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By Dianne Saxe, Ontario Environmental Lawyer
Advisors to US Energy Secretary, Stephen Chu, have recommended major changes to improve regulation and environmental performance of shale gas fracturing (fracking) in the US. Public consultation is continuing, and the final report will be released in November. Canadian regulators should be paying close attention, as the recommendations are equally applicable here.
The draft report includes extensive Recommendations in 4 key areas:
1. Making information about shale gas production operations more accessible to the public
The report calls for the full disclosure of all chemicals used in fracturing fluids, and a national database of all public information about shale gas, as well as better communication between regulators. Governments should fund existing multi-stakeholder mechanisms such as the non-profit Ground Water Protection Council’s Risk Based Data Management Systemand the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulation.
2. Immediate and longer-term actions to reduce environmental and safety risks of shale gas operations, with a particular focus on air and water quality
• Air quality:
Reduce emissions of air pollutants, ozone precursors, and methane as quickly as practicable. The Subcommittee supports adoption of rigorous standards for new and existing sources of methane, air toxics, ozone precursors and other air pollutants from shale gas operations. The Subcommittee recommends:
(1) Enlisting a subset of producers in different basins to design and rapidly implement measurement systems to collect comprehensive methane and other air emissions data from shale gas operations and make these data publically available;
(2) Immediately launching a federal interagency planning effort to acquire data and analyze the overall greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas operations through out the lifecycle of natural gas use in comparison to other fuels; and
(3) Encouraging shale-gas production companies and regulators to expand immediately efforts to reduce air emissions using proven technologies and practices.
• Water quality:
The Subcommittee urges adoption of a systems approach to water management based on consistent measurement and public disclosure of the flow and composition of water at every stage of the shale gas production process. The Subcommittee recommends the following actions by shale gas companies and regulators – to the extent that such actions have not already been undertaken by particular companies and regulatory agencies:
(1) Measure and publicly report the composition of water stocks and flow throughout the fracturing and clean-up process.
(2) Manifest all transfers of water among different locations.
(3) Adopt best practices in well development and construction, especially casing, cementing, and pressure management. Pressure testing of cemented casing and state-of-the-art cement bond logs should be used to confirm formation isolation. Microseismic surveys should be carried out to assure that hydraulic fracture growth is limited to the gas producing formations. Regulations and inspections are needed to confirm that operators have taken prompt action to repair defective cementing jobs. The regulation of shale gas development should include inspections at safety-critical stages of well construction and hydraulic fracturing.
(4) Additional field studies on possible methane leakage from shale gas wells to water reservoirs.
(5) Adopt requirements for background water quality measurements (e.g., existing methane levels in nearby water wells prior to drilling for gas) and report in advance of shale gas production activity.
(6) Agencies should review field experience and modernize rules and enforcement practices to ensure protection of drinking and surface waters.
• Reduction in the use of diesel fuel: The Subcommittee believes there is no technical or economic reason to use diesel in shale gas production and recommends reducing the use of diesel engines for surface power in favor of natural gas engines or electricity where available.
• Managing short-term and cumulative impacts on communities, landuse, wildlife, and ecologies. Each relevant jurisdiction should pay greater attention to the combination of impacts from multiple drilling, production and delivery activities (e.g., impacts on air quality, traffic on roads, noise, visual pollution), and make efforts to plan for shale development impacts on a regional scale. Possible mechanisms include:
(1) Use of multi-well drilling pads to minimize transport traffic and need for new road construction.
(2) Evaluation of water use at the scale of affected watersheds.
(3) Formal notification by regulated entities of anticipated environmental and community impacts.
(4) Preservation of unique and/or sensitive areas as off-limits to drilling and support infrastructure as determined through an appropriate science-based process.
(5) Undertaking science-based characterization of important landscapes, habitats and corridors to inform planning, prevention, mitigation and reclamation of surface impacts.
(6) Establishment of effective field monitoring and enforcement to inform on- going assessment of cumulative community and land use impacts.
3. Improve and spread best operating practices
A more systemic approach by the shale gas industry based on best practices—recognized as improvements to techniques and methods over time based on measurement and field experience—is an important way to achieve better operational and environmental outcomes, the report finds. The report envisions the creation of a national organization, with external stakeholders, dedicated to continuous improvement of best practice through the development and diffusion of standards and the assessment of member compliance. The organization would likely work through regional subgroups.
4. Encouraging Research and development (R&D)
The report recommends that the administration set an appropriate mission for shale gas R&D and level funding, with a particular focus on efficiency of water use and other improvements to enhance environmental objectives.
The subcommittee report is available at: http://www.shalegas.energy.gov/index.html
Download a copy of the White House Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future.
Download a copy of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, Shale Gas Production Subcommittee 90 Day Interim Report.
Reprinted with permission from the Environmental Law and Litigation Blog.
The Environmental Law and Litigation Blog has been selected as a 2011 LexisNexis Top 50 Blog for Environmental Law & Climate Change winner.
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