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Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire?

Feb. 6, 2012
Our Very Own Ask the Experts Moderator Bela Liptak Learns a Lesson From One of Our Readers. Liptak Admits That Even Knowledgable People Can Be Wrong

Regarding Béla Lipták's January 2012 Lessons Learned column, "Scraping of the Bottom of the Barrel—Fracking," (www.controlglobal.com/articles/2012/fracking-scraping-bottom-barrel.html), this writer sees some serious problems.

Let's start with the second part. Now, I was not around at the time, but some old-timers tell me Karl Clark worked back in the 1920s to develop what we now know as the "Clark Hot Water Process," patented in 1929 (CA 289058—Bituminous Sand Processing), used to extract bitumen from Canadian tar sands—bitumen that is subsequently upgraded to syncrude.

Commercial deployment of the Clark Process began in 1967 with the Suncor operation. Maybe in your world 45 years of commercial operation at an enormous scale is "new and unproven," but I trust you can understand how others might rate it "4 Pinocchios." (In his "Fact Checker" column of The Washington Post, Glen Kessler rates statements from 1 Pinocchio for a simple fib to 4 Pinocchios for a deliberate bald-faced lie).

Now the first part. While the drilling techniques—horizontal and "wormhole"—used in shale gas projects might arguably be considered "new," fracking is surely not new.  The California Department of Conservation reports, "Hydraulic fracturing (also known as hydrofracturing, 'fracking' or 'fracing') was first used in 1947 in a well in Grant County, Kan., when a mixture of approximately 1000 gallons of fluid was pumped into an underground formation at a depth of 2400 feet in an attempt to improve the production of a natural gas well completed in a limestone formation." Again, I was not working in the oil patch in 1947, so must take the word of others on when fracking was first deployed commercially.  However throughout my 30 years in the oil business, fracking and propping were widely used. Here, "new and unproved" also looks like 4 Pinocchios.

Let me be clear. Fracking and propping are not without problems. Gas project developers are fighting hard to prevent imposition of effective regulations needed to protect the public. And even harder to prevent sound science—including detailed pre-project testing of drinking water sources all around a proposed project site—from clouding the political picture with facts. I am on the side of public interest in this fight, not on the side of willy-nilly development unfettered by regulation. But lies do not help the cause. It just opens advocates of responsible policy decisions to criticism if we lie or tolerate liars in the camp. So please take care that what you write is clean as a hound's tooth in its truth.

Charles G. Scouten
The Fusfeld Group, Inc.
[email protected]

Béla Lipták replies:

Reading this letter I am reminded that, when it comes to the future, even knowledgable people can be wrong. In 1943, Thomas Watson wrote, "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers," and, in 1981, Bill Gates said, "640 K ought to be enough for anybody."

How fracking works
Figure 1. As the fracking fluids (FF) crack the stone, the natural gas (NG) escapes through the fractures and travels up the well.I am not suggesting that Mr. Scouten's views of the future come from a source of similar knowledge of the subject, but given his BP Amoco background, I would have expected him to know that the nearly 2000-mile Keystone XL pipeline or the drilling of horizontal wormholes are not "old and proved" technologies!

It is true that traditional forms of fracking have been around for many years, and high pressure pipelines have also been in operation for a long time. However, horizontal fracking has not, nor have pipelines of the size and length as the ones being contemplated. As to the safety of fracking, I would suggest that he review, for example, the Texas-based XTO Energy report that lists 31 violations at 20 wells drilled in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania just in 2010.

I will give only two examples: On April 19, 2011, in Pennsylvania's Bradford County, in the township of Leroy, thousands of gallons of chemical-laced and highly saline fracking water (proppant) spilled from the drill site, racing toward a tributary of a popular trout-fishing stream and also forcing seven families nearby to evacuate their homes.

To illustrate another aspect of of fracking safety, let me mention that on New Year's Eve of this year an earthquake occurred in Youngstown, Ohio, only 100 meters from another quake a week earlier. These types of events provide evidence that not only the toxic lakes that remain underground can be unsafe, but that the drilling can also cause tremors.

As with the series of articles I wrote about the Deepwater Horizon or the Fukushima accidents, in which I described how automation could have prevented these accidents (see the March, July and September 2011 issues of Control), my goal of improving safety is also the same when I write about automating the presently largely manual operations of fracking, pipelining and oil-sand processing.

These articles all show the same thing: that automation can increase the safety of new and unconventional processes, and our profession can prevent future tragedies, the occurance of which is just a matter of time, if their mostly manual operation continues.

I would suggest to Mr. Scouten that he read my forthcoming articles and also become familiar with pipeline accidents like the bursting of the oil pipeline that spilled oil into the Yellowstone river to learn that these new processes are not yet reliable.

In my coming articles, I will describe automatic instruments, such as the self-propelled and intelligent "pigs," used for nondestructive inspections and using ultrasonic and more recently magnetic flux leakage methods to report pipe deterioration and the need for maintenance.

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