Environmental Concerns Cause Grief for Shale Gas Production

Although ultimately supportive, my friends in the oil and gas industry couldn’t help but to throw in a snide remark about how I was joining the enemy or “the other side” when I told them I was quitting my reservoir engineering job to pursue a master’s degree in environmental engineering. This is because the oil and gas industry feels threatened by the goals of the environmentally friendly. Yes, environmental teams are in place within the companies to comply with the various environmental regulations that come with the work of the industry, but it must be difficult for oil companies to get excited about protecting the environment when it too often gets in the way of meeting their end goal…making money.

I say all of this as a preface to the main topic of this post: environmental regulation of shale gas production. According to a recent Scientific American article I read, the EPA is tackling rising concerns that hydraulic fracturing otherwise known as “fracing” of shale gas reservoirs can lead to drinking water contamination causing negative environmental and health impacts. Currently the specific chemicals and their amounts used for fracing is unreported, as it is more of a trial and error process much like cooking without a recipe, where the fracing fluid is concocted with a pinch of “this” and a pinch of “that” to fit the unique needs of the job at hand. Although not knowing precisely what makes up the mixture means nothing to the reservoir, it means a lot to those concerned with the potential environmental impacts.

Most shale gas reservoirs are referred to as tight gas reservoirs, which means the permeability of the rock is too low for the hydrocarbons to flow freely, thus, fracing is needed. A mixture of water, sand, and various chemicals at very high pressure are injected into the rock formation to create fractures or channels in the rock to allow for easier transport of the gas into the wellbore. See a video on fracing here.

Shale gas production has been referred to as “a game changer” for the oil and gas industry, believed to yield a substantial natural gas supply for upwards of 100 years. However, with the EPA’s investigation, the industry will face some challenges, making this perfect picture a little less rosy. If the EPA’s study were to find proof that fracing techniques have indeed contaminated drinking water supplies at dangerous levels, new policy could be put in place that requires fracing service companies to reduce the amounts of certain chemicals they inject into the reservoir as well as report the specific amount of chemicals used,  causing what might be a drastic change in the way shale gas drilling is implemented. This of course could hurt the profits of the oil and gas industry, making Big Oil very upset.

So, being a former employee of the oil and gas industry with a great appreciation for this type of work, I understand the frustration of those involved, but as a proponent of clean energy technologies, I feel what the EPA is doing is necessary as well as a good thing.

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3 responses to “Environmental Concerns Cause Grief for Shale Gas Production

  1. Pingback: Hydraulic Fracturing Revisted… « Energy, Technology, & Policy

  2. constanceanne

    I think it could be a good thing for the EPA to begin to look into this issue. Despite the way it may sound the drilling companies know what’s in the fracing fluid used they just don’t want to disclose proprietary information unless they have to.

    That said, I have to wonder what is driving the investigation now. Hydraulic fracturing has been developed and used for twenty-five years. I noticed in the Scientific American article you cited that the Representative who has proposed that shale gas developers must disclose their “frac” recipes is from New York. One of the more recent shale gas finds is the Marcellus ( http://geology.com/usgs/marcellus-shale/marcellus-shale-map.jpg ) which extends into New York state. Since the discovery, there has been a lot of fear about what impacts this type of development would have, particularly on groundwater resources.

    I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a potential for impacts, anytime you drill through an aquifer a potential for something to go wrong exists – extra thick casing or not. However, I have done some research into shale gas development issues and associated water issues and I have not found evidence, proven or circumstantial, that there have been issues associated with fracture fluids impacting ground water. The possibility makes a lot of people nervous, but impacts have not been apparent.

  3. @ Constanceanne,

    The offshore drilling industry has stated, and continues to state that offshore drilling is safe, too. And as of a few months ago, you could have done research into offshore drilling and not found any cause for concern because the ‘impacts [would] have not been apparent’.

    Only now do we hear of investigations uncovering that there have in fact been thousands of other spills. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/23/AR2010072305603.html?wprss=rss_business/special/3

    We absolutely cannot afford to sacrifice any freshwater aquifer to a BP-magnitude accident.

    The logic that it hasn’t happened yet, so it can’t happen is flawed. We saw this with the oil spill, and we saw it with mortgage default risk models which were built on a historic data series in which defaults were not correlated. Too bad we all had to discover that defaults are correlated in such a painful way.

    The O&G industry needs to be regulated, not only from an environmental perspective, but from an economic perspective as well.

    -DA

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