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into the market, backed with world class research and extensive clinical trials on thousands of patients, only to be withdrawn later because, when millions use it, then other medical problems emerge.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.

I 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.

Yes, 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. 

I 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

Suggested reading:

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.

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

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

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

McKinsey & Company. 2009.  And the Winner is…Capturing the Promise of Philanthropic Prizes.  124p.

The Economist. 2010.  Offering a cash prize to encourage innovation is all the rage. Sometimes it works rather well.

Of mice and men: The ecological disasters–Deepwater Horizon and the Dust Bowl

The best laid schemes of mice and men

Go often askew

And leave us nothing but grief and pain,

For promised joy

From the Scots poem by Robert Burns, 1785, To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with a Plough

For almost two decades, there has never been a spill of any sizeable magnitude in the United States.  The Exxon Valdez disaster, a heart-wrenching event way back, passed on as another historical trivia for many our younger generation.  The “Battle of the Rigs,” as I call it, during the ‘safe no-spill years,’ was not as much about oil spills, but about the eye sore that oil rigs represented near shore.  Taking the train a few weeks ago from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara brought that aesthetic concern to a more personal level.  For the very first time I gazed on the miles and miles of oil rigs dotting the Pacific horizon, against the beautiful backdrop of the ocean and the California beaches.  The environmentalists lost that battle against the expedient necessity of supplying our country’s insatiable need for oil.  And, I supposed people just got used to looking at it, the same way that a bunch of oil tankers and cargo vessels anchored out in the horizon barely get a second look.  

The prospect of oil spills was so remote during this “safe period” that the industry magazine Spill Science & Technology Bulletin, edited by my friend, Michael Champ, closed down because of not enough readership.  Also, during this period of ‘tranquility’, much of the research and development associated with oil spill response technology winded down.  Hardly any research was conducted on oil spill in general, let alone in deep ocean, even as companies ramp up to build deeper subsea oil exploration platforms.  There was either so much confidence on newfangled technologies or everyone just became so complacent because the memory of Exxon Valdez was so far into the “ancient period,” as my daughters would call those years before they were born.  (They have also a second, even worse, category called the “dinosaur years”—anytime before 1970).    Given that twenty years is quite ancient for politicians and corporate executives too and without any disasters in recent memory, there was simply no room for the “what if scenarios” of a disaster.

Even as I was writing an article early this year for Asia Pacific Coatings Journal on our subsea testing of marine coatings, oil spill was farthest from my mind.  Ironically, I wrote my concern about the Deepwater Horizon, not of any potential for an oil spill disaster of this magnitude, but on corrosion damage that may arise over the years from fouling by living things in the deep that attach to the pipelines.  The article went into print soon after the Gulf of Mexico (GoM) disaster.   Now, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion yanked America back to a new reality, debunking the myth of the super safe oil platforms.   With this event, comes re-introduction of old terms (tarball, tarmats) and of new ones, to me at least (top kill, dispersants, risers, containment domes)– an array of new terms to learn before those too  pass on as another historical footnote to join the list of earth’s man-made ecological disasters. 

Surprisingly, the BP oil spill does not rank as the worst man-made ecological disasters in the United States, at least for now, although last week it surpassed the volume of the Ixtoc I Oil Spill of 1979 in the GoM.  The all-time winner so far was the ecological disaster called the Dust Bowl of 1930-1940.  Often called the Dirty Thirties, this was the period when over 500,000 Americans were left homeless and when 2.5 million Americans took the painful exodus from their homes, away from the Plains States of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and Colorado.   Compared to this, the BP oil spill seemed like a walk in the park.  The Dust Bowl was triggered by extensive farming practices in the absence of crop rotations to prevent erosion.  Combined with the start of a decade long drought, the virgin topsoil, deeply plowed by farmers for years, killed the natural grasses that held moisture.  Over 100 million acres of top soil dried up, creating dust storms that blackened the skies all the way to New York City.  Farmlands became unproductive wastelands and herds of cattle died in the fallow field.  Foreclosures followed, then hunger and famine, diseases; untold thousands likely died indirectly.  And, to make matters even worse, the Great Depression of the ‘30s sealed the fate of millions of people within that unfortunate decade.   It was all because of poor knowledge about best farming practices, lax government regulations, and unbridled greed to take as much out of the land as possible, using new mechanized technologies of agriculture.  Sounds like a familiar story, a typical recipe for all the usual disasters waiting to happen.

How did the government come to the rescue?  It was slow at first.  It was just an unbelievable event in America’s Bible Belt, almost an act of God, punishing sinners for a life badly lived.  But, common sense followed.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt started reforms quickly.  The government began buying up cattle in designated emergency counties; those unfit for consumption were destroyed.  Those that were fit went to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation that then supplied the meat to poor families affected by the disaster and by the Great Depression.  The cattle buying program helped scores of cattle owners avoid the foreclosures on their grazing lands.  Roosevelt ordered the planting of 200 million trees, from the Canadian to the Mexican border, as wind breakers and to hold the soil to the ground.  The government made the important step of educating the farmers on new methods of crop rotation, soil conservation, anti-erosion and terracing methods.  And, farmers were paid for every acre they were able to conserve.  This gargantuan effort by the 8th year reduced the dust bowl by 65%, just in time for the new rainfall that followed to lift the region back to productivity.

Just 80 years later, United States’ next biggest man-made disaster unfolded with all the same drama. Like the Dust Bowl, there was little planning for the ‘what if’ scenario in the Deepwater Horizon incident.  There have been a couple of major offshore oil platform spills in the US:  Santa Barbara, California (January, 1969), and the Ixtoc I Oil Spill (June, 1979) in the Gulf of Mexico.  Both were in relatively shallow water.  The Ixtoc I exploratory well disaster (at 160 ft depth) was an oil spill that lasted until March, 1980.  It was recognized as the second largest oil spill and the largest accidental marine spill in history until this 4th July when it was surpassed by Deepwater Horizon.  Robert Campbell’s June 14th chronicle of what went wrong is more accurate and more comprehensive than what I can hope to give here (see link below).  And when one compares this with the Dust Bowl, all the basic ingredients of a disaster were there in Deepwater Horizon, if one looks retrospectively as an armchair observer.  The Internet and the news media are replete with stories of who is to blame, how it happened, who is affected, what is being done to solve the issue, what animals are dying, the people suffering, businesses lost, bad weather, and the usual doom and gloom of any disastrous event in our modern times.

At least the Dust Bowl was an inspiration to two great novels by John Steinbeck, one of which won the Pulitzer Prize and both became great classic movies—Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men.  I am sure after the tarballs have gone away the Deepwater Horizon will spawn some novels, although I am doubtful of great movies will come out of it.

What is there left to say?

I asked this question because everything bad has been said and hardly anything good to mention.  In Steinbeck’s novels, the disaster of his time was the backdrop to illustrate the triumph of the human spirit.  Maybe, this is the one remaining item never mentioned in the unrelenting daily coverage of the BP Oil spill drama.  And this also applies to all of the other disasters that have confronted mankind, from floods, earthquakes, landslides, wars, hurricanes and tidal waves.  We always overcome.  Short of a 10-mile wide asteroid hitting earth, mankind will make it.  We always do and we always will because, as a species, we are resilient and inventive. 

But, we have short collective memories; so little appreciation of our past mistakes.  We invent.  We create new ideas.  Our creativity oftentimes goes too far ahead of common sense.  The exhilaration of inventing and breaking new grounds do not always come hand in hand with caution. 

This oil spill will be just a bump in the road of history.  When the oil spill is collected, dispersed and degraded, we will simply write a few novels, a few action and dramatic movies, millions of pages of scientific papers and reams of new regulations.  And, after the fines have been levied, after someone goes to jail, companies get renamed  and new politicians get elected, life moves onward, heading to the next disaster, whose early warnings anticipated by a few and ignored by the many and for which we will again be thoroughly unprepared for.

But that’s us.  That’s how we are as a species.

Despite the hardships and heartaches of this current disaster, we can always have the consolation that we are survivors, that we will overcome and we will continue. And mother Earth re-adjusts.

What’s in a name?

I can’t seem to leave this topic on a banal historical note and on an idealistic, philosophical tone.  It needs something else, a little irreverence perhaps.  So, I began thinking about the name of oil rigs.  Not that I know many, actually I know of only two—Ixtoc I and Deepwater Horizon.  I can never find the origins of Ixtoc.  One website mentions it as a Mayan god protecting the harvest of maize.  In his June 15th blog, Robert Paterson cleverly juxtaposed Ixtoc to come up with Toxic.  Uncanny, but seems appropriate. 

Non-English names, especially Mayan, are definitely more exotic.  It is never easy to create the same a sense of “exoticness” with English words.  But, I thought Deepwater Horizon is sexy.   It seemed to give a deeper, mysteriously hopeful, adventurous meaning.   Deepwater Horizon, I thought would have been great name, not for an ugly oil rig, but for a submarine or an ocean going research vessel or even one of those great sailing ships.  I would have wanted to name my first, if ever, yacht like that, if I thought of it sooner.  Now, Deepwater Horizon just reminds me of another science horror movie made in 1997—Event Horizon—the story of spaceship entering the boundary of spacetime at the edge of a black hole.  In that movie, all the astronauts went mad and started murdering each other.  Seems like a good analogy for the political wrangling within the current drama of the oil spill.

Unfortunately, Deepwater Horizon will go down in history the way of Ixtox I to mean nothing more than another name for a disaster; such a waste of a sexy name.  When I chose my company name, Poseidon Sciences, most people don’t recognize it as the mighty Greek god of the seas (renamed by the Romans as Neptune), but the cruise ship that overturned after getting in the way of a monstrous rogue wave.  The only good thing is that it was only a movie—Poseidon Adventure— and not a true man-made disaster.

Jonathan R. Matias

Poseidon Sciences

New York, July 7, 2010

Robert Campbell, Reuters (June 14 2010) Special Report:  Deep water spills and short attention span.

The poem, To a Mouse, by Robert Burns.