9 Nov 2011

Can shale natural gas producers self-regulate enough to avoid a major setback?

Written by Jim Pierobon

For all the attention focused on newly accessible natural gas supplies from U.S. shale deposits, one hopes the industry is up to regulating its operations enough to avoid a Three Mile Island-type accident in Pennsylvania that the U.S. nuclear power industry and utilities are still paying for 32 years later.

With what significant new supplies of U.S. natural gas could mean for the nation’s economy and energy security, there are several encouraging signs buffeted by regulatory storm clouds forming on the horizon.

Critics of the industry say human health is threatened by drinking water contaminated by toxic chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing–or “fracking“– the process that, combined with horizontal drilling, has enabled the widespread exploitation of previously uneconomic shale beds.

A typical shale natural gas drilling operation in the Marcellus region in Pennsylvania. CREDIT: Marcellus-shale.us

Go here for illustrative photos similar to the one above of shale gas drilling and fracking operations in Pennsylvania. More than 3,000 wells reportedly have been drilled throughout the Marcellus region since 2008 and that tally grows every month.

Many local and state governments throughout Appalachia have been watching closely for any repercussions from an extensive leak April 19, 2011 of drilling fluids at a shale natural gas drilling operation in Bradford County, Pennsylvania operated by industry leader Chesapeake Energy Corp. of Oklahoma City.

The accident was just one type of accident that can happen during the completion of an onshore shale gas well. Nobody reportedly was injured, the public appears not to have been in danger and there looks to be no lasting impact to the environment and area drinking water supplies, according to an analysis by company consultant SAIC Environment and Infrastructure LLC made available in October.

Knowing the microscope it is under, Chesapeake Energy has taken specific steps to prevent another occurrence. But it’s providing false comfort to critics about how the operator of the next well to suffer an accident will respond. A really bad accident could severely handicap the entire industry.

Safety concerns relevant to fracking gathered a head of steam June 2010 when a well operated by EOG Resources of Canonsburg, PA,  in central Pennsylvania’s Clearfield County blew out, leaking fracking fluid for 16 hours until it was capped. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), fined EOG about $350,000 after a petroleum consultant it hired concluded the blow out was preventable.

An investigative report found the accident would have never occurred “if proper barrier procedures and practices had been in place and properly trained wellsite personnel had been on site.” In addition, EOG Resources and its contractor personnel onsite did not have well control certification.

It doesn’t help that natural gas compressor stations and pipelines in or near the lucrative Marcellus shale deposits have experienced a rash of accidents in recent years. Another occurred just recently, on November 3, 2011 in Bedford County PA  when the explosion of a natural gas pipeline compressor station operated by Columbia Gas Transmission forced the immediate evacuation of nearby residents.

Despite differences between producing and transmitting natural gas, such distinctions are lost on some local officials and downright ignored by many opponents. Any natural gas accident offers fodders for activists trying anything to stop shale gas production.

Clicking on this image at FracFocus.org directs parties to chemicals used in hydraulic fracking at specific natural gas drilling sites. CREDIT: FracFocus.org

A tip of the hat to Chesapeake Energy and other shale gas producers who are responding to queries about the chemicals by linking interested parties to a “FracFocus” registry of chemicals used in fracking. See accompanying image. The site is run by the Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission and the Groundwater Protection Council.

State and federal regulators are trying to keep up. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, for example, announced October 20, 2011 it will develop rules for the shale gas industry to dispose of its wastewater, which has been linked to polluted surface water. On November 3, the EPA announced a  “final” research plan on hydraulic fracturing to better understand potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources.

The EPA has held a series of public meetings across the nation to receive input from states, industry, environmental and public health groups, and individual citizens. In addition, an initial study was reviewed by the Science Advisory Board (SAB), an independent panel of scientists, to ensure the agency conducted the research using a scientifically sound approach.

The initial research results and study findings are to be released to the public in 2012 with a final report due 2014. To ensure that the study is complete and results are available to the public in a timely manner, EPA initiated some activities this past summer that were supported by the SAB and provide a foundation for the full and final study.

The Obama Administration is “committed to ensuring that we continue to leverage this vital resource responsibly.”

Read what David Brooks, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote November 3, 2011. It is curiously glowing endorsement of what shale natural gas could mean for the U.S. without mentioning checks and balances that any fledgling industry needs and landowners near fracking operations deserve.

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