Author Archives: Scott Anderson

Why The Texas Railroad Commission Must Get Well Integrity Right

On February 28, 2013, something went very wrong on a well site in Hemphill County, Texas:

According to Railroad Commission investigators, there was “one injury from well head being blown off when casing parted.”

According to the investigators, it took almost two weeks before this “frac water” stopped flowing out of the wellbore, and another week for the well to be plugged. The investigation did not determine the underlying cause of this accident.

Getting the rules right on well integrity is about preventing pollution, protecting the environment, securing property and, most importantly, saving lives. There were no fatalities in this accident, but sadly, that is not always the case (learn more about risks EDF’s natural gas work addresses).

The Railroad Commission is close to finalizing a historic well integrity rulemaking, the most significant overhaul of these practices in several decades. It is, on the whole, an excellent effort, bringing Texas back to the forefront on well construction, operation and maintenance practices. The proposals are progressive and will lead to real environmental benefit.

One particular provision of the proposal, however, falls short of the standard set by the rest of the rulemaking. It has to do with the amount of space surrounding casings, the steel pipes that go underground. This “annular space” (or “annular gap”) is supposed to be filled with cement as necessary to isolate groundwater from pollution, protect the casing from corrosion, and prevent gas from migrating to places it does not belong.

The width of the annular gap matters. In order for a cement job to be effective, the gap must be neither too wide nor too narrow.

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A Red Flag On Disclosure Of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals

It’s not often that a new regulatory idea becomes so popular that one or more states per month climb on the bandwagon. But that is precisely what has happened with the push to disclose which chemicals are pumped into the ground to stimulate oil and natural gas production during the process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

A year ago, only three states (Arkansas, Montana and Wyoming) required oil and gas producers to tell the public what chemicals they were using. Two other states (Colorado and Texas) were actively developing such rules. Today, just twelve months later, statutes or regulations mandating “frack” chemical disclosure are on the books in no fewer than 18 states, and proposals are pending or under consideration in several others.

FracFocus, an online registry that compiles information on hydraulic fracturing chemicals both for states where disclosure is voluntary and required, has been up and running for just 20 months, but already it houses approximately 800,000 records that include ingredients data. As of December 5, 2012, this data represented 33,606 wells. The amount of information on the site continues to grow rapidly.

It is impressive that so much information has been made available in such a short time. Still, people have begun to wonder whether the disclosure rules are accomplishing what was intended. The question is important because rules that aren’t working need to be changed. A good regulatory system is based on a process of continual improvement, not a naive idea that the rulebook can be written in a way that will never need changing.

Unfortunately, judging from early press reports, there are quite a few bugs in the system. To be fair, the reporting requirements are quite new and still being implemented — and analysis of the data has barely begun. But  problems are emerging. The issue receiving the most media attention is the sheer number of trade secret claims. Read More »

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University At Buffalo's Shale Resources And Society Institute’s ‘Environmental Impacts During Shale Gas Drilling’ Report

The University at Buffalo's Shale Resources and Society Institute issued a report yesterday, "Environmental Impacts During Shale Gas Drilling: Causes, Impacts and Remedies," which offers a quantitative data review of Pennsylvania's regulation of natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale. The press release notes that I was a reviewer for the report.

While I was a reviewer, this does not mean that all of my suggestions were taken or that I agree with all of the report’s opinions and conclusions.

Does the report have strengths? Absolutely. Unfortunately, it is hard to find understandable, comprehensive data describing natural gas industry environmental violations and the responses taken by enforcement agencies. The University at Buffalo has done a great service by bringing such information to light for the period studied (2008 through August 2011).

At the same time, several of the opinions and conclusions in the report are questionable. These include: 

  • The idea that a violation isn’t an “environmental” concern if it is a violation of “paperwork” or “preventative” regulations and didn’t result in immediate, actual harm to the environment.
     
  • Characterizing the rate of environmental violations (narrowly defined) as “low” in the first eight months of 2011 when, even using a narrow definition of environmental violation, violations were found at 26.5% of the wells drilled.
     
  • The suggestion that the present regulatory program is effective because the incidence of “environmental violations” (narrowly defined) declined from 58.2% of wells in 2008 to 26.5% of wells in 2011.

In sum, there’s a lot of good information to be gleaned from the study, but caution should be exercised with regards to some of the conclusions.

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Root Causes Of Water Pollution From Oil And Gas Operations

I received a flurry of emails this morning congratulating me on comments I made that appeared in a Wall Street Journal article titled, “Faulty Wells, Not Fracking, Blamed for Water Pollution.”

It is a good article. It suggests that even if artificial channels created by hydraulic fracturing have not yet been shown to have caused drinking water pollution, action is required to correct pollution problems caused by other aspects of natural gas operations.

I would add three additional points to the information covered in the article: 

  1. While faulty well construction is a big problem, surface spills have caused an even higher number of underground water pollution cases attributable to oil and gas development. A recent study commissioned by the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) determined that roughly 70% of nearly 400 cases of ground water pollution caused by the oil and gas industry over two decades in Texas and Ohio stemmed from mistakes made at the surface rather than from downhole problems.
     
  2. Why is it important that approximately one in 10 cement jobs requires remediation before the well is completed? This statistic doesn’t imply that one in every 10 wells is a pollution hazard.  Instead, the high number of cement jobs that need to be repaired in order to keep wells from becoming pollution hazards illustrates that without careful oversight of cementing the frequency of problem wells could increase dramatically. During the years in which GWPC identified some 400 ground water pollution cases in Texas and Ohio, nearly 221,000 wells were drilled in those states. Fortunately, the cement jobs didn’t fail on 10 percent of those wells! But 35 of the 400 pollution cases were due to well construction problems – cement job failures were involved in many but not all of those 35 instances.
     
  3. Although stronger regulatory oversight of well construction is needed, stronger oversight of hydraulic fracturing is also needed. No one should try to suggest that hydraulic fracturing is risk free. It is vital that regulators begin to more closely assess hydraulic fracturing plans and operations – especially in relatively shallow geologic contexts – to be sure that fractures will intersect neither drinking water nor transmissive faults or wellbores that in turn intersect drinking water.

To learn about aspects of oil and gas operations that need close regulatory oversight, see my blog, “If The Problem Isn’t Hydraulic Fracturing, What Is?

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If The Problem Isn't Hydraulic Fracturing, Then What Is?

Today, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin released a major report titled, “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development.” The report’s conclusions are those of the authors, though Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) helped the University of Texas at Austin define its scope of work and reviewed drafts during the course of the project.

What are the main conclusions? As has been the case in other inquiries, the University of Texas study did not find any confirmed cases of drinking water contamination due to pathways created by hydraulic fracturing. But this does not mean such contamination is impossible or that hydraulic fracturing chemicals can’t get loose in the environment in other ways (such as through spills of produced water). In fact, the study shines a light on the fact that there are a number of aspects of natural gas development that can pose significant environmental risk. And it highlights the fact that there are a number of ways in which current regulatory oversight is inadequate.

The following conclusions are particularly important: 

  • Many reports of groundwater contamination occur in conventional oil and gas operations (e.g. failure of well-bore casing and cementing) and are not unique to hydraulic fracturing.
  • Surface spills of fracturing fluids appear to pose greater risks to groundwater than hydraulic fracturing itself.
  • Blowouts – uncontrolled fluid releases during construction and operation – are a rare occurrence, but subsurface blowouts appear to be under-reported.
  • The lack of baseline studies makes it difficult to evaluate the long-term, cumulative effects and risks associated with hydraulic fracturing.
  • Most state oil and gas regulations were written well before shale gas development became widespread.
  • Gaps remain in the regulation of well casing and cementing, water withdrawal and usage, and waste storage and disposal.
  • Enforcement capacity is highly variable among the states, particularly when measured by the ratio of staff to numbers of inspections conducted.

The report deserves widespread attention. But it is by no means the final word on these topics. Chip Groat, who led the study on behalf of the Energy Institute, plans to tackle additional topics in the future. These include air emissions from natural gas operations, induced seismicity and a field and laboratory investigation of whether hydrogeologic connectivity exists between the Barnett Shale and aquifers and other geologic units above and below the formation.

To read the complete report, visit http://energy.utexas.edu/

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What Can The World Learn From Texas About Frac Chemical Disclosure?

I wrote last month that Texas House Energy Committee Chairman Jim Keffer, sponsor of a measure that would require oil and gas drillers to tell the public what chemicals are added to hydraulic fracturing fluid, said "the world is watching" to see how Texas handles the issue. There has been a lot to see. The House approved a disclosure bill “on second reading” yesterday afternoon and may vote later today to send the measure to the Senate. Meanwhile, the Senate Natural Resources Committee held a hearing this morning on a nearly identical bill, SB 1930, filed just a few days ago by Senator Jane Nelson.

Despite predictions in many quarters that Texas would never pass a bill requiring frac chemical disclosure, passage is a real possibility. The current version of the bill leaves several things to be desired, and at this point EDF is withholding support. But EDF, Sierra Club, Environment Texas and a number of other environmental advocates agree that this is landmark legislation even in its current form.

The legislation is not the “plug-and-play” model for other jurisdictions that I had hoped for, but it is landmark legislation nonetheless.

Three things in particular are worth noting:

First, virtually the entire oil and gas industry in Texas has come to recognize that voluntary disclosure efforts will never be enough to resolve this issue – regulation is required. All of the major industry associations now support mandatory disclosure, as do a long list of individual companies. In contrast, until recent weeks – and even days – only a handful of companies were on record supporting meaningful disclosure requirements. EDF applauds this development, and we especially applaud those who came out in support of mandatory disclosure early in the process. The early supporters are listed below.

The second thing notable about the legislation is that industry and Texas public officials have recognized that disclosure cannot be limited to chemicals currently known to be hazardous in the workplace – all chemicals used in frac fluid additives must be subject to disclosure, not just chemicals required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to be listed on Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). The failure to include non-MSDS chemicals is one of the major limitations of the voluntary chemical registry recently launched by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.

Third, the Texas bill authorizes landowners to challenge trade secret claims. At the beginning of the session, this didn’t seem to be in the cards.

It is not at all certain that Texas will end up with good disclosure rules. The bill might not pass or rules implementing the legislation could turn out to be weak. And some aspects of this legislation will prove troublesome even under the best of circumstances. But can what has happened in Texas help other jurisdictions get their rules right? Absolutely.

Here are the companies that deserve special applause for breaking ranks with their peers and expressing early support: Apache, Anadarko Petroleum, BG Group, El Paso, Encana Natural Gas, EXCO, Linn Energy, Petrohawk Energy, Pioneer Resources, Range Petroleum, Southwestern Energy, and Talisman Energy. A letter this group wrote to Chairman Keffer on May 6th is well worth reading.

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