Author Archives: Scott Anderson

What Texas’ Elected Officials Should Know About House Bill 40

HB40The Texas Senate is poised to vote on House Bill 40, new legislation that threatens to gut municipal rules and oversight of oil and gas drilling. The bill, an over-the-top reaction to the Denton fracking ban, stacks the deck in favor of industry and if passed, will undo almost 100 years of local home-rule authority.

That’s a big problem for Texas cities, especially since there seems to be broad misconception about what HB 40 does and doesn’t do. Despite what supporters are saying, this is not a “narrowly tailored” bill, but instead, a complete restructuring of Texas government that will drastically impact a city’s ability to protect the health, public safety and property of Texans who live in areas with heavy drilling activity.

Here are the facts: Read More »

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No Easy Answers When Disposing of Oil and Gas Wastewater

We all want easy answers. And often times the harder the question, the easier we want the answer to be.

Source: Nicholas A. Tonelli Flickr

Increased natural gas use, for example, can help decrease U.S. greenhouse gas emissions as it has a lower carbon content compared to coal or oil. Natural gas also can help transition our energy mix to more renewable energy sources. This is because properly designed, gas-fired generation can respond quickly to pick up the slack if the wind suddenly dies or clouds unexpectedly roll in. But, these benefits mean nothing if the communities where gas is produced suffer air and water pollution, or if methane – a powerful global warming pollutant that is the primary ingredient in natural gas – is allowed to leak into the atmosphere unchecked.

We all should be worried about global warming and the role that sloppy oil and gas production and distribution practices contribute to the problem. But communities where oil and gas development is taking place are also worried about how oil and gas drilling is impacting their water supplies. This is a key issue and one aspect of the groundwater contamination concerns, rightfully gaining attention in these communities, is how and where toxic wastewater is disposed of that is produced along with oil and gas. But here, too, the answers don’t come easy. Read More »

Posted in Methane, Natural Gas| Read 1 Response

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.

Read More »

Posted in Natural Gas, Texas| Tagged , , | Comments are closed

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 »

Posted in General, Natural Gas, Texas| Tagged , | Read 5 Responses

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.

Posted in Natural Gas| Read 5 Responses

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?

Posted in Natural Gas| Tagged | Comments are closed
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