Bridge Fuel and Its Impact

From the Archive—In case you missed's a look back at the July 2014 issue of EM, which included a discussion of whether U.S. oil and natural gas production can provide a “bridge” to a future energy economy that relies on efficiency and renewable energy.

by Mingming Lu

Oil and natural gas production and related estimates on potential reserves has increased dramatically in recent years. Can this finite energy source provide a “bridge” to a future where energy demands are met with a greater reliance on efficiency and renewable energy sources, while at the same time minimizing environmental impacts?

The current energy boom that is a result of hydraulic fracturing to access oil and gas reserves from low permeability (tight) formations has its roots in a technique dating back to the 1940s. A combination of technological advances in hydraulic fracturing and well completion processes with horizontal drilling made the development of tight oil and gas formations economically feasible. The hydraulic fracturing of these tight formations was first shown to be technically and economically viable in the 1980s, but it was not untill the early 2000s that it was utilized on a massive scale.

More than one hundred years ago, the successful the completion of the Drake oil well in Pennsylvania established the petroleum industry in the United States. Not only did oil flow from the Drake well and a number of other subsequent oil-producing wells across the United States (there is some debate on the sequence of oil-producing fields identified and developed—history like science seems to always present some areas of disagreement), but investment dollars soon flowed into this industry and established the United States at the largest oil-producing county for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Current oil and gas exploration and production is once again thrusting the United States into the position of one of the top (if not the top, depending on the basis and techniques for evaluating oil and gas reserves) oil and gas producers in the world. Just as our understanding of the technological innovations related to accessing oil and gas reserves has greatly advanced since the successful completion of the Drake well, likewise our understanding of the associated environmental issues has improved, as well as the knowledge that once these issues are identified, they must be appropriately addressed.

We continually enhance our understanding of how to identify potential environmental concerns and address their impacts. We can certainly look back into the not-so-distant past for evidence of what happens when detrimental environmental impacts go unaddressed. You can name almost any U.S. environmental legislative program (e.g., Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, Resource Conservation and Control Act, and Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act) that were put into place to mandate efforts to rectify past environmental impacts, initiate actions to prevent future impacts, or a combination of both.

A key element in identifying and addressing environmental concerns is an open and transparent debate on the issues and the scientific evidence and understanding that frame these issues. Anyone who has dealt with developing and evaluating scientific information knows that rarely are conclusions black and white. There are invariably areas of contention in either how the information is developed or how it is interpreted. The solution is not to silence the investigation and the discussion of issues because of uncertainties and unknowns; rather, it is because of the uncertainties and unknowns that further investigations and discussions must take place.

This month, EM presents relevant articles that connect directly to the need for furthering the investigation and discussion of environmental issues associated with oil and gas exploration and production and with aspects of sustainable use of energy that, by lessening the environmental footprint of activities that use signifi cant levels of energy, have a positive effect on reducing the environmental footprint of providing the energy.

Read the full July 2014 issue of EM.