20 Apr 2012

Benefits of an independent safety center for oil and gas hydraulic fracturing

Written by Jim Pierobon

If safety truly is a priority for companies producing oil and gas using hydraulic fracturing, they should match their words with genuine safeguards that the public and regulators could see and understand.

The nuclear industry has long been working to improve safety of utility-owned nuclear power plants under the auspices of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, or INPO, in Atlanta. The American Petroleum Institute (API) has launched the Center for Offshore Safety. or COS, in Houston led by former Shell Oil senior scientist Charlie Williams.

Both of those organizations, of course, were motivated by serious accidents the likes of which “fracking” companies have not experienced and hopefully never will. INPO was conceived out of the 1979 meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear complex near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It is not transparent and wasn’t designed to be, working only within the industry.

The Center for Offshore Safety is designed to address challenges and still lingering doubts about the industry’s ability to operate in deep waters after the deadly 2010 BP Horizon / Macondo well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago today. Most level-headed environmentalists are taking a wait-and-see attitude. Will it turn out to be mostly window-dressing by API? We’ll see.

So should oil and shale gas producers wait until any accident that impacts on groundwater supplies, methane emissions and perhaps even human lives? If there’s no accident, then no problem, right?

Here is the next major showdown over hydraulic fracturing for shale natural gas supplies: June 14-17, 2012 in Columbus, OH. CREDIT: 350.org

Human nature might suggest such.

But there is a growing body of strategic and proactive thinkers who grasp the game-changing role for newly-discovered crude oil and natural gas. They see the value of creating a safety center or council not just to help protect the environment and earn the public’s trust but to grow the business — if it can grow any faster than it is.

Such an organization, by whatever name, could strengthen the operations of small, suspect or otherwise inexperienced drillers. It also could demonstrate publicly the industry takes safety seriously enough to educate the public and stakeholders about fracking.

The ultimate measure of a safety center might best be judged by how transparent it is to the public and regulators. That might pose a problem for companies such as Halliburton which supplies fracking fluids to drillers. At an industry conference last October in Pittsburgh, the company made it clear it considers its fluid formula to be proprietary and wants to keep it a secret wherever it can.

A safety center could be funded by trade association dues or permitting and drilling fees paid by producers. It could be staffed in part by scientists from relevant trade groups and non-governmental organizations willing to work objectively with industry.

A safety center might be seen as a PR ploy. That said it could help loosen prohibitions against fracking in states such as New York, Ohio and Maryland. It could enlighten the debate in Ohio which is about to heat up. A Don’t Frack Ohio rally is slated for Columbus, Ohio June 14-17 by Bill McKibben and allies of his 350.org. See its poster, above.

Consider the Marcellus Shale Coalition and the now one-year old chemical disclosure registry at FracFocus.org., a joint project of the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. While not universally embraced by industry, FracFocus is being hailed by many analysts and critics as a significant step toward transparency. At least some industry pros say one benefit of FracFocus has been to raise the ‘bar’ for all companies which ends up helping the entire industry.

America’s Natural Gas Alliance last November stated “The industry  . . . is voluntarily moving forward with the recommendations” contained in a 2011 National Petroleum Council report “including the establishment of regional Centers of Excellence.” But there is no evidence of tangible progress available to the public.

“We realize the importance,” the Gas Alliance statement continued, “of reaching out to those in communities who are not familiar with energy development to have factual and science-based conversations about operations as well as safety measures and extensive oversight already in place.”

The American Petroleum Institute has at least five standards that apply to fracking for oil and natural gas. According to Oil & Gas Journal, and quoting then-API standards director David Miller, the ones generating the most interest involve well construction and integrity (“HF-1”) and isolating potential flow zones during well construction (“Std. 65-2”).

Email inquires to API  and the Marcellus Shale Coalition for additional information about the regional Centers for Excellence did not elicit a reply within 48 hours.

The Center for Offshore Safety aims to help oil-and-gas companies share data and information and make offshore drilling safe. It also seeks to provide third-party auditing of companies’ federally mandated safety and environmental management systems, or SEMS, which are meant to help identify and mitigate human and operational risks.

For a long time, the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations kept a low profile. Until recently it did not even have a publicly available web site. Maybe the Fukushima disaster altered the leaders’ thinking.

Amy Mall, who assesses hydraulic fracturing for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said if industry dominates a safety center or there is no independent scientific input or audit function, it’s a non-starter as far as she’s concerned. She cited the Forest Stewardship Council and the Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels as models the oil and gas industry could draw from.

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