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MIT: U.S. Should Back Expanded Shale Research

Researchers with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative (MITEI) said natural gas has a bright future, but they said the government needs to be more involved and industry needs to remain vigilant over potential -- but so far unrealized -- environmental disasters.

"The environmental impacts of shale development, which are widely discussed and hotly debated, are challenging but manageable," MIT Visiting Engineer Tony Meggs, one of 18 researchers involved in the MITEI project, said Thursday.

Chief among the recommendations of its final report on natural gas, MITEI said the federal government should expand its support for research on the challenges surrounding the development of unconventional natural gas, especially shale gas. Additional research is needed to reduce water usage in hydrofracking.

"Transparency is key," the report said, "both for fracturing operations and for water management. Better communication of oil- and gas-field best practices should be facilitated. Integrated regional water usage and disposal plans and disclosure of hydraulic fracture fluid components should be required."

The report also said the U.S. should support unconventional natural gas development outside the country, especially in Europe and China, in order to diversify the supply base.

Thursday's report was the final, expanded version of a three-year study by MITEI. The group issued its preliminary findings in an earlier report that was released in June 2010 (see Daily GPI, June 28, 2010).

Meggs said the problem researchers encountered the most was methane in groundwater, which he said was a result of inadequate casing and cementing around gas wells. "It can be fixed," Meggs said. "It can be fixed after the event and it can be fixed going forward. We recommend more stringent regulation in this area at the state or federal level to ensure that cement is properly taken care of."

Meggs said other issues included off-site disposal of waste, air quality, on-site surface spills, water withdrawals and well blowouts. But he said there were no examples of fluids used in hydraulic fracturing leaching into aquifers and contaminating groundwater.

"This is the big specter that has been raised around fracturing, but there literally are no instances of this occurring," Meggs said. "There are issues here that need to be dealt with by the industry and regulators, but there is no reason why this cannot be done well."

The researchers said more than 20,000 shale gas wells had been drilled over the last 10 years, adding that the industry's environmental record "has for the most part been a good one." But they cautioned that it was still a risky business and that just one poor operation could cause a lot of damage.

"The industry must continuously strive to mitigate risk and address public concerns," the report said. "Particular attention should be paid to those areas of the country which are not accustomed to oil and gas development, and where all relevant infrastructure, both physical and regulatory, may not yet be in place. In this context, the Marcellus Shale, which represents 35% to 40% of the U.S. shale resource, is the primary concern."

Meggs added that in order for the long-term development of the shale industry to survive, "we need to do a lot better job of understanding the science that underpins the development of shales. We need to ensure for the public good that the maximum resource is being recovered."

Other recommendations include having the U.S. government revise its policies on compressed natural gas vehicles, stating that it should enact an open-fuel standard requiring automobile manufacturers to provide tri-flex fuel (gasoline, ethanol and methanol) operation in light-duty vehicles.

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