Appalachian Basin

RFF Survey Destroys Myth of Shale-Specific Risk

To hear opponents of shale development tell it, the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing is a new and “dangerous” technology – so “inherently risky” and full of threats unique to the process that we should just shut the whole thing down and call it a day.

The talking point about shale as being new and different and inherently unsafe is actually part of a sophisticated messaging strategy by activists to separate in folks’ minds the relatively uncontroversial act of drilling an oil well with the virtually identical act of drilling an oil well and then turning the drill bit horizontally. Technically, they may be the same. But because the public isn’t scared of vertical wells, opponents have worked very hard to convince them that shale is an entirely different enterprise – and a much scarier one than they may think. To wit:

“Fracking has been around for decades, but the techniques, technologies and chemicals used to reach new, remote gas reserves are more intensive and riskier than conventional gas drilling.” – Food and Water Watch, the case for a ban on gas fracking

“This approach is far bigger and riskier than the conventional fracking of earlier years.”  – Cornell study author Robert Howarth, “Should fracking stop?” (Nature, September 15, 2011)

“In January, I will introduce legislation to create a statutory moratorium on all fracking activity in Maryland. This moratorium will stay in place until and unless we have a science-based review of all the safety risks involved.” – Maryland State Del. Heather Mizuer (D), “No study? No fracking” (Baltimore Sun, September 12, 2012)

“Fracking,” or hydraulic fracturing, is a dangerous drilling technique that endangers our state’s water, air, wildlife and public health. – Center for Biological Diversity, California protect yourself from a fracking explosion

“Everyday the facts of fracking become clearer. The process is inherently contaminating, and no amount of regulation can make it safe for people living near or downriver from it.” – Josh Fox, “Ban fracking now” (USA TODAY, May 6, 2011)

But what if the risks associated with developing oil and natural gas from shale were no different than the ones that industry and regulators have been managing well for over 100 years now in the context of traditional vertical oil and gas development? What would that do the opposition’s talking point?

Well, could be we’re about to find out. Earlier this month, the environmental research group Resources for the Future – certainly no shill for oil and gas – released a survey of experts’ opinions on the “risks” associated with developing oil and natural gas from shale.  In the end, experts with varying backgrounds identified 12 consensus items of concern, the vast majority of which, the experts declared, not only weren’t unique to shale – but not even unique to oil and gas development in general.

According to RFF director Alan Krupnik, “only 2 of the consensus risks identified by the experts are unique to the shale gas development process … The remaining 10 consensus risks relate to practices common to gas and oil development in general, such as the construction of roads, well pads, and pipelines and the potential for leaks in casing and cementing.”

In case you were wondering, the two risk activities RFF identified as being unique to shale were “the storage of fracing fluids onsite before they’re used and after they flow back.” Of course, that’s not technically accurate either, as plenty of vertical, non-shale wells are also fracture stimulated every day and thus generate wastewater that needs to be properly managed on site. But hey, at least they’re trying!

For just one example of how the “unique” risks from shale are already being addressed, look no further than the industry’s use of closed-loop drilling systems.  These systems reduce impacts to the environment by completely separating waste materials where development takes place and capturing drill cuttings, flowback fluids and other materials at the point of extraction. Those materials are then channeled directly to sealed containment systems.  Even well-known (if lightly regarded) anti-energy groups such as Earthworks have stated that closed-loop systems “isolate waste products from the environment” and “can greatly reduce or eliminate the discharge of toxic drilling wastes on site.”

For these reasons, regulators across the country have recognized the technology as an approved “best management practice,” and many states require their implementation.  As a result, the use of closed-loop systems has increased significantly in states like Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Alaska, Pennsylvania, New Mexico and Ohio – just to name a few. Cabot Oil and Gas uses the technology in all of its operations. Chesapeake Energy uses the technology extensively in its Utica and Marcellus Shale operations, as does Chief Oil and Gas – among many others.

The fact that currently available technology is already being used to reduce and manage risk is, everyone can agree, very good news – especially when you combine it with the fact that water recycling is also being used increasingly nationwide. Recent reports highlight that operators in the Marcellus, as one example, are using water recycling to treat over 90 percent of the water used in their operations.  Additionally, a recent study from Duke found that natural gas development from shale produces less wastewater than so-called “conventional” wells on a per-unit basis.  These factors not only reduce the likelihood of spills from the storage of fracturing fluid additives and flowback on-site, but also significantly reduce the freshwater needed to fracture a well – another common concern listed by the experts polled.

Taken together, a pretty clear picture emerges: shale development utilizing hydraulic fracturing is not a “new” and “dangerous” technology with unknown and unmanageable risks.  Rather, the risks are well-understood, carefully managed and tightly regulated. In fact, the only risks “unique to shale development” – notwithstanding that they’re not actually unique — are being addressed effectively by industry and state regulations.

In the end, the RFF survey confirms what most objective observers already recognize: Shale development, which is made possible through the combined use of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling (among many other things) doesn’t pose unique risks to the public, but does provide unique benefits – like jobs, revenue and opportunity for places and people that can certainly use the boost.

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