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Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future

September 17th, 2013
snake-oil-front-cover-268Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future
A guest book review by Dirk Campbell

In this timely, well-written and (mercifully) short book, Heinberg assembles the facts about shale oil and gas exploitation, debunks the myths and presents us with a new modified peak oil scenario that includes the ‘low hanging fruit’ component to our resource predicament as first outlined by Chris Martenson in the Crash Course. The analysis shows that humans always exploit the easiest resources first, whether it’s slow-moving land mammals, metals or fossil fuels, and that when these are used up we move on to the next easiest. So far so much common sense. What’s different about the present period in human history is that because the oil boom of the last 150 years has enabled us to increase our population 7-fold and use up resources at a dizzying rate, there are no new resources to discover. Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is being quite blatantly touted by industry and governments as the next new source of easy oil, which it is not. The EROEI (energy return on energy invested) from fracking is on average a zero sum equation, in other words the energy produced from fracking is the same as the energy that has to be put in to get it. This makes no sense economically, and is the main reason why UK banks and private investors are steering clear of the fracking industry. In the USA it has been a different story because shale rock formations are much more abundant and accessible than in the UK and there has been, at least temporarily, a profitable investment to be made. But Heinberg points out that this is a Wall Street-driven bubble exactly like the sub-prime mortgage disaster of 2008 and that everyone involved is likely to lose their shirt – apart from the investment banks of course, who benefit both on the way up and on the way down.
The book is divided up into sections introduced by choice quotes such as this from Robert Smith, operations geologist: ‘Eventually, horizontal drilling is suspended because operators reach a point where they are just burning cash.’ Each section deals with a particular aspect of the fracking business – economics, environmental impact, energy reality (Chris Martenson’s three E’s) – and catalogues the false promises and false data that are issued by the industry and by government, whose hope is that the promises and data are true, because we need to keep the show on the road at least until the next election. Some of the fracking myths are plausible, for example the claim that natural gas produces 50% less CO2 than coal. True – when you burn it. But if you add up all the greenhouse gas consumption involved in shale gas extraction, plus the methane that leaks from well heads and faulty casings, you get a higher global warming impact than coal.Some commentators claim that fracking has only affected aquifers with toxic chemical seepage in a small minority of cases, and that as the technology improves, these problems will no longer happen. Heinberg makes the trenchant point that all well casings will leak eventually because of cement shrinkage and seismic activity, whether it be in one year or five, or twenty. Each well is a slow-release poison capsule and it’s only a matter of time as to when the benzene, radium, hydrochloric acid, hydroxyethyl cellulose, isopropanol, aluminium phosphate, sodium carbonate and a list of other unpleasant chemicals as long as your arm will end up in the drinking water. For a certainty the fracking companies responsible will be long gone by that time. Most of them probably out of business when the shale bubble bursts in a few years.

Heinberg ends the book with a plea for investment in renewables as the only sensible or indeed feasible energy future. Some might say – the only chance for a future at all, if we are not to completely trash our planet in return for a quick buck. Certainly the amount of hydrocarbon in the earth is enough to fry the planet many times over, if we were to extract all of it. One small benefit of the book to me is that the word ‘shill’, as in ‘industry shill’, is now a useful addition to my vocabulary. ‘A shill, also known as a plant or a stooge … typically refers to someone who purposely gives onlookers the impression that they are an enthusiastic independent customer of a seller (or marketer of ideas) for whom they are secretly working.’ Thanks again Wikipedia.

And thank you Dirk! If you are wondering whether there are any shills in Britain have a look here.

3 Responses to “Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future”

  1. I’m so amazed that those frackers cannot see this logic. I suppose that money makes them blind to actual facts. Zero sum means zero sum!

    • There are two reasons why fracking is going ahead in the UK at present. One, Lord Browne (chairman of Cuadrilla) is chief non-executive adviser to government on business, and has pushed through Osborne’s tax incentive. Browne will make a mint out of fracking. Two, government will support fracking because it appears to be the best way of keeping the show on the road for the short term at least. All our industries are designed to run on oil, gas, coal or nuclear, and to adapt them to renewables is too unpopular and expensive a decision politically for any government to make.

  2. Basically we are addicts desperate to keep our fix coming, but we’ve got to get off fossil fuels – easier said than done – but it is doable – The Centre for Alternative Technology have developed a realistic plan to transition to a Zero Carbon Britain Investment in energy conservation measures is crucial as well as investment in renewables.

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