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

 This commentary was originally posted on the EDF Energy Exchange Blog by Scott Anderson.

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/

This entry was posted in Barnett Shale, Natural gas, Oil. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

One Comment

  1. Stan Scobie
    Posted February 19, 2012 at 5:18 PM | Permalink

    Folks:

    I have a few observations;

    1. In the first 55 pages there is not one formal reference, despite a lot of factual and conceptual assertions. The reader is told that the details will be found further on – with no useful guidance as to just where.

    2. The 414 pg copy I downloaded yesterday from the U.T. site is a draft, yet the general media buzz and the presentation on the U.T. website is that it is a "report" implying carefully honed and finished and complete.

    3. The detailed section that I read very carefully, "Section 4 Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Development" is labeled clearly "draft."

    In a part I was particularly interested in about substance migration related to drilling and fracking, only two of the seven references I marked for follow up were listed in the reference section.

    In an interesting instance the Boyer et al (2011) study of substance migration, published in Center for Rural Pennsylvania and subsequently withdrawn by the authors for further review, is cited without qualification as a fully fledged piece of science.

    There are very many other errors, citations incompletely described, obsolete and/or incomplete sets or related and appropriate references, etc.

    Overall, I was extremely disappointed in the quality of the work as a useful piece of "science" despite the tantalizng title: "Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection…." It is just not ready for prime time.

    Stanley R Scobie, Ph.D., Binghamton, NY

  • About This Blog

    Confluence of SJR, Old, and Middle rivers

    Advocating for healthier air and cleaner energy in Texas through public education and policy influence.

    Follow @EDFtx

  • Categories

  • Get blog posts by email

    Subscribe via RSS

  • Featured authors

    Ramon AlvarezRamon Alvarez
    Senior Scientist

    Elena Craft
    Health Scientist

    Jim Marston
    Vice President, US Climate and Energy Program

    Marita Mirzatuny
    Project Manager

    Marcelo Norsworthy
    Transportation Research Analyst

    Kate Zerrenner
    Project Manager

  • Twitter activity