Summary: It appears inevitable that New York will see the exploitation of natural gas by hydraulic fracturing of shale. The NY DEC has a draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement and draft regulations out for public comment. Despite their thoroughness, the DEC drafts ignore recommendations stemming from the analysis of other industrial accidents, including last year’s BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and not of the Board of Directors of the Hudson River Environmental Society.
It appears inevitable that New York will see the exploitation of natural gas by hydraulic fracturing of shales.
The American Petroleum Institute says:
“In five years, if fracturing were eliminated . . . the country would experience by 2014, a 17% reduction in oil production and a 45% reduction in natural gas production. Due to the country's increasing reliance on unconventional resources, where over 95% of wells are routinely treated using fracturing, the impact on production would be permanent and severe.” [IHS Global Insight 2009]
The U.S. Energy Information Administration says:
“Shale gas production in the United States grew at an average annual rate of 17 percent between 2000 and 2006. Early success in shale gas production was achieved primarily in the Barnett Shale in Texas. By 2006, the success in the Barnett shale, coupled with high natural gas prices and technological improvements, turned the industry focus to other shale plays. The combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies has made it possible to produce shale gas economically, leading to an average annual growth rate of 48 percent over the 2006-2010 period”.[US EIA (a) 2011]
The Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board writes:
“Natural gas is a cornerstone of the U.S. economy, providing a quarter of the country’s total energy. Owing to breakthroughs in technology, production from shale formations has gone from a negligible amount just a few years ago to being almost 30 percent of total U.S. natural gas production. This has brought lower prices, domestic jobs, and the prospect of enhanced national security due to the potential of substantial production growth. But the growth has also brought questions about whether both current and future production can be done in an environmentally sound fashion that meets the needs of public trust.”[SEAB 2011]
Shale gas production has been much on the mind of New Yorkers as they contemplate competing assertions from industry and environmentalists. The wide variety of information available includes the detailed New York State Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (Draft GEIS).[NYSDEC (a) 2011] A broader perspective on managing risk suggests a few approaches ignored by DEC.
Power generation consumes about 32% of US natural gas. Siting for natural gas power plants proceeds faster than for coal plants. Natural gas turbine power generation can quickly meet surges in electricity demand. Electricity generated on-site using natural gas may increase as a way to reduce transmission losses. Natural gas heats 66 percent of new homes.[NaturalGas.org 2011] The residential and commercial sectors consume 38% of gas usage. Forecasts have industrial applications (30% of gas consumption) for high temperature processes, glass making for example, decreasing. Agricultural fertilizer production tops the farm energy budget. Corn, soya beans, meat, and soft drinks rely on natural gas through its use in supplying hydrogen for anhydrous ammonia. Natural gas, cheaper per BTU than diesel fuel, has a limited appeal for heavy duty truck fuel but few refueling sites, higher vehicle costs, and gas’ low energy content limits natural gas in transportation to only 0.15% of US consumption.[US EIA 2010]
Owing to a variety of factors, natural gas prices became highly erratic after the 1990s However, with the development of the Barnett shale in Texas, gas prices fell and stabilized.[US EIA (b) 2011]
Natural gas wellhead prices in constant dollars. [US EIA (b) 2011]
Hydraulic fracturing operation, horizontal Marcellus well, Upshur County, WV Source: Chesapeake Energy, 2008. Taken from the Draft GEIS.
Hydrocarbon production fracking began during the Civil War. Oil well operators employing a technique from water wells called “shooting” set off a charge of five or six pounds of rifle gunpowder to increase flow. In 1864 Col. E. A. L. Roberts patented exploding nitroglycerin in long cylinders, called “torpedoes” for stimulating oil wells. The extreme danger of transporting nitroglycerin alarmed railroads and villages. Some villages prohibited shooting wagons from carrying nitroglycerin through populated areas. Dramatic accidents obliterated the shooter, his team of horses, and his wagon.[Anon., 10/4/1886] Well shooters made up a column of copper shells into which they poured the explosive. They lowered the column into position on a wire. The shooters, men of extraordinary coolness and courage, dropped a weight that struck a bullet that initiated the blast. The record New York state nitro shot used 400 gallons of nitroglycerin in 1903 in Allegany County.[Herrick 1949]
The Atomic Energy Commission and El Paso Natural Gas collaborated on a fracturing demonstration near Farmington, NM in late 1967 with a 29 kiloton nuclear blast (Project Gasbuggy). Further tests included a 43 kt blast in Grand Valley CO (Project Rulison, 1969) and three stacked 33 kt bombs near Rifle, CO detonated in 1973 (Project Rio Blanco). Radioactive contamination prevented sale of the gas produced. The Soviet Union ran a parallel, and larger, program of “peaceful” atomic explosions to stimulate gas production.
Hydraulic fracturing began in 1947.[Veatch 2008] Riley Floyd Ferris [Ferris 1952]and Joseph Clark[Clark 1952] applied recent insights into the chemistry of the wartime incendiary napalm, gasoline thickened to a gel with aluminum soap.[Fieser et al. 1946] Ferris and Clark wanted a non-penetrating hydraulic fluid miscible with oil that could hold sand grains in suspension. The hydraulic fluid pumped to a pressure sufficient to fracture rock liberated hydrocarbons. Sand propped open the cracks after the pressure was released. The proportion of soap controlled the napalm’s viscosity. The gel could be set up and “broken” in the well, facilitating pumping.
Design of a fracturing process entails balancing multiple factors. The proppants, particles injected into cracks opened under hydrostatic pressure, need sufficient compressive strength to remain effective. Proppants capable of withstanding high compression are usually dense. Dense proppants require a thickened and viscous fluid to avoid setting out. Thickened and viscous fracturing fluids demand more power for injection and extraction after the fracturing. Inventors working within these constraints have come up with a wide variety of options. While sand remains the most common and cheapest proppant, other choices include glass beads, fabricated ceramics, hard foams, aluminum pellets, and styrene-divinylbenzene beads. Other chemical treatments and particle designs help keep the proppants in place during fracking fluid withdrawal.
Carrier fluids are frequently thickened with guar gum, a natural polymer derived from cluster beans mainly grown in India and Pakistan. Other applications of guar gum include the paper, textile, and food industries. Guar gum appears in low quality ice cream, instant soups, processed meat, and baked goods. Diesel oil has been employed as a proppant carrier but the draft DEC hydrofracking regulations ban its use.
Chemical breakers lower the viscosity of the fracking fluid after placement of the proppants to ease its removal and to allow gas to leave. Lubricity agents reduce friction. Other additives stabilize clay. Clay particles exposed to water swell up and can impede gas flow. Iron may precipitate and bacteria may cause biofouling. Sandstone, shales, and coal beds require different hydrofracking systems.
Much concern has been expressed about toxic substances in fracturing fluids and the potential for them to contaminate drinking water aquifers. The Draft GEIS lists 341 substances potentially occurring in fracturing fluids. The Draft GEIS lists 124 substances and water quality parameters measured in hydrofracking flow-back waters by the states of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The substances measured, primarily from the 1976 Priority Pollutant list, include chemicals banned in the United States for decades and others playing no role in hydrofracking. Oddly, the Draft GEIS table indicates the presence in hydrofracking flow-back of PCBs, the bomb isotope Cs 137, chlorinated pesticides and pesticide metabolites. The indicated presence of these substances casts doubt on the credibility of the list, an aspect acknowledged by the Draft GEIS. The Priorty Pollutant list gives state regulators well-established sampling and analytical methods and water quality criteria. The disadvantage is its lack of relevance. Draft hydrofracking regulations require monitoring of nearby water wells before and after the well reaches its total planned depth but postpone specifying the parameters to be measured.[NYSDEC (b) 2011]
Of the parameters measured by West Virginia and Pennsylvania, only 15 possible fracking fluid components appeared in sampling, among them the carcinogen benzene. Benzene occurs in trace amounts in diesel oil fracking fluids (prohibited by NYSDEC) that served as a non-aqueous fluid handy in preventing clay particles from swelling and clogging pores. Regeneration of the water absorption agent triethylene glycol releases benzene and other volatile organic chemicals. NYSDEC encourages measures to reduce benzene from dehydrators and limit benzene emissions from any dehydrator to less than a ton per year.[NYSDEC (a) 2011]
Industry has responded to public concerns about toxic chemicals by developing so-called “green” fracturing fluids based on chemicals allowed in the food supply. The oil-field supply company Halliburton introduced a hydrofracturing product called CleanStim® by having a company executive drink a glass of it.[Nearing, 8/22/2011] Substances used in foods do not belong in drinking water. Drinking water should contain neither benzene nor guar gum nor 100% pure organic New York state maple syrup. Draft regulations specify that waste water treatment plants accepting flowback water have the means for dealing with naturally occurring radioactive material (mostly radon) and dissolved salts, [NYSDEC (c) 2011] presumably by reverse osmosis. Processing fees could recoup the increased costs to waste water treatment plants.
Shale gas development, aside from hydrofracking, will cause many conventional environmental impairments common to a wide range of industrial and commercial activities. These include enormous water consumption, habitat destruction and fragmentation, noise, scenic degradation, increased surface run-off from paved or compacted surfaces, oil and chemical spills, and local air quality degradation from operation of diesel trucks, drilling, and gas handling. Large diesels (5,400 HP), the size of a freight train locomotive, power drilling. Fracturing and gas compression pumps are rated in the order of 2,500 HP. Conventional mitigation measures address these kinds of relatively short-term disturbances but the drilling pads, attendant roads, and traffic will be obnoxious. Ageing wells may require repeated stimulation treatments.
Many analyses claim that natural gas will benefit climate change by producing less carbon dioxide than burning alternative hydrocarbons. Others challenge this notion claiming underestimation of the greenhouse effect of fugitive methane. Conventional or shale gas has the same transmission and processing losses, but hydrofracking has the potential for releasing methane from flow-back water. “Considering the 20-year horizon, the [greenhouse gas] footprint for shale gas is at least 20% greater than and perhaps more than twice as great as that for coal when expressed per quantity of energy available during combustion.” [Howarth et al. 2011] The draft hydrofracking regulations require flaring of gas escaping from flowback water whenever possible if Reduced Emission Completions techniques cannot be carried out.[NYSDEC (b) 2011]
Industry flatly discounts the possibility of hydrofracking impacting drinking water aquifers: “Claims that hydraulic fracturing is a source of groundwater contamination are unfounded. Current regulations covering well design requirements and hydraulic fracturing operations are specifically designed to protect groundwater resources.”[American Petroleum Institute 2008] In many places the Marcellus shale units lie far below drinking water aquifers. Properly constructed wells and proper conduct of surface operations pose a very low probability of contamination.
Adherence to existing regulations for the design and operation of BP’s Deepwater Horizon Macando Well would have prevented the deaths of eleven workers and spilling five million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Inadequate regulatory supervision and the absence of a “culture of safety” led operators to cut corners to save time and money.[Graham et al. 2011]
A culture of safety
Shale gas developers and regulators can look to the history of industrial accident management for ways to minimize mishaps. The social milieu greatly affects the form and extent of risk management. Accident rates within an industry vary widely across political boundaries. In 1921 the pioneer occupational health researcher, Dr. Alice Hamilton investigating the hazards of manufacturing dyes and explosives derived from coal-tar noted the superiority of chemical worker safety in post-World War I Germany relative to England and particularly, the US.[Hamilton 1921] She admired the German Berufsgenossenschften, industrial organizations responsible for insuring against accidents. The law forbade strikes but provided protections for safety, old-age, children, widows, unborn children, and morals. Survivors received burial costs and an annuity equal to the value of support the deceased would have given during the period of his life. Workers received 26 weeks of sick leave and medical costs for work accidents. Employers faced significant costs for injuries or death to workers. [Dawson 1906]
The Social Democrats pushed through the 1884 Reich Accident Law replacing workplace safety regulations enforced by police with a system relying on the Berufsgenossenschaften. The law established ground rules for compensation but not its administration. Supervisors testified to the Berufsgenossenschaft why an accident happened and how to avoid future occurrences. This system removed government from industrial micro-management. The Accident Law was intended to mollify workers’ concerns without jeopardizing, “the profitability of a particular branch of industry or disregard the competiveness of entrepreneurs.”[Machtan 1985]
While the Nazis repudiated Imperial German worker safety rules, passengers today flying on Lufthansa are significantly safer than those on many other airlines, such as Russian Aeroflot planes. [PlaneCrashInfo.com 2011] Between 2004 and 2009 off-shore oil and gas workers in US waters experienced a fatality rate per man hours worked four times that of their European counterparts. [Graham et. al 2011] The regulatory environment matters. Any organization can employ techniques and management options for making industrial activities safer but not everyone chooses to use them.
American law (Occupational Health and Safety Act, 1971) and industry recognize occupational safety guarding against falls, burns, asphyxiations, and so forth. Process safety in highly integrated and complex undertakings presents a greater challenge. Operators may have only indirect means for observing key variables and interrelations between system components may not have been anticipated in the design.[Perrow 1984] The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant events highlighted this when an unanticipated combination of stressors resulted in a still unfolding catastrophe.
The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Spill evaluated several safety management models that might be applicable in reducing off-shore oil exploitation risks. They particularly favored regulatory-industry cooperation like the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO) set up in 1979 by US nuclear power industry after the Three Mile Island incident. Both the nuclear power and the oil and gas businesses are complex, rarely troublesome, prone to complacency, but catastrophic during failure. INPO conducts detailed inspections and evaluates the safety of nuclear power plants. Its inspectors, seconded from the power industry, theoretically understand the technology and culture better than government workers. The INPO has achieved a high level of respect within the nuclear power community. Its ratings guide the Nuclear Electric Insurance Company in setting premiums. Low scoring facilities face higher costs.
Highly detailed draft NYSDEC regulations may need an additional 226 staff and $25.3 million/year to oversee the state’s shale-gas industry.[Campbell, 9/14/2011] The state has tools beyond closely specifying field operations requiring enforcement by an army of inspectors. Significant but finite fines for impairing resources coupled with requirements for gas developers to carry Environmental Impairment Liability (EIL) insurance would encourage adoption of a culture of safety. Tracer chemicals measurable at low concentrations added to fracking fluid would test the occurrence of water contamination. If conventional insurers can’t calculate risks or if premiums are excessive, the gas industry could form an association for the purpose of covering its members. Costs of the insurance will be low if EIL underwriters agree that the operators have the experience and management structure adequate to guarantee compliance with safe practices. Industrial risk pools may also serve as a conduit for sharing technical information.
Strong economic imperatives virtually ensure hydrofracking in the Marcellus shale. Lessons from past experience can help guide an appropriately protective regulatory response acceptable to industry and a skeptical public.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction January 7, 2012: The name of a cited author was misspelled. The author's name is RW Howarth not RW Howrath.
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© 10/6/2011 Simon Litten