Welcome to the 2011-12 series of short EXPLORER articles by the Division of Environmental Geosciences. As the new president of DEG, I get to kick off the series with my view of one of the technical areas that DEG – and AAPG in general – needs to address this fiscal year.
I come from a background of research, exploration and environmental work related to both energy (coal and uranium) and non-energy (precious and base metals) commodities, and both active and abandoned sites and mines. I have been an AAPG member since graduate school in 1977 and heavily involved in both EMD and DEG over the past 25 years.
I have been able to see close up the public perception and regulatory aspects of the mining and O&G industries, both through work and professional society activities.
In 2010, the Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and its impacts was THE hot topic for the O&G industry in North America – and the industry continues to feel the reverberations from that event and the lingering distrust of the industry by the general American public and many politicians.
Some of that is opportunism to keep on bashing the industry for political gain or to support efforts to limit the industry in unrelated areas of the United States and the rest of the world.
All such incidents in the O&G world just help to support detractors of the energy industry and make difficult regulation even more onerous in places.
The energy industry’s negative hot environmental topic of 2011 seems to be fracking and related aspects of aquifers.
In some parts of the United States and the world, this is intimately tied to exploration and development of shale O&G resources.
Public mistrust runs rampant, and politicians and regulators find themselves having to react to a groundswell of NIMBYs by doing anything from holding public forums and technical panels on the topic to outright bans on fracking, moving through county and state legislative bodies.
But has the energy industry learned anything from how to deal with the public and regulators from the Gulf oil spill, or from many previous environmental events that keep getting dredged up by our detractors?
In many cases it seems not!
Most of the industry players in the fracking world seem to not yet have gotten the message that “secret” formulas and ingredients for their proprietary fracking methods do not engender trust and understanding in the public or government officials.
The word “secret” alone is enough to send every NIMBY and regulator into orbit, and yet the industry blindly insists its trade secrets are more important than getting the job done with minimal backlash from these groups.
We regret, but cannot forget, that the majority of the American public is no longer technically competent or caring enough – or so we are told by those who decry the state of our public education system – to understand the details of the O&G exploration and production process or related chemistry and physics.
But giving only technical details that might alleviate the concerns of technically competent people will leave the general public cold, or maybe even make them think you are trying to pull something over on them.
As geoscientists, we understand that a frack job thousands of feet down below many layers of variably fractured and porous to impermeable rocks is unlikely at best to ever have an impact on the shallow aquifers that most people and cities use for their water supplies. Yet, this is a penultimate current concern of the public.
Many cases of contamination of water wells by organic compounds have shown that the sources of those compounds are proximal to the impacted wells both laterally and vertically and have no connection to the activities of recent O&G rigs or wells in the area.
Nonetheless, there are enough examples of old (and perhaps poorly drilled or plugged) wells, and sometimes recent careless releases of drilling fluids that can be brought up to emotionally energize the populace and generate heavy scrutiny by regulators – even if those are very isolated cases and do not reflect current industry practices by the vast majority of operators.
The only way to fight the negative public reaction on this issue is to make the industry’s practices as transparent and open as possible.
Get the word out to politicians and the public on what is being done and all the details needed to eliminate concerns about O&G activities.
Maybe that means revealing your secret formula for a better frack job. Maybe that means not using ANYTHING that can be considered a hazardous substance – and making that clear to the public!
NIOSH and the U.S. Dept. of Transportation have publications detailing the known and potential effects of just about every commercially available chemical, so ignorance of those aspects is not a good defense.
Keeping it secret means your company, and the industry as a whole, will get put under the microscope by people not friendly to you or the industry. Anything they find that is a potential “problem” will be emphasized and used again and again to limit industry activities or increase regulation – potentially to the point of activities being uneconomic or outright banned.
As part of DEG’s efforts to address the current public distrust of fracking and its use by the O&G industry, we will be co-sponsoring, with EMD and DPA, a Geoscience Technology Workshop on the technology, tentatively planned for the first half of 2012.
This GTW will be an effort to bring together policy and technical people to both better define current best practices of the industry and to identify where best to have an impact on public policy and perception of the fracking process and the industry in general.
The workshop is just one step toward the goal of promulgating best practices and reducing negative perceptions and reactions to exploration and production where possible.
The DEG Executive Committee, Advisory Board and all our volunteers hope that this and other efforts in 2011-12 will keep you engaged and, if you are not a DEG member, interested in becoming a member and getting involved in DEG and the environmental side and aspects of the energy industry.
DEG will continue to do its best to keep those issues in front of the AAPG membership.