What a difference a year makes. When President Obama directed Energy Secretary Steven Chu last March to establish a subcommittee to assess the environmental impacts of shale gas drilling, industry interpreted this as bad news. But Tuesday members of the subcommittee touted the industry and criticized detractors of both hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and shale gas development.
"I don't believe that any of us really believe that the industry is doing 'bad things'...I do not believe anybody is convicting industry," said John Deutch, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chairman of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB). The board issued its initial report last August and followed up with a final report in November, making 20 recommendations to ensure responsible development of shale gas (see Shale Daily, Nov. 11, 2011; Aug. 12, 2011).
"There are many, many cases that [have been] exaggerated" in terms of the effects of shale gas development on air and water quality, Deutch said at the the IHS CERAWeek 2012 conference in Houston. However, he noted that if industry does not slow the environmental impacts, the public is going to become more concerned, which would only spell bad news for the shale gas industry.
Since the November report "what has happened in the field [as far as] environment impact management, I would say [is] very little," Deutch said. "So there's a tremendous amount of work here left to be done" both by regulators and industry.
Deutch believes industry has to be aggressive, even more so than regulators, in implementing the SEAB recommendations. "If industry and government do not become much more operational on these recommendations...I think we are going to have real trouble with the public. I believe that the only way this will happen is if the industry steps forward and goes ahead of regulators."
It is "disheartening when we see draft EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] reports...[on the] alleged contamination in places like Pavillion, WY, immediately jump to the conclusion that hydraulic fracturing was the culprit," said Mark Zoback, professor of geophysics at Stanford University and a member of the SEAB panel. In December the EPA released a draft report that concluded that groundwater in Pavillion contains chemicals that are normally used in natural gas production practices, such as fracking -- but it did not conclude that the water had been contaminated by drilling (see Shale Daily, Jan. 17).
"When issues of contamination have come up...perhaps the best thing we can really do for protecting the environment and protecting water quality is to put our focus on well construction," Zoback said. The Stanford professor said he believes the shale industry is "fracking responsibly" but the term has become a catch word for all the environmental problems that might accompany shale gas development. "The mystery surrounding hydraulic fracturing has actually been exacerbated. People have been paranoid for no reason."
Patrick Schorn, president of reservoir production at Schlumberger Ltd., believes the federal government should hold back on regulating fracking until a useful set recommendations have been implemented and are in place. His company is looking at new technologies to reduce the amount of water used in fracking and to better zero in on shale reservoirs, said Schorn. "We started creating a different kind [of] connectivity inside the fracture," which could result in a significant reduction in the amount of water needed for fracking, he said. It could cut water production by 30-40%.
To better identify the zones to be fracked, he noted that 30% of the fracks don't contribute at all to production, while another 35% is production at a lower rate than was originally expected. So shale production comes out of that remaining 35-40%. Technology being developed by Schlumberger would enable companies to be "better...able to characterize the reservoir" before actually drilling. "At the end of the day...there certainly is a lot of room for improvement" in the way shale gas is developed, he added.