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$10 Million Fracking is Fun To Open in Dallas this Week!

November 26, 2012


Environmental Writer

Published: 25 November 2012 11:25 PM


Visitors to Dallas’ new Perot Museum of Nature and Science can study a video display about geological history before they enter the Tom Hunt Energy Hall.

That’s appropriate. Once they enter the hall, they’ll be dunked, figuratively, in the products of that geology, oil and gas — especially the natural gas wrested from the black rock of North Texas’ Barnett Shale.

The five-floor, $185 million museum opens its doors Saturday to the general public, which can experience nature in all forms, from the Big Bang to tomorrow’s high-tech engineering.

In the energy hall — funded by a $10 million gift from Dallas-based Hunt Petroleum Corp. and named for the company’s late chairman — shale gas extraction, including the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is front and center.

The energy hall’s first and most prominent message could be put as: Fracking is fun.

A model of a drill bit, 10 times bigger than a real one, rotates through pretend earth, and real drill bits are set up for people to handle and turn.

Visitors can sit in the Shale Voyager, a small theater, and imagine themselves shrunk to golf ball size and dropped down a Barnett Shale borehole to experience fracking firsthand.

There’s a list of all the safety and environmental rules that urban frackers must obey, conveyed in a song.

Later on the tour, visitors will learn about alternative energy, such as wind and solar, and new energy ideas, from much smaller displays.

Conventional nuclear power, which provides about 12 percent of Texas’ electricity, is pretty much left out, as is coal, which generates 39 percent. Texas is the nation’s second-biggest coal producer and its biggest coal burner.

The fossil-fuels part of the energy hall skips over well-known downsides — smog and global warming, for example — and myriad complaints, ranging from noise and truck traffic to air and water pollution, that have made fracking nearly synonymous with fighting in many North Texas neighborhoods.

During a walkthrough before installation was complete, exhibit designer Paul Bernhard said the setup depicts the reality of fossil fuels’ current dominance.

“This [oil and gas production] is what’s happening,” he said.

Bernhard said the energy hall doesn’t ignore controversies. A car-of-the-future display will note problems from carbon dioxide and other emissions.

An interactive energy forum toward the end of the hall will let visitors question experts and post their opinions on any energy topic. The forum wasn’t finished during the tour.

“All those issues are addressed,” Bernhard said.

Old-style fuels

Still, old-style fuels lead the way in square footage and visuals.

Visitors will learn what’s in the rock two miles deep and the origins of oil and gas — single-cell plants and animals, not dinosaurs. They’ll see how engineers probe and thump the ground to find the resources.

The hall has a scale model of a blowout preventer, like the one that failed in the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

In the Shale Voyager, the trip is 6,000 feet down and then 2,500 feet horizontally. A whoosh of cool air from the floor simulates the gas release after fracking.

Visitors can run their hands over a real core sample of the Barnett Shale, see real-time rig counts and explore 350 million years of Barnett Shale geology.

People can find pipelines and power lines near their homes. A display of tanks and pipes illustrates how oil refineries work. A turbine looking very much like a jet engine shows how fossil fuel-created steam makes power.

The future car was “crowd-sourced,” Bernhard said, with several alternative energy sources included — hydrogen fuel cells and batteries, for example.

A scale model of a future fusion reactor envisioned by the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project holds a prominent spot. Unlike the nuclear fission — splitting of atoms — that powers nuclear plants and nuclear bombs, fusion combines atoms and powers the sun.

If reproduced controllably on Earth, fusion could power the world, says ITER, hosted by France. But in May, an article in Scientific American savaged ITER for being “billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule,” with no hope of experimental power production before 2026.

Worse, the magazine summed up: “Critics contend that ITER has become a pie-in-the-sky boondoggle whose only purpose is to suck money away from productive clean-energy research projects like wind and solar energy.” ITER leaders say they’re hopeful of a breakthrough.

If visitors turn to their right at the fusion display, they’ll see an alcove with small dioramas showing other clean-energy technologies, including geothermal, tidal, solar, hydroelectric and wind generation. The display includes both nonplayers and growing sources in Texas.

Geologists think Texas has geothermal potential, but it’s making no power now. Tidal energy has been a no-go in Texas; a private project announced in 2008 never happened, and experts call Texas’ low tides a poor power source.

Bit player

Hydropower is a bit player in Texas — not enough rivers and mountains in the same spots.

Texas solar power, by contrast, jumped 700 percent from 2009 to 2011 and could go “meteoric” soon, a state report said in July. Texas is 13th nationally in installed solar capacity, the report said.

Wind dominates Texas’ renewable energy, growing dramatically and providing 10.2 percent of the power in most of Texas during the first half of 2012.

And while Texas is the nation’s biggest wind-energy state, the subject gets about the same amount of display space in the energy hall as sources producing no Texas power.


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