NEWS FROM AAPG 2014: Infrastructure, not fracing, is industry’s biggest environmental challenge
ROGER JORDAN, Associate Editor
HOUSTON – While the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing may have dominated headlines, industry infrastructure presents the most significant environmental challenge, the AAPG’s annual convention has heard.
Fracing has spurred the U.S. energy revolution and put America on the path to energy independence. However, the technique has also proved highly emotive and spurred opposition from some communities, especially in Europe.
During an address at ACE 2014 on Tuesday, Scott Anderson, of the Environmental Defense Fund, addressed a number of environmental risks that need to be controlled to minimize the environmental impact of the oil and gas industry. But fracing, Anderson said, “is at the bottom” of his list of risk factors.
The senior policy advisor said that fracing was not risk free but said that, to date, “there have been no documented cases of drinking water, that' s not all water, but drinking water, having been contaminated with frac chemicals through the fractures themselves."
The single biggest area of concern, Anderson said, was one that doesn’t immediately appear to be related to the environment, namely infrastructure impacts. “You can’t have oil and gas development without roads, you can’t have it without pipelines, you can’t have it without drilling pads,” he said.
Along with infrastructure comes congestion, things that are closer to schools and churches than people would like, and questions about citing and density, Anderson said.
The infrastructure impacts, Anderson said, don’t go away. “The best you can do with these infrastructure impacts is to optimize them and to minimize them and cope with them.”
Surface spills represent another area of risk, Anderson said. Over about a 20-year period in Texas and Ohio, Anderson said, there were 400 documented cases in which upstream operations were found to have contaminated groundwater -- 70% of these cases originated from surface spills; 20% were from old legacy unplugged wells; and 10% were the result of various well intergrity issues.
Another emotive issue which has risen to the fore is the oil and gas industry’s use of water. Anderson said that on a national, or state, basis the oil and gas industry does not use a significant amount of water. In Texas, he said, the upstream industry accounts, on average, for 1% of the state’s total fresh water usage.
Water recycling, which has been touted as a way to reduce the industry’s water use, presents a “very real risk of creating more problems than it solves," Anderson said. Shifting about 100 MM gal a year of water into recycling operations would require largely new infrastructure for storage and transport; new types of treatment technologies; and new ideas on what to do with excess recycled water, he said.
It is "not trivial" to decide what safe discharge levels for recycled water should be, he said. Well integrity, runoff and atmospheric emissions are other factors which need to be taken into consideration, Anderson said.