Shale Gas

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Policy Responses to Shale Gas Development

Summary of Clinic Shale Gas Work

The Clinic has worked on the environmental issues related to shale gas development from several angles.  This work has included:

  • the preparation of a guide for landowners to help them decide whether to enter into a lease with a drilling company and, if they do, to help them include provisions in the lease to better protect their health and the environment;
  • an analysis of the legal options available to individuals in West Virginia who own only the surface rights, when shale gas drillers acquire the mineral rights to a property on which the mineral and surface rights were severed many years or decades ago;
  • a review of the authority of municipalities to limit, regulate, or ban oil and gas drilling in Colorado, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia;
  • the submission of comments to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Waste Management on the Bureau’s proposal to revise a general permit to allow the use of natural gas well brines for dust suppression and road stabilization purposes; and
  • in collaboration with the Policy Initiative, the development of a guide recommending best practices for states when reviewing complaints from landowners about the impacts of drilling on well water quality or quantity.

Summary of Environmental Policy Initiative (EPI) Shale Gas Work

The Environmental Policy Initiative (EPI) offers comparative reviews, best practices, and resources to agencies responding to the shale gas boom.

Most of EPI’s work has related to shale gas disclosure requirements, for instance, in our review of the online registry FracFocus as a regulatory disclosure mechanism, and our convening of a panel of experts to discuss disclosure laws.

Recent EPI work has branched out to consider other regulatory programs as well. In collaboration with the Clinic, we’ve developed a “best practices” guide for states reviewing complaints about the impacts of drilling on well water quality or quantity.  If you have suggestions for future “best practices” guides, email them to EPI here (please type “best practices guide suggestion” in the subject line). And recently, EPI Director Kate Konschnik teamed up with Mark Boling of Southwestern Energy, to publish a peer-reviewed article on approaches to risk mitigation in the shale gas context.

We will continue to build out our “shale gas” web pages to offer additional resources to state and federal decision-makers, so please bookmark this site and visit us often!

Background Information

Natural gas is mined and used for electricity generation, heating, and transportation fuel. Vast quantities of gas are trapped in shale formations under much of the United States.  Shale rock is also known as “source rock” because this is where gas and oil originate.  The fossil fuels began as organic matter trapped in shale millions of years ago.

Over time, oil and gas migrates out of the shale rock into underground reservoirs (which are comprised of more porous rock where the fuel collects). Traditional or “conventional” oil and gas development focuses on finding those valuable reservoirs.

Source: Louisiana Department of Natural Resources

But by 2011, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that conventional gas made up just 16% of total domestic gas production (3.6 trillion cubic feet).  The rest of our natural gas comes from unconventional development, including the mining of shale gas.

Shale gas made up nearly one quarter of U.S. gas production in 2010, according to the EIA.  That share is growing; by 2035, the EIA predicts half of American gas will be produced from horizontal shale gas wells.

The main method of collecting shale gas is hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracing (or fracking, as it is spelled in the media), where water mixed with sand and chemicals is injected at high pressure into a well.  First, a well operator drills a vertical well into shale rock, and then drills horizontal radials through that rock.  Next, the operator triggers contained explosions along the radial arms of the well, to begin to fracture the rock.  During the fracking stage, a service company pumps fracturing fluid into the well to extend the fractures (typically less than 1 mm in width, but hundreds or thousands of feet in length) and prop the fractures open.  Gas is released along these fractures and migrates up the well.  This video provides a visual description of the process

What are the Potential Benefits of Shale Gas?

Natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel.  According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, “[c]ompared to the average air emissions from coal-fired generation, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides, and one percent as much sulfur oxides at the power plant.” (Meanwhile, renewable forms of power production – solar, wind, geothermal, hydro – and nuclear plants emit no air pollution.) Moreover, increased gas production has driven a lot of economic growth or at least modest economic growth (depending on your source) in the U.S.

As gas prices hit a 10 year low, the U.S. electricity market shifted to take advantage of this cheaper fuel.  Some have credited cheaper electricity for the modest “reshoring” trend for American manufacturing. However, low gas prices and a heavy reliance on natural gas for electricity may not last.  When gas prices started rising again in the first quarter of 2013, gas use in the electricity sector dropped by 16% from the previous year.

What are the Potential Risks of Shale Gas?

As shale gas development has expanded, so have concerns about the potential health and environmental risks associated with the activity.  A February 2013 study by Resources for the Future reflected broad consensus across industry, government, universities, and environmental groups about some of the potential risks posed by developing shale gas. Asked to prioritize 264 “risk pathways,” experts across these sectors agreed on these:

  • Stormwater runoff and habitat fragmentation from site preparation;
  • Methane leakage during drilling and fracturing (methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change);
  • Freshwater withdrawals for fracturing;
  • Pollution of surface water and groundwater from the onsite storage of fracturing fluids, flowback water, and produced water; and
  • Pollution of surface water from the treatment of flowback and produced water at municipal and industrial waste water treatment facilities.

In April 2013, the Wall Street Journal published an article on shale gas regulation that included this graphic, depicting some of the potential risks of this activity:


What is New and Different about the Risks Associated with Shale Gas Production?

Many of the potential risks cited – for example, stormwater runoff from site clearing, or methane venting into the atmosphere – are not unique to this type of gas recovery.  In many instances, increased risk – or the perception of increased risk – is driven more by the scale and intensity of shale gas production than by any specific characteristics of the activity.

Rapid growth in an industrial activity can pose serious governance challenges.  States may find that previously approved wastewater retention or disposal methods can’t handle the increased capacity.  Local roads, social services, and hospitals may be unable to meet rising demand.  Agencies and elected officials receive a sharp uptick in complaints from community residents who are suddenly in close proximity to gas production facilities and contending with truck traffic, air pollution, and noise.

One stage of shale gas production is different from conventional gas production – the hydraulic fracturing stage.  Perhaps for this reason, the potential risks posed by this stage have attracted the most attention in the press, and in policy responses.

According to ExxonMobil, hydraulic fracturing fluid is typically comprised of approximately 98 to 99.5% water and sand or small ceramic beads.  (The sand and ceramic beads prop open the fractures.)  The remaining 0.5 to 2% consists of chemical additives, including acids to dissolve the rock, lubricants to aid flow, and biocides to kill things that might otherwise grow inside the well.

The chemicals represent a small fraction of the volume of fracturing fluid.  But since millions of gallons of fracturing fluid are injected into the typical shale gas well, the fluid can contain thousands of gallons of chemicals.  These chemicals may pose a threat to worker safety, public health, and the environment during the fracturing stage, but also during transport, storage and blending at the well, and at wastewater disposal sites.

Hydraulic fracturing has been used as a mining technique for decades.  However, wells are now many times longer and drilled deeper into solid rock formations, increasing the amount of chemicals, energy, and water needed to achieve production.

 NOTE:  While the Environmental Policy Initiative and the Emmett Environmental Law & Policy Clinic have focused on shale gas, hydraulic fracturing is also used to extract oil from shale formations like North Dakota’s Bakken Shale and the Eagle Ford in Texas.  Many of the governance challenges will be similar.  However, shale oil poses different policy implications.  For instance, when natural gas displaces coal in the electricity sector, it reduces criteria and greenhouse gas pollution from power plants.  Shale oil, however, would be used alongside conventional oil, and would not represent an opportunity to reduce combustion emissions.
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