Follow me on Twitter: @JohnHQuigley

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Connecting some dots on gas drilling

To get the true picture of how to responsibly produce natural gas, it’s essential to connect the dots. Regulations represent one class of dots. Industry practice is another. But some of the most important dots are essentially invisible – at least so far – in Pennsylvania. They are the dots that represent the cumulative impacts of gas drilling. We know that they will be huge here, but how do we bring the missing dots into view, and how do we then connect them all?

I’ve heard industry leaders talk about their need to assess local and cumulative impacts, and to engage in landscape- and watershed-level planning. Last year, the Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board released a report calling for better planning, data gathering, and commitments to best management practices and continuous improvement. All of that is part of the answer.

Bringing all the dots into view is about transparency, data, and process. Best management practices – from planning to drilling to pipeline-laying to site reclamation - are an essential starting point. They must be accepted - and actually practiced - by the industry. But they are only the beginning. Practices must evolve as knowledge about impacts grows. That knowledge must be driven by data – gathered from monitoring activities in the field. Practices must be judged against data-driven standards that are developed – and agreed to by all stakeholders - to evaluate what works, and what can be improved. Practices and standards are then adjusted, and the virtuous cycle continues, at least in theory.

How can such a process be built? Important work is being done in Pennsylvania.

Penn State University has developed an excellent on-line resource: a Marcellus Shale Electronic Field Guide presenting a comprehensive suite of land management information and tools. The Guide prominently features work done by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), presenting DCNR’s BMPs and a sample state forest lease as models.

An important source of data and information will also be coming soon from DCNR. In 2010, while I was Secretary of the agency, DCNR designed a comprehensive monitoring program to gather data on the impacts of natural gas drilling on state forest lands. Acres of forest cleared for gas development, water, air, and soil quality, recreational and social impacts, and more will be monitored and assessed. The $2 million+ program is funded by royalty payments from state forest gas leases, and is an essential investment in preserving Pennsylvania’s natural heritage and Pennsylvania’s economy.

Last year, under the leadership of Secretary Rick Allan, the program was fully staffed with 15 positions, and field work commenced. DCNR has committed to adapting its BMPs based on the data gathered. They should be the basis of statewide standards. And in its most recent annual audit of the state forest’s sustainable management certification, DCNR reported that a full monitoring report will be posted for public view on DCNR’s website. That report – and all future reports from the program - will be essential in informing the ongoing process of connecting gas drilling’s dots in Pennsylvania.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Unconventional Gas Drilling’s Words and Actions Gap

My first article for Energy Dimensions as a member of the Energy Dimensions Advisory Panel.

Does fracking preclude underground carbon storage?

The US EPA has proposed a carbon pollution standard for new power plants that marks a significant advance in the battle against global climate disruption and for improved public health. EPA is proposing that new fossil-fuel-fired power plants emit no more than 1,000 pounds of CO2 per megawatt-hour (MWh).

What’s the impact of the proposal?

New natural gas power plants (which emit about 800 pounds or less of CO2/MWh) - and according to EPA, perhaps as many as 95% of gas units built since 2005 - should be able to easily meet the proposed standard without add-on controls. New coal-fired power plants would have to incorporate technology to reduce CO2 emissions to meet the standard, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) - capturing the CO2 emissions and storing them in geological formations deep underground.

In an excellent overview of the new standard, NRDC’s George Peridas writes that CCS technology is being deployed at power-plant scale worldwide; that the new standard would require CO2 capture at only “moderate” rates; and that, from a Federal regulatory standpoint, all the pieces are in place to permit a CCS project today. So the new standard is not necessarily an obstacle to the continued use of coal to generate electricity.

But finding a safe place to store CO2 on-shore in the continental US may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle.

During my tenure at the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), I led some of the nation’s most advanced planning work on CCS. The DCNR studies highlighted 3 issues that are relevant to the future of CCS in the Keystone State, and nationwide.

First, cost issues aside, you need the right kind of geologic formation - one that is “capped” with an impermeable layer of rock that will not allow the stored CO2 to leak out into the atmosphere – and lots of it. A rule of thumb used by the US Department of Energy: one 500 MW coal-fired power plant that captures 90% of its CO2 emissions over a 40-year operational life and that is injecting captured CO2 emissions into a 300-foot thick geologic storage formation will require 100 square miles of storage space. Still, the resource is vast; DCNR found that Pennsylvania has the geologic capacity to store hundreds of years’ worth of the state’s CO2 emissions.

The second issue identified by DCNR was practical: amassing the storage rights through purchase or lease would be challenging. That’s because in Pennsylvania, the owner of the surface of the land might not own the subsurface mineral- and hence storage - rights. And figuring out who owns the subsurface can be a challenge because the rights could have been severed over a century ago, in the early days of oil, gas, and coal exploration.

But DCNR pointed out that the then-emerging shale gas industry was assembling mineral rights and could one day possibly get into the CO2 storage business. The industry has leased mineral rights on a massive scale in Pennsylvania. So the storage space ownership challenge may have been solved by the shale gas industry.

But the third issue identified by DCNR may prove to be the insurmountable obstacle to CCS: the shale gas boom is drilling holes in or fracking the essential seals that would hold stored CO2 underground. This issue has emerged nationally; indeed, as much as 80% of the US's potential on-shore CO2 storage volume overlaps with shale gas fields.

Off-shore storage potential may be vast, so CCS may still provide a climate protection tool to allow the continued use of coal for electricity generation. But the apparent fundamental conflict between on-shore CCS and shale gas development will need lots of further study.