Harvard Study Confirms Shale’s Benefits

Just a few months in, 2013 is proving to be a very frustrating year for ideologically motivated environmental activists seeking to ban hydraulic fracturing. So far, they have been confronted with three important facts: a plurality of Americans supports the technology, politicians in both parties are accepting it as a means to improve both the economy and environment, and the President’s nominees to lead the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency have both declared that natural gas, and by extension hydraulic fracturing, is a key component of the nation’s energy future.

Now, compounding this frustration, a new report from researchers at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs makes clear why activists’ efforts are failing — and will likely continue to do so. Specifically, the report found that, on a global scale, “a long-term domestic supply of natural gas is expected to yield environmental benefits,” as the fuel “has the lowest carbon dioxide emission factor at combustion of any fossil fuel.” The study also observes that shale development is certain to continue well into the future, noting that “unconventional fossil fuel extraction from shale formations has already transformed the U.S. energy portfolio,” and that, as a result, “unconventional oil and gas are poised to dominate the U.S. market in the coming decades.”

The study also took a closer look at development in the Bakken, Barnett and Marcellus shale basins to identify environmental concerns and whether or not practices are being implemented to mitigate those concerns. Here again, activists were served a bitter pill. Even though the researchers suggested the industry typically has a “slow rate of adoption” of environmental mitigation (which simply isn’t true), they nonetheless concluded that “the degree of adoption across available technologies highlights characteristics of successful environmental mitigation strategies.” In other words, the industry is proactively addressing environmental concerns through the rapid advancement of new technology.

Now, that’s not to say the study didn’t find any areas in need of improvement. Indeed, there were about twenty items — ranging from “laying reusable mats over well pad site and planned access routes, rather than laying gravel” to “setting surface casing at greater depths.” But, as you can see, the suggestions offered by the researchers don’t point to any inherently troubling concerns with hydraulic fracturing and shale gas development. A few examples:

  • Wastewater recycling and reuse
  • Laying impermeable liners over well pad sites to reduce the risk of oil and surface water contamination
  • Cementing intermediate casing, if present, to surface
  • Collection and analysis of surface and subsurface data, used to inform planning and real-time management of hydraulic fracturing jobs
  • Conducting small-scale test run before commencing full hydraulic fracturing job
  • Reuse of drilling fluids and muds
  • Capturing fugitive methane by implementing green completions, replacing high-bleed valves, and installing vapor recovery units on tanks
  • Burying corrosion-resistant lines and pipes for longer-term operations
  • Planning multiple wells per pad

What ties these (and many others in the report) together is that they’re already being implemented across the country, something that the Harvard researchers also noted. Closed-loop systems are in use in the Marcellus, and many operators are already recycling fluids and drilling muds. Operators have also begun implementing central water conveyance systems in many areas, and green completions are also increasingly being utilized (MIT previously found that such technology had been adopted at a far higher rate than previous studies had estimated). Green completions will also be required for nearly all natural gas wells beginning in 2015.

So, in summation, one of the nation’s pre-eminent academic institutions took a closer look at a process that fringe environmental groups describe as being an “inherently dirty and dangerous process that decimates entire landscapes.” Because they were interested in facts instead of hysteria, they came to a completely different conclusion. Indeed, their review indicated that shale development will provide significant environmental benefits, and that reducing environmental footprints even further is not only possible, but is actually a task already in progress.

In sum, the Harvard study is good news for those of us who view shale development as a valuable part of our energy future, as well as those of us who are interested in solutions and progress. In that sense, it’s yet another reminder that those who want to demagogue “fracking” in order to raise funds from wealthy donors are actually arguing against expert consensus.

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