Optimism, pessimism about gas drilling, its effects

February 28, 2014
Dr. Michael Webber, in Washington & Jefferson gear, speaks with Dave Stopek, left, of National Energy Technology Laboratory, and Ned Williams, Montour Trail Council president. - Rick Shrum/Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Water, water everywhere was the theme of the latest installment of the Washington & Jefferson Energy Lecture Series, which, appropriately, drew an overflow crowd.

Dr. Michael E. Webber made a big splash with the audience Thursday with his presentation of “A Thirst for Power: The Global Nexus of Energy and Water.” Donning a “Be A President” T-shirt, he roiled like a turbulent sea, speaking quickly, relentlessly and authoritatively inside the Burnett Center.

“Energy and water are interrelated with good and bad tradeoffs,” he said in opening a 45-minute discourse filled with enough information that, if presented at average speed, would have lasted 90 minutes.

He addressed those tradeoffs to approximately 100 people assembled in Yost Auditorium, often within the context of Marcellus Shale. And he knows shales. Webber holds four positions at the University of Texas, including deputy director of the Energy Institute and associate professor of mechanical engineering.

Webber has written numerous magazine articles, books and book chapters, and given hundreds of lectures and speeches. His stance on advances in energy, basically, is they should be implemented without undermining national security, the environment or the economy.

“Shale production has environmental risks, most of which are water-related,” he said, citing 11 specific risks, including land disturbance and seepage of fracking fluids.

“Drilling and completion requires a significant volume of water,” Webber said before adding a thought that some would find comforting.

“Concerns about fracking are overblown. It’s done thousands of feet below the aquifer. It’s no big deal.”

Supported by a PowerPoint presentation, Webber said even though drilling requires the use of millions of gallons of water, the oil and gas industry is responsible for less than 5 percent of water withdrawals. Yet, he explained, that figure is somewhat deceptive.

“Overall, shale gas has relatively low water consumption,” Webber said. “But in some areas, usage could be a big deal. There are droughts in some shales, and heat waves can constrain the power sectors. If water levels are too low, you turn power plants down.”

Webber decried the practice of flaring at well sites, calling it “an environmental problem” in which energy is wasted and there are emissions, odors, noise and sight/light pollution.

To literally illuminate that last factor, Webber showed a large photo from space of the United States at night. The nation is primarily black, but there are numerous lighted clusters, particularly in shale regions. These are flares.

Before taking questions for about 30 minutes, he concluded by saying, “There is cause for optimism, but cause for pessimism. The good news is energy conservation and water conservation are synonymous.”

The fifth and final session of the 2013-14 series will be “A Vision for Coal” at 6:30 p.m. March 26.

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won seven individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

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