Fracking Over the Future: Former Mobil VP Louis Allstadt Warns of Fracking and Climate Change

Quaint, arty Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, is perched on the shores of Lake Otsego, which supplies drinking water to the village and glimmering, placid expanses for kayakers and boaters. Louis W. Allstadt, former executive vice president of Mobil Oil, launched his leisure years in this idyllic spot, intending to leave the industry behind. He founded an art gallery with his wife, Melinda Hardin. They made pottery, kayaked, taught other people to kayak, and played tennis.

But then friends started asking him questions about fracking—it had been proposed near the lake. What he saw as he began investigating the technology and regulations proposed by New York’s state Department of Environmental Conservation (1,500 pages titled “Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, a.k.a. ‘the SGEIS ‘ “) alarmed him. In these pages last year he called high-volume fracking “conventional drilling on steroids.” “Just horrible,” is how he described the 2011 SGEIS in our conversation in June 2013.

Allstadt has become an indispensable guide for one of the country’s most powerful environmental movements: New York’s grass-roots anti-fracking resistance. Recently he was elected as a Cooperstown Trustee. He is modest and low-key, his authority hallmarked by personal understatement. He said this interview was a first for him. Earlier talks and interviews have focused on what he calls “tweaking the technology and [promoting] tighter regulations.” Never before has he focused squarely on the industry’s impact on the planet’s atmosphere.

A brilliant June sun illuminated the greenery of gardens below the back porch of the Cooperstown house where we spoke. In the driveway, a kayak rested atop a car.
We began by discussing fracking as part of what oil-scholar Michael Klare calls “the race for what’s left. ”

Could you describe the dangers of this industry?

First of all you have to look at what is conventional oil and gas. That was pretty much anything that was produced until around 2000. It’s basically a process of drilling down through a cap rock, an impervious rock that has trapped oil and gas beneath it – sometimes only gas. If it’s oil, there’s always gas with it. And once you’re into that reservoir – which is really not a void, it’s porous rock – the natural pressure of the gas will push up the gas and oil. Typically you’ll have a well that will keep going 20, 30 years before you have to do something to boost the production through a secondary recovery mechanism. That conventional process is basically what was used from the earliest wells in Pennsylvania through most of the offshore production that exists now, that started in the shallow water in the Gulf of Mexico and gradually moved down into deeper and deeper water.

Now what’s happened is that the prospect of finding more of those conventional reservoirs, particularly on land and in the places that have been heavily explored like the US and Europe and the Middle East just is very, very small. And the companies have pretty much acknowledged that. All of them talk about the need to go to either non-conventional shale or tight sand drilling or to go into deeper and deeper waters or to go into really hostile Arctic regions and possibly Antarctic regions.

So when you talked about “the race for what’s left,” that’s what’s going on. Both the horizontal drilling and fracturing have been around for a long time. The industry will tell you this over and over again – they’ve been around for 60 years, things like that. That is correct. What’s different is the volume of fracking fluids and the volume of flow-back that occurs in these wells. It is 50 to 100 times more than what was used in the conventional wells.

The other [difference] is that the rock above the target zone is not necessarily impervious the way it was in the conventional wells. And to me that last point is at least as big as the volume. The industry will tell you that the mile or two between the zone that’s being fracked is not going to let anything come up.

But there are already cases where the methane gas has made it up into the aquifers and atmosphere. Sometimes through old well bores, sometimes through natural fissures in the rock. What we don’t know is just how much gas is going to come up over time. It’s a point that most people haven’t gotten. It’s not just what’s happening today. We’re opening up channels for the gas to creep up to the surface and into the atmosphere. And methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas in the short term—less than 100 years—than carbon dioxide.

What are the future consequences?

Twenty, thirty, a hundred years down the road we don’t know how much methane is going to be making its way up. And if you do hundreds of thousands of wells, there’s a good chance you’re going to have a lot of methane coming up, exacerbating global warming. … That is what Tony Ingraffea is talking about as part of the problem. [In 2011, Anthony Ingraffea, Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering at Cornell University, co-authored a landmark study on the greenhouse-gas footprint of high-volume fracking.]

What you [also] don’t know [is that] when you plug that well, how much is going to find its way to the surface without going up the well bore. And there are lots of good indications that plugging the well doesn’t really work long-term. There’s still some pressure down there even though it’s not enough pressure to be commercially produced. And sooner or later the steel casing there is going to rust out, and the cement sooner or later is going to crumble. We may have better cements now, we may have slightly better techniques of packing the cement and mud into the well bore to close it up, but even if nothing comes up through the fissures in the rock layers above, where it was fracked, those well bores will deteriorate over time. And there is at least one study showing that 100 percent of plugs installed in abandoned wells fail within 100 years and many of them much sooner.

So what’s the solution?

I think we have wasted a lot of time that should have gone into seriously looking into and developing alternative energies. And we need to stop wasting that time and get going on it. But the difficult part is that the industry talks about, well, this is a bridge fuel [that] will carry us until alternatives [are developed] but nobody is building them. It’s not a bridge unless you build the foundations for a bridge on the other side, and nobody’s building it.

Have corporations like Mobil considered developing alternative energies?

Yes. Back after the first [1973] and second [1980] oil crises, when we had the spikes in prices and the lines and rationing, there was a lot of talk and substantial investments in alternative energies. Mobil invested in solar, and so did Exxon, and kept it going for quite a number of years. They abandoned it as just not coming up to the technical promises [because] solar cells weren’t converting enough sun to electricity to be economically viable. There was also at that time a fair amount of work done on shale oil in the Western states, and that was not fracking for shale. It was mining the shale and trying to extract oil from it. It just never came through. More recently there’ve been attempts at biofuels and some attempts to use algae.

What are your thoughts about President Obama’s national address on climate change?

Well, when he talked about the XL pipeline he said he wanted to be sure it didn’t increase carbon emissions. When he talks about natural gas, he kind of broad-brushes it and implies it’s better than coal.

The whole speech is feeding into [Exxon-Mobil CEO] Rex Tillerson’s comments at a recent Exxon-Mobil shareholders’ meeting where he said there’s nothing we can do to switch to alternative fuels [and still] allow economies to continue the way they are. Society has to solve the problems by dealing with global warming – building levees around the cities, things like that. Obama is feeding into that, saying we have to strengthen the infrastructure. Basically what the industry is doing is unloading all the costs of what it’s been doing onto the public. Just go out and build miles and miles of levees around New York City and build drainage systems and things like that. Obama is saying the same thing. We’ll go on producing natural gas and keep the cost low by having the taxpayers pick up the cost of dealing with the consequences of global warming. Obama proposed some very positive steps toward developing alternative energies but he is not addressing the impact that methane has on global warming.

You’ve been on both sides now—promoting fossil fuel development for your whole life until your retirement and now trying to fight fracking. Do you think the anti-fracking movement and other environmental movements are the main hope now?

I think the main question is how fast can these movements educate enough people about the dangers of fracking and its impact on global warming. It will take masses of people demanding action from politicians to offset the huge amount of money that the industry is using to influence lawmakers, a world-scale version of those standing-room-only town meetings. Something has to wake up the general public. It will either be education from the environmental movements or some kind of climate disaster that no one can ignore.

–Ellen Cantarow

This article originally appeared at “Truthout.” Reprinted with permission.

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