Shale energy moves toward balance of industry, community concerns

By Ingrid Lobet

A thoughtful middle ground on issues of air and water is taking hold as shale oil and gas operations mature, speakers said Wednesday at a Houston conference.

Some companies have been able to bring new drilling operations to communities with a minimum of conflict,  often by facing community concerns head-on, said panelists at the World Shale Oil & Gas Summit & Exhibition at the Hilton Americas downtown.

“Let’s be honest, this is heavy industrial activity,” said Mark Brownstein, associate vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, an environmental group that works in collaboration with energy companies.

He said spills of  water used or produced from wells during hydraulic fracturing and other drilling activities can contaminate water supplies. Brownstein said some companies now establish baseline data by testing nearby water supplies before they begin drilling.

In Pennsylvania, the 2-year-old Center for Sustainable Shale Development, a collaboration among industry, foundations and non-profit groups, has developed standards for measuring adherence to best environmental practices, and recommends third-party audits of compliance.

Andrew Place, interim executive director of the Pittsburgh-based Center, described some of the standards:  Zero discharge of wastewater to surface or ground, double-lined impoundment for liquids used or generated on site, baseline groundwater monitoring, independent lab analysis, and lined well pads so spills don’t contaminate water.

To protect air quality, the group advocates control of emissions from tanks, standards for the diesel engines present at exploration and production sites, and 98 percent efficiency in flares used to burn off excess hydrocarbons.

Paul Goodfellow, a vice president with Shell Upstream America,   noted that some environmental best practices add little to costs, citing as an example infrared cameras that crews can use to detect leaks.