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Edwina Ross: Business and Engineering, a wholly holy alliance?

I do believe that engineers are burdened professionals. They work in many key sectors and are invariably pushed to push parameters and find solutions. These are invariably creative, often ingenious, but not always safe or environmentally sound.

They are pressed to facilitate projects quickly and cost-effectively.

Their designs adapt and improve if demand persists, but they face the battle of not only ensuring their solutions work efficiently, but remain financially viable and with safety a key consideration (for both the environment and man).

The imperative for companies to run profitably, however, inevitably drives engineers to, first and foremost, solve within budgetary constraints.

My mind wandered to this engineering conundrum when I read a recent article on Hazardex. It looks at the increasing damage to a region in the northern province of Groningen in the Netherlands - damage which is attributed to man.

The region contains the largest natural gas field in Europe, but contained deep within the shale rocks where up to 1,800 natural faults exist in the porous Rotliegend sandstone subsurface.

The gas earned the Dutch state more than £12 billion in government revenues in 2014. It accounts for two-thirds of Dutch natural gas production and the field supplies approximately 15% of Europe’s.

Although the gas field has been exploited for some 50 years, the earthquakes and tremors in the area have been increasing exponentially. They now average one a week.

Back in 2013, an article in the Telegraph by Bruno Waterfield also considered the impact of the drilling in the Groningen gas field. He suggested that up to 60 per cent of the 60,000 homeowners in the Groningen region had experienced earthquake damage to their homes. Many are concerned and would sell up and leave the province, but of course there are few buyers.

Adding to their fear is the frequency of tremors which rock dykes holding back the North Sea.

Shell and Exxon have so far set aside 1.2 billion euros in compensation for earthquake damage to homes – a sure sign that they do concede that the drilling is responsible.

It seems that we cannot resist the resources deep within our earth; mankind is increasingly dependent on their benefits.

The complex extraction methods do pose obstacles, but these rarely stymy the inventive and quite extraordinary engineer.

I do wonder, though, speaking as someone with little technical knowledge, whether we would not all be better off if we approached the extraction of these raw materials with a little more circumspection. They will be exploited – that is a given, but can we not perhaps limit the damage from the outset, not wait for calamity to dictate it.

We could set restrictions on volume, for instance, which would then naturally reduce the rate of extraction. A more thoughtful, considered approach would allow for careful monitoring and give the earth time to resettle in a more genteel fashion perhaps?

As children building sand castles we learnt to take care, but also, with difficulty, the lesson of patience. Speedy tunnelling would inevitably result in a disappointing collapse. Have we forgotten this wisdom as adults or does demand and profit override all?

Aside from extraction, the already tenuous balance underground is further disturbed by injection wells.

In the US, wells are divided into six classes; based on the material they hold and the industry that has produced it. Class 1 wells handle the most hazardous materials, including fertilizers, acids and deadly compounds such as asbestos, PCBs and cyanide. These contaminants are expected to be injected into the deepest of wells. The energy industry has its own categories; disposal wells and wells in which fluids are injected to force out trapped oil and gas. And the most common wells are a catch-all for everything else, including storm-water runoff from gas stations.

Apart from the very real risk of leaking and contamination - a not uncommon occurrence - there is the issue of pressure and again of volume; increase the latter and more pressure is exerted. An earthquake measuring 5.0 on the Richter scale, in Boulder County, was attributed to underground wells storing waste. And that was back in 1967!

I don’t have any answers, but I do think that if we don’t slow down, just a bit, we will be forced to in the long term. And the journey there may be most unpleasant for many.
For example, and on a slightly lighter note, German lager production may be compromised by all this drilling.

Under the 'Reinheitsgebot', or German purity law, lager manufacturers are limited to malt, hops, yeast and water and they are worried.

A Brauer-Bund spokesman explained, “The water has to be pure and more than half Germany's brewers have their own wells which are situated outside areas that could be protected under the government's current planned legislation on fracking,"

Thanks go to the following writers and their articles for help here:

A report in March in Hazardex, Netherlands government apologises for gas field earthquakes

Bruno Waterfield, Earthquakes from onshore gas drilling threaten a disaster, warn residents of Dutch city

NEED, for the graphic

Jefferson Dodge and Joel Dyer, Waste Injection Wells: The earth’s invisible dump, in the Boulder Weekly

Abrahm Lustgarten, Injection Wells: The Poison beneath Us

Andrew Trotman, edited Fracking could ruin German beer industry, brewers tell Angela Merkel

by Ewina Ross

Source: IDC

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