Shale gas and green technologies

One sure sign of the shale-gas revolution’s success is that it has not led to the pollution of groundwater that some people had predicted.

Energy companies are using innovative techniques to unlock shale-gas resources safely and effectively. In Pennsylvania alone, the shale-gas industry has drilled more than 6,000 wells in recent years using a combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to tap natural gas in the giant Marcellus formation. The results have been stunning. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection gives shale-gas drilling high marks.

Here in Ohio, shale-gas companies are gearing up for a major increase in production as they become more familiar with the state’s geology. A report by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources shows that in 2012 shale gas accounted for 16 percent of Ohio’s total natural gas production, but that by 2015 it’s expected to provide 82 percent of the state’s gas production.

Today, shale-gas drilling is under way in large parts of the mid-Atlantic, Midwest, Rocky Mountain and Gulf states, accounting for 40 percent of U.S. gas production. Nationally, the Energy Information Administration’s estimate of shale-gas resources has shot up 10 percent since 2011, rising to 665 trillion cubic feet of technically-recoverable shale gas – enough to last decades, a big change from a decade ago when natural gas shortages were commonplace.

This unconventional gas production provides multiple benefits – cleaner energy from electric utilities that have switched from coal to gas, stable gas prices, millions of dollars for landowners getting gas-production royalties, tens of thousands of well-paying jobs, revenue for governments at all levels, rejuvenated manufacturing operations, and geopolitical benefits for the United States globally.

Hydraulic fracturing – known as “fracing” – is benefiting from a smoother working relationship between federal and state regulators around the country. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now entrusts state agencies with handling investigations into allegations of groundwater contamination.

Much of the attention to safety has been on fracing in Pennsylvania. A recent study on fracing conducted by the National Energy Technology Lab (NETL) found no evidence that chemicals used in drilling had contaminated fresh-water aquifers. To reduce the amount of flowback water, which contains chemicals from fracing, wastewater is being recycled at more than 70 percent of the Marcellus wells, according to Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. Some companies now recycle 100 percent of their wastewater.

Natural-gas producers acknowledge that some isolated problems have occurred due to poorly-constructed wells and improper wastewater disposal. To safeguard against a possible accident that could affect drinking water and possibly cause a halt to drilling and production, 11 energy companies and non-profit groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, established the Center for Sustainable Shale Development. The Pittsburgh-based group has promulgated 15 standards for fracing in the Marcellus Shale and certifying drillers that voluntarily comply with those standards. Among other practices, the standards encourage maximum water recycling and efforts to reduce the toxicity of fracing fluid. Perhaps most importantly, steps are being taken to control the emission of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that can escape from new and abandoned gas wells.

Some years ago, when maintaining safety in energy production seemed a far more overwhelming idea than it does now, an environmentalist said that the way to cope with such massive challenges was to think nationally and act locally. It is still good advice for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the Ohio EPA and companies active in shale-gas development. It may serve as a general prescription for successful management of shale drilling in a state as big and diverse as ours.

Robert W. Chase is chair and professor of Marietta College’s Department of Petroleum Engineering.