Fossil Fuel Basics: Two Good, Current Primers From CRS

November 25, 2009

The Congressional Research Service recently published two reports that are pretty good plain-language resources for journalists who are covering or researching fossil fuel industries. The Federation of American Scientists has posted these reports online (since CRS still doesn't make its own reports publicly available).

This report covers oil, coal, and natural gas. It's useful for learning the specific meaning of industry jargon like "proved reserves" and "undiscovered resources", which in turn will help you interpret critical numbers related to long-term supply issues such as peak oil. It also includes a list of authoritative data sources for US fossil fuel reserves and resources.

Most importantly it includes a pretty current rundown of estimates of US fossil fuel resources of various types, from the easy-to-get to the hard-to-recover. And it compares US reserves to those of other major fossil fuel-producing nations.

Not all fossil fuels are created equal. The energy content and ease/cost of extraction and processing varies widely — and fossil fuels found in shale deposits offer perhaps the poorest bang for the buck.

This CRS backgrounder begins, "In the past, the oil and gas industry considered gas locked in tight,  impermeable shale uneconomical to produce. However, advances in directional well drilling and reservoir stimulation have dramatically increased gas production from unconventional shales. ...Developing these shales comes with some controversy, though. The hydraulic fracturing treatments used to stimulate gas production from shale have stirred environmental concerns over excessive water consumption, drinking water well contamination, and surface water contamination from both drilling activities and fracturing fluid disposal."

Is this a local story for you? The map in Figure 1, "Major Shale Basins in the Conterminous US," shows that the major gas shale deposits discussed in the report lie throughout the RockyMountain west, south central states, throughout Appalachia, and near the Great Lakes.

Natural gas is about access as much as it is about availability. Figure 3, "Major Natural Gas Transportation Corridors in the Conterminous US, 2008," is a fairly current and useful map for determining if gas shale might be an issue for your region based on your proximity to pipelines.

Other figures demonstrate how to compare data about gas shale deposits with aquifer and hydrology information to help understand the potential groundwater and drinking-well impacts of hydraulic fracturing ("frakking") — a decades-old technique that pumps a mix of water, chemicals and sand or plastic beads into compressed rock to open cracks and release trapped oil or gas.

The backgrounder also explains gas shale drilling equipment and technology — which can help you understand what you see in the field or in photographs.

The report also covers key leasing issues for gas shale deposits by state, the current federal/state regulatory landscape, and an overview of recent and current Congressional interest in gas shale resources and issues.

CRS researchers: