A Workshop Reflection—What Will Your Tight-Rock Project Legacy Be?
Social responsibility is the newest evolving element within the health, safety, security, environment, and social responsibility sector of the upstream petroleum industry. In December, the Society of Petroleum Engineers held a workshop to discuss social responsibility issues related to project development. The workshop, titled Beyond Conventional Oil and Gas: New Social Opportunities and Risks, was held 2–4 December in Banff, Alberta, Canada. Workshop presenters Robert Sandilos with Chevron and Caleb Wall with Environmental Resources Management have compiled lessons from the workshop. Both, along with other social responsibility presenters, will be on hand at the 2015 SPE E&P Health, Safety, Security, and Environmental Conference—Americas on 16–18 March in Denver, where a special poster session will showcase the lessons from this and other social responsibility workshops.
This article is a brief exploration of a few key threats and opportunities, the sum of which will likely define the life-cycle legacy of most tight-rock developments, as discussed during the Banff workshop.
- Evaluating social risks and impacts
- Management frameworks for environmental and social risks
- Water use in unconventional development
- Industry impacts on community health
- Industry relationships with indigenous peoples
- Stakeholder engagement
Evaluating Social Risks and Impacts
In many prospective tight-rock basins globally, very few if any wells have been drilled. Stakeholders on both sides of the drilling divide start at the same place, but industry opponents have the advantage of a clean slate—no oil and gas activity (although there well may be pollution problems and environmental impacts already). A significant opportunity for industry is to set the full-field development bar high for all operators through government regulation and voluntary actions. A significant challenge for industry, in being transparent about operations, is to clearly communicate timing, specific activities, and mitigations from leasing through to plugging and abandonment.
Management Frameworks for Environmental and Social Risks
Numerous tools and management systems have been developed by operators and consultants to attempt to integrate social performance into now-traditional environmental impact assessments. A significant opportunity is to describe and plan better to manage societalrisks throughout the life cycle, most of which diminish significantly as drilling and completion moves on to long-term production. Potential economic and community investment benefits, of course, are the key long-term opportunities. The leading challenge over the life cycle of most projects is maintaining environmental protection, and the most fundamental is casing, cementing, and wellbore integrity.
Water Use in Unconventional Development
Reducing fresh and, in some regions, brackish water use is a primary objective of all tight-rock operators. Fortunately, water use declines substantially as a hydraulic-fracturing-dependent drilling program is completed. A life-cycle challenge is that this long-term view is often not very important to local residents or policy makers during water-stress or drought conditions such as those have persisted in parts of Texas and California since the shale boom really began in 2008. Two of the most important social responsibilities over the life of any upstream project surround water use are
- The commitment to maximize recycling and reducing or eliminating use of fresh water and increasingly usable brines
- The need to keep produced water in the pipe for safe disposal unless it is feasible to provide acceptable quality water for beneficial use
Industry Impacts on Community Health
This area is probably the fastest emerging set of local public concerns with oil and gas operations, and the most difficult to address for the long term with current data and messages. Changes in population, workers, and incomes stress health assets and relationships. Completion-phase hydraulic-fracturing-chemical use and production-phase air emissions continue to raise public questions notwithstanding industry and government actions or assurances. As indicated during several presentations, there is a current need for additional science-based health data and research, which should address long-term operations as well as drilling and completion activity.
Land Acquisition and Involuntary Resettlement
Access and resettlement are almost always looked at as early-development-phase issues, but there are important long-term elements as well. In North America, actual resettlement is rare, but long-term land-use impacts from energy development on population and wildlife habits are common. Public safety, education, transportation infrastructure, and ecosystems are all affected by any wide-spread industrial development, even if long-term facilities are of modest size. Early communication, consultation, and life-cycle impact mitigation are equally important in addressing land-use impacts and in maintaining community consent for responsible oil and gas development.
Industry Relationships with Indigenous Peoples
Relationships with local residents, regardless of their heritage, are both the oldest and the newest societal responsibility factors. Whether projects are located around subsistence or suburban communities, maintaining a positive local relationship is arguably the single most important external factor in life-cycle project success, beyond wellhead prices. As in the case of land use and impacts, there are opportunities for life-cycle local partnerships, including public safety, education, infrastructure, and ecosystems. These can enhance relationships and mitigate long-term ignorance, dependency, or animosity.
This subject was fitting as the final one in the Banff workshop because engagement with local communities and the full range of stakeholders is critical and must be contemporaneous with any new project, from preleasing to plugging and abandonment. The needs, messages, and issues will vary, and any industrial project of scale will have local impacts. It may be not be possible for to leave a clean slate, but it is possible for tight-rock projects to leave a positive social, economic, and environmental legacy behind.