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Leveraging US technology – “The Golden Age of Gas”

06th August 2012

US campaign group, Energy In Depth (EID) tells Oil & Gas Technology why countries such as Argentina, India, China are leveraging US technology and resources as they begin to consider, or are already in the process of, developing their shale resources. The research, education and public outreach project was launched in 2009 by the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA).

Natural gas gained through the fracturing process and used in US power generation reportedly caused US carbon emissions to fall by 450 million tonnes in the past five years

OGT: What technologies are helping companies mitigate costs and risks associated with fracking?

EID: Hydraulic fracturing is an innovative technology that is changing, and advancing by the minute.  In recent years, multiple technological developments have helped the industry significantly reduce the footprint of its operations. These include the expanded use of closed loops systems, the increasing reliance on on-site water treatment and recycling operations and the implementation of “green completion” technologies to name a few.  The innovation doesn’t end there, of course, as more efficient and effective drilling, and fracturing procedures that decrease operators’ costs are being developed each day


OGT: How are companies dealing effectively with waste water from fracking?

EID: Increasingly companies are turning to recycling and re-use to manage the flowback and produced waters from their operations. In Pennsylvania for example, operators went from recycling approximately 30 per cent of their wastewater to over 90 per cent of their waste water in just one year.  The result is a significant reduction in the need for freshwater for operations and a reduction in the amount of wastewater needing to be disposed of in class II UIC wells and through other processes. 


OGT: How important is it to collaborate with countries to develop the technologies or share information associated with the practices?

EID: The IEA recently declared the world is primed to enter a “Golden Age of Gas” thanks to technological developments born in the US.  The use of this technology has primarily been employed in the US but its use is growing throughout the globe.  Canada, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, India, China and Poland are among nations that are beginning to consider, or are already in the process, of developing their shale resources and leveraging US technology and resources to do so.  As these countries successfully develop their resources, the world’s supply of energy will grow, thereby reducing the dominance that any one nation, or group of nations, can have over the global energy market.


This is noticed in a recent review by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy which found that shale gas production in the US has already weakened Russia’s ability to wield an “energy weapon” over its European customers – a trend that will only accelerate in the coming decades. As one of the authors of the report put it, “the petro-power of Russia, Venezuela and Iran is faltering on the back of plentiful American natural gas supply.” Shale gas production, according to the report’s findings, will decrease Russia’s market share by more than half — from 27 per cent to 13 per cent – by 2040


OGT: As a relatively fledgling industry, do you think fracking has a long way to go before it makes economic and environmental sense?

EID: The use of hydraulic fracturing has been in place since 1947 and since that time has been used to stimulate over 1.2 million wells throughout the US.  In that time, there hasn’t been a single confirmed case of the technology’s use resulting in a negative environmental impact on water resources.  Further, widespread adoption of natural gas in the power sector is helping the US beat goals set in the ill-fated cap and trade legislation considered by Congress in 2009.  For example, The Economist recently reported that natural gas gained through the fracturing process and used in US power generation caused US carbon emissions to fall by 450 million tonnes in the past five years which is a larger amount than any nation on Earth. This includes nation’s like Spain and Germany who have heavily subsidised the large scale advancement, and implementation, of widespread renewable energy sources.


In addition, the process has already proven it’s economical given its widespread adoption and use by companies from the nation’s smallest independent producers to the world’s largest multi-national oil and natural gas producers.  Of course, as new innovations are discovered the process will continue to be refined resulting in more efficiencies and even smaller footprints of these operations.


OGT: What is your response to critics of fracking who argue the industry should be stopped in its tracks because there are too many health and environmental risks associated with the practice?


EID: These individuals’ claims are often based on anecdotal information and unproven or disproven science.  Study after study suggests not only that fracturing can be deployed safely, but, in fact, that it is being deployed safely. This is a verdict agreed to by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Pennsylvania State University, the University of Texas and US Department of Energy among others.  Most reports to the contrary often have ties to particular universities whose faculty has a decidedly negative view of natural gas, and fossil fuels production and use. Or is driven by activists, and activists groups, seeking to disparage natural gas production in hopes it will lead to increased use of renewable energy in our nation’s power grid.  When the strongest supporting evidence for your cause is a Hollywood documentary it says a great deal about the authenticity of these concerns. 


Moreover, with regards to public health concerns, studies based on actual experience show no areas of concern while those focusing on assumptions, and limited data sets, elicit speculation of significant public health impacts.  For example, one study, a health impact assessment conducted by the Colorado School of Public Health declared those living in close proximity have an increased risk of gaining cancer.  However, if one looks a little closer they find this isn’t the case at all.  Even using flawed data gathered within a mile of a major interstate – a source of significant benzene emissions, and no longer representative of the current environment – a McKenzie’s study found that the “cancer risk” near well sites is the same as the national average which is 10 in a million.  Meanwhile, a review of community health statistics*  in the metropolitan Fort Worth area, specifically Denton County, shows that public health improved significantly at the same time natural gas production skyrocketed in the region.


OGT: Could you describe what kind of inspection, reporting, investigation, and enforcement mechanisms are in place with regards to natural gas exploration?

EID: This varies by state to state but suffice it to say that every step of the natural gas development process is covered by state, and in some cases federal, regulations.


OGT: How are you ensuring that fracking fluid does not get into aquifers, or that the practice does not use too much water?

EID: The oil and natural gas industry has utilised hydraulic fracturing for over 60 years without a single incident of water contamination occurring during that time.  The reason for this is the significant protections that are in place in the casing and cementing standards employed throughout the industry.  While specific regulations vary from state to state, many operators are now using up to six layers of specially slurried and applied cementing and casing procedures to isolate fracturing materials and natural gas from coming into contact with drinking water aquifers. In addition, the process of fracturing occurs thousands of feet below the water.


OGT: There is a growing body of scientific evidence which suggests there is direct link of wastewater from oil and gas drilling being the possible cause of earthquakes. What is your response to this?

EID: State geologists from two states have criticised the conclusions made by USGS as a “rush to judgment,” specifically by linking oil and gas development with earthquakes. Colorado state geologist Vince Matthews said in an interview with E&E News: “It’s unfortunate that they’ve jumped to this conclusion.” Meanwhile, Oklahoma state geologist G. Randy Keller pointed out that opponents of hydraulic fracturing seized on the findings: “There’s not a lot of calm reflection,” he said. In fact, Keller received so many inquiries about the report that he issued a position statement**, which noted that “it is unlikely that all of the earthquakes can be attributed to human activities.” The statement also urged caution in too quickly identifying a link between seismic activity and oil and gas operations: “We consider a rush to judgment about earthquakes being triggered to be harmful to state, public and industry interests.”


That being said, there are a small number of injection wells throughout the nation that are being examined as a potential link to seismic activity in areas that previously did not experience such events.  In almost every case, this linkage appears to be temporary and able to be corrected with minimal difficulty by reducing pressures of water disposal in those wells and by making other minor modifications to their operations.  We landed a man on the moon, it is not beyond our capabilities to ensure that class II UIC wells operate properly and in almost every instance this is the case.

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