The Weekend Wonk: David Hughes on the Shale Boom

November 3, 2013

I spoke saturday at the Conference on Michigan’s Future in beautiful northwest Michigan.

One of the most compelling presentations of the day came from David Hughes, a 32 year veteran of the Canadian Geological Survey, who has doggedly pursued the myth of the “100 year supply of cheap natural gas” promised by the natural gas fracking industry.

His report “Drill Baby Drill’ was published by the Post Carbon Institute.

The U.S. is a mature exploration and development province for oil and gas. New technologies of large scale, multistage, hydraulic fracturing of horizontal wells have allowed previously inaccessible shale gas and tight oil to reverse the long-standing decline of U.S. oil and gas production. This production growth is important and has provided some breathing room. Nevertheless, the projections by pundits and some government agencies that these technologies can provide endless growth heralding a new era of “energy independence,” in which the U.S. will become a substantial net exporter of energy, are entirely unwarranted based on the fundamentals. At the end of the day, fossil fuels are finite and these exuberant forecasts will prove to be extremely difficult or impossible to achieve.



38 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: David Hughes on the Shale Boom”

  1. Sir Charles Says:

    Economic facts of shale gas and oil by financial expert Deborah Rogers: How to lose one’s shirt at $4.54 per barrel

    • andrewfez Says:

      Everybody jumped in all at once and crashed the price of gas. Wait until the price comes back up, then we’ll probably have another round of fracking.

      However bituminous material has a greater affinity for CO2 than does methane, so a set of these wells could be good for pumping captured CO2 back into the ground. In fact, some frackers buy CO2 (not air or coal-plant captured, but taken from underground), and pump it down into the ground to encourage the oil/gas to come to the surface. It’s just that they recapture the pumped CO2 to reuse for the next well.

      States could force frackers to pump CO2 for storage, after they’ve got their product, but right now they’re having trouble even forcing them to follow the laws already established (they’re illegally hydrofracking coal deposits, calling it ‘water enhancement’ in a particular state, and so on).

      • andrewfez Says:

        *bituminous material has a higher affinity for CO2 than it does for methane.

      • We are going through a crazy period as decaying infrastructures struggle to maintain their last breath. Tar sands depleting natural gas and water while spewing 3x co2. Fracking contaminating water while giving a last fix to fossil fuel junkies. The situation is similar to the oil boom in Santa Barbara decades ago, that left wells all over the town. Booms are notoriously transient and uncontrolled.

  2. MorinMoss Says:

    This is one of the reasons why I believe new coal plants will still be built in the USA.
    If Hughes is only 1/2 right the fracking boom will go bust in a few years and low-carbon energy can’t be ramped up fast enough.

    So it’s either restart some of the old nasties or build new cleaner ones.

    • And about that time, the new Vogtle and Summer reactors will be going on-line, providing a useful contrast between energy models.  We’ll have lost a number of years of planning and construction, though.

  3. Breaking news:

    (CNN) — Four top environmental scientists raised the stakes Sunday in their fight to reverse climate change and save the planet.

    Climate and energy scientists James Hansen, Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel and Tom Wigley have released an open letter calling on world leaders to support development of safer nuclear power systems.

    Wait — pro-nuclear environmentalists? Isn’t that an oxymoron? Apparently, not so much anymore.

    Embracing nuclear is the only way, the scientists believe, to reverse the looming threat of climate change which they blame on fossil fuels. Depending who you ask, they’re either abandoning — or leading — traditional environmentalists who for a half-century have rejected clean-burning nuclear power as too expensive or too dangerous. Opponents cite disasters at Fukushima, Chernobyl and Three Mile island.

    The fear is that time is running out. Without nuclear, the scientists believe global energy consumption will overtake the planet’s ability to reverse the buildup of carbon dioxide pollution from burning oil, coal and other fossil fuels. At risk, said Hansen, are disintegrating polar ice sheets and rising sea levels which will threaten coastal regions.

    The letter is among the scientists’ strongest public statements backing nuclear power. It also comes as CNN plans to air “Pandora’s Promise,” a documentary about environmentalists and longtime nuclear opponents who’ve done complete 180s on nukes.

    By releasing the letter, the scientists are “putting their reputations on the line to do something that the ultra-greens regard as treason,” said Stanford University Nobel-winning physicist Burton Richter.

    More at the article URL.

    • MorinMoss Says:

      Hansen has been pro-nuclear for a long time; James Lovelock, too.
      George Monbiot, whose book Heat calls for a 90% carbon cut by 2030, switched to being pro-nukes sometime last year.

      So we have “ultra-greens” now? What particular shade is that?

      A point I was going to make on the Geoengineering post is that just switching to low-carbon isn’t enough – the faster we make the switch, the faster we need to remove some of the CO2 that’s already there.

      Once we get away from emissions that have components with strong cooling effects, the full impact of global warming is going to hit us – and it won’t be pretty.

      How much greenery will it take to get us back down around 300ppm?

      • So we have “ultra-greens” now? What particular shade is that?

        Not Viridian, that’s for sure.  (Hmmm, I wonder where my Viridian tee got to?)

        Once we get away from emissions that have components with strong cooling effects, the full impact of global warming is going to hit us – and it won’t be pretty.

        There is a lot of elemental sulfur lying around.  If we need to make aerosols to replace other aerosols, I think we can manage.  Or maybe we can substitute things like brine, hauled up in the air and electrostatically atomized to get the right droplet properties.  If we need .5°C of cooling in the short term, a bit of salt fallout is one of the least worrisome byproducts we could produce.

        How much greenery will it take to get us back down around 300ppm?

        Well, by a quick calculation, there’s about 5.3*10^15 tons of air.  100 ppm by mass is 530 billion tons of CO2.  Figure a ton of wood represents a ton of CO2, that’s a whopping lot of poplar trees.

        The Keeling curve has an annual wiggle of about 6 ppm, eyeballing the graph.  That represents carbon cycling in the biosphere, and the slope during the summer is strongly negative.  If we could catch a substantial amount of the fixed carbon at the end of the growing season and prevent it from getting back to the atmosphere, a return to 300 ppm could be done in a few decades… in principle.

    • andrewfez Says:

      What do they call those third generation plants that are supposed to ‘eat’ the used fuel from the traditional plants, spending down the fuel to a product that needs only a few hundred years of storage? I read about ’em in Scientific American back in 2004 or 2005, but i haven’t heard anything more about ’em. They should make one of those while the cost of capital is still at record lows (i.e. the project’s insurance costs would be relatively lower).

      • Fast-spectrum reactors.  Fast neutrons can burn just about anything that’s fissionable, including the refractory even-numbered isotopes like Pu-238, Pu-240 and Am-242.  They can be engineered to be breeders, burners, or break-even “converters”.

        GE has been in talks with the UK to build a couple S-PRISM fast-spectrum reactors at Sellafield to burn the UK’s stockpile of reclaimed plutonium.  We could have had them here a long time ago, but the Integral Fast Reactor project from which the S-PRISM grew was killed by none other than John Kerry in 1994.

  4. Here is what Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the US nuclear submarine fleet, had to say about reprocessing:
    such reactors are “expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair.”
    For a thorough scholarly review of reprocessing:

    • Rickover was no doubt familiar with the Solvex and Purex processes, which were both developed during wartime.  They use wet chemistry and create a host of contaminated waste streams which are expensive to handle and dispose of.  I doubt that Rickover had a clue about “pyroprocessing”, which is a molten-salt electrolysis process with absolutely nothing in commmon with the WWII-vintage schemes.  He died in 1986, so he may never have heard of it.

      Pyroprocessing was intended to be the on-site method of reprocessing fuel for the Integral Fast Reactor, reclaiming fissionables as metal plated out directly from the bath.  The intent was that fuel would never leave the reactor building, and would be too contaminated with “hot” byproducts to be moved or handled without heavy shielding.  This both protected it from theft and made it useless for weapons, as the radiation would fry unshielded electronics and warheads can’t afford the weight.

      South Korea is picking up pyroprocessing, which has been abandoned in the USA by congressional fiat.

  5. From the same reference on breeders
    In the United States, during the G.W. Bush Administration, fast reactors returned
    to the agenda as “burner” reactors.
    Already in 1996, however, a National Academy of Sciences assessment
    commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy, had concluded that such an
    effort would have very high costs and marginal benefits and would take hundreds
    of years of recycling to reduce the global inventory of transuranic isotopes by 99
    percent.20 The Obama Administration and the U.S. Congress share this skepticism
    and propose a new research and development program to investigate alternative
    strategies for managing U.S. spent fuel.
    I think I will take the NAS report at face value.

    • If I read the description correctly, Russia’s BN-800 lead-cooled fast breeder reactor has a breeding ratio of up to 1.3.  That is, it can produce 30% more plutonium than it burns.  It doesn’t look like they’re planning to get rid of the stuff once and for all.

      • anotheralionel Says:

        Interesting. I have just got to the place in W J Nuttal’s book ‘Nuclear Renaissance’ where the BREST reactors are being described and find that these are still in the to do or being done phase. I recommend this book to all wishing to get the gist of the nuclear power industry, history, reactor types, waste management streams and development.

        I am firmly convinced that nuclear must be in the mix if we are to rapidly bring a halt to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. Of course a large construction programmes entail the production of much metal and concrete works both processes being large producers of CO2. But the numbers have been rationalized by David JC MacKay

        And we need to have practical solutions in place to overcome the problems that waste incineration with its associated dangers of producing ‘awkward’ isotopes. Nuttall explains how waste streams can be managed and that the size of high level waste can be reduced at the same time as shortening the time that it will need geological burial.

        Once we have sufficient fission based reactors we may then have the spare capacity required to provide power to drive, or start up, fusion reactors, which if the information I have here is to be believed is an order of magnitude greater than all the worlds output at the time Nuttal’s book was published in 2005, maybe an update would be useful.

        I remember as a child the celebration of the dawn of civil nuclear power in the UK with the opening of Calder Hall in the 1950s.

        Maybe the US National Academy of Science should revisit the topic in the light of more recent technological developments.

        As for Hyman Rickover, as a naval man myself I read ‘The Rickover Effect’ with considerable interest but gather that the Admiral was a rather touchy man to deal with. It is also worth mentioning that the US Navy have long experience with lead-bismuth cooled reactors in their submarines. Of course lead only requires higher operating temperatures.

        Now, I may have missed many important points, but mostly in the interests of keeping this post down.

  6. And yet the US and even pro nuke France have thrown in the towel after taking a financial bath. The bn800 is a lmfbr cooled by sodium, not lead. The breeding ratio of 1.3 is for the sodium reactor, not lead which has difficulty reaching 1, thus not likely a breeder. Every sodium reactor ever built has experienced sodium leaks, fires, and numerous shut downs, ruining their generation capacity and economics.

  7. Every source I can find has it listed as sodium. Since it is intended to supply plutonium, it cannot be lead. All breeders have proliferation issues because of plutonium. The industry is more interested in promoting breeders than waste burn up, otherwise fuel is finite, that is, game over. Given the unresolved waste problem, this kicks the can down the road. Thus far, breeders have failed to be commercially successful, suffering many accidents. The breeder concept runs hand in hand with reprocessing, which has an even worse record. Costs for breeder decommissioning and cleanup are high. Reprocessing cleanup also. See France Phenix and West Valley, NY.

    • All breeders have proliferation issues because of plutonium.

      That’s not true, but explaining why requires introducing some background.  The weapons-quality isotope of plutonium is Pu-239, which has a relatively low rate of heat production and spontaneous fission.  Pu-238, which has a host of synthesis routes, is non-fissile but has a very high rate of heat production.  This makes it highly sought after for spacecraft RTGs, but terrible for weapons where the explosive compression lenses mustn’t cook off from the heat of the “pit” (plutonium’s spontaneous fission rate is far too high for gun-type bomb designs, they must use implosion).  Pu-240 is also non-fissile but has a sky-high spontaneous fission rate.  Spontaneous fission is a big problem, because it can start the chain reaction before the “pit” is compressed enough to achieve a decent yield.  This produces a nuclear “fizzle” with a yield as low as a few tons of TNT.  Enough spontaneous fissions, and even the fastest explosive compression system isn’t fast enough.

      Bomb-grade plutonium is 93% or more Pu-239.  Roughly 35% of thermal neutron captures in Pu-239 yield Pu-240 instead of fission, so the breeders which make bomb-grade material can only leave the fertile U-238 in the neutron field for a short time before removing it to extract the Pu.  This is a very low “burnup”.  The burnups in even light-water reactors yeild Pu far too full of Pu-240 to be used for weapons, and that’s just fissioning perhaps 4% of the heavy metal in the original fuel; breeders intended for large-scale power production are aiming at burnups around 20%.  There is no way that any of this material presents a weapons proliferation risk.

      The industry is more interested in promoting breeders than waste burn up, otherwise fuel is finite, that is, game over. Given the unresolved waste problem

      Part of the waste problem is the inclusion of plutonium and un-fissioned uranium in “waste”.  Burn plutonium instead of throwing it away, and you don’t have to be concerned about what happens to it a thousand years down the road.

      Uranium is finite (Earth is finite), but all human energy consumption could be obtained by fission of just 5000 tons of uranium/plutonium per year.  Rivers carry about 30,000 tons/year of uranium to the oceans, and the oceans contain billions of tons already.  Nothing lasts forever, but a few thousand years is plenty of time to figure out the next step while fixing the climate problem we’ve already created.

  8. What no reprocessing? I thought breeders require reprocessing? Isn’t that how India processed Canadian plutonium and turned it into a bomb?
    Fast reactors and their fuel cycles pose serious prolifera- tion risks. All reactors make plutonium in their fuel, but breeder reactors require that this plutonium be separated from the fero- ciously radioactive fission products in spent fuel and reused. The separation process, so-called reprocessing, also makes the plutoni- um more accessible to aspiring nuclear weapon makers.
    This concern is not just theoretical. India justified its reprocess- ing program by citing an interest in breeder reactors, but in 1974, it used its first batch of separated plutonium to carry out a “peaceful nuclear explosion.” This led the United States to rethink its promo- tion of plutonium as the fuel of the future
    Breeder reactors are said to represent a proliferation risk because the necessary nuclear reprocessing can potentially produce weapons grade plutonium.
    A little disingenuous to claim its impossible when its already been done and the US official position for many years is that it is a proliferation problem.
    Uranium is on Mars. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. There is a lot of unrecovered oil. Are we going to get all of it? No way. At some point, it costs more energy to get it than we get out of it. EROI. Uranium from seawater is a dream.

    • What no reprocessing? I thought breeders require reprocessing?

      Who are you asking?  If you won’t use the Reply link, at least provide a quote or back-link (preferably both).

      Yes, closing the nuclear fuel cycle requires reprocessing.  The Integral Fast Reactor project was working to do that on-site.  Burned fuel would be electrolyzed in a molten salt bath, and the reclaimed U/Pu/Am/Cm re-cast into new fuel pins and placed in cladding in a hot cell on the site.  Makeup uranium would be added to replace fission products removed.  Nothing would leave the site until decommissioning, and the fuel would be too radioactive to steal.

      Reprocessing has the virtue of reducing the volume of disposed waste by a factor of 10-20, as well as the average half-life.

      Isn’t that how India processed Canadian plutonium and turned it into a bomb?

      India used the ancient Purex process, separating Pu bred in a research reactor.  Power reactors have to be run on fuel cycles which irradiate the fuel too much to make weapons-grade materials.

      The USA used a special graphite-moderated reactor, the N reactor, to make most of the weapons-grade Pu inventory.  The N reactor was not a net breeder.

      breeder reactors require that this plutonium be separated from the fero- ciously radioactive fission products in spent fuel and reused.

      Pyroprocessing catches a substantial amount of those fission products and hot higher actinides in the reclaimed fuel.  This doesn’t affect its use as fuel, since it’s going to be loaded with that stuff after the first few days anyway.  It does make it almost impossible to steal, even if the non-Pu-239 fractions (which cannot be separated by mere chemistry) didn’t make it impossible to produce a usable weapon from it.

      Fast-spectrum reactors almost eliminate the production of higher actinides.  The probability of Pu-239 fissioning when hit by a thermal neutron is about 65%; if hit by a fast neutron, about 98%.  You need 3 neutron captures without fission to turn Pu-239 into Am-242.

      Breeder reactors are said to represent a proliferation risk because the necessary nuclear reprocessing can potentially produce weapons grade plutonium.

      You do realize that you’re citing an undergraduate’s homework?  He doesn’t have a clue about the isotopic composition of actual plutonium, its precursors and its daughter isotopes.  Try this for a more detailed, expert view:

      • You are supposed to understand what a rhetorical question is. You can answer it, which only if you fail to understand what it implies or you can get the picture. Yes all breeders require reprocessing, which is something you should already know if you are proposing breeders. The reference (which is from a Stanford student paper) already stated that. Yes, I do understand that. If you dont like a Stanford graduate paper, you can find plenty of other papers. Its easier for the other readers to absorb.
        If you want to disagree with the US official stance on breeders since Ronald Reagan, go ahead.
        The citation you gave is not even close to scientific. Its an opinion piece. None of it contradicts the fissilematerials source. I found tons of other sources saying the same thing. If you want to adopt the position that breeders are not a proliferation risk, you are in a minority, but feel free.

        • You are supposed to understand what a rhetorical question is.

          You forgot to use the <rhetorical> tag.

          The reference (which is from a Stanford student paper) already stated that.

          You don’t appear to know the difference between a published paper and a homework assignment from a 200-level (sophomore) physics course.  NNadir’s piece at Atomic Insights lists in great detail why your college sophomore’s conclusion is faulty.  You’ll ignore this because of confirmation bias.  Citing the Bulletin of the (anti-)Atomic Scientists is more of the same.

          If you want to disagree with the US official stance on breeders since Ronald Reagan, go ahead.

          If the “official stance” gets the physics wrong, it’s wrong.  Period.  It doesn’t matter who does it or why.

          The citation you gave is not even close to scientific. Its an opinion piece.

          It’s an educational piece which cites sources extensively, intended to be read by people who need education on the subject.  Like, for instance, you.

          None of it contradicts the fissilematerials source.

          Which only mentions the Integral Fast Reactor as “shut down” without the political hatchet job which led to it, gives next to no treatment of other isotopes of plutonium, and treats all plutonium as if it was bomb-grade (page 103).  It mentions isotopes which don’t fission in a thermal spectrum, but not that significant fractions of those isotopes render plutonium impossible to use for weapons.  This just shows why the “conventional knowledge” on the subject is erroneous and sometimes completely backwards.  These are things we need to know, and you will not learn them from politicized NGOs like FAS or UN bodies staffed by nationals from oil-producing states whose livelihoods depend on strong markets for fossil fuels.

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