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Friday, September 19, 2014

Chevron certified on CSSD performance standards

I’ve written previously about the creation of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, and the cool industry response to its laudable 15 performance standards, which are intended to go beyond existing state laws in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.

That cool response may be starting to change.

Oil and gas giant Chevron has become the first company to complete the Center’s evaluation  and verification  process and earn full CSSD certification against all 15 of the Center’s initial performance standards.

Innovation will proceed, as will our evaluation of the risks of shale gas development.  What is a best practice today may not be six months from now.  Continuous improvement must be a guiding principle in shale gas development - and its regulation. CSSD gets that, as a review of their standards shows. 

All that said, Chevron’s accomplishment is a very significant - and very positive – development.

Now, will the rest of the industry step up?  And will state regulators leverage this leadership to require higher standards of all drillers?

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What are the environmental costs and benefits of fracking?

To try to answer that question, an impressive array of researchers have synthesized 165 academic studies and government databases, covering greenhouse gas impacts, local air pollution, earthquakes, and water. They found a decidedly mixed bag.

The Environmental Costs and Benefits of Fracking was published in Annual Review of Environment and Resources. Its abstract says that: 

Unconventional oil and natural gas extraction enabled by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is driving an economic boom, with consequences described from “revolutionary” to “disastrous.” Reality lies somewhere in between.
Unconventional energy generates income and, done well, can reduce air pollution and even water use compared with other fossil fuels. Alternatively, it could slow the adoption of renewables and, done poorly, release toxic chemicals into water and air.
Primary threats to water resources include surface spills, wastewater disposal, and drinking-water contamination through poor well integrity. An increase in volatile organic compounds and air toxics locally are potential health threats, but the switch from coal to natural gas for electricity generation will reduce sulfur, nitrogen, mercury, and particulate air pollution.
Data gaps are particularly evident for human health studies, for the question of whether natural gas will displace coal compared with renewables, and for decadal-scale legacy issues of well leakage and plugging and abandonment practices.
Critical topics for future research include data for:
  • estimated ultimate recovery (EUR) of unconventional hydrocarbons
  • the potential for further reductions of water requirements and chemical toxicity 
  • whether unconventional resource development alters the frequency of well integrity failures
  • potential contamination of surface and ground waters from drilling and spills
  • factors that could cause wastewater injection to generate large earthquakes, and
  • the consequences of greenhouse gases and air pollution on ecosystems and human health.
The researchers offer five principles for helping to reduce the environmental footprint of hydraulic fracturing and unconventional energy extraction which should be very familiar to readers of this blog:
  1. Greater transparency from companies and regulating agencies, and phasing out the use of toxic chemicals entirely.
  2. Fill the research gaps on the potential effects of unconventional energy extraction on human health
  3. Perform baseline studies prior to drilling, including measurements of groundwater and surface-water attributes, air quality, human health, and social impacts.
  4. Focus on surface and near-surface activities - rather than on what occurs deep underground - with best management practices or regulations, with increased attention to improving well integrity, and to potential interactions between hydraulic fracturing and abandoned wells.
  5. Invest in legacy funds to deal with inevitable future environmental problems. The researchers highlight Pennsylvania’s anemic “impact fee.”
This latest report is similar in tone and content to reports from Canada and the EU. They all contain essential wisdom. Will they be heeded?

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

NETL study: no upward migration of gas or fluids from fracking

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) has conducted a field study that monitored the induced fracturing of six horizontal Marcellus Shale gas wells in Greene County, Pennsylvania.
NETL conducted the study to determine the maximum height of fractures created by hydraulic fracturing at this specific location; and whether natural gas or fluids had migrated upward during or after hydraulic fracturing.

(NETL) has released a technical report on the results of a limited field study that monitored a hydraulic fracturing operation in Greene County, PA for upward fracture growth out of the target zone and upward gas and fluid migration. Results indicate that under the conditions of this study, for this specific location, fracture growth ceased more than 5,000 feet below drinking water aquifers and there was no detectable upward migration of gas or fluids from the hydraulically-fractured Marcellus Shale. 
NETL's results - though limited and site-specific - reinforce those of a study I blogged about yesterday.  Fracking does not, so far, appear to threaten groundwater.  Poor well integrity, however, does - along with surface leaks and spills.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Study finds faulty wells - not fracking - pollutes drinking water

A new study has found - not surprisingly, in my view - that contamination of drinking water by fugitive methane is due to faulty wells and not hydraulic fracturing.

That's what the data has suggested all along, but the issue has become muddied because of imprecise use of terms like "fracking" to - in some quarters - embrace the total unconventional natural gas development process. That imprecision too often masks urgent problems - and self-evident solutions.

According to this report by BBC News: 
The scientists analysed content from 113 wells in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania and 20 in the Barnett shale in Texas. They found eight clusters of wells with problems. 
"The mechanism of contamination looks to be well integrity," said one of the authors, Prof Robert Jackson from Stanford University.
"In about half the cases we believe the contamination came from poor cementing and in the other half it came from well casings that leaked."
Cement is used in the oil and gas extraction industry to fill the spaces between the well casing and the sides of the well.
In one case the methane was linked to the failure of an underground well. In none of the investigated wells was there a direct link to fracking.
"These results appear to rule out the possibility that methane has migrated up into drinking water aquifers because of horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, as some people feared," said Prof Avner Vengosh, from Duke University.
The solution is self-evident:  
The scientists believe that most of the problems they have identified can be resolved with better enforcement of existing regulations.
"You need strong rules and regulations on well integrity," said Prof Jackson.
"You need generous setbacks that protect homes and schools and water sources from drilling, sometimes farther than the drillers would want. You need enough inspectors on the ground to keep people honest and you need separation between the industry and the inspectors and you don't always have that in the US." 
Words for shale gas-producing states to live by.

The Guardian, in its report on the study, notes:
The finding was in line with a number of earlier studies on leaks in the cement casing of natural gas wells.
In Pennsylvania, state inspectors found about 9% of steel and cement casings on wells drilled since the start of the natural gas boom were compromised. There was an even higher risk on newer wells drilled since 2009, especially in the north-western part of the state, the inspectors found.
These high well-failure rates are totally unacceptable. They demand swift, strong regulatory action - including a rewrite of our bloodied, flawed Act 13.

The paper concludes on an important cautionary note - that the fracking process may affect the integrity of gas wells, and needs further study: 
Future work should evaluate whether the large volumes of water and high pressures required for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing influence well integrity. 
And that evaluation should cover not only the first time a well is fracked, but also when it’s refracked - perhaps multiple times – a point I raised here

Monday, September 15, 2014

Paper: residual frack water not a threat to groundwater

Researchers from Penn State University and Cornell University, along with a geologist from Royal Dutch Shell, say that water injected during hydraulic fracturing operations remains locked in the shale formation and poses no threat to groundwater supplies.

Their paper - The fate of residual treatment water in gas shale - was published in the September issue of the Journal of Unconventional Oil and Gas Resources.

According to Natural Gas Intel, the researchers found that water that gets driven into the shale in the fracking process stays there:
According to the report's abstract, "more than [5 million gallons] of water containing additives is commonly injected into a typical horizontal well in gas shale to open fractures and allow gas recovery. Less than half of this treatment water is recovered as flowback or later production brine, and in many cases recovery is [less than] 30%"… 
"Some have suggested that this RTW poses a long term and serious risk to shallow aquifers by virtue of being free water that can flow upward along natural pathways, mainly fractures and faults," the researchers said. "These concerns are based on single phase Darcy Law physics, which is not appropriate when gas and water are both present. In addition, the combined volume of the RTW and the initial brine in gas shale is too small to impact near surface aquifers even if it could escape. 
"When capillary and osmotic forces are considered, there are no forces propelling the RTW upward from gas shale along natural pathways. The physics dominating these processes ensure that capillary and osmotic forces both propel the RTW into the matrix of the shale, thus permanently sequestering it." 
The research was funded by the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America and Penn State’s Appalachian Basin Black Shale Group.  Predictably, critics pounced on the funding sources for the study (as well as for another study I blogged about last week). The answer to all of that is more study and application of the scientific process and peer-review.