Myths, misunderstandings and facts

Opinions Fractured on Hydro Fracturing

Whatever your position on hydraulic fracturing, you have to agree that it is highly dangerous, environmentally disruptive, poisonous and the work of the Devil ...

Or, that it’s an advanced, low-impact, low-risk way to develop unconventional resources and increase energy supply.

Opinions vary.

In fact, environmentalists and oil and gas professionals do not always see eye-to-eye on the subject.

Steve Leifer looks at the Big Picture of drilling and hydrofracturing, from a global perspective.

“I have matters in all of the United States – and overseas,” he said.

Leifer is a partner in the law firm Baker Botts LLC in Washington, D.C. He specializes in environmental matters and serves as chair of the firm’s worldwide Environmental Department.

He’ll also be the featured speaker at the Division of Environmental Geosciences’ luncheon at the upcoming AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Long Beach, Calif., talking about “Hydraulic Fracturing: Separating Myth From Reality.”

With numerous clients in the energy industry, Leifer keeps as close an eye on hydrofracturing regulations and realities as anyone in the world.

His view on the current situation?

“It’s pretty exciting out there,” he said.

That’s a statement of fact. With protest movements already established in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, environmentalists and anti-drilling forces are starting to mount serious anti-fracturing campaigns across the United States.

France and Bulgaria have put outright bans on hydraulic fracturing. South Africa placed a partial moratorium on the process, and sporadic protests against hydrofracturing have been held in several other countries.

And that has presented the industry with a challenge.

“It’s difficult with an emotional issue like this to come up with a way to change public perception,” Leifer said. “We’re certainly not winning the day, by any means.

Appeals to emotion instead of logic or reason are especially difficult for the industry to counter, he noted.

“Industry tries to advance its view by using science and rational arguments,” he said. “Environmentalists don’t have to do that.”

Aiming for An Understanding

Leifer plans to discuss two sides of hydraulic fracturing: the technical process of fracturing itself and the regulatory environment in which fracturing takes place. Each carries its own set of possibilities, he observed.

“I’m going to mention both the risks and benefits, on both the legal and technical sides of things,” he said.

While talking about fracturing necessarily means talking about regulators and regulations, Leifer said he plans to speak in terms familiar to a technical audience, with a minimum of legalese.

“I don’t want to scare people off thinking half my speech is going to be in Latin,” he explained.

Overall, Leifer said he would examine the various myths and misunderstandings that have grown up around hydraulic fracturing. That includes perceptions in the environmental community and in the technical community.

“I think the biggest myth is that hydraulic fracturing creates significant risk to drinking water supplies. That’s not true,” he said.

By contrast, some professionals in the oil and gas industry have tried to portray fracturing as a virtually risk-free practice.

“If anyone in the industry says there are zero risks, I would say that’s a myth,” he added.

Leifer also said he would discuss three recent developments in the hydraulic fracturing debate, where fracturing has come under scrutiny:

Pavillion, Wyoming.

In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a draft report on its investigation of ground water contamination in and near Pavillion, where some residents had complained of objectionable taste and odor problems in well water.

The EPA conducted four sampling phases of ground water between March 2009 and April 2011, including samples from domestic wells, stock wells, municipal wells and monitor wells.

Results of sample analysis and of research designed and conducted at an EPA laboratory in Oklahoma indicated that hydraulic fracturing activity was a “likely contributor” to ground water contamination, according to the EPA.

“Alternative explanations were carefully considered to explain individual sets of data. However, when considered together with other lines of evidence, the data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing,” the report said.

Both diesel range organics (DRO) and gasoline range organics (GRO) in the well water, the EPA said.

“Domestic well results showed: the presence of DRO and GRO (in 23 of 28 samples), and trace levels of exotic organic compounds in some domestic wells including adamantanes, 2- butoxyethanol phosphate, phenols, naphthalene, and toluene,” the report stated.

The EPA said no definitive conclusion was possible because of the lack of a baseline for water quality before fracturing operations began.

In addition to baseline data, an EPA panel had earlier called for “greater transparency on chemical composition of hydraulic fracturing fluids, and greater emphasis on well construction and integrity requirements and testing.”

The Pavillion draft report stated, “implementation of these recommendations would decrease the likelihood of impact to ground water and increase public confidence in the (hydraulic fracturing) technology.”

Dimock, Pennsylvania.

Some families in Dimock Township began complaining of contaminated well water in 2008, similar to the water complaints in Pavillion.

Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. had been conducting drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations in the Dimock area, and some residents associated the water quality problems with fracturing.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) ruled that Cabot’s activities had affected the quality of 18 water sources. Cabot disagreed with the finding but signed consent orders with the DEP in 2009 and 2010, agreeing to fund escrow accounts and provide water for the affected families, among other actions.

In 2011, the DEP found that Cabot had fulfilled its obligations under the consent orders, and the company concluded water deliveries at the end of November.

Residents complained that their water remained tainted, and requested further governmental action.

The EPA then issued a determination that water supplies were causing health concerns at four Dimock homes. In January, it began potable water deliveries and said it would carry out its own water sampling and testing.

Induced seismic activity.

Various reports and conjectures have attempted to link small earthquakes or noticeable surface tremors to hydraulic fracturing activity. Lately, most of that focus has shifted to deep wastewater injection wells, Leifer noted.

Ohio ordered the shutdown of one injection well after a series of earthquakes hit the northeast part of the state. Injection wells also have been suspected of causing tremors in Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma.

Leifer said the injection-well situation highlights a difference between fracturing water disposal in the western United States and in the east.

“In the west you can generally just take your water and inject it into an injection well. In the east, you can’t do that,” he said.

“That means the produced and flowback water must be shipped to a public-owned treatment works – a POTW, essentially a town water system. This raises the need to make sure the water does not unduly interfere with the operation of the POTW,” he added.

State legislatures increasingly took up the subject of hydraulic fracturing last year. By the beginning of 2012, several states had considered placing a temporary moratorium on fracturing operations, but no state had banned the practice completely.

“I think that it is possible a state which does not have a great deal of shale gas could institute an outright ban,” Leifer said.

“But it is highly doubtful that a state with serious reserves would shoot themselves – and their economy – in the foot by completely banning hydraulic fracturing,” he added.

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DEG Annual Luncheon

Steve Leifer
Steve Leifer

Steve Leifer will speak on “Hydraulic Fracturing: Separating Myth from Reality” at the Division of Environmental Geosciences annual luncheon at the AAPG Annual Convention in Long Beach, Calif. The luncheon will begin at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, April 25, at the Long Beach Convention Center.

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