An independent fact gathering analysis

Study Seeks to Inject Science into Frack Debate

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

Got a shale?

You need a frack job.

Following application in tight geological formations for decades with no fanfare, fracking now has become essentially a household word – sometimes good, sometimes bad – as the shale plays continue to proliferate not only in the United States but also globally.

These dense, low permeability rocks tend to have a lock on the hydrocarbons within. Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, via injecting fluid under pressure usually is vital to create cracks, fracture networks in the target zone to allow the trapped oil/gas molecules to move through the rock to be extracted.

This can be particularly true for relatively large oil molecules.

Even if you’re counting on smaller gas molecules to move through nano-darcy matrix permeability to reach the wellbore, hunker down and put your life on hold.

Scientific research has shown gas molecule movement to be perhaps 10 feet in a well’s lifetime, or maybe as much as a few feet per year.

“The implication is if you don’t place a high permeability pathway close to where a gas molecule resides in the reservoir, it will never find its way to the wellbore,” said Randy LaFollette, manager of shale gas technology at BJ Services in Tomball, Texas.

“There’s no geological time to wait around for these things to migrate out at their own pace,” he said. “Therefore we frack.”

A Problem Perceived

Yet the ongoing escalation of these very necessary fracturing applications has opened up a Pandora’s Box of sorts.

A plethora of complaints about alleged problems related to fracking are emanating from governing/regulatory agencies, including federal, state and local, as well as from private citizens.

Allegations include illness caused by drinking water supplies supposedly contaminated via the injected fracking water, seismic events said to be caused by the actual procedure, infrastructure impacts on land use, impacts of disposal of produced water, etc, etc.

The anti-fracking movement received further encouragement with the 2010 release of a documentary film, “Gasland,” which featured commentary guaranteed to encourage fear and distrust.

Industry bears a share of blame as well.

For example, when geologists say something to the effect that frack fluid was injected in a zone 10,000 feet deep, and there’s no way it can migrate through all of the overlying rock up to the surface, they overlook the fact that the public in general doesn’t understand this.

Until this is proven, they will remain on the defensive.

Applying Science

Midst all of the accusations, hand-wringing, etc., there’s a vital missing ingredient for the most part.

It’s called science.

The Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin has inaugurated a project to remedy this.

The project is described as focused on – but not limited to – fracking issues and includes information gathering, analysis and development of recommendations regarding ways to ensure that policies, regulations and public opinions reflect actual conditions and impacts.

Seismicity and air quality impacts also will be addressed.

The goal is to promote policies and regulations that are grounded in scientific understanding and to achieve effective communication of fact-based assessments of environmental impacts.

Contributing to the welcome news of the program is UT’s reputation for credibility in oil and gas. On the other hand, there will be opponents who will make accusations they’re doing it as part of the oil industry.

Charles "Chip" Groat

AAPG member and geologist Charles “Chip” Groat, associate director of the Energy Institute and faculty member at the Jackson School of Geosciences at UT, Austin, is spearheading the initiative and is straightforward about the group’s independence.

“The question most everyone asks is who’s paying for this,” Groat commented.

He emphasized that the program is self-funded by the Energy Institute via regular university funds. Participants include representatives from:

  • Jackson School of Geosciences.
  • Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.
  • UT College of Communications.
  • UT School of Law.
  • Environmental Defense Fund.

The cross disciplinary team is comprised of faculty members and research scientists who are conducting state-of-the-art research in their respective fields.

“The initiative came about as a result of some conversations about the fact that there’s so much uncertainty surrounding this whole ‘blame it on fracking’ environment that somebody should look at the claims made about environmental problems and figure out if they’re real,” Groat said.

“If something happened, what was the cause? As opposed to just saying fracking did it,” he said. “That’s the part we’re doing now.”

Groat’s résumé suggests he’s the right man at the right time to head an initiative that requires scientific precision and political tact.

His long career as an educator and researcher is punctuated by stints as the director and state geologist for the Louisiana Geological Survey; executive director of the American Geological Institute; executive director at the Center for Coastal, Energy and Environmental Resources at Louisiana State University; and former director of the U.S. Geological Survey.

For AAPG he has served as president of both the Energy Minerals Division and the Division of Environmental Geosciences.

Identifying the Cause

“The second part of the program is much more expensive and more difficult, and we’re not doing it now,” he noted. “In cooperation with the companies, we’d like to see sophisticated sampling of frack fluids, samples of units above and below, looking to see if some of the frack fluids are moving into the surrounding rock – we’re still discussing this with the majors in particular.”

One of the efforts the initiative will undertake is to look at what has been cited, and what the penalties were assessed for.

“If something gets penalized, maybe it’s just one of the normal operational things the industry works hard to avoid and regulators work hard to penalize, like pollution, a broken liner, a mud tank,” Groat noted.

“Fracking has become almost the catch-all for any problem with gas production, which is to blame it on the fracking process,” he continued.

“It may turn out that most of the problems that have been cited don’t have anything to do with putting pressurized water at 10,000 feet and propping up the fracture you create,” he said. “It may have something to do with casing problems or blowback water problems that are operating issues, not fracking.

“Our goal is to inject more science into the fracking debate, so the policymakers have a sound foundation upon which to develop appropriate rules and regulations,” he added.

Spreading the Word

One of the areas the scientists will investigate centers on gathering information on what the public knows, and doesn’t know.

“A lot of people think there is something evil in their backyards,” Groat noted.

Regulatory and scientific reviews along with information gathering and analysis are at the heart of the initiative, but so is a communications strategy. No chance that this dedicated effort will culminate in a report gathering dust on the shelf.

The Energy Institute has stated that findings and recommendations will be communicated to key stakeholders. The communications strategy is focused on the regulators responsible for hydraulic fracking and residents in areas of shale gas resource potential and ongoing activity.

The strategy is being developed based on a shale gas literacy assessment, which is being conducted in the potentially impacted communities, and media recommendations for communication diffusion.

“Review of local and national popular media coverage of shale gas development, as well as interviews of local stakeholders, will be critical sources for preparing the communications strategy,” Groat emphasized. “The Environmental Defense Fund will preview our findings and figure out how best to get the information out.”

He noted the ongoing phase of the initiative, which officially kicked off May 1, is scheduled to be complete by the end of the year.

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