Shale Gas Fracking Getting Improved Reviews

Ken Silverstein | May 17, 2012

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Drilling for natural gas is fracturing many communities. But a recent study by the University of Buffalo, NY is concluding that most major environmental events tied to “fracking” can be nearly mitigated by company action.

It all centers on shale gas and the chemicals used to ply loose the commodity that is embedded in rocks and deep underground. While the industry says that such drilling methods are safe and that they present no danger to the public, environmentalist and community activists counter that the process is destroying their drinking water. Just how this issue is resolved will have huge implications on the country’s energy picture -- one estimated to see shale gas comprise 46 percent of all natural gas production by 2035.

“This study demonstrates that the odds of non-major environmental events and the much smaller odds of major environmental events are being reduced even further by enhanced regulation and improved industry practice,” says the Buffalo study, which is peer-reviewed and which includes researchers from the University of Wyoming and Penn State University.

Simply, the the report’s authors looked at about 3,000 violations from 4,000 natural gas wells processed by Pennsylvania’s regulators in a three year time period ending in August 2011. About 62 percent of those violations were administrative while 38 percent were environmental issues.

About 25 of those were classified as major ecological events, meaning there was serious contamination of local water supplies or major land spills. In all but six cases, the resulting environmental impacts have been addressed, say the authors. Lead author, Tim Considine who teaches economics at the University of Wyoming, says that the state regulatory construct is working and that the number incidents is declining each year.

Importantly, the federal government is saying that it, too, has a role in the oversight  of the shale gas industry. Among the proposals outstanding are ones to mandate drillers to divulge the chemicals they are using to frack as well as another to force them to capture -- and potentially sell -- their methane releases, which are considered the most potent of all greenhouse gases. All told, 12 states have rules on their books that require shale gas producers to report the chemicals they are using to frack; 206 companies are complying.

Best Practices

Nowhere is that process more contentious than in the Marcellus Shale. As much as 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is estimated in the area, which stretches from New York and Pennsylvania and into Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio.

New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, for instance, signed an executive order about a year-and-a-half ago banning fracking until that state completes its own investigation into those methods. The state is now in the process of lifting that moratorium and some expect drilling to proceed in 2013. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has been at the center of acrimony over fracking, prompting major litigation there as well as regulatory investigations.

“Gas drilling in Pennsylvania has skyrocketed in recent years,” says Earth Justice. “And along with the gas rush have come disastrous industrial accidents and poisoned drinking water -- earning the state a reputation in the region for gas development gone wrong.”

But a high-powered cast of energy experts recently advised the U.S. Department of Energy that with more transparency, producers might better connect with the communities in which they are located. It is also saying that the industry must keep with “best practices” to always improve.

The American Petroleum Institute is emphasizing its safety record, noting that hundreds of thousands of wells have been drilled using hydraulic fracturing and that there are few accidents -- claims that are generally backed up by two additional studies from the University of Texas and Stanford University. The institute is also citing a recent MIT study that shows that the natural gas can supply all of this country’s resources for 100 years from shale gas.

“When we go out there and do a site, we cordoned off the whole area,” says Scott Rotruck, vice president of Chesapeake Energy. “Nothing gets out.” The process is taking place a mile-and-a-half below the earth’s surface, he adds, noting that current methods typically capture 20 percent of the available shale-gas. “So, the opportunity for innovation is limitless,” if only they are allowed to drill.

The community concerns are valid and the pressures they apply are working to improve industry standards. But the choice, for now, is to find better and safer ways to explore -- not to ban drilling for shale gas.


EnergyBiz Insider is the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein

energybizinsider@energycentral.com


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Comments

Fracking doesn't make sense from the get go!

Starting with the average of 1.5 million gallons of water per well (and as much as 4 million gallons of water per well) fracking just doesn't make sense!

The EROEI (energy return on energy invested) factor just isn't high enough for it to make sense for us to take the risks that fracking involves!

Natural gas, as a whole, only has a EROEI of between 2 and 4.  Meaning that for every btu invested, we can expect to get between 2 and 4 btus back out. 

When you factor in the additional energy inputs required in fracking, such as trucking those 1.5 + million gallons of water to the well, manufacturing the 10,000 gallons of fracking chemicals and delivering them to the well, along with the tons of sand, as well as powering the giant diesel pumps that provide the pressure to fracture the formation, then the energy required to recapture as much of the used fracking fluid (which is now considered a hazadous waste) back up the hole, then truck it to a recycling center, then the energy to recycle the water back out of this stuff, that EROI figure starts to look pretty dimunative!  If you don't believe me, think about the amount of energy that you just used to read that run on sentence!

Factor in the increased seismic activity associated with fracking and the danger of water contamination (4000 violations in 3 years???) and it just doesn't make sense!

 

Bob "The Clean Energy Guy" Mitchell

 

Fracking costs

Bob:

You bring up very interesting points which I would like to explore a bit deeper.

For example: to drill one well,

Assuming 1,500,000 gals water needing to be brought in, assuming 9,000 gal tankers with 400 gals diesel fuel capacity using all there fuel to deliver and return, that would be 167 tankers and use 9,280 million BTUs.

10,000 gals chemicals could require 10,000 BTU's per gal to produce? I do not have a good number, do you?  which would be 100 million BTUs.

If the well produced 20 million cubic feet (again don't know if that's a good number for say 1 year (is this a good time period) do you have a better number?) tht would be 21,000 BTUs assuming all is Natural gas.

So, the energy out / energy in in this very simplified analysis is 21000 / 9380 or ~ 2.2 which agrees with your range. Would you say this is true?  I would like to see what numbers you would use and what other significant energy items you would include.

Because, if I get more than 20 million cubic feet from a well and if I get propane and other "wet" products, the BTU yield goes up and the ratio goes up. Do you agree that the cost benefit improves?