a great idea?  Not likely because this project will cost a bundle of personal wealth even to try a simple idea and most entrepreneurs, like yours truly, are always hard up for cash to chase new ideas.  Government?  I think everyone will agree that getting Congress involved is a guarantee of long, bickering rounds of partisanship.  They have to argue about it until they reach consensus and until everyone involved looks great on TV.   By the time it gets voted, if at all, the enthusiasm would have died of old age.  The Industry?  Oil men are great adventurers but hardly guys that do well when put together in the same room, especially if they have to share a single vintage bottle of Bourbon (The standard perception would be: “It works. Why fix when it is not broken—just tweak it a bit and keep the regulators happy.”).  Bill Gates is preoccupied with his obsession with malaria, TB and something else in foreign lands. And Oprah is just way too busy right now.

How to stimulate innovation?

In his State of the Union speech last week, President Obama focused on the need for innovation in America and the need to correct America’s innovation deficit.  With the economy in the toilet right now, we better find a better way to stimulate innovation than the traditional ways it has always been done.   

So, it dawned on me.  (It would have happened earlier if I had that bottle of Bourbon).  We need a FRACKING CHALLENGE.  The same way that my friend, Mike – Dr. Michael A. Champ — has been advocating for A DESALINATION CHALLENGE to develop a low cost, advanced desalination technology to convert seawater into freshwater. Make everyone chip in.  Get Mike to create a combination of Gates Foundation Grand Challenge and a FRACKING X-PRIZE that has an independent, third party judging group with the right expertise to develop the rules, judge the challenge and award cash prizes. 

a1 Fracking X prize graph 300x297 FRACKING Revisited:  What lies ahead (or beneath) and the idea of a FRACKING CHALLENGEI always thought that prizes to stimulate innovation is a modern invention until Mike pointed out that it dated as far back as 1714.  Back then, determining the accurate position of a British ship at sea was indeed a challenge and they needed a practical means of determining longitude.  That year, the British Parliament enacted the famed Longitude Act and offered the highest bounty – a prize equal to a king’s ransom (several million dollars in today’s currency) for a “Practicable and Useful” means of determining longitude.   English clock maker John Harrison, a mechanical genius who pioneered the science of portable precision time keeping, invented a clock that would carry the true time from the home port to any remote part of the world, which was considered the greatest scientific problem of his time in measuring longitude.  Harrison was our first true X-Prize winner in recorded history at least.  I would not be surprised if later archaeologists dig up an Egyptian tablet from 5,000 years ago announcing a competition for best design of an above ground pharaoh’s tomb.

How to do it?  Set up a nonprofit foundation with a board comprising industry, academia, environmental groups and government.  Then ask each company involved in hydraulic fracturing to support the program with 1 % of their gross sales over a 3-year period, complemented with the 100% tax free incentive from the government for that funding.  Considering that the projected market value of shale oil by 2015 is estimated at US $12 billion, this will yield at least US $300 million– $100 million to support promising ideas for validation at Phase I; another $100 for field demonstration of those that have real world practical applications on Phase II; and $100 million for the Prize on Phase III.  Any company that pitches in gets to use the technology royalty-free; the rest that didn’t shall pay a price through the nose to use the technology developed from this Challenge.

$300 million is a lot less than the fracking industry likely spends just paying lawyers and PR companies in a single year.  Seems a lot of bucks, doesn’t it?   This project is definitely not simple or cheap.  But, if you look at it from other perspectives, it surely isn’t that much.  The last Megalotto that I (and other friends) sunk $10 for was worth $375 Million!  I did not win even a buck either, but I was willing to fork over $10 for the infinitesimal chance of winning.

Or, let’s assume the industry, according to environmentalists, is just a bunch of lowly ‘pond scum’; only in it for what they can get out of it (I tend to think not).  Then, how about just $1 contribution from every US resident — citizens, legal aliens, illegal aliens and out-of-this-world aliens?  That’s even less than the price of one bottled water.  Or, for a family of 4, just skip one Starbucks coffee for one day this year!  We can make $300 million without government-industry support.

Or better yet, run the fundraising from a special Megalotto for each of the states affected by fracking.  “Hey. You never know,” as the NY lotto advertising says. 

$1 per person in the US is a cheap price for saving our water resources and keep our own oil and gas flowing, isn’t it?  Buy less foreign oil; Keep our men and women in the military from harms way for the sake of protecting our overseas strategic interests in oil.

How about it?  Anyone up to this FRACKING CHALLENGE?

Jonathan R. Matias

Chief Science Officer

Poseidon Sciences Group

www.poseidonsciences.com

Suggested reading:

http://www.poseidonsciences.com/Covalently_bonded_biocides_selenium_environmentally_friendly_hydraulic_fracturing_Poseidon_Sciences.pdf

http://www.poseidonsciences.com/Selenium_environmentally_friendly_biocides-Hydraulic_Fracturing_Poseidon_Sciences.pdf 

http://gasfrac.com/fracturing_process.aspx

Suggested reading on the use of a prize to stimulate innovation:  

Adler, Jonathan. Editorial on Innovation. Prizes are more effective at spurring innovation than federal subsidies.    http://energy.nationalreview.com/post/?q=YTQwNzY2ZGRhMGM5MGQ0NjdmMTlhNjVjZDdkZTY4NjE=

Congressional Research Service, Deborah D. Stine. 2009. Federally Funded Innovation Inducement Prizes.  CRS 7-5700. www.crs.gov.

Diamandis,  P.H. 2007.  X Prize Foundation.  2007.  Offer a prize if you want innovation. Reno Gazette Journal. www.RGJ.com August 13, 2007. 

Debelak, D.  2007. Winning a Contest Can Catapult Your Invention into the Mainstreamwww.entrepreneur.com

McKinsey & Company. 2009.  And the Winner is…Capturing the Promise of Philanthropic Prizes.  124p. http://www.mckinsey.com/clientservice/socialsector/And_the_winner_is.pdf

The Economist. 2010.  Offering a cash prize to encourage innovation is all the rage. Sometimes it works rather well.  http://www.economist.com/node/16740639?story_id=16740639.

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3 thoughts on “FRACKING Revisited: What lies ahead (or beneath) and the idea of a FRACKING CHALLENGE

  1. You wrote:

    When the spraying of the pesticide, DDT, to kill mosquitoes was banned for the sake of protecting other non-target species from being decimated, millions of Africans died of malaria instead.

    Actually, in the U.S., spraying of DDT to kill mosquitoes was not banned, but not considered necessary since malaria had been controlled by 1939, and eradicated within the next decade, mostly before DDT became available. The ban in the U.S. covered agricultural use — no DDT on cotton.

    Because the ban on DDT covered only the U.S., of course, it affected no one in Africa. EPA’s order on DDT specifically left manufacturing untouched, so the supply of DDT to use against malaria was increased significantly, at least doubled.

    But, by 1965, the World Health Organization’s campaign to eradicate malaria had been frustrated by overuse of DDT by farm organizations in Africa and Asia, which overuse bred DDT-resistant and DDT-immune mosquitoes. The practice was untenable of temporarily knocking down mosquito populations with DDT while treating and eliminating malaria in the local human population.

    However, since the U.S. ban on spraying DDT on cotton crops, malaria deaths worldwide have been cut by more than half. Malaria deaths are now at the lowest rate and lowest total in human history.

    So, it’s dead wrong to claim that millions died because the U.S. stopped spraying DDT on cotton crops. DDT has never been banned for use against malaria, there has never been a shortage of DDT for use anywhere (even today), and the war against malaria continues, though made more difficult by DDT overuse.

    If you wish to imply that fracking is rather like DDT use, then we should act immediately to ban all fracking. Was that your point?

  2. To: Ed Darrell
    Thank you for your comment. The intent of that sentence is to highlight the fact that unintended consequences are part of life and science. I did not mean to suggest that fracking should be stopped and, as you read the rest of the article, the intention is for the process to be improved that would make it both sustainable and ecologically sound. Oil and gas reserves are of strategic value to our country and unless somebody invents something that can practically do away with oil and gas; we just have to get better at how we extract our natural resources.

    On the subject of DDT, I wish to share with you an excerpt from an article published a few days ago that applies to this discussion:

    “For over seventy years, DDT has been a vital insecticide in the battle against disease. Yet it is vilified for largely illegitimate concerns about its impact on the environment and human health. Through a mix of environmental fervor, self-interest, and disregard for evidence-based policy, United Nations (UN) agencies are misleading the public about DDT–mistakenly claiming it is not needed and can be eliminated globally by 2020”
    Roger Bate, Donald Roberts, Richard Tren
    http://www.aei.org/docLib/2011-HPO-01-g.pdf

    Though it is not a worldwide ban, the US, under NAFTA, forced Mexico, the biggest manufacturer of DDT, to stop production. Today, there is only one major manufacturer of DDT—Hindustan Insecticides Limited of India. So, your argument that it is freely available is also incorrect. The anti-DDT movement was successful in preventing the use of DDT, but with limited options to replace it and hoping that other things will come up. Sure, just new, more expensive insecticides later on that also eventually show resistance. But in the span of decades when DDT was not available, that millions died over that time span because there were limited options to bring the mosquito population down low enough cannot be argued. How many really is for the bean counters to come up with. Certainly, malaria declined in the last few years because of the billions of dollars spent on bed nets. But, rest assured, when Bill Gates and the Western governments run out of money or shift focus on even more catastrophic concerns (and there is always one coming up), malaria will surge.

    Malaria eradication can only come when the measures that the US put in effect before DDT can be duplicated in Africa where most of the deaths occur. It is not likely to come for at least another generation. I, myself, am not in favor of insecticides, but it is a necessarily evil that can only be reduced if there are other more sustainable methods of mosquito control in Africa. We are also working this using a fish control method (see first blog entry) and so far look quite promising.

    I certainly appreciate your concerns on this issue because there are many differing views that can also be easily justified scientifically. It creates a healthy discussion and may yield something good along the way.

    Best wishes,
    Jonathan

  3. FRACK fracking.

    there’s a huge supervolcano that hasn’t quite popped in Yellowstone Nat’l Park, eh? now, i have no science degrees, i’m more of a Scientific American/Popular Mechanics kind of person. But wouldn’t it be great if the United States could follow ICELAND in her use of geothermal solutions that are right there?
    I know those who are owned by the Greedy Oil Pigs would simply say that it would not be cost effective — in the way that they lied about my beloved Solar Energy all through the Carter years. But applying modern technology and innovative design thinking to the Yellowstone Supervolcano COULD potentially create a source of energy that would get power and at the same time potentially REDUCE the danger of that volcano erupting — to say little of “creating jobs.” Yeah, it wouldn’t “do itself.”

    This might just be a crackpot notion.

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