Environment
StateImpact | 6 October 2016

While Global Methane Emissions Are Up, Study Says Fossil Fuels Not the Culprit

A new study from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) puts a new twist on a tricky question about the effect of increased oil and gas production on greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists have detected increased rates of methane emissions globally since 2007. That uptick corresponds to the rapid boom in US shale gas and shale oil production, and some hypothesized that the two could be connected. But it turns out that the correlation may not necessarily be a cause.

NOAA researcher Stefan Schwietzke and pilot Stephen Conley prepare to take off on a research flight to measure methane emissions in Colorado. Credit: Will Von Dauster/NOAA.

NOAA researcher Stefan Schwietzke and pilot Stephen Conley prepare to take off on a research flight to measure methane emissions in Colorado. Credit: Will Von Dauster/NOAA.

The research published on 5 October in the journal Nature found that, although previous methane emissions from fossil fuel production, which includes coal, oil and gas, were significantly underestimated, the overall atmospheric increases in methane is not due to oil and gas production. NOAA, which has been measuring methane in the atmosphere since 1984, says the global increase in methane could be coming from microbial sources including wetlands, rice paddies, and agricultural livestock like cows. Methane is considered more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide because although it breaks down more quickly than carbon dioxide,  it traps heat 28 times more effectively over the course of 100 years.

UPI | 4 October 2016

US Aims To Protect Marine Ecosystems From Offshore Work

The US government said it was offering up new proposals aimed at protecting marine mammals and coastal environments from some offshore energy work.

Federal government proposes new requirements to protect mammalian life offshore from some energy work. Credit: Brett Atkins/Shutterstock.

Federal government proposes new requirements to protect mammalian life offshore from some energy work. Credit: Brett Atkins/Shutterstock.

“The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s recommended approach offers the strongest practicable safeguards in an effort to eliminate or reduce impacts to marine mammals and the environment,” said Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) Director Abigail Ross Hopper.

In parts of the Gulf of Mexico, the agency said it was recommending that energy companies conducting seismic surveys to get a better understanding of the reserve potential keep observers on hand to monitor for protected species. Vessels used in the efforts are called on to avoid marine mammals altogether, and companies need to find ways to safely start and shut down activity if and when marine mammals are seen in the area.

Advocacy group Oceana has said the sound from seismic research interferes with normal communication patterns those species use. Contractors tied to seismic research for energy companies said the effects of seismic activity are temporary. If disruptions do occur, the industry said they have little to no significant consequence for marine species.

Erik Milito, the director of exploration and production for the American Petroleum Institute, said the BOEM’s own research found seismic activity had no lasting impact in marine mammals or commercial fishing.

Offshore Energy Today | 29 September 2016

Australia: NOPSEMA Further Delays Decision on BP’s Bight Drilling Plan

Australian oil and gas safety body NOPSEMA on 28 September requested further information from BP Developments Australia relating to the company’s environment plan for drilling of the Stromlo-1 and Whinham-1 exploration wells in the Great Australian Bight off Australia.

Ocean Greatwhite semisubmersible rig.

Ocean Greatwhite semisubmersible rig.

After BP’s first plan for drilling four exploration wells in the Great Australian Bight was rejected by the safety body, the oil company submitted a second environment plan in August this year.

The wells proposed in the second submission are two of the four wells that were originally proposed in the first Great Australian Bight Exploration Drilling Program environment plan. The Stromlo-1 and Whinham-1 wells will be drilled using the world’s largest semisubmersible drilling rig, the Ocean Greatwhite.

NOPSEMA was expected to come back with a decision about this plan by 19 September. However, earlier in September, the decision had been postponed with a plan to deliver the next assessment decision for the plan by 29 September.

On 28 September, the offshore regulator said that the requested information is expected to be provided by 28 October 2016, at which time NOPSEMA will restart the assessment. BP can request an extension of this time frame if required.

The Associated Press | 23 September 2016

Scientists Say Satellite-Based Radar Confirms Man-Made Texas Earthquakes

Scientists used radar from satellites to show that five Texas earthquakes, one reaching magnitude 4.8, were caused by injections of wastewater in drilling for oil and gas.

In 2012 and 2013, earthquakes—five of them considered significant—shook East Texas near Timpson. A team of scientists for the first time were able to track the uplifting ground movements in the earthquake using radar from satellites. A study in the journal Science on 22 September says it confirms that these were not natural, something scientists had previously said was likely using a more traditional analysis.

Study coauthor Stanford University Professor William Ellsworth said the technique provides a new way to determine what quakes are man-made.

The team looked at two sets of wells, eastern and western. The eastern wells were shallow and the satellite radar showed that the eastern wells weren’t the culprit but the high-volume deeper western ones were, Ellsworth said.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | 22 September 2016

Pennsylvania Extends Drilling Moratorium in Its Forests for 5 Years

Pennsylvania’s 5-year forest management plan nixes new oil and gas leasing and drilling in state forests and parks where the state controls subsurface mineral rights and, for the first time, addresses climate change.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signs an executive order restoring a moratorium on new drilling leases involving public lands on 29 January 2015 at the Benjamin Rush State Park in Philadelphia. Credit: Matt Rourke/Associated Press.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signs an executive order restoring a moratorium on new drilling leases involving public lands on 29 January 2015 at the Benjamin Rush State Park in Philadelphia. Credit: Matt Rourke/Associated Press.

The 234-page plan released by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) details an oil and gas management policy that supports the public lands drilling moratorium ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf in January.

“DCNR felt that moratorium was appropriate and developed a position statement to guide our decision making over the next 5 to 10 years,” said Seth Cassel, division chief of the department’s Forest Resource Planning Section. “We don’t think it’s wise to do additional gas leasing on state forest and park lands now.”

According to the forest plan, the Forestry Bureau holds 123 oil and gas leases on a total of 301,000 acres, primarily in the north-central part of the state. The bureau estimates those leases are 16–20% developed and that as many as 3,000 wells could eventually be drilled to develop the existing leases fully. Drilling can continue on those leases.

 

Offshore Energy Today | 19 September 2016

Australia: NOPSEMA Needs More Time To Assess BP’s Drilling Plan

Australian oil and gas safety body National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA) will be taking more time to assess BP’s proposed drilling plan for the Great Australian Bight.

Location of Stromlo-1 and Whinham-1 wells offshore Australia. Credit: Offshore Energy Today.

BP submitted its second drilling plan in August after its first one that had proposed drilling four wells was rejected. NOPSEMA said that it would make a decision by 19 September. The decision, however, has now been postponed, and NOPSEMA expects to deliver its next assessment decision for this plan by 29 September.

BP, as operator of the Great Australian Bight Exploration Drilling Program, proposes to drill the first two wells in that program.

The wells are Stromlo-1 and Whinham-1 and will be drilled using the world’s largest semi-submersible drilling rig, the Ocean Greatwhite.

Stromlo-1 is approximately 600 km west of Port Lincoln and 400 km southwest of Ceduna, in a water depth of approximately 2250 m. Whinham-1 is approximately 600 km west of Port Lincoln and 350 km southwest of Ceduna, in a water depth of approximately 1150 m.

The drilling program is scheduled to start from Q4 2016 to Q1 2017. It is anticipated that each well will take approximately 75 days to drill. In the event of any technical or equipment delays, the duration may be greater, so the assessment for each of the wells has allowed for up to 150 days.

This drilling activity is a subset of the broader activity covered by the  proposed Great Australian Bight Exploration Drilling Environment Plan, for which BP has an opportunity to modify and resubmit by 31 December 2016. The first two wells, covered by this plan, will be excised from the scope of the plan before it is resubmitted.

The Associated Press | 14 September 2016

Oklahoma, EPA Shutter 32 Wells in New Earthquake-Prone Area

A 5.8-magnitude earthquake and a series of smaller aftershocks in Oklahoma led to the discovery of a new fault line and stoked fears among some scientists about activity along other unknown faults that could be triggered by oil and gas wastewater that’s being injected deep underground.

State and federal regulators on 12 September said 32 disposal wells in northeastern Oklahoma must shut down because they are too near the newly discovered fault line that produced the state’s strongest earthquake on record on 3 September.

Jeremy Boak, head of the Oklahoma Geological Survey (OGS), said it is possible that a large “pulse” of disposed wastewater is slowly moving deep underground and triggered the temblor along the new fault located near the town of Pawnee, farther east than most of the previous earthquake activity in Oklahoma.

“My inclination is to worry about the (fault) we don’t know about yet, more so than about another very large earthquake in this area,” Boak said. “My general feeling is that the rate of earthquakes is declining. I’m more concerned, I think, about whether there’s another one of these faults out here that is cued up and ready to go.”

Boak said it is also possible that some aftershocks greater than magnitude 4 could still be triggered along the newly discovered fault that has yet to be named.

The Pawnee quake damaged more than a dozen buildings and slightly injured one man when part of a chimney collapsed. It shook several states, including nearby Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas, and was reportedly even felt more than 1,000 miles away in places such as Florida and Nevada, according to the US Geological Survey.

Scientists, including those at the OGS, say they believe the vast majority of the earthquakes in Oklahoma are triggered by the injection of wastewater from oil and gas production that is injected deep into the Earth.

Bloomberg | 8 September 2016

Oklahoma Shuts More Wells as Quake Upgraded

Oklahoma drillers are being ordered to shut more wastewater wells just as the US Geological Survey (USGS) is upgrading an earthquake that occurred on 3 September to a record magnitude.

Oilfield workers pull pipes from a well near Crescent, Oklahoma, on 31 March. Credit: J. Pat Carter/Getty Images.

The Environmental Protection Agency said on 7 September that it has ordered the closure of 17 additional disposal sites under its jurisdiction in Osage County. The move follows the suspension of 37 wells by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission and comes on the same day the USGS upgraded the temblor to 5.8 in magnitude, the highest ever for the state, from 5.6 previously estimated.

Oklahoma regulators had already been limiting the disposal of oilfield wastewater, which scientists have linked to seismic activity, before the quake that was felt from Texas to Illinois on 3 September. The number of earthquakes measuring 3.0 or higher reached at least 890 last year, up from just two in 2008, before the state’s drilling boom started. The USGS has not determined an official cause for the earthquake.

“At this point, we don’t want to attribute it specifically to any phenomena,” George Choy, seismologist at the US Geological Survey, said on 7 September in a phone interview. “We need to get more data to make sure everything is lined up before we say anything definitive.”

Hydrocarbon Processing | 7 September 2016

Prospective Costs of the EPA’s Proposed Risk Management Plan Chemical Accident Prevention Requirements

On 14 March 2016, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published proposed revisions to its Risk Management Plan (RMP) facility safety program in the US Federal Register. The proposed revisions include several changes to accidental-release prevention requirements, including:

  • Third-party audits of an RMP program following an accident
  • Considering inherently safer technology during hazard assessments
  • Conducting root cause analysis of management failures in relation to an incident
  • Taking actions to correct the root cause
  • Sharing information with emergency planners and the public

The EPA describes these proposed revisions as improvements to lessons-learned processes. Facilities affected by the proposed rule include petroleum refineries, large chemical manufacturers, wastewater treatment systems, chemical and petroleum wholesalers and terminals, food manufacturers, packing plants, agricultural chemical distributors, and midstream gas plants. The EPA allowed businesses to comment on the proposed changes until 13 May 2016.

What is the RMP?
Designed to protect public health and the environment from chemical accidents, the RMP applies to all stationary sources with processes that contain more than a threshold quantity of a chemical or material listed as regulated substances under Section 112(r) of the Clean Air Act. The EPA’s RMP rules were designed to share many similarities with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) Process Safety Management (PSM) standards. The RMP and PSM have many of the same criteria, and the requirements, guidance, and interpretations of the two programs generally align.

Processes covered by the RMP fall within one of three prevention program levels based on their potential for offsite consequences, accident history, and regulation under OSHA’s PSM rule. The first level, Program 1, includes 642 facilities that must comply with limited accident-prevention requirements, including hazard assessment and emergency response requirements.

Program 1 includes:

  • Processes that would not affect the public during a worst-case release and no accidents with offsite consequences in the last 5 years
  • Small quantities of flammables and less volatile toxins

Program 3 applies to the vast majority of facilities subject to the RMP (10,615 facilities), and has the most stringent requirements. Facilities subject to Program 3 include processes subject to OSHA’s PSM rule or facilities within one of 10 specified North American Industry Classification System codes, such as refining, chemical manufacturing, and energy production.

Program 2 applies to 1,285 facilities and covers processes not eligible for Program 1 and not subject to Program 3. Program 2 facilities consist mainly of water and wastewater treatment in Federal OSHA states. Sources in all three programs must prepare and submit an RMP to the EPA at least once every five years.

ExxonMobil | 30 August 2016

ExxonMobil Uses Microbes To Clean Water of Nitrates

A state-of-the-art approach akin to making microorganisms eat their vegetables is having award-winning results for ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge refinery as it takes a leadership role in combatting so-called dead zones that have plagued the Gulf of Mexico for the last 3 decades.

An aerial view of the Baton Rouge refinery with the wastewater treatment tanks at the bottom left. Source: ExxonMobil.

Nitrates in runoff from agricultural fertilizers have been identified as the main culprit for the dead zones—where massive algal blooms feeding off the nitrates starve areas of water for oxygen so they won’t support other marine life.

But nitrates are also a byproduct of the oil-refining process. So ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge refinery invested in a new system that uses microscopic organisms to feed on nitrates in the refinery’s water treatment system, breaking them down into nonharmful components such as nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon.

“We coach the bugs to denitrify our wastewater,” said Robert Berg, state regulatory advisor for ExxonMobil, using his own affectionate term for the microorganisms. “Bugs eat nitrates in nature, but we have put a process in place where we can make the bugs even more efficient at breaking down nitrates.”

E&E Publishing | 30 August 2016

Environmental Groups Pick Climate Fight With Feds, Seek To Rein in Leasing

A pumpjack bobs on public lands in Utah. Source: WildEarth Guardians.

Backers of the “keep it in the ground” movement have taken their efforts up a notch, asking a federal court to force the Obama administration to consider the climate effects of oil and gas leasing on public lands.

In a lawsuit filed on 25 August at the US District Court for the District of Columbia, WildEarth Guardians and Physicians for Social Responsibility argued that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) failed to weigh the climate effects for at least 397 leases issued since early 2015. The leases represent a combined 380,000 acres in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.

The lawsuit is one of the broader challenges to federal oil and gas leasing to date, asking the court to freeze action on the contested leases until BLM performs an in-depth analysis of climate effects from development on public lands. Without closer attention to climate effects, the groups say, leasing undermines President Obama’s efforts to mitigate climate change.

“In spite of the president’s commitment to US leadership in moving toward a clean energy future,” the complaint says, “Federal defendants continue to authorize the sale and issuance of hundreds of federal oil and gas leases on public lands across the interior west without meaningfully acknowledging or evaluating the climate change implications of their actions.”

The Texas Tribune | 23 August 2016

EPA: North Texas Earthquakes Likely Linked to Oil and Gas Drilling

Federal regulators believe “there is a significant possibility” that recent earthquakes in North Texas are linked to oil and gas activity, even if state regulators won’t say so.

That’s according to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s annual evaluation of how the Texas Railroad Commission oversees thousands of injection and disposal wells that dot state oilfields—underground resting places for millions of gallons of waste from hydraulic fracturing and other drilling activities.

“In light of findings from several researchers, its own analysis of some cases, and the fact that earthquakes diminished in some areas following shut-in or reduced injection volume of targeted wells,” the 15 August report states, “EPA believes there is a significant possibility that North Texas earthquake activity is associated with disposal wells.”