Energy Exchange

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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Some Bad Ideas We Can All Agree On

Source: Bellona

EDF believes that, done right, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) can be a safe and effective tool for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.  We also think it will be a necessary tool – especially for natural gas, which is poised to make up an increasing share of our national energy portfolio.

The environmental community doesn’t have a monolithic view of CCS, though.  Some groups are skeptical about its need.  Others have concerns about whether it can really work.  Fair enough!  We welcome debate and opportunities to learn from each other.

There are certain things, though, on which we can all agree.  More than 50 organizations recently came together to express our unanimous opposition to a couple of very bad ideas about how CCS projects should be treated – ideas that could lead to sloppy projects and put public health and the environment at risk.

The first is so-called “liability relief.”  Believe it or not, on the one-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil-spill disaster, some in the coal and utility industries continue to call for a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for CCS projects.  They are basically saying that once a CCS project is sealed up, operators shouldn’t be held responsible if carbon dioxide (CO2) starts to leak or if displace formation fluids pollute ground water.  We believe this is a set-up for dangerous short cuts in project planning and implementation.  It boggles my mind that, at the same time Congress is struggling to lift liability caps for offshore drilling, anyone would entertain the idea of taking steps that would reduce incentives to properly manage CCS projects.

The second bad idea might be even more perplexing than the first – and we’re especially disappointed that it’s coming from the good folks at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Our environmental watchdogs at the agency are considering a proposal to exempt CCS projects from hazardous waste requirements under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, our nation’s landmark law that keeps us safe from the most toxic substances.  If CO2 streams at CCS projects get this exemption, it will eliminate important protections for clean-ups and remediation and for public participation.

EDF is helping lead the charge against these bad ideas – meeting with members of Congress and agency officials, sounding the alarm with the media, and working with other environmental groups to present a united front.  For more details, read our letter to the Administration, and stay tuned to the Energy Exchange.

Posted in Washington, DC / Language: / Comments are closed

“The World Is Watching” – Will Texas Set The Standard For Mandatory Disclosure Of Frac Fluid Chemicals?

As early as tomorrow, the Texas House of Representatives Energy Resources Committee could approve HB 3328, a measure that is intended to be the most effective law in the country requiring public disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluid.

Last Wednesday night in a hearing room at the Texas Capitol, Representative Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), the Committee’s Chairman and author of the bill, told members of his committee that “the world is watching” to see whether Texas will require oil and gas drillers to tell the public what chemicals are added to hydraulic fracturing fluid. He declared that “the time has come” to mandate public disclosure of all chemical ingredients subject only to reasonable protection for trade secrets. Where trade secrets are concerned, he wants regulatory agencies and health care professionals to have the information on a confidential basis.

Keffer isn’t kidding. He and a growing number of supporters hope to create a model that can settle the issue once and for all, if followed in other jurisdictions as well.

EDF strongly supports Keffer’s mandatory disclosure legislation. So do others in the environmental community. Sierra Club and the Texas League of Conservation Voters were among those testifying for the bill at the hearing last week. Also heartening is the fact that Keffer’s initiative is attracting industry support.  Kudos to the half-dozen gas industry leaders who stepped forward at the hearing to support the bill: Apache, El Paso Production, Petrohawk Energy, Pioneer Natural Resources, Southwestern Energy, and Talisman Energy. These are companies that understand what it takes to earn the public’s trust. Additional industry support is likely to appear in the coming days and weeks.

Posted in Natural Gas, Texas / Language: / Read 1 Response

Natural gas drilling: Problems and solutions

Yesterday I was interviewed on an energy-related television show about natural gas drilling in the U.S. and some viewers thought I was too pro-drilling, others thought I was too anti-drilling. My reaction to that is: PERFECT! That was precisely my intention – to be a balanced voice in the discussion of hydraulic fracturing (HF). HF may be an important process to extract what may be a cleaner-burning fuel source for our country; but if it is developed, adverse impacts for gas drilling must be reduced to assure public safety and to protect the environment.

Currently, the environmental impact of natural gas development is unacceptably high. From polluted water wells in Pennsylvania to an exploding home in Ohio, there are numerous recent examples of environmental disasters from natural gas production.

I said in the interview that HF can be used safely “IF” it is regulated more closely and companies are more transparent about the fluids they use. Regulation may be done state by state, but if states aren’t up to the task, it will need to be regulated at the federal level. So industry needs to step up to the plate and improve its practices. While there are issues with HF, many of the problems with gas are more widespread. A framework is needed that focuses on well construction and operation that goes beyond even HF to broader well construction issues and cementing. Additional issues that must be addressed include getting the cement and pipes right in the wells, and proper management of pressure. Additionally, for hydraulically fractured wells it is important to be sure wells are situated beneath a satisfactory cap rock — one or more layers of rock that’s sufficient to prevent toxic chemicals from migrating into drinking water. Some areas are so important, such as drinking supplies for cities, that they need to be off-limits for fracking.

If natural gas is to fulfill its potential, we need much cleaner drilling practices. Results will be gauged by the improved health and safety of citizens and the earth in the short and long term. Stay tuned for more discussion on this vital topic.

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New Carbon Sequestration Critique Disputed by Scientific Community

By Tim O’Connor, Attorney / Climate Policy Analyst

A recent issue of the UK Guardian has brought to the forefront the findings of paper published in the Journal of Petroleum Science and Engineering.[1] This paper, purporting to call into question the ability of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology to serve as a solution for greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) is making waves in the scientific and climate change policy communities. Titled “Sequestering carbon dioxide in a closed underground volume,” the article suggests CCS is not a viable solution to the current problem of these emissions from fossil fuel power plants, an assertion flying in the face of accepted wisdom on the subject to date.[2]

Published by perhaps the only Texas-based husband and wife team specializing in petroleum and chemical engineering, Christine Ehlig-Economides and Michael Economides, the journal article has resulted in a significant amount of consternation[3] in the scientific community and an unfortunate level of attention by news outlets looking for a reason (scientifically supportable or otherwise) to undermine CCS as a bridge technology for greenhouse gas mitigation.[4] Read More »

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