Environment
Platts | 26 May 2015

BOEM Director Defends Shell Arctic Drilling Decision

Faced with intense opposition from environmentalists, the director of the US Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) defended the administration’s conditional approval of Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic this summer, a decision she indicated was based on both federal statute and, partly, national security.

“There are certain regulatory requirements and [Shell] had met all of those requirements,” BOEM Director Abigail Ross Hopper said in an interview. “We don’t have the ability to push things back. We can either approve or deny or approve with conditions. [Shell] met all the regulatory requirements … there’s not a basis upon which to reject it.”

The majority of environmental groups are pushing for an effective ban on US Arctic drilling, a path some felt President Barack Obama may have been moving toward when in late January he designated 9.8 million acres in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas offshore Alaska as off-limits to future oil and gas leasing.

But Hopper, who was named BOEM’s director in December, said the administration is committed to oil and gas development in the Arctic as part of both diversifying the nation’s energy supply and growing US oil and gas resources for national security reasons.

The Hill | 20 May 2015

Petroleum Company To Pay USD 2.9 Million Fine

Marathon Petroleum has agreed to pay a USD 2.9 million fine and invest in new pollution control systems at its distribution facilities to settle a dispute with the federal government over emissions violations, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on 19 May.

The EPA and the Department of Justice had accused Ohio-based Marathon of failing to comply with Clean Air Act fuel emissions standards, violations the EPA said “may have resulted in excess emissions of air pollutants from motor vehicles, which can pose threats to public health and the environment.”

The violations included producing more than 400 million gallons of fuel that didn’t comply with Clean Air Act standards on volatile organic compounds or sulfur and ethanol levels, EPA and the Justice Department said in a statement.

BakerHostetler via Mondaq | 20 May 2015

SMU Study Suggests Hydraulic Fracturing Responsible For Uptick In Texas Earthquakes

In an article published in April in the journal Nature Communications, researchers at Southern Methodist University pointed to hydraulic fracturing activities as the probable cause of an increase in earthquakes near Azle, Texas, based on a study they had conducted in the area. The researchers’ conclusion conflicts with the stance of the US Geological Survey that the cause of the earthquakes is inconclusive.

In the study, the SMU researchers analyzed data from the US Geological Survey’s National Earthquake Information Center, which reported that from early November 2013 through January 2014, there were 27 earthquakes near the cities of Azle and Reno, Texas. Since 2008, the northern region of Texas has experienced four swarms of earthquakes, with 130 total quakes. Most of the earthquakes have been relatively small, but citizens have expressed concern about the uptick, particularly since the US Geological Survey reports that the area had only one recorded earthquake in the 58 years before 2008.

In the article summarizing the findings of their study, the SMU researchers stated that “while some uncertainties remain, it is unlikely that natural increases to tectonic stresses led to these events.”

E&E News | 19 May 2015

Obama Administration Proposes Major Changes in Listing Process for Endangered Species

The agencies responsible for protecting imperiled species proposed changes to the way in which outside groups ask the federal government to review the status of plants and animals under the Endangered Species Act.

One proposed change would give states a bigger role in the petition process and increase coordination with federal wildlife officials, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). Petitioners, which are most often environmental groups or animal welfare advocates, would have to solicit information from relevant state wildlife agencies before asking the services to review the status of a given species.

The proposal was quickly panned by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), one of the most frequent petitioners of FWS and NMFS, as an unnecessary step and a burden on concerned citizen groups.

But the changes—along with a raft of planned regulatory updates to the four-decade-old law that were also previewed today—are likely to be welcomed by Republicans who have introduced legislation that they say would make the law more transparent and efficient.

“These actions will make an effective and robust law even more successful and will also reinforce the importance of states, landowners, and sound science in that effort,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who oversees FWS, said in a statement.

Larry Voyles, the president of the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, added in the statement that “we appreciate the service’s due recognition of, and requirement to, incorporate the data and information of state fish and wildlife agencies for the formulation of listing petitions.”

But Noah Greenwald, CBD’s endangered species director, said in an interview that “these proposed regulations will make it harder for wildlife on the brink of extinction to get the protection they need.”

The Hill | 19 May 2015

Oil Lobby Launches Ads Against EPA Ozone Rule

The oil industry launched a multimedia advertising campaign in opposition to the Obama administration’s attempt to restrict allowable concentrations of ozone pollution.

The campaign from the American Petroleum Institute (API) reinforces the industry’s belief that the current ozone standards, set in 2008, are sufficient to protect public health.

The ads will appear in print, radio, TV, and the Web, the API said.The battle over ozone is a high-stakes fight for oil and other industries that produce or use fossil fuels. Ozone, the main component of smog, is a byproduct of pollutants from fossil fuels, and the industry fears states would curb fossil fuel use in order to comply.

“Even as we drive more, use more energy, and grow our economy, air pollution is dropping. Ozone levels are down 18%,” a voiceover in the TV ad says. “But bureaucrats want to change the current rules safeguarding public health.”

The ad cites a controversial industry conclusion that the Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone proposal would be the most expensive regulation ever and calls it unnecessary.

“Don’t mess with success,” the oil group’s ad says. “Keep the current strict ozone standards.”

The EPA proposed in November to reduce the allowable ozone level to between 65 and 70 parts per billion, down from the current 75 parts per billion.

BOEM | 13 May 2015

BOEM Announces Environmental Study Reports

The Environmental Studies Program of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has announced the availability of six recently completed study reports that were posted online via the Environmental Studies Program Information System (ESPIS) from January to March 2015. The new postings relay findings from regional studies for Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific, and Marine Minerals program activities in the Atlantic and Gulf. The reports and associated technical summaries can be accessed through ESPIS.

Topics covered in the latest postings include:

Alaska
An analysis of benthic communities on weathervane scallop beds in the Shelikof Strait, located south of the entrance to the Cook Inlet

Gulf of Mexico
A report recommending the use of several oil spill risk analysis models to improve the forecasting of risks to environmental resources, and accompanying data sets; a report assessing the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on tourism in the Gulf of Mexico; and a report measuring county-level tourism and recreation in the Gulf of Mexico region

Pacific
A two-volume report characterizing both Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) geology and benthic habitat offshore near potential renewable energy sites in the Pacific Northwest

Marine Minerals Program
A literature synthesis and workshop report to promote understanding of the habitat value and function of shoal/ridge/trough complexes to fish and fisheries on the Atlantic and Gulf OCS

 

Fuel Fix | 13 May 2015

Obama Administration Gives Thumbs Up to Shell’s Arctic Drilling Plans

The Obama administration on Monday gave its blessing to Shell’s broad plans for exploratory oil drilling in Arctic waters, putting the firm one step closer to resuming its USD 6 billion quest for crude at the top of the globe.

The decision came in the form of an Interior Department agency’s conditional approval of Shell Oil’s Chukchi Sea exploration plan, which envisions drilling up to six wells into the company’s Burger prospect 70 miles northwest of Wainwright, Alaska.

The company still needs to secure seven other permits, resolve a fight over its plan to moor rigs near Seattle, and win the cooperation of Mother Nature before it can begin any drilling once ice clears this summer. But the approval marked a major milestone for Shell, even as it handed a big defeat to environmentalists who argue that a major oil spill in the Chukchi Sea could irrevocably damage the fragile Arctic ecosystem, jeopardizing whales, walruses, and other marine life.

And the move illustrated anew the balancing act the White House has taken to energy and the environment, with the administration imposing a mix of regulations clamping down on oil and gas development even as it endorses oil exploration in frontier areas.

Shell spokesman Curtis Smith said the government approval “signals the confidence regulators have in our plan.”

“However, before operations can begin this summer, it’s imperative that the remainder of our permits be practical, and delivered in a timely manner,” Smith added. “In the meantime, we will continue to test and prepare our contractors, assets and contingency plans against the high bar stakeholders and regulators expect of an Arctic operator.”

The Energy Collective | 13 May 2015

State Department Outlines “New Architecture” To Address Climate Change

In her final speech as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton spoke to the Council on Foreign Relations in January 2013 about the significant changes in the world that she has witnessed over the years. She talked about the new challenges, such as climate change, that have proved too difficult and complex for traditional international structures alone. While recognizing that the UN has served the world well for almost 70 years, Clinton called for “a new architecture for a new world.”

The State Department’s recently released Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review shows that the US government is already moving to new, more dynamic approaches to deal with climate change and other pressing global issues.

JPT | 7 May 2015

Beyond the Headlines: Are Well Construction Practices Safe for the Environment?

Editor’s note: Professionals in the oil and gas industry often receive questions about how industry operations affect public health, the environment, and the communities in which they operate. Of particular concern today is the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the environment. In this new column, JPT is inviting energy experts to put those questions and concerns about industry operations into perspective. Additional information about the oil and gas industry, how it affects society, and how to explain industry operations and practices to the general public is available on SPE’s Energy4me website at www.­energy4me.org.

There are headlines every day that discuss the ethics and safety behind oil and gas operations, particularly hydraulic fracturing. According to the media, hydraulic fracturing can cause earthquakes, contaminated water, and even deformity in animals (if you believe the movie Promise Land). The truth behind the headlines is that hydraulic fracturing is a safe way to get natural gas out of the ground. What makes it a safe practice is solid well construction.

The evolution of oil and gas well construction has passed through many frontiers with each new foray into the next “unconventional” hydrocarbon resource generating the needed technology to keep pace with the immediate needs. In light of more than 4 million wells drilled in North America over the past 194 years, it is somewhat surprising that the industry has been successful so many times, and what we have done with lessons learned from the relatively few failures.

Wells are designed from the bottom to the top and from the inside outward, but they are drilled and constructed in exactly the opposite manner—often by practitioners with metrics different from the initial design principles. The fundamental objective that must shape every action along the way is that the final product of well construction must be a highly durable pressure vessel, albeit one that is composed of hundreds of threaded connections with a variety of seals and with a long coat of cement. Few other engineering disciplines operate in this highly cloaked area, in which the final engineering product, the downhole section of the well, cannot be conventionally seen, heard, or touched and produces a product that no one really wants to smell or taste.

The birth of the US gas industry was ushered in by William Hart’s shale gas well in Fredonia, New York, in 1821. He encountered flowing gas at 28 ft and, consistent with the technology of the time, cased it with wood and flowed shale gas through wood and early steel pipes to light the streets and buildings previously illuminated with lamps filled with whale oil.

Both Hart and Edwin Drake, with his 1859-era oil well, made use of one of the earliest hydrocarbon prospecting tools by locating their wells in areas of natural gas and oil surface seepage. Both wells hit natural flows of hydrocarbons in the same depth range as freshwater wells; it is a small wonder that fresh water, gas, and oil cohabitate the same strata today. Present on every continent, in every ocean, and above virtually every oil and gas producing area, natural seeps of oil and gas are indications of overfilling of some conventional reservoirs or natural geologic structure interruptions such as faults and natural fractures. The appearance of oil and gas seeps is evidence of oil generation potential below.

The early oil industry was undeniably a highly polluted place in time. Although well construction moved forward to steel casing, artificial lift pumps, and the first steel pipeline for oil transport in 1879, the first use of cement to seal and reinforce a well’s steel pipe was not seen until 1903. This fledgling cementing technology took a significant jump in 1915 with Almond Perkins’ two plug cement system, which Earl P. Halliburton purchased and pushed into worldwide use. Although the first widespread use of cement was undoubtedly a significant pollution control step, it is difficult to say whether that accomplishment was its main intent.

As other forms of technology moved forward, related advances quickly followed. Rotary drilling made possible dynamic pressure control feasible and blowout preventer technology gave rise to kick control; a technology combination that gradually replaced the gushers that came after oil strikes by cable tool drilling. The advances in cementing, drilling muds, pumps, corrosion control, and various stimulation mechanisms in the 1920s to 1940s ensured that the protection of hydrocarbon resources and the environment were not mutually exclusive. Significant regulation and enforcement on all phases of well construction in the oil and gas industry varied for years in different regions of the country, particularly in the early boom areas drilled in 1859 to the 1890s.

The first unified approach to effective resource conservation rules and practical enforcement came in 1935 with the establishment of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, the oldest and largest interstate compact in the US that now represents governors of 30 member and eight associated states. The goal of the group is not only to conserve resources, but also to protect the public. Their survey work on idle and orphaned wells has been the driver for most of the well construction and abandonment rules that states have adapted to fit the needs of local geology.

Fig. 1—Pollution potential changes with time—US O&G Industry.

Fig. 1—Pollution potential changes with time—US O&G Industry.

The advances and some of the problems that drove the technology development are shown in Fig. 1.

The fact that disastrous failures have driven the development and evolution of every field of technology, from medicine to space trips, should not be forgotten, although much of the public seems blissfully unaware of the trial and error journey that all technical disciples have taken.

USGS | 23 April 2015

USGS Works To Incorporate Induced Seismicity Into Hazard Model

Significant strides in science have been made to better understand potential ground shaking from induced earthquakes, which are earthquakes triggered by man-made practices.

Earthquake activity has sharply increased since 2009 in the central and eastern United States. The increase has been linked to industrial operations that dispose of wastewater by injecting it into deep wells.

Cumulative number of earthquakes with a magnitude of 3.0 or larger in the central and eastern United States, 1970–2014. The dashed line corresponds to the long-term rate of 29 earthquakes per year, with an increase in the rate of earthquakes starting around 2009.

The US Geological Survey (USGS) released a report on 23 April that outlines a preliminary set of models to forecast how hazardous ground shaking could be in the areas where sharp increases in seismicity have been recorded. The models ultimately aim to calculate how often earthquakes are expected to occur in the next year and how hard the ground will likely shake as a result. This report looked at the central and eastern United States; future research will incorporate data from the western states as well.

This report also identifies issues that must be resolved to develop a final hazard model, which is scheduled for release at the end of the year after the preliminary models are further examined. These preliminary models should be considered experimental in nature and should not be used for decision-making.

USGS scientists identified 17 areas within eight states with increased rates of induced seismicity. Since 2000, several of these areas have experienced high levels of seismicity, with substantial increases since 2009 that continue today. This is the first comprehensive assessment of the hazard levels associated with induced earthquakes in these areas. A detailed list of these areas is provided in the accompanying map, including the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Scientists developed the models by analyzing earthquakes in these zones and considering their rates, locations, maximum magnitude, and ground motions.

Research has identified 17 areas in the central and eastern United States with increased rates of induced seismicity. Since 2000, several of these areas have experienced high levels of seismicity, with substantial increases since 2009 that continue today.

“This new report describes for the first time how injection-induced earthquakes can be incorporated into US seismic hazard maps,” said Mark Petersen, chief of the USGS National Seismic Hazard Modeling Project. “These earthquakes are occurring at a higher rate than ever before and pose a much greater risk to people living nearby. The USGS is developing methods that overcome the challenges in assessing seismic hazards in these regions in order to support decisions that help keep communities safe from ground shaking.”

In 2014, the USGS released updated National Seismic Hazard Maps, which describe hazard levels for natural earthquakes. Those maps are used in building codes, insurance rates, emergency preparedness plans, and other applications. The maps forecast the likelihood of earthquake shaking within a 50-year period, which is the average lifetime of a building. However, these new induced seismicity products display intensity of potential ground shaking from induced earthquakes in a one-year period. This shorter timeframe is appropriate because the induced activity can vary rapidly with time and is subject to commercial and policy decisions that could change at any point.

These new methods and products result in part from a workshop hosted by the USGS and the Oklahoma Geological Survey. The workshop, described in the new report, brought together a broad group of experts from government, industry, and academic communities to discuss the hazards from induced earthquakes.

Wastewater that is salty or polluted by chemicals needs to be disposed of in a manner that prevents contaminating freshwater sources. Large volumes of wastewater can result from a variety of processes, such as a byproduct from energy production. Wastewater injection increases the underground pore pressure, which may lubricate nearby faults thereby making earthquakes more likely to occur. Although the disposal process has the potential to trigger earthquakes, most wastewater disposal wells do not produce felt earthquakes.

Many questions have been raised about whether hydraulic fracturing is responsible for the recent increase of earthquakes. The USGS studies suggest that the actual hydraulic fracturing process is only occasionally the direct cause of felt earthquakes.

Eco Magazine | 20 April 2015

Uncertainty in the Age of Arctic Expansion

A 2008 report by the US Geological Survey surmised that the Arctic holds approximately 13% of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30% of undiscovered natural gas, 84% of which is offshore. However, because of a lack of high-quality data, these remain mere estimates. According to John G. Aronson of AATA International, “Ultimately, we don’t really know just how much undiscovered, technically recoverable oil and gas exists in north of the Arctic Circle.”

What we do know is that the opening of the Arctic is the world’s top economic opportunity as well as one of the biggest environmental dilemmas facing our governments. Summer sea ice is declining at a rate that could lead to passable seas in under a decade, and, as a result, the Arctic is quickly becoming a major arena for competition between companies, investors, and nations. Dozens of organizations have developed standards for Arctic oil and gas exploration and development, and dozens of environmental groups have protested that same exploration and development. As if that weren’t enough, multiple governments are writing policies, funding projects, and waging battles to protect their own growing interests in the region.

In general, politicians and world leaders are beholden to industry when it comes to the Arctic. Whether boosting the economy of nations such as Russia or Norway or fighting for the interests of constituents in Alaska and Alberta, politicians have played the populist card over and over when it comes to the Arctic. Environmental groups influence the rest of the politicians, and a few of the world leaders, with many of these acknowledging that real change is occurring up north, and that what happens in the Arctic won’t stay in the Arctic.

Most recently, another voice is beginning to be heard: that of various armed forces around the globe. The American military doesn’t have the will of public funding behind them on this issue, but there is a growing realization among northern nations that an open Arctic Ocean, bereft of summer ice, ultimately represents a security issue.

In surveying available literature, the voice of reason in all of this clearly comes from the researchers and scientists gathering data from the Arctic. What do they think of what’s happening there, and what sorts of recommendations do they make about the near and the long term? Is there a compromise between infrastructure and environment that makes sense? What does the future hold north of the Arctic Circle?

 

The Daily Orange | 10 April 2015

Study Finds No Connection Between Hydraulic Fracturing and Water Contamination

A Syracuse University professor has published a study that contradicts previous findings that suggest a correlation between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water contamination.

Donald Siegel, chairman and professor in the Earth sciences department, said his research group has found “no statistically significant relationship between dissolved methane concentration in groundwater from domestic water wells and proximity to pre-existing oil or gas wells.”

Siegel’s research study, which was published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology on 12 March, also discredits two previous findings from 2011 and 2013 that indicated higher concentrations of methane in water at water wells near fracking sites.

“Prior studies published by scientists at Duke and Stanford universities argued the opposite—that the closer you are to a gas well, the more methane you can expect in your drinking water. They were wrong,” Siegel said in an email.

“They used only about 100 samples instead of tens of thousands, and sampled in a manner that led to false results,” Siegel said. “Their incorrect findings, unfortunate for science, if not for the political end some wanted, were used to successfully argue for the ban on new gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale in New York state.”

Siegel said he obtained access to noncompiled data sets of more than 11,300 water samples and about 600 oil and gas wells in several locations in northeastern Pennsylvania.

The data was collected by the Chesapeake Energy Corporation and distributed to homeowners in New York state. Siegel and his colleagues studied a broad range of statistics showing there is no increase in methane dissolved in ground water the closer a person is to a gas well, Siegel said.