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Friday, September 7, 2012

Canadian earthquakes tied to fracking

The Calgary Herald is reporting that the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission has concluded that 38 small earthquakes in that Canadian province between 2009 and 2011 were caused by hydraulic fracturing associated with shale gas extraction.  

“The investigation has concluded that the events ... were caused by fluid injection during hydraulic fracturing in proximity to pre-existing faults,” the agency said.  Ken Paulson, chief operating officer at the commission is quoted by the Herald as saying, "There was no risk posed to public safety or environment by any of the events that were looked at as part of this investigation.”

BCOGC's  report recommends improvements in seismic detection, further study to identify pre-existing fault lines, stronger monitoring and reporting procedures, and an examination of the relationship between hydraulic fracturing parameters like lower pump rates or injection volumes and seismic activity.  These are common-sense measures, consistent with recommendations made by similar studies of induced seismicity from fracking or wastewater injection in the U.S. and the UK.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

US Geological Survey doing critically important work on landscape impacts of natgas development

Using highly accurate geospatial data and high resolution aerial imagery from 2004-2010, The U.S. Geological Survey is documenting landscape change resulting from construction of well pads, new roads and pipelines for natural gas and coalbed methane exploration in Pennsylvania's Bradford and Washington counties. That work will help develop an understanding of the cumulative impacts of that development and the potential consequences for ecosystems and wildlife, human health, water quality, invasive species and socioeconomic impacts. 

The study, "Landscape Consequences of Natural Gas Extraction in Bradford and Washington Counties, Pennsylvania, 2004 to 2010," found that in Bradford County, 642 natural gas extraction sites resulted in more than 1500 hectares (3707 acres) of disturbance, including 74 kilometers (45 miles) of new roads and 178 kilometers (110 miles) of new pipelines. In Washington County, 949 natural gas extraction sites resulted in more than 1800 hectares (4448 acres) of disturbance, including 277 kilometers (172 miles) of new roads and 216 kilometers (134 miles) of new pipelines. 

Even though the disturbance represents well less than one percent of the total land area of each county - and even though some of the disturbance will eventually be reclaimed when wells are completed; plus, cleared rights of way for pipelines and roads should shrink somewhat post-construction - these are very significant numbers. In a news release announcing the publication of the report, USGS Director Marcia McNutt said "The widespread use of hydraulic fracturing…is…modifying the landscape at an unprecedented rate compared with other forms of energy development. The value of this study is that it documents emerging issues with a rapidly expanding practice, so that all involved in decision making can make informed choices." 

This quantitative look at the levels of landscape disturbance, forest fragmentation and loss, and other changes to land use and land augments early work that suggests that, very conservatively, close to 10% of Pennsylvania’s forest cover could be damaged or lost from natural gas and pipeline development in the coming decades. With continuation of USGS’ work, those numbers can be greatly sharpened.  What is clear now is that landscape disturbance will affect lots more than ecosystems, human health, and water quality.  It will, for example, profoundly impact Pennsylvania’s two largest industries - 
agriculture and tourism.

This data is critically important for “informed choices” and the development of smart policies and smart regulations to govern the shale gas era in a way that conserves Penn’s Woods and all of its natural treasure.  But it is equally critical for the natural gas industry.  Hard data on landscape consumption is vital to the development of smart practice by natural gas producers and pipeline companies – practices that can save the industry money – as much as 5% of overall development costs, according to IEA’s Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas report.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported on the study today, which includes comments from me.

This study is great work by USGS.  It will hopefully extend to all of Pennsylvania’s gas-producing counties, and continue to be updated.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

TX modeling study highlights risk of local smog from natgas operations

The Dallas Observer reports on a new modeling study on natural gas processing and air pollution that was published in the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association by researcher Eduardo Olaguer of the Houston Advanced Research Center.

The paper looks at gas processing facilities in the Barnett Shale and finds that they can increase local ozone levels for several miles downwind, significantly increasing smog.  The study calls for  "significant controls" on emissions from oil and gas exploration and production.

The relationship between gas exploration and smog is not new.  Sparsely-populated, rural Wyoming, for example, now has worse smog than Los Angeles because of its boom in natural gas drilling. However, the Olaguer study - because it was a modeling exercise - quickly drew criticism from the gas industry group Energy In Depth, which noted that emissions levels monitored by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (which, incidentally, also makes heavy use of models) "have shown there are 'no levels of concern for any chemicals,' and that there are 'no immediate health concerns from air quality in the area' due to oil and gas operations."

More monitoring, more data, and more studies are obviously needed to clear the air on this issue. But it is already clear that the risk of local air pollution is increased by natural gas operations.  Monitoring is essential.  Smart regulations  and smart companies can avoid or minimize this risk with the best rules, operations, and technologies.  

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Shell CEO calls for more shale gas regs, monitoring - and a carbon price

An interview with National Geographic by Shell CEO Peter Voser is a must-read. In it, Voser discusses the state of the shale gas universe, and particularly Pennsylvania, where there are 74 operators and “a very fragmented, competitive environment.”  

Voser says that last year, Shell publicly released its operating procedures, guidelines, and policies in order to  “lift overall operational standards” and to “give the regulators, which are mainly at state level, an idea of what global top world-class standards could look like, which they could actually use in setting the regulations.”

And Voser was very clear in calling for additional regulations on shale gas development, and for greatly-expanded monitoring - of water usage and groundwater contamination issues; of the chemicals that are used; and of methane emissions. Of the latter, Voser says: “The technology is out there. It’s about focusing on it, monitoring it, and actually investing in it.”

But the interview is also noteworthy because Voser voices support for the idea of setting a price on carbon emissions.  He called for governments to take a three-prong approach to energy:

·        focus on  energy efficiency;
·        set a price on carbon - “(W)e need a price for CO2. This will help us to invest, actually, much more in the longer term” - and
·        establish energy policies that set limits on carbon emissions without specifying preferred technologies; that allow industry, NGOs, and academia to work on solutions within that framework.

Voser’s prescriptions for energy policy flow in significant part from Shell’s analysis of the growing tensions among water, energy, and food production. He discusses the role of collaboration among industries, governments and NGOs, and the need for investment in innovation.

There is an obvious case to be made for government action on all of these fronts.  But governments typically lag behind the pace and scope of events.  There is thus perhaps an even stronger case for – and potential for - strong, collaborative, transparent leadership by individual companies.