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Friday, July 13, 2012

Former BP CEO calls for stronger government regulation of fracking

BBC News reports today that BPs former CEO, Edmund John Philip Browne, Baron Browne of Madingley, otherwise (and perhaps mercifully) known as Lord Browne, told attendees of the ReSource 2012 conference on water, food and energy scarcity in Oxford that the unconventional gas industry needs stronger government regulation to prevent bad practices.

Lord Browne is quoted by BBC News as saying, "Shale gas has a very bad reputation, as a result of the weak players cutting corners.”  That reputation has been well earned - but not, however, just by the so-called weak players.  Here in Pennsylvania, the largest and strongest companies in the industry have recorded violations of state regulations or experienced other troubles of their own.  Lord Browne should know that no company in the industry is blameless.  According to the article, he is a director of fracking firm Cuadrilla Resources. A Cuadrilla site in Lancashire UK had to stop test fracking in 2011 after its operations caused two small earthquakes. That prompted the UK government to rule that test fracking could continue, but only under strict conditions.

Lord Browne is further quoted as saying, “Regulation tightening would be welcome."

Browne is just the latest industry leader to join with investors in calling for tighter regulation of the industry. This growing chorus recognizes the obvious – it is to the gas industry’s advantage to embrace tough rules. Requiring all industry players – the so-called weak and strong alike – to perform at a high level protects the environment and climate, addresses public fears, and enhances the industry’s social license to operate – all at minimal net cost to the industry. Raising the regulatory bar is also critical for the industry to take advantage of global shale gas opportunities.  Fracking is banned in France, Bulgaria, and, according to BBC, Switzerland. How China approaches its shale gas resources depends upon industry performance elsewhere.  

Tough regulations benefit everyone. Governments must respond.

Maryland Public Television's "Fracking: Weighing the Risks" documentary video is available on-line

Maryland Public Television's documentary "Fracking: Weighing the Risks" is available for on-demand, on-line viewing from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania's great WITF public television station.  Go here to view the video. 

I was interviewed for and appear in the 37 minute-long documentary, and in an accompanying 18 minute-long panel discussion that follows the film. The entire video is a little over 56 minutes in length.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

DOE to conduct study on frack fluid migration in PA

Can gas drilling fluids migrate and pose a threat to drinking water?

Just days after the release of a new Duke University study on fluid migration that amplified the need for additional research on a crucial unresolved issue of shale gas exploration, a drilling company in southwestern Pennsylvania is giving researchers from the U. S. Department of Energy's National Energy Technology Laboratory in Pittsburgh access to a commercial drilling site to try to answer that question.

According to The Associated Press, the unnamed firm let scientists conduct baseline tests, allowed tracing elements to be added to hydraulic fracturing fluids and agreed to allow follow-up monitoring. That should let scientists see whether the drilling fluids move upwards or sideways from the Marcellus Shale, which is 8,100 feet deep at that spot.  Monitoring will go on for at least a year. NETL will have to explain why it chose that period of time, and not longer.  Other studies have either not quantified the time period for possible migration or modeled it over decades.  

This is an important study. The firm involved is performing an important public service by allowing the study to be conducted at its site.  

Resources for the Future releases review of shale gas regulations by state

Resources for the Future (RFF) Center for Energy Economics and Policy has released an analysis and map of state regulations governing shale gas development in the 31 states that have significant shale gas reserves or where industry shows interest in shale gas development. The complete set of maps is downloadable here.

This is an important and rich overview of the regulatory patterns, similarities, and differences among states. It does not, as RFF points out, authoritatively compile any given state's regulations or fully analyze any specific regulation. RFF has also included the American Petroleum Institute's (API) best practices and included them in the maps.  

This is an extremely useful analysis.  Bear in mind that state regulations are numerous, dense, customized to each state’s particular situations, geology, hydrology, and more. They differ widely state-to-state, and it’s close to impossible to capture nuances within rules that can be crucial.  Words, definitions, and classifications matter. (If you doubt that - and even if you don’t - take this eye-opening quiz on how Pennsylvania categorizes violations of its shale gas regulations.)  As does how those regulations are enforced.

RFF has performed an important service that can aid in getting shale gas regulations right - we are not there yet, by a long shot – and in advancing what must be a process of continuous improvement of regulatory oversight – and gas industry performance. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

New Duke study: fluids can migrate upwards from deep underground to contact aquifers

A new Duke University study concludes that Northeastern Pennsylvania’s complex geology contains networks of “natural pathways” that allow gases and brines from the Marcellus shale formation to migrate upward into shallow groundwater aquifers.  As a result, some drinking water supplies in northeastern Pennsylvania could be at increased risk for contamination, especially from methane leaks from poorly-constructed shale gas wells.

Last year, the same team of Duke researchers published a study that found elevated levels of methane contamination in drinking water wells located within a kilometer of hydraulically fractured shale gas wells, but found no evidence of contamination from fracturing fluids or brines.

The new study found elevated levels of salinity with similar geochemistry to deep Marcellus brine in drinking water samples from three groundwater aquifers that underlie six northeastern Pennsylvania counties.  The elevated salinity was not linked to hydraulic fracturing, according to the study, for two reasons.  First, the locations of the samples containing brine don’t match up with the locations of shale-gas wells. In addition, results from the new study are similar to water-quality tests conducted in the same aquifers in the 1980s, decades before shale-gas development began. 

The study did not reach conclusions as to how long it took the brines to migrate upward.  For that reason, because the brines could have come from deeper than the Marcellus formation, and because the act of drilling could actually preempt saline water from rising by reducing pressure in the Marcellus formation, the study immediately drew sharp criticism from both the oil and gas industry and a scientist on the National Academy of Science's peer review panel.

This essential truth does not appear to be in dispute, and should not be lost in any debate: fluids – in addition to gases - can migrate from deep underground upwards to come in contact with groundwater sources. How long it takes is to me somewhat irrelevant; the specific geology is very relevant.  The risks to water supplies from surface spills at gas drilling sites are already abundantly clear. The potential for contamination from upward migration of fluids (and gases) must be taken extremely seriously.

A modeling study by another researcher that was published in May suggested that frack fluids themselves could migrate upwards toward aquifers – and in a matter of decades, much more quickly than has been previously assumed. That study contradicted a UK study that found that the risk of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing is very low, and that it can be virtually eliminated if fracking is stopped a minimum of 600 meters from aquifers.  

More research is clearly needed.

Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, summed up the latest study – and its global implications - in a university news release:

"As shale gas exploration is becoming global -- including in Poland, China, Australia and New Zealand -- the take-home message of this study is that pre-drilling water quality monitoring is important for evaluating water-quality baselines that can be used to detect future changes in water quality, and for evaluating possible hydraulic 'short cuts' and pathways between fluids and gases in deep shale gas formations and shallow aquifers. Such geochemical reconnaissance would provide a better risk assessment for water contamination in newly developed shale gas exploration areas."

I would go further.

All of these studies underscore the need for additional research; for the gas industry to perform at the highest possible level - every well, every time - and with more environmentally benign methods; for vigorous enforcement of existing rules (Pennsylvania adopted enhanced gas well construction standards in February, 2011 after a two-year design) and constant review of their adequacy; and for requirements for much more detailed, up-front geological and groundwater testing, site characterization, and study by drillers before shale gas wells are drilled.  That is the path to minimizing risks to water supplies from shale gas exploration, and it should not be controversial at all.