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.