Various individuals and entities referred to the practice of ‘responsible shale energy extraction’ as oxymoronic, claiming that the acquisition of petroleum hydrocarbons is an inherently dangerous process that cannot be executed responsibly.
Having studied the environmental implications of shale energy extraction from a neutral, objective, and agnostic perspective since 2011, we’ve heard these claims before. Folks that are calling for a moratorium on drilling and ‘fracking’ are also demanding that our thirst for energy be satiated exclusively by renewable energy modalities, such as wind and solar. This is akin to enjoying the taste of encased meat products but having an issue with how the sausage is made. Unfortunately the issue with this sentiment is that our domestic energy requirements greatly exceed our abilities to produce enough renewable energy, so we have to rely on a diverse portfolio of energy from different sources. Furthermore, given the influence that the petroleum industry exhibits in our world economy, it is unreasonable to believe that shale energy extraction will ever be banned completely; so calling for its moratorium is a moot point. As such, our group (CLEAR at UT-Arlington) believes that if shale energy extraction is to persist then it is in the best interest of our planet to develop solutions and technologies that improve the environmental stewardship of this industrious process. Unfortunately, such moderate sentiments are met with animosity in this particular field. In our case, the action of helping the oil and gas industry to reduce their environmental footprint has been characterized as abetting a ring of ‘climate criminality’ by certain environmental advocates and activist groups.
Having seen ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’ in the shale energy sector we certainly don’t want to apologize on behalf of industry for any of their contamination events or environmental transgressions. However, it is important for us to point out that such issues are isolated and are not occurring at a systemic level. For example, we have seen instances of well casing failure and out-of-zone fracking that can contribute to the unwanted migration of rogue natural gas into shallow groundwater, and yes, as a result of this, water can light on fire. In these particular cases, there were significant design flaws, and/or service companies cut corners to complete the production well in time. Both of these issues were completely avoidable. Similarly, we have characterized extensive hydrocarbon emissions that can result from surface infrastructure, which were ultimately attributable to mechanical inefficiencies and not the hydrocarbon extraction process itself. Lastly, we have seen the damage that surface spills can cause, and thus, we have worked to develop treatment strategies to help remediate the damage. Of course, there may be some less scrupulous operators that are having more of these spills than others, but generally, these are expensive and time-consuming to clean up, which are significant deterrents.
While identifying problems and characterizing instances of contamination are both important aspects of environmental stewardship, more so is the process of developing solutions. For example, the recycling of oilfield waste (known as produced water) ostensibly ‘kills two birds with one stone’ as it reduces the reliance on fresh water, large amounts of which are required to stimulate shale production wells. Recycling also decreases the practice of subsurface disposal, a process that has been linked to earthquakes. Furthermore, produced water recycling can save operators money and perhaps even help them generate revenue from the mining of precious metal ions and recovering valuable chemicals. There are still enormous opportunities in that space, and efforts should be made to move toward a “zero waste” process.
Other responsible practices include the capturing of flare gas. Instead of burning a thermogenic greenhouse gas into the atmosphere and literally lighting money on fire, there are now technologies out there that can capture and compress flare gas to then be sold as a commodity. Yet another example of how environmental stewardship and a shift towards greater sustainability make financial sense in the oil and gas industry.
Circling back to the overarching theme of our group, the middle ground is perhaps a lonely island in the polarizing sea of controversy that exists in the shale energy sector. However, it is this position, along with the willingness to provide solutions, which gives our society the best chance of reducing the environmental impacts of petroleum extraction, and other industrious processes. It goes back to the old adage of ‘it’s easiest to catch bees with honey as opposed to vinegar’, in that in order to effect change for the betterment of our planet, we need to come to the table with solutions and strategies as opposed to vitriol and hatred. Furthermore, disparaging science and innovation in this field is a big mistake as it draws us further away from being able to influence legislators to draft more stringent, yet feasible, environmental regulations. One example of this is the setback distances that have been established across much of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, in the Barnett Shale region. Many of these standards were promulgated before there were any data to render an informed decision on the matter. So, now that we have this information and we know that having a production well within 1000 feet of someone’s home is not a good idea, for a myriad of reasons, can we make a series of data-driven decisions to induce policy reform? Our hope is that yes, data can have a substantial role in the formation of new and improved environmental regulations. Given the production and development of oil and gas resources in less-populated areas, it seems ridiculous that urban drilling, in close proximity to places where many people eat and sleep, is still practiced.
CLEAR affiliates are developing technologies to enable detection and remediation of harmful contaminants that pose a danger to human health, as well as cultivate best management practices to further advance the responsible management of natural resources. Collaboration, as well as data collection, analysis, and sharing are key aspects of a CLEAR affiliation.