Counting the Sins of Chinese SynGas

Heavy water use, threats of tainted groundwater, and artificial earthquakes are but a sampling of the environmental side effects that have tarnished North America’s recent boom in natural gas production via hydraulic fracturing or fracking. No surprise then that in European countries such as the U.K. that are looking to frack for cheap domestic gas, the environmental protesters often arrive ahead of the drill rigs.

But countries seeking fresh gas supplies could do far worse than fracking. So say Duke University researchers who, in today’s issue of the research journal Nature Climate Change, shine a jaundiced spotlight on China’s plans to synthesize natural gas from coal. Nine synthetic gas plants recently approved by Beijing would increase the annual demand for water in the country’s arid northern regions by over 180 million metric tons, the Duke team concluded, while emissions of carbon dioxide would entirely wipe out the climate-cooling impact of China’s massive wind and solar power installations. Continue reading “Counting the Sins of Chinese SynGas”

Ohio State Gets a Bead on Cleaner Coal

OSU cleaner coalOhio State University claims to have reached a milestone towards proving a radical new take on oxyfuel power generation that could push down the cost of zeroing out coal’s large and growing carbon footprint. Project director Liang-Shih Fan, director of OSU’s Clean Coal Research Laboratory, revealed recently that their reactor had operated for 203 continuous hours last fall and captured 99 percent of the resulting CO2.

Their run is the longest to date for a “chemical looping” reactor consuming coal, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and in Fan’s view it means the technology is ready for testing at pilot scale.

OSU’s chemical looping reactor (the centerpiece for a $7.1 million ARPA-E project that began in 2010) is so named because it circulates its components in a continuous loop in a manner that controls the interaction of pulverized coal and oxygen to prevent ignition of the coal. “We carefully control the chemical reaction so that the coal never burns—it is consumed chemically, and the carbon dioxide is entirely contained inside the reactor,” says Fan. Continue reading “Ohio State Gets a Bead on Cleaner Coal”

The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy

France 24 Energy in 2013 DebateThe Arctic is melting faster than predicted. Is now the time to shut down the low-carbon nuclear power plants in France — the 20th Century’s staunchest proponent of nuclear energy? Is natural gas produced via hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ a gift that is buying time for a transition to renewable energy or a curse that reinforces fossil fuel dependence? Will carbon belching heavyweights such as the U.S. and China ever get serious about cleaning up their energy systems?

Such questions are top order in France, whose President kicked off a Grand Débat on energy this month Continue reading “The Debate: Fracking and the Future of Energy”

How Canada Should Return Obama’s Oil Pipeline Punt

Late last week President Barack Obama deferred consideration of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, designed to ship Alberta petroleum to the Gulf Coast, until after next year’s U.S. elections. Obama’s move immediately sparked vows in Canada to redirect crude exports to Asian markets less angst-ridden by the environmental impacts associated with tapping Alberta’s tough, tarry petroleum. A smarter strategy would be to reduce those impacts, starting with the black mark that brought Keystone XL to national attention: oil sands crude’s bloated carbon footprint. Continue reading “How Canada Should Return Obama’s Oil Pipeline Punt”

Is Gas Fracking Inducing Earthquakes?

India’s Koyna Dam: The textbook case for induced seismicity

Fracking for natural gas, whereby gas-trapping rock formations are blasted open with high-pressure water and chemicals, has prompted serious concerns over the safety of groundwater supplies. But another risk is gaining profile: the potential for inducing nerve-rattling microseismicity or, potentially, unleashing a quake of truly destructive magnitude. Like the magnitude-5.6 quake that rocked Oklahoma last weekend.

As I documented for Spectrum magazine this spring, human activity can and does induce earthquakes. Continue reading “Is Gas Fracking Inducing Earthquakes?”

BP Under Pressure to Tighten Spill Cap

How is one to bridge the gap between BP’s latest oil collection stats and visual reality?

The oil and gas giant claims to be sucking crude straight off its stricken mile-deep wellhead and pouring it into the drillship Enterprise at a rate of 11,000 barrels per day, thanks to a cap and tube installed on Friday. And, yet, video feeds from ROVs present a plume of oil and gas that looks as angry as ever, gushing plenty more black goop destined for dispersal into the Gulf of Mexico’s already beleaguered  ecosystems.

“Clearly alot of people are looking at it and trying to understand what does this mean,” acknowledged BP senior vp/exploration Kent Wells of the top-rated video images during in a media briefing this afternoon. Continue reading “BP Under Pressure to Tighten Spill Cap”

BP Installs Crude Containment Scheme #4

BP is capturing oil at a rate of 1,000 barrels-per-day via its latest containment scheme — a cap and new riser installed on its gushing Gulf spill last night — according to Federal response coordinator and Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen. But video feeds confirm that far more crude is still spilling into the sea from under the cap — at least 11,000 barrels per day if one subtracts 1,000 bpd from the minimum flow estimate of the Deepwater Horizon spill released by a federal task force last week.

BP Americas chief operating officer Doug Suttles told a media briefing this morning that the cap (BP containment scheme #4 by Carbon-Nation’s count) could ultimately capture over 90% of the leak. Suttles and his company have proved unreasonably optimistic before, and could be once again. Continue reading “BP Installs Crude Containment Scheme #4”