Don’t fear the frac… but watch out for bad cement jobs, old wells, says study

The hydraulic fracturing technology driving a nationwide natural gas boom isn’t inherently dangerous to water supplies as some critics say, but the natural gas drilling industry should act immediately to cut air emissions and protect water supplies, says a Department of Energy-backed panel.

In a report released today, Energy Secretary Steven Chu’s Shale Gas Advisory Board says natural gas has great potential to meet a growing segment of the country’s energy demands, but there are some immediate environmental concerns that should be addressed.

This includes cutting emissions of air pollutants, such as ozone precursors and methane, at drilling sites; creating systems for tracking and monitoring how water is used throughout a project’s life cycle; and creating an industry organization to develop and share best practices for shale drilling.

The study (see it below) also found little evidence that fracking fluids — the mixture of water, sand and chemicals injected into shale formations thousands of feet underground under high pressure — have shown up in drinking water.

Rather, the growing number of reports of natural gas in drinking water is due to more basic industry shortcomings — such as poor well construction and cementing, or older wells that were improperly shutdown allowing gas to migrate into aquifers.

“The current output of shale gas and its potential for future growth emphasize the need to assure that this supply is produced in an environmentally sound fashion, and in a way that meets the needs of public trust,” said John Deutch, an M.I.T. Professor and former head of the Central Intelligence Agency who chaired the group.

Other recommendations from the panel include:

  • Quickly design and implement projects to gather data on emissions
  • Develop best practices for issues such as well casing and cementing
  • Fund research and development into ways to improve the technology
  • Fully disclose hydraulic fracturing fluids in a public database.
  • Create a national database on other information about natural gas drilling, including data on the full life-cycle of water use

“Better data will help the industry focus its investments, give the public the information it needs to effectively engage, and help regulators identify and address the most important problems,” Deutch said. “We’re issuing a call for industry action, but we are not leaving it to industry alone.”

Neither industry officials nor the environmental community seem particularly satisfied with the report.

In a statement the American Petroleum Institute said it hoped Chu would appoint an industry representative to the panel because “expertise in operations and regulations is lacking.”

“Either way, DOE’s recommendations should be informed by an understanding, first, that shale oil and gas development is already well regulated and safe and, second, that it could create hundreds of thousands of new jobs, generate billions of dollars in additional revenue for our government, and enhance our energy security,” said API’s director of upstream operations, Erik Milito.

A spokeswoman for the Environmental Working Group, a coalition of community and environmental organizations, said the panel’s draft recommendations were “disappointing.”

“They do state some obvious grievances with fracking — such as the general need for more regulation, air pollution controls and more disclosure from companies,” said Leeann Brown in an e-mail. “However, they refuse to reference the seven deadly sins of the fracking industry — the exemptions from seven major environmental and health protection laws.”

The panel, put together by Chu in May, was given a very specific goal and a short time to reach it: review existing rules and practices in natural gas drilling over the next 90 days and come up with ways that it can be done more safely.

At first the panel was criticized as a duplication of other efforts, including a comprehensive Environment Protection Agency study of hydraulic fracturing that is scheduled for completion in late 2012.

Environmental groups and community organizations criticized the board for ties members had to the energy industry –Deutch is on the board of directors for Cheniere Energy, for example.

But the panel held hearings in several communities around the country, had experts give testimony and gathered thousands of public comments.

Some of the panel members said they were surprised by their own findings.

“When we started the mantra we were following was to look at the hydraulic fracturing and the chemicals going into the ground,” said Stephen Holditch, head of the Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M University. “But it turns out it was almost a non-issue.”

Rather, the group “became convinced the cumulative air quality problems were the ones requiring the most attention.”

Some companies are following so-called best practices: for example Devon Energy has been credited with significant “greening” of there operations in Texas’ Barnett shale; Shell Oil has unveiled its own blue print for best practicesin gas drilling and production; and companies like Halliburton are developing techniques to cut the use of water in fracking and reduce the need for chemicals.

Some states have already started to address the air quality issues, particularly Wyoming and Colorado.

But there’s very little data gathered concerning air and water issues tied to gas drilling and production, Deutch said.

The industry also needs to put more emphasis on properly cementing and testing the integrity of wells to make sure they don’t allow aquifer contamination, Deutch said. But more effort has gone into less important issues, like disclosing what’s in hydraulic fracturing fluids.

“What has happened is there was the public quarrel on the chemicals,” Deutch said. “The more the industry said it did not want to disclose them, the more it became and issue and there was created a great sense of distrust.”

Since then the industry has created a public web site to post such information,, and some states have passed laws requiring disclosure, including Texas.

The panel will issue a final version of the report  in November. Where it goes from there depends on how Chu and the administration respond to it, said Deutch.

“I know President Obama favors that more be done with shale production, but he wants to see the environmental effects to be as limited as possible,” Deutch said.

Sec of Energy Shale Gas Report Aug 2011