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Gas and oil debated at Vail event

Experts warn that glut of natural gas should not stop search for renewables



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For now, most of the talk is about whether fracking poses danger to humans and ecosystem health. The controversy has mostly surrounded use of small amounts of chemicals added to large volumes of water and sand to expedite flow of gas from tightly spaced rock formations.

Jim Brown, who is president, Western Hemisphere for Halliburton, the giant soil-services supplier, says no case of fracking solutions entering potable water sources has yet been confirmed in the United States. Natural gas-bearing formations are deep underground, separated from near-surface water aquifers by layers of dense rock. More than one million "fracks" have been done in North America, 400,000 alone since the turn of the century. He said the concern should be focused not on fracking, bur rather on integrity of well-bore casings, the concrete sleeves that prevent fluids and gas from escaping.

Another speaker, Mark Zoback, a professor of geophysics at Stanford University who studies extraction of gas and oil from the unconventional rocks, agreed that concerns about fracking have been misguided and called out the involvement of Yoko Ono.

"I'm still mad at Yoko for breaking up the Beatles," he said.

Zoback, however, stressed the need for oversight and healthy skepticism about the integrity of the drilling process. He pointed to BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Environmental safety, he explained "all comes down to three things: well construction, well construction, well construction.

"It's not sexy. It's very basic.

"When you drill 20,000 wells a year, that's 20,000 potential problems. We have to be sure we're doing this right."

A greater problem yet for natural gas may be fugitive emissions. Methane, the primary constituent, has 20 to 100 times the heat-trapping properties of the more common carbon dioxide. If allowed to escape into the atmosphere during extraction or handling, the damage to the atmosphere might well negate its value in displacing coal.

For that reason, any broad use of natural gas in transportation should be done very carefully, said Sally Benson, a professor of energy resources engineering at Stanford University and director of the university's Global Climate and Energy Project.

If people in places like Africa are to achieve greater well-being as enjoyed by people in advanced countries, she said, the world may need six times more energy than it now consumes.

That's a daunting statistic, but Benson also delivered a hopeful thought. Africa leap-frogged conventional phone lines and poles, instead proceeding immediately to cell phones. Might it similarly bypass the dependence on atmospheric-wrecking fossil fuels?

While an expert on coal, she points to sunshine as the most abundant and promising fuel. While efficiency and storage are being improved, natural gas is a perfect partner for solar and other renewables. "I think we need to deflect the idea they're in competition," she said.