Shale Sustainability

Public and government concern over unconventional oil and gas production continues. Hardly a month goes by before another study into the potential health effects of shale production is launched or a public hearing is conducted regarding the impact of a project on the local landscape.

For example, last month the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project opened a public health registry to track and analyze the impact of shale gas development on people living near wells, pipelines, and other infrastructure. That followed the release of a Duke University study that concluded that hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale did not pollute groundwater in West Virginia but that wastewater spillage contaminated some surface water. Many of the reports and studies are drawing similar conclusions—that hydraulic fracturing poses little or no risk but that contamination can occur during the transportation or treatment process.

Shale oil and gas development has certainly changed the world order in these commodities, from OPEC strategy and commodity prices to global import/export patterns. The US, with abundant gas still depressing prices, is becoming an exporter of liquefied natural gas rather than an importer. Shale oil is largely responsible for the low oil prices of the past 2 years, turning the US into the world’s “swing” producer, a position Saudi Arabia once held. Industry resiliency amid low oil prices led to slashing of service company costs, operational efficiencies, and high-grading of properties. As service costs now begin to rise, profitable production in a world of USD 40–60/bbl oil will require further innovation.

But the industry also continues to face regulatory challenges based on environmental concerns. Maryland has recently followed New York in legislating against hydraulic fracturing. A new book, Sustainable Shale Oil and Gas: Analytical Chemistry, Geochemistry, and Biochemistry Methods by Vikram Rao and Rob Knight argues that this type of policymaking is hampered by inadequate data, which in turn is caused by shortcomings in analytical techniques. The authors describe new cost-effective analytical methods for detecting fugitive methane as well as particulate matter and volatile organic chemicals, including a portable shoe-box-sized mass spectrometer with performance approaching that of a laboratory machine.

The last line of the book states, “That which cannot be measured, cannot be regulated or otherwise controlled or exploited.” They apply this reasoning to improving the economics of recovery as well. The book discusses analytical methods to illuminate the unconventional reservoir, including a fascinating method using DNA sequencing to characterize reservoir rock through examination of microbial populations.

The book lays out how analytical chemistry, geochemistry, and biochemistry play prominent roles in hydraulic fracturing and that they are central to the three tenets of sustainable production: protecting the environment, protecting the well-being of local communities, and profitability. 

Innovation has been a necessity for survival in the low oil and gas price market, and continued innovation will result in an industry resilient to future unexpected challenges. And the authors contend that that innovation and production is achievable in environmentally responsible fashion.

Shale Sustainability

John Donnelly, JPT Editor

01 June 2017

Volume: 69 | Issue: 6