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Friday, October 31, 2014

Study finds dangerous air pollution near oil and gas sites

A new, peer-reviewed study, published in the journal Environmental Health, has found "potentially dangerous” levels of local air pollution near oil and gas drilling and transmission sites.

Air concentrations of volatile compounds near oil and gas production: a community-based exploratory study found:
Air concentrations of potentially dangerous compounds and chemical mixtures are frequently present near oil and gas production sites...
Levels of eight volatile chemicals exceeded federal guidelines under several operational circumstances. Benzene, formaldehyde, and hydrogen sulfide were the most common compounds to exceed acute and other health-based risk levels…
The study monitored air at locations in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, sampling air near a mix of sites, including compressor stations, production pads and condensate tank farms. Some but not all of the sampling sites were associated with hydraulic fracturing. 
It used trained local residents to gather air samples, because: 
Deploying residents allowed for quick monitoring in places where they suspected something was wrong, based on bad odors, symptoms such as nausea or other problems.
The study's sampling was done as a snapshot—air at one moment in time, or in the case of formaldehyde, over the course of at least eight hours. [Lead author David O.] Carpenter said that's not how states have typically handled their own monitoring, the results of which have suggested little cause for alarm or weren't detailed enough to determine whether a health risk existed.
By averaging the results over days, weeks or months, state monitors risk missing the sporadic emission spikes that can harm exposed people, he said. 
"Our results indicate that the longer-term monitoring misses peak concentrations, which may be very important," Carpenter said. 
Toxic substances in 20 percent of the 76 samples taken for the study exceeded safe levels for brief exposure while another 20 percent exceeded standards for longer-term exposure. The study authors said they thought both were appropriate comparisons in part because residents picked areas to sample where odors and health complaints were common.  
There are several implications from this and similar studies. As another lead author, Gregg P. Macy noted,
"The key takeaway is we really need to start sampling at the scales dictated by community concerns, the same concerns that are sometimes lodged in county and state agencies as complaints but that are experienced daily"...
Better air quality monitoring near oil and gas sites and facilities is obviously needed, and the community-based model used here is worth serious consideration as - in the authors' words - a "supplement" to state monitoring regimes. And while there's also a need for more research, incomplete understanding of the pubic health impacts of oil and gas development should not preclude action. At minimum, those actions should include requiring best available control technology on all natgas drilling and transmission equipment and banning open impoundments for storing any drilling-related fluids.

Oct. 31, 2014 update: Here's a link to the full study.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Increased LNG exports lead to increased natural gas prices

The US Energy Information Administration has released its study of the impact on liquified natural gas exports on domestic prices and found that - surprise (not) - exports will increase domestic natgas prices.

Effect of Increased Levels of Liquefied Natural Gas Exports on U.S. Energy Markets confirms what any Econ 101 student should know - that increased demand for a commodity will likely push up its price.  The study finds:
projected U.S. natural gas prices increase in each of the five baseline cases. The price paths depend on the assumptions made regarding the resource base and advances in production technology, economic growth, and natural gas demand. In the Reference case, the average Lower 48 state supply price more than doubles between 2013 and 2040, ultimately reaching $7.25/Million British thermal units (MMBtu) in 2040. In contrast, under the more optimistic resource assumptions of the [high oil and gas resource] case, prices increase by only 38% by 2040 and never rise above $4.34/MMBtu. Under the more pessimistic resource assumptions of the [low oil and gas resource] case, prices reach $10.08/MMBtu in 2040.
EIA notes understandable caveats:
projections of energy markets over a 25-year period are highly uncertain and subject to many events that cannot be foreseen, such as supply disruptions, policy changes, and technological breakthroughs. This uncertainty is particularly true in projecting the effects of exporting significant LNG volumes from the United States...
Natural gas exports will raise prices and impact domestic consumers, utilities, and manufacturers. That has been a concern raised by legislators and business leaders. How much of an impact there will be remains to be seen.  There have been thoughtful analyses of this issue, and some perhaps less thoughtful. But any way you slice it, you can't repeal the laws of economics.  EIA's basic result is not surprising.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Tracing the problem

While hydraulic fracturing itself has yet to be proven to have contaminated groundwater, faulty wellsleaking impoundments, and spills have. Better methods to detect contamination and its source are needed. A study published last week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology has identified new tracing tools that can fill that bill.

New Tracers Identify Hydraulic Fracturing Fluids and Accidental Releases from Oil and Gas Operations finds that hydraulic fracturing flowback fluids that have been spilled or released into the environment can be reliably identified by using certain chemically-stable tracers with distinctive chemical fingerprints.

According to this article on the study, the tracers - based on elements that occur naturally in shale formations - allow scientists to track the presence of frack fluids in the environment and tell them apart from naturally-occurring background water and wastewater that comes from other sources, including conventional oil and gas wells.

The tracers appear to be a valuable tool – for both regulators and the industry - to differentiate among sources of contamination and guide efforts to mitigate - and prevent - environmental impacts of unconventional oil and gas development.  Will these new tools be used?