Recently in Energy and the Environment Category

April 7, 2014

Colorado's New Air Pollution Rules in Texas?

I ran across this article from the Miami Herald: "Colorado's new drilling rules seen as making an impact in Texas." Colorado recently adopted tough air emissions rules applicable to the oil and gas exploration, production and transportation industries, intended to reduce emissions of methane. Those rules were adopted in collaboration with oil companies active in Colorado, and were supported by Anadarko, DCP Midstream, EnCana, and Noble Energy.  According to the article, several companies have approached the Environmental Defense Fund expressing interest in getting Colorado's rules adopted in Texas. Jim Marston, VP at EDF, said that "The companies are often ahead of the Texas state government" on environmental issues.

Texas regulators often tout Texas as the nation's leader in oil and gas regulation. Recently, the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas in Texas, has been having to play catch-up. It only recently hired a seismologist to study seismic activity caused by wastewater injection and has not yet agreed that injection is a cause or earthquakes near injection wells. Last year, the RRC adopted tougher casing regulations in response to concerns about possible groundwater contamination from drilling and completion operations. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency that regulates air emissions, has increased its monitoring of air emissions from oil and gas operations, particularly in the Barnett Shale, in response to complaints and concerns raised in and around Fort Worth.

Colorado's new rules are an effort to significantly reduce methane emissions from oil and gas facilities by requiring better emissions controls, better detection and faster fixing of leaks. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and capturing fugitive emissions of methane also saves money for the companies and their royalty owners. EDF recently commissioned a study by ICF International to quantify the cost and savings of reducing methane emissions. The study found that industry could cut methane emissions by 40 percent below projected 2018 levels at an average annual cost of less than one cent per mcf of produced natural gas by adopting available emissions-control technologies and better leak-detection practices. The practices would have the additional benefit of reducing emissions of volatile organic compounds and other hazardous air pollutants.

Texas' regulation of air emissions from the oil and gas sector were recently criticized by a University of Texas researcher and faculty member, Rachael Rawlins, who recently published an article in the Virginia Environmental Law Journal concluding that state and federal regulatory programs don't effectively measure or regulate emissions from oil and gas facilities in urban areas. Rawlins' conclusions are based on a comprehensive review of air quality monitoring and health-effect studies in the Barnett Shale. Rawlins concludes that "Texas' reactive and ultimately inadequate effort to respond to citizen concerns on the Barnett Shale reflects a continuing need for across-the-board improvement in monitoring, health-based assessment and public communication." See UT's summary of the article here. As drilling has increased in the Eagle Ford in South Texas, complaints of health affects from air emissions have increased. According to a study by the Center for Public Integrity, the Weather Channel and Inside Climate News, "Big Oil, Bad Air," there are only five permanent air monitors in the 20,000-mile Eagle Ford Shale region. That report was heavily criticized by David Porter, a RRC commissioner, and by the industry website Energy In Depth.


March 20, 2014

National Geographic - The Great Energy Challenge

National Geographic has started a website called The Great Energy Challenge that provides a wealth of information about energy and the environment. "The Great Energy Challenge convenes and engages influential citizens and key energy stakeholders in solutions-based thinking and dialogue about our shared energy future." Multiple articles from distinguished scientists provide education, explore innovative technologies, and seek to engage the public in a meaningful way about our energy future. Its home page is here.

Here is a good article discussing five innovative technologies for cleaner shale energy production and transportation, including water-free fracing, using recycled water or brackish water for fracing, using natural gas instead of diesel fuel to power drilling and completion, and efforts to reduce methane emissions in exploration, production and transportation of natural gas.

Here is a quiz to see how much you know about water and energy. Did you know that it takes 2.8 to 6.6 gallons of water to refine one gallon of gasoline? That it takes 780 gallons of water to produce one gallon or corn ethanol?

Here is a good interactive graphic showing how a horizontal well is drilled and completed.

Here are blog posts by National Geographic's panel of experts.

Lots of good information and discussion about global energy issues.

March 3, 2014

Ceres Report on Stresses on Groundwater Caused by Fracing

Ceres, a nonprofit focusing on climate change, water scarcity and sustainability, has issued a report, Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Water Demand by the Numbers, a Shareholder, Lender & Operator Guide to Water Sourcing.  Here are some excerpts:
















February 24, 2014

Environmental Effects of the Oil Boom

As drilling activity in the onshore US continues to grow, more and more attention is being paid to the environmental effects of exploration and production.  Media stories abound about groundwater contamination, the demand for fresh water from hydraulic fracturing, increased air emissions from exploration and production, controversy over pipeline condemnation and construction, earthquakes linked to wastewater injection, increased traffic and accidents, and effects on endangered species. Recent examples:

Air Emissions

This week The Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel released a report, Big Oil, Bad Air, on the effects of drilling in the Eagle Ford Shale on air quality in South Texas.  The report is highly critical of the lack of regulation by the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality (TCEQ) of emissions from oil and gas exploration and production operations in that region. Criticism of the report has already hit the media. Here is an industry response to the report from Energy in Depth, a website sponsored by industry. The TCEQ says it plans to conduct video surveillance of air quality over the region this summer

Last month, the TCEQ and the US Environmental Protection Agency settled their dispute over EPA's requirements for reducing emissions from industry in Texas. EPA had revoked TCEQ's air permitting authority for failing to follow EPA requirements. As a result, permitting was greatly delayed for new projects, causing industry to pressure TCEQ and the State to settle the dispute so that permitting authority could be restored to TCEQ. Texas has been in a continuing series of battles with the EPA, and has sued the agency 18 times in the last 10 years. Gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott has touted his battles with the EPA in his campaign. ("As Texas has proven in other lawsuits against the EPA, this is a runaway federal agency that must be reined in.")

Debate continues over whether increased production and use of natural gas reduces greenhouse gas emissions. A large part of that debate is centered around how much methane is leaked in the process of producing and transporting it to end users.

Water Use

With the ongoing drought, the exploration industry's water use in fracing has come under increased scrutiny. The EPA is engaged in a long-term study of the effect of industry activity on groundwater resources.

In Pennsylvania, drillers must submit a water-use plan disclosing how much water will be used, where it comes from, and what effect it will have on local sources; and the plan must include water recycling. In Texas, the exploration industry's use of groundwater is largely exempt from regulation by local groundwater districts and is placing a strain on groundwater resources in South and West Texas. There is no effort yet in Texas to require companies to recycle. The first sustained use of water recycling on a big scale has been implemented by Apache in the Permian Basin, where Apache has installed a central water recycling system. To date, water recycling is still more expensive than using groundwater in most plays. But in the Permian, where groundwater is scarce, landowners have been selling their water for as much as a dollar a barrell, making recycling more competitive.

Seismic Activity

Earthquakes linked to oil and gas activity continue to make the news. In Texas, the town of Azle has made news protesting before the Texas Railroad Commission about quakes in the Barnett Shale they say are caused by injection wells. RRC candidates have expressed skepticism about any link between the quakes and oil and gas activity.  The RRC has hired a seismologist and is studying the matter, but so far has not shut down any injection wells in the area. Increased seismic activity in Oklahoma has been linked to industry injection wells there. In Arkansas, companies have shut down two injection wells believed to be linked to more than 1,000 unexplained earthquakes in the region.



December 30, 2013

Another Chapter in EPA's Battle with Range Resources in Parker County

On December 20, the Office of Inspector General of the Environmental Protection Agency issued its "Response to Congressional Inquiry Regarding the EPA's Emergency Order to the Range Resources Gas Drilling Company."  The report was requested by Congress as a result of an emergency order issued by the Dallas regional office of the EPA against Range Resources on December 7, 2010. That order required Range to take certain actions based on EPA's finding that Range's wells in the Barnett Shale were the likely source of contamination of water wells in Parker County.

I have written about Range's saga before.  EPA sued Range to enforce its emergency order. Range disputed and fought the EPA order, suing in the U.S. Court of Appeals to get the order revoked. Range called a hearing before the Texas Railroad Commission (in which EPA did not participate), after which the RRC found that Range's wells were not the source of the gas in the water wells. One of the well owners, the Lipskys, sued Range in state court for damages;  Range countersued, contending that the Lipskys had falsified evidence and defamed the company. The district court found that Lipsky had created a "deceptive video" that was "calculated to alarm the public into believing the water was burning." The Lispkys have appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, where their case remainds pending.

Read more here:

The EPA and Range eventually settled their dispute, Range agreeing to conduct tests of 20 water wells in the area every 3 months for a year. Those tests showed no methane contamination of the water wells.

The Range-EPA fight led to the resignation of the Dallas regional admnistrator of the EPA, Dr. Al Armendariz, after he was videoed saying that, because of the limited number of staff in his office, his enforcment approach is to act like the Romans: "They'd go into a little Turkish town somewhere, they'd find the first five guys they saw and they would crucify them. And then you know that town was really easy to manage for the next few years."  His actions were criticized in Congress, leading to a congressional request that the Office of Inspector General investigate EPA's actions in the Range matter.

The OIG's report vindicates EPA's actions.  If found that the EPA's actions "conformed to agency guidlines, regulations and policy." It also found that "the EPA lacks quality assurance information for the Range Resources' sampling program, and questions remain about the contamination."

A large part of the controversy concerned the EPA's "isotopic fingerprinting and compositional analysis" of the gas in the Lipskys' well, from which EPA concluded that the methane came from the Barnett Shale.  In Parker County, the principal aquifer lies just above a shallow formation that contains methane, and water wells will become contaminated with that methane if they are drilled through the aquifer into the shallow gas sands. Range's evidence at the RRC hearing showed that EPA's "isotopic" analysis was flawed and that the gas in the Lipskys' well was not from the Barnett Shale. Range's evidence for the source of the gas is not mentioned in the OIG report.

Armendariz, now employed by Sierra Club, said that the OIG report is "complete and total vindication of the work we did at EPA."  Lipsky continues to believe that Range is responsible for contamination of his well:  "The holding tanks [for well water] in people's garages are going to explode and I don't care where it's coming from, someone is going to get killed," he said.

December 6, 2013

FPL Farming Case - Can Salt Water Injection Wells Cause Subsurface Trespass?

   Suppose that the fluids injected into a disposal well migrate beyond the boundary of the tract where the well is located; does that incursion of the injected fluids into and under the neighbor's property constitute a trespass?  Until recently, this question had never been addressed by a Texas appellate court, and the assumption in the disposal industry was that such incursion was not actionable. The Beaumont Court of Appeals, in FPL Farming Ltd. ("FPL") v. Environmental Processing Systems, L.C. ("EPS"), concluded that the neighbor does have a trespass claim. 

  The Beaumont Court of Appeals has issued two opinions in the case; the first was appealed to the Supreme Court which reversed and remanded to the Court of Appeals, and the second has also been appealed to the Supreme Court, where it is now pending. FPL Farming Ltd. v. Environmental Processing Systems, L.C., 305 S.W.3d 739 (Tex.App.-Beaumont), reversed and remanded 351 S.W.3d 306 (Tex. 2011), on remand 383 S.W.3d 274 (Tex.App.-Beaumont May 24, 2012, pet. filed 1/18/13).  

  The facts in FPL are these:  EPS operates an injection well for non-hazardous waste on land adjacent to the land owned by FPL. FPL previously objected to an amendment of EPS's permit that increased the rate and volumes allowed to be injected. The Austin Court of Appeals affirmed the permit amendment over FPL's objections, ruling that "the amended permits do not impair FPL's existing or intended use of the deep subsurface." FPL Farming Ltd. v. Tex. Natural Res. Conservation Comm'n, 2003 WL 247183 (Austin 2003, pet. denied).

   FPL then sued EPS for trespass and negligence, alleging that injected substances had migrated under FPL's tract causing damage. FPL lost a jury trial and appealed. The Beaumont Court affirmed, holding that because EPS held a valid permit for its well, "no trespass occurs when fluids that were injected at deep levels are then alleged to have later migrated at those deep levels into the deep subsurface of nearby tracts." FPL Farming Ltd. v. Environmental Processing Systems, L.C., 305 S.W.3d 739, 744-745 (Tex.App.-Beaumont). The Supreme Court reversed, holding that Texas laws governing injection well permits "do not shield permit holders from civil tort liability that may result from actions governed by the permit." FPL Farming Ltd. v. Environmental Processing Systems, L.C., 351 S.W.3d 306, 314 (Tex. 2011). But the court was careful to say it was not deciding that owners of injection wells could be guilty of trespass if their injected fluids migrated onto other lands. "We do not decide today whether subsurface wastewater migration can constitute a trespass, or whether it did so in this case." Id.  The court remanded to the court of appeals for it to consider the other issues raised by the appeal.

  In its second opinion, the Beaumont court held that FPL did have a cause of action for trespass: "[T]he Texas Supreme Court has, by implication, recognized that the law of trespass applies to invasions occurring on adjacent property but at a level beneath the surface."  Testimony was presented that the waste plume affected the briny water in place under FPL's property, "even though it was not presently using the briny water." The court said that the briny water belongs to the surface owner, and that EPS's permits did not give EPS an ownership interest in the formations below FPL's property. The Beaumont court reversed and remanded the case for a new trial, holding that the trial court's jury instruction erroneously put the burden on the landowner to prove that he had not consented to the injection under his property. Additionally, the court noted that the fact that EPS is using the deep subsurface for commercial purposes indicates that the subsurface levels at issue have economic potential for storing waste, which otherwise, absent its safe storage, has the potential to adversely affect the environment. Thus, without a trespass remedy, a party--in this case, FPL--does not have all of the legal remedies typically available to owners to protect the owner's right to the exclusive use of its property.

  EPS also claimed that its trespass onto FPL's property did no actual harm. The court said that EPS had failed to show as a matter of law that no injury had occurred, and that FPL was entitled to a jury trial on that issue.

   So the Beaumont court of appeals' opinion, if it stands, recognizes a trespass claim for subsurface migration of injected fluids.  The fear for the industry is not necessarily a suit for damages, which may be too difficult to prove.  If subsurface trespass is found to be a viable claim, potential plaintiffs could seek an injunction to stop a well from injecting fluids underground.

  The Texas Supreme Court has set the case for oral argument at 9 am on January 7. You can view the oral argument online.

November 12, 2013

Environmental Report Card on Fracing

A group of environmentally conscious social and investor organizations has produced a report, Disclosing the Facts: Transparency and Risk in Hydrualic Fracturing Operations. The report grades companies on how well they report risks attendant to operations in the major US shale plays.

The report is a collaboration of four organizations: As You Sow, Boston Common Asset Management, Green Century Capital Management, Inc., and The Investor Environmental Health Network.  It was made possible by grants from several foundations, listed in the report.

The report assesses the public disclosures of 24 oil and gas companies on their quantitative reporting in five areas of environmental, social and governance metrics: toxic chemicals, water and waste management, air emissions, community impacts, and management accountability. Each company is graded on these metrics based on how well they measure and disclose, quantitatively, their performance in these areas. The grades are based solely on publicly available information provided by the companies. Example criteria:

  • Does the company report its use of diesel fuel and TBEX in frac fluids?
  • Does the company report its testing of water wells within a specified distance of a new well before and after drilling?
  • Does the company report its percentage of flowback water reuse, its total water use, and its water use intensity?
  • Does the company report the extent to which it uses closed-loop systems to manage drilling fluids?
  • Does the company report the percentage of "green completions" (capturing natural gas produced during drilling rather than releasing or flaring the gas)?
  • Does the company track community impact concerns (road damage, traffic congestion, etc.)?

The idea behind the report is to convince companies (and their shareholders) that monitoring and reporting of environmental and social impacts is good for business. It is a follow-up to an earlier report, Extracting the Facts: An Investor Guide to Disclosing Risks from Hydraulic Fracturing Operations, by The Investor Environmental Health Network, in 2011.

The highest scoring company was Encana, with a score of 14 out of a possible 32.

The report contains many good links to other reports and information. For example:

Resources for the Future, "The State of State Shale Gas Regulation" (2013):

Model regulations for chemical disclosure and strengthening well drilling and completion practices, developed in collaboration with Southwestern Energy and the Environmental Defense Fund:

George King, "Hydraulic Fracturing 101: What Every Representative, Environmentalist, Regulator, Reporter, Investor, University Researcher, Neighbor and Engineer Should Know About Estimating Frac Risk and Improving Frac Performance in Unconventional Gas and Oil Wells" (Society of Petroleum Engineers Paper SPE 152596 (2012)

September 30, 2013

New UT Study Continues Methane Green House Gas Debate

A report recently released by the University of Texas' Cockrell School of Engineering, "Measurements of methane emissions at natural gas production sites in the United States," has re-energized the debate between industry and environmental groups over whether natural gas is good for the environment.

UT's report is a peer-reviewed paper reporting on the results of measurements of methane emissions at 190 onshore natural gas sites in the US. It was sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund, Anadarko Petroleum, BG Group, Chevron, Encana, Pioneer Natural Resources, Shell, Southwestern Energy, Talisman Energy USA, and Exxon. The study is part of a larger series of studies being sponsored by EDF to determine how much methane is emitted by natural gas exploration, production and transportion in the US. The issue is important because, on the one hand, burning of methane releases less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than coal or oil, and on the other hand, methane is itself a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Over the first 20 years after it is released, methane is 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

Those environmental groups who oppose further development of hydrocarbon resources argue that, because of methane emissions, natural gas is not a good alternative to other fossil fuels. They have argued, based in part on estimates of methane emissions from completion operations on wells using hydraulic fracturing, that the increased development of natural gas resources made possible by fracing is bad for the environment. The industry, and some environmental groups, see natural gas as a plus, a "bridge fuel" to development of renewable energy.

The debate over the greenhouse effect of methane was triggered by the release of a study by two Cornell University professors, Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea, contending that EPA estimates of methane emissions were low, and that because of those emissions natural gas was a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and other emissions from burning coal. Howarth's study has been widely criticized for using old data and vastly inflating methane emission estimates by the US Energy Department, the University of Maryland, MIT, Carengie Mellon Universty and the Worldwatch Institute. 

Howarth has issued a press release criticizing the UT study, saying it relied on data from the nine companies who helped sponsor the study. He pointed to a study published last month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as more representative of a worst-case scenario. It studied air emissions in an entire basin in Utah. "They're finding methane emissions that are 10 to 20 times higher than this new study," Howarth says, "and I think [that's] probably more representative of at least those western gas fields, when industry does not realize it's being watched."

UT was criticized last year over possible bias in a study published by UT Austin's Energy Institute, "Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development." After review by an independent commission appointed by the University, UT withdrew the study.  Its author had failed to reveal that he sits on the board of Plains Exploration and received substantial compensation from the company. The review panel concluded that the report was not "fact-based" or subject to serious peer review and that a summary press release of the report was misleading and "seemed to suggest that public concerns were without scientific basis and largely resulted from media bias." (See my report on the controversy here.)

So what does the new UT study really tell us?  Its measurements of methane released from completion and fracing operations are substantially lower than EPA's estimates. But its measurements of gas released from pneumatic pumps and controllers and equipment leaks were either comparable to or higher than EPA estimates. Overall, the study's estimates of methane emissions were in line with EPA's most recent estimates. Lower measurements of emissions from well completions may be a result of better completion techniques that capture more methane, either for sale or flaring.  UT's study also attempted to measure methane emissions from "well unloadings"; while it found emissions from those events to be substantial, it concluded that its sample size was not sufficient to extrapolate emissions from that source and more sampling would be necessary. For a good explanation of emissions from "well unloadings" and well completions, you can watch the video on UT's website explaining its study. EDF's website explaining its efforts to better measure methane emissions is also instructive.

The debate continues.

September 23, 2013

Energy Statistics

I subscribe to the Economist, and it recently sent its subscribers a booklet, Pocket World in Figures, that contains rankings of 198 countries in categories ranging from longest river to biggest cities to number of refugees to living standards, etc.  Here are some interesting statistics related to energy from that booklet:

Top 10 Oil Producers 2012 ('000 bbls/day)

Saudi Arabia           11,530

Russia                    10,643

U.S.                        8,905

China                       4,153

Canada                    3,741

Iran                          3,680

UAR                         3,380

Kuwait                      3,127

Iraq                           3,115

Mexico                      2,911


Top Ten Oil Consumers 2012 ('000 bbls/day)

U.S.                         18,555

China                       10,221

Japan                         4,714

India                           3,652

Russia                        3,174

Saudi Arabia                2,935

Brazil                          2,805

South Korea                2,458

Canada                       2,412

Germany                     2,358


Top 10 Natural Gas Producers 2012 (billion cubic meters)

U.S.                           681.4

Russia                        592.3

Iran                            160.5

Qatar                          157.0

Canada                       156.5

Norway                       114.9

China                          107.2

Saudi Arabia                102.8

Algeria                          81.5

Indonesia                      71.1


Top 10 Natural Gas Consumers 2012 (billion cubic meters)

U.S.                             722.1

Russia                         416.2

Iran                              156.1

China                           143.8

Japan                           116.7

Saudi Arabia                 102.8

Canada                         100.7

Mexico                           83.7

U.K.                               78.3

Germany                        75.2


In coal production, China ranked 1st (2012), with 1,825 million tonnes oil equivalent, with the U.S. a distant second at 515.9.

The U.S. ranks 30th in number of cars owned per 1,000 population (2011), behind countries such as Australia, Germany, France, Norway, Spain, and the Czech Republic.

In 2011, China produced 14,485,000 cars. Number two was Japan at 7,159,000. The U.S. ranked 6th, at 2,966,000, behind Germany, South Kora and India (3,054,000).

China ranked 1st in emissions of carbon dioxide in 2009 (7,687 million tonnes). Following it (in order): U.S. (5,267 million tonnes), India (1,979), Russia (1,574), Japan, Germany, Iran, Canada, South Korea, and South Africa.  In the rank of carbon dioxide emissions per person, U.S. ranked 10 (17.3 tonnes per person). The leader was Qatar at 44 tonnes per person, followed by Trinidad & Tobago, Kuwait, Brunei, UAR, Aruba, Bahrain, Luxembourg and Australia.

September 20, 2013

Flooding in Colorado Should Raise Concerns in Texas

The historic floods in Colorado have inundated hundreds of oil and gas wells, dislodging tanks and threatening significant pollution of the flood water.

Colorado 1.jpg

Colorado 2.jpg

Colorado 3.jpg


The disaster has raised questions across the country about regulation of drillsite locations in areas that could be subject to flooding.  The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Wednesday released a statement that it "is aggressively assessing the impacts of the flood to oil and gas facilities," including by mapping drilling sites within flooded areas, tracking reports from the ground, and sending out inspection teams. A similar disaster occurred in 2010-2011 in North Dakota, where floods from thawing snow along the Missouri River caused flooding of wells, resulting in contamination of flood waters by fracking fluids, drilling mud and saltwater. That flood prompted changes in North Dakota's regulation of wasterwater storage.  The North Dakota Industrial Commission amended its rules to prohibit the use of open pits except in cases of emergencies. Companies can still store drilling waste in open pits for up to 72 hours after drilling a well or after securing approval from the commission.

Here are stories and additional photos of the impact of Colorado's flooding on its oil and gas sites:

The Texas Railroad Commission has no rules governing the placement of oil and gas wells in areas subject to flooding or the storage of fluids in flood-prone areas.  With Texas in the middle of a historic drought, it might seem incongruous to be concerned about flooding. But we are all hoping for historic rain events to re-fill our reservoirs and break the drought. Meanwhile, thousands of new wells have been drilled across Texas, including wells in watersheds for rivers like the Guadalupe, Nueces and Frio that cross the Eagle Ford. Prudence dictates that Texas consider adopting rules that would diminish the risk of significant contamination by flood events like those recently experienced by Colorado and North Dakota.

August 21, 2013

Fracing in the News

I subscribe to a news clip service on the oil and gas industry, where I get a lot of my ideas for this blog. Almost half of the news stories for August 20 had something to do with hydraulic fracturing ("fracing" or "fracking" - the latter spelling seems to have become predominant in the media, although the industry continues to use the former). Most of the fracing stories have to do with the controversy over its environmental consequences - is it safe or not? Does it reduce carbon emissions or not? Does it pollute groundwater or not? Does it need more regulation or not?  Recently the debate over fracing is bubbling up in Europe, expecially the UK, and in the California legislature.

An interesting article reflecting on the debate is in The Guardian, titled "Fracking debate: what does the battle for lead-free air teach us?" The author compares the current debate to past debates over the toxicity of lead -- the discovery in the 18th century that lead was poisonous when ingested, and the more recent debate over the safety of lead in gasoline. In both instances environmentalists warned of its danger, the industry opposed its elimination, and politicians waffled.  The article's conclusion:

So what lessons can we draw from the story of lead? First, that society will enthusiastically adopt new technology without considering the consequences. Second, that you cannot rely on industry to act in the public interest, even when their practices are going to pollute the entire planet. Third, that politicians are no more responsive to issues of public health than they were in the 18th century. Fourth, that remedial action only happens when individuals make their voices heard above the clamour of vested interest. And finally disinformation is a standard industry tactic whenever profits are under threat.

I'm not sure that the current fracing debate is exactly analogous to the history of lead contamination, or that environmentalists are always right in their conclusions any more than that industry is always disseminating disinformation; but I do agree that it is important for politicians and the public to pay heed to the debate and seek the truth. Much is at stake, and the demand for energy, the driving force behind all of the controversy, is insatiable.

August 12, 2013

Does Hydraulic Fracturing Deplete Water Supplies?

I recently ran across an article on the Energy In Depth website titled "Turning Natural Gas Into Water: Hydraulic Fracturing Doesn't Deplete Water Supplies."  Energy In Depth is a website of the Independent Petroleum Association of America dedicated to "a research, education and public outreach campaign focused on getting the facts out about the promise and potential of responsibly developing America's onshore energy resource base " The article responds to an argument made by many organizations concerned about the large quantities of water used in fracing. The concern is that, while many uses of water return that water to the water cycle, water used in fracing is usually disposed of by injecting it underground, where it will never return to the water cycle.

Energy In Depth's response to this argument is that, while injecting the used frac water -- called "flowback" -- does remove that water from the water cycle, the burning of the gas (or oil) produced by the wells creates more water than was used in the fracing of the wells.  So, the argument goes, fracing of wells actually "creates" new water that is added to the water cycle.  EID's article goes on to calculate that, while a typical Marcellus gas well will remove 4 million gallons of water from the water cycle, that well will produce two billion cubic feet of gas which, when burned, will yield about 22 million gallons of "new" water.  Within the well's first six months of production, the gas it produces will create more than 4 million gallons of water when burned as fuel.  Problem solved!

I asked a hydrologist friend of mine to look at EID's calculations. He agreed that their math is correct, but he cautioned that the problem is not so simple.  EID's argument assumes that the energy created by burning the natural gas from EID's typical well would not have been created by the burning of other fossil fuels.  If, in other words, the gas is burned to create electricity, and if that electricity would have been created by burning coal if the well had not been drilled, then the net result is that water has been lost to the water cycle by injecting the flowback from the well.

EID's argument also fails to consider local conditions. Almost all of the water used for fracing in the Eagle Ford and in the Permian Basin in West Texas is groundwater. Those groundwater resources are already being depleted much faster than they are being recharged, mostly from agricultural and municipal demand, but exacerbated by the current drought and the demands of the oil industry. Even though the burning of the oil and gas produced from those areas does produce new water molecules into the water cycle, that fact does not replenish the aquifers or increase the chances of rain in those arid parts of our state.

The US Energy Information Administration recently projected that world consumption of energy from all fuel sources would increase by 56% through 2040. Most of that increase will come from burning fossil fuels.

EIA World Energy Use.JPG

Burning all of that fossil fuel will certainly create lots of "new" water.  Is that a good thing for the environment?

Energy generation uses huge quantities of water. Nuclear plants as well as electric generation using fossil fuels require water for coolant. While that water stays in the water cycle, it is nevertheless a demand that must be met, and in Texas that demand is increasing exponentially. Only wind and solar energy need no water to generate electricity, and - even though Texas is the US leader in wind energy -- wind and solar are as yet a small part of electricity production.

recent article in the Christian Science Monitor calls for recyclying of frac water. Some companies are experimenting with use of brackish (salty) water aquifers. EID and its sponsoring companies would do well to increase industry's efforts to reduce or eliminate use of underground water in hydraulic fracturing.


July 29, 2013

Sources and Uses of Energy in U.S.


 Those who visit my blog regularly know that I love charts and graphs. Below is a Sankey diagram produced by Lawrence Livermore Labs for the Department of Energy.  Sankey diagrams are named after Irish Captain Matthew Henry Phineas Riall Sankey, who used this type of diagram in 1898 in a publication on the energy efficiency of a steam engine.  The diagram below may also be viewed here.   

In the diagram, sources of energy are on the left, uses of energy are on the right. The first remarkable thing that struck me is how much energy is "rejected." Most of the petroleum used in transportation, and most of the fuel used to generate electricity, is rejected. A huge loss by inefficiency. Avoiding even a small amount of this inefficiency would in effect create a new source of energy.

Note also the small contributions of renewable energy sources -- biomass, solar, hydro and wind -- to the total. And the as-yet very small contribution of natural gas to the consumption of energy for transportation.

Livermore Sankey Diagram.JPG

July 8, 2013

News About Fracking and Groundwater

There has been a lot of discussion lately about the demand on groundwater from its use to hydraulically fracture wells, and possible contamination of wells by hydraulic fracturing and improper completion of wells.

Air Products and Chemicals is promoting the use of nitrogen foam instead of water in fracking in shallower formations.

A second study of wells in the Marcellus Shale led by Rob Jackson of Duke Universty, published in the Prodceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found increased methane in water wells located close to recent shale wells. "Overall, our data suggest that some homeowners living <1 km from gas wells have drinking water contaminated with stray gases," Jackson's team concluded. The study does not directly link the methane to the Marcellus wells because of the lack of data on the quality of the groundwater before the wells were drilled.

The EPA has abandoned its investigation into possible contamination of groundwater by fracking in Pavillion, Wyoming, saying that it would instead support the state's investigation.  EPA released a draft report in 2011 that found frac fluids present in groundwater; its report was heavily criticized by the industry.

Scarcity of groundwater in the Permian Basin in West Texas has caused operators to turn to water recylcing and use of brackish (non-potable) groundwater. A recent study by UT Austin estimated that 20% of the frac water used in that area came from recycled or brackish water. The study found that in Dimmit, Webb and LaSalle Counties - all in the Eagle Ford Shale -- more than 50% of total water use comes from mining, which includes fracking.

Barnhart, a small town in Irion County in West Texas, has run out of water. It's well has run dry. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has listed 30 communities statewide that could run out of water by the end of the year.

A report by the Texas Water Development Board showed groundwater levels dropped significantly in Texas aquifers. In South Texas' Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer, the principal source for frac water in the Eagle Ford, median groundwater levels dropped 4.4 feet in monitoring wells, and the average drop was 17.1 feet. One monitoring well in LaSalle County ropped some 136 feet.

Here is a good article on the relation between water resources and hydraulic fracturing:

Ceres, an environmental non-profit, has published a paper analyzing water use in fracking operations and efforts being made by industry to use alternatives to potable groundwater. It found that more than half of the wells drilled in Texas in 2011 were in areas with high or exremely high "water stress."


May 27, 2013

The Downside of Canadian Heavy Crude

A recent article in the New York Times highlights the difference between "oil," or "owal" as we say in Texas, and the heavy crude oil mined from Canadian tar sands. A major waste product of that mining is coke.  The tarry substance mined in Canada goes through an initial refining process to separate the crude from tarlike bitumen, caled "coking." The tarry solid left from the process is called coke. It can be burned, and is an essential ingredient in making steel. The coke created from Canadian tar sands has a high sulfur content. Some of the Canadian tar sands are now being coked in a refinery in Detroit owned by Marathon Petroleum, and the coke by-product is sold to Koch Carbon, owned by Charles and David Koch. (I'm not making this up.) The Koch brothers have recently been in the news for considering an offer to buy the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. They are also famous for supporting conservative and libertarian political causes. 

Here is the picture from the NYT article showing the stockpile of coke along the Detroit River belonging to the Kochs:


The crude oil generated by the coking process is the oil that is supposed to go through the Keystone pipeline running from Canada to the Texas coast, if that pipeline ever gets regulatory approval. According to the NYT article, Canada has 79.8 million tons of coke stockpiled. Efforts are underway to export Canadian coke to China and Mexico as a fuel. California, which also produces heavy crude that has to be coked, exports about 128,000 barrels of coke per day, mostly to China. The EPA does not permit it to be burned in the US. The Oxbow Corporation, owned by William I. Koch (a brother of David and Charles), is one of the world's larges dealers in petroleum coke, selling about 11 million tons a year.

Here are some pictures of petroleum mines in Alberta, Canada:

Alberta oil sands 1.jpg

Alberta oil sands 2.jpg

Alberta oil sands 3.jpg

Alberta oil sands 4.jpg

This is what the raw petroleum sand looks like:

Alberta oil sands 5.jpg