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Thursday, January 3, 2013

Cursed with shale gas plenty?

This piece on America's shale gas boom by David Rothkopf, published in Foreign Policy, is essential reading. It asks a vitally important question: will abundant shale gas create more problems than it fixes?  

How we answer that question will profoundly affect our children and the country they will inherit, as well as future generations - and all life on the planet.

Methane leakage in the headlines again with an alarming - but questionable - number

Researchers who hold joint appointments with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado, and who first sparked concern with a February 2012 study suggesting a methane leakage rate of 4% at a natural gas field near Denver, say that new data from one basin in Utah puts the leakage rate at an alarming 9%. That would be devastating, to say the least, to natural gas' potential to be our biggest available climate stabilization tool.

But not so fast.

Major caveats are in order here.  The data suggesting a 9% leakage rate are "preliminary." They come from a "small snapshot" of a much larger picture.   They are vastly higher than U.S. EPA and other academic estimates.  And the February 2012 report by the same researchers received sharp criticism that essentially validated EPA estimates. 

I think it is more than fair to say that the numbers on methane leakage are still substantially in doubt.

What is clear is that we must urgently get the methane leakage numbers right, and we must, with even greater urgency, minimize those rates, whatever they are.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

EIA animates PA natgas development and illustrates planning challenge

Pennsylvania's natural gas production more than quadrupled between 2009 and 2011, due to expanded horizontal drilling combined with hydraulic fracturing.

The U. S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) has  published an animation illustrating Pennsylvania's transition from conventional vertical wells to horizontal wells.  

The animation shows the explosion of horizontal drilling activity in the state's northern tier, as well as in its southwest corner.  What the animation only hints at is the extent of landscape industrialization, particularly in previously forested areas of the state. Every one of those red dots involves many acres of clearing and disturbance for well pads, staging areas, roads, and pipelines.
EIA has also charted Pennsylvania's annual natural gas production since 2005:

With the shift to horizontal wells, Pennsylvania's natural gas production more than quadrupled since 2009. 

EIA also charted natural gas well starts in Pennsylvania for the same period:

EIA notes that historically, natural gas operators in Pennsylvania drilled a few thousand conventional (vertical) wells annually. The number of well starts in Pennsylvania is actually down from the advent of horizontal drilling, reflecting the decline in natural gas prices and the shift to "wet gas" areas.  From January through April 2012, 618 new natural gas wells were started; over 700 new natural gas wells were started over the same period in 2011. However, 263 new oil and "combination" (oil and natural gas) wells were started in Pennsylvania from January through April 2012, significantly higher than the 164 new wells that began drilling during the same period in 2011.
As natural gas prices recover, the pace of horizontal drilling in Pennsylvania will surely accelerate again.  The impact on production is clear.  What is far less certain is the ongoing and cumulative impacts on Pennsylvania's irreplaceable natural resources. The animation vividly illustrates the need for, the business case for, and the imperative of government requirement of landscape-level planning by the natural gas industry.