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Shale Companies Learning How to 'Get It Right'

When people talk about "getting it right" in shale development, they usually mean protecting the environment, and on Tuesday an audience in Pittsburgh heard various ways that the natural gas industry can get it right in the Marcellus Shale.

One of the best ways is to avoid problems in the first place, John Centofanti, director of safety and environment for EQT Corp., told attendees at the first day of the Marcellus Shale Gas Environmental Summit.

EQT uses root cause analysis to understand why something went wrong and how it can be prevented in the future, Centofanti said, adding that problems can occur during facility construction, facility operation and at other times. "In all three of these areas, there are correctable opportunities," Centofanti said.

Centofanti said the five greatest risks identified by EQT are flammable atmospheres, high-pressure systems, pit design, well control and well design, but he added that stringent best management practices, such as proper siting of wells and related facilities, can resolve those concerns and alleviate local worries about development activities before they begin.

"We're going to meet the regulations," he said. "We may even exceed them."

The existing regulations governing shale development are already more stringent than many critics contend, though, according to Donald Love, senior technical service and development specialist for Dow Microbial Control.

Love said the industry must learn how to address concerns in a way that is "convincing and science-based," a challenge he is familiar with as someone who deals often with biocides, or the chemicals added to hydraulic fracturing fluids. "They're often held up as one of the reasons why frack fluids are quote-unquote so toxic," Love said.

Love noted that biocides are regulated by state, federal and international authorities and "they're among the most thoroughly tested chemicals on the planet." He said biocides are arguably sustainable, because they help drillers produce more gas from each well, thereby reducing the amount of drilling, and keep drilling fluids from spoiling.

Shale development is a water-intensive industry, requiring about five million gallons per well, and the Appalachian Basin is a water-rich area, with Pennsylvania second only to Alaska in terms of waterways such as creeks and streams.

Companies are increasingly looking for ways to reduce water use, according to Ralph Tijerina, director of health, safety and environment in the Marcellus region for Range Resources Corp., the second largest leaseholder in the play. Range is currently reusing 95% of its flowback water and aims to get that up to 100% this year, Tijerina said.

"Not only does it benefit the environment, but it benefits the operator as well," he said.

Range is looking into solutions such as building a pipeline to connect some large water source such a major river to storage facilities to reduce road transportation, and finding a way to use acid mine drainage for drilling operations.

Because Pennsylvania doesn't have as many deep injection wells as Texas, water management is a greater challenge for drillers in the Marcellus Shale than their counterparts in the Barnett Shale, according to Chuck Kozora with Aquatech International Corp. Marcellus drillers can truck wastewater to injection wells in Ohio or West Virginia, but that solution is costly and clogs roads, and therefore most companies want ways to manage wastewater onsite, he said.

While treatment technologies are available and constantly improving, one challenge is the lack of a standard for reuse -- each company currently must decide for itself how "clean" recycled water must be before being sent back downhole. Companies seeking to recycle on-site must decide what they are comfortable sending downhole, Kozora said. "And that number changes from gas producer to gas producer," he said.

Until a technology emerges that resolves all water management problems, companies must consider existing regulations.

Water supplies are protected by state and federal regulations, as well as by industry guidelines, according to Beth Powell with New Pig Corp., an industrial services supplier based in Pennsylvania. Understanding those regulations can save companies money in simple ways, she said, like using drain covers to avoid getting hit with discharge fines.

"One piece of plastic can save hundreds of thousands of gallons from going down the drain," she said.

Although a technical conference by nature, the event drew several dozen protesters. Most stayed outside, but three protesters interrupted the presentations to deliver a "bill of indictment" against the industry and were quickly escorted out.

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