It is important to mention, that credible investigations into complaints of water contamination attributed the problem to poor casing construction and cementing as well as the close proximity of the shale layers to underground water supplies. Also, inadequate Fluid Management including handling, injecting and disposal were also to blame.
In order to adequately protect the people and the planet, there needs to be a Regulatory Framework that addresses every aspect of exploration and production and takes into consideration:
- the geology,
- casing and cementation,
- contractor qualification,
- ground water testing,
- and public disclosure of chemicals.
Multi-stage fracturing is water intensive and can use up to 20 million liters of water per well. Therefore, it is critical, that large quantities of fresh water are available.
This chart shows the “Comparative Water Usage of Several Major U.S. Shale Plays” by sector.
Here we see that shale gas production, represented by the shaded column, is, in fact, the lowest consumer of water. Public systems are by far, the primary demand sector. And where heavy industry is present, industrial and mining operations, require substantial quantities of water. Even the irrigation and livestock sectors utilize more water than the shale gas industry.
Most of the water used in hydraulic fracturing comes from surface water sources such as lakes, rivers and municipal supplies. However, groundwater can be used to augment surface water where it is available in sufficient quantities. Alternate strategies include trucking in the water, building ponds and reservoirs to capture rain, recycling water and contracting with local public works and farmers. These are some of the innovative ways the industry is obtaining, monitoring and regulating water usage. Finally with new technologies to the rescue, such as “super fracking”, it is possible to reduce water consumption in half.
Of utmost concern are natural gas emissions from production. This is driven by its effectiveness in trapping heat in the atmosphere and its corresponding impact on climate change.
The EIA reported that total atmospheric methane emissions from all sources constitute only 10% of all other Greenhouse Gas (“GHG”) emissions. CO2 was by far the predominant greenhouse gas, at about 83%. Furthermore, not all atmospheric methane comes from natural gas systems. Only a third of the atmospheric methane emissions come from wells, pipelines and storage tanks. Other major sources of methane emissions come from fermentation, landfill and coal mines. Therefore, shale gas contributes only about 3% of the total greenhouse gas inventory.
Similarly, MIT reported that, “according to EPA inventories released in 2010, in 2008 GHG emissions from natural gas systems were 126 Tg (Tg, one teragram is equivalent to one million metric tons) of CO2 equivalents (CO2e), less than 3% of total CO2 equivalent emissions from all energy sources and activities.” Natural gas systems include production, processing, transmission and distribution of conventional and unconventional (shale gas) natural gas.
Furthermore, many producers and pipelines have already deployed relatively inexpensive methane detection and capture technologies and are able to realize profits from the use of these techniques.
To find the right answer you first have to know the real problem. One thing we all can agree on is that doing it wrong will lead to problems.
A fair number of investigations into the complaints concluded that the problems were avoidable and, as I mentioned earlier, traced to:
- Inferior casing and cementing
- Insufficient separation between gas-bearing rock and water supplies
- And lack of oversight and adherence to best practices
Other reported problems were subsequently found to be erroneous, lacking merit, or not representative of the industry.
- MIT reported that there were only 42 complaints of contamination out of 15,000 shale wells drilled in the US – a 3 tenths of 1% problem.
- Also, Cornell University’s initial report stating that shale gas has a higher GHG footprint than coal was subsequently retracted. A new report concluded that its footprint is actually 1/3rd to ½ that of coal,
- and finally some law suits involving methane contaminated water were subsequently dismissed for lack of evidence.
The answers lie in the fact that modern shale gas development is technologically driven and must be treated as such. Unproven cost cutting measures and process deviations are unacceptable. Sixty plus years of experience tells us that shale gas can be safely managed and controlled. When done right it is a low risk proposition.
So our quest for answers has brought us to two simple words – “BE SMART.”
Be smart and ensure:
- Adequate oversight
- Adoption of rules and codes
- Onsite safety and emergency preparedness
- Programs to train and certify workforce
- Adherence to best practices
- and Use of Qualified operators
Like it or not, renewable energy has a long way to go to make an impact on any one country’s energy mix. Natural gas, being the least disruptive fossil fuel, could serve as a ‘bridge’ to a low-carbon future. It’s a cushion, but not a complete answer.
In a scenario, that envisions a worldwide momentum towards stick policies aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions, electric utilities and other sectors of the economy will have no other choice but to adopt natural gas as a logical alternative. Natural gas will buy time to further develop cleaner fuels. Hopefully there will be something at the other end of the rainbow, whether it’s in 25 years or at the end of the century.
In closing, the shale gas industry creates jobs, economic value, and government revenues. Additionally, it also provides broader macro-economic impacts for both households and businesses. This is especially true in industries that are intensive users of natural gas as a feedstock such as the chemical industry, and industries that significantly benefit from lower cost electricity. And along the way, society, unknowingly, becomes an environmental steward striving to sustain our environment.
Shale gas development is “SAFE”, “MANAGEABLE” and “BENEFICIAL”, now and for the future.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author Dr. Barry Stevens, an accomplished business developer and entrepreneur in technology-driven enterprises. He is the founder of TBD America Inc., a global technology business development group. In this role, he is responsible for leading the development of emerging and mature technology driven enterprises in the shale gas, natural gas, renewable energy and sustainability industries. To learn more about TBD America, please visit: http://tbdamericainc.com/