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Rock, teach oil, or maybe vice versa

GG attended a workshop here at CU on lessons from mining that could help guide oil and gas development (since the conveners encouraged outcomes to be shared on social media, figure this is OK). In kind of an odd way, the focus was more on what happens at the end of mining or oil development more than what happens at the start, so that will tend to be the focus here.

So a quick summary of points GG noticed.

  • Mining is highly focused, oil and gas far more distributed with a web of infrastructure.
  • Mines active today have to meet bonding requirements and increasingly have to have reclamation plans; oil and gas wells have far less specific requirements (e.g., bonding is not by well but by state or even nation).
  • Mines are a single use of the land; oil and gas production often shares the land with other rural uses.
  • Problem mines are problems for thousands of years–there is no true long term remediation. They can foul a lot of water for a long time. Wells are more insidious, typically failing silently until you know groundwater is compromised or a house blows up.
  • Mines these days are rarely totally shut down; they frequently are mothballed and then brought back online.  Oil and gas wells are frequently plugged and closed.
  • Mining’s main impact seems to be contaminating surface waters.  Oil and gas activity mainly affects subsurface waters.
  • Modern mining remains dominantly rural [save for mining towns!], but oil and gas has moved into suburbia. However, old mines are around a lot of western towns and there is renewed activity (and opposition) from time to time.

So what would the public want for post-development lands? In both cases, one can presume a safe environment available for any subsequent use. In many cases, they might want something resembling the pre-mining landscape. How realistic is this?

For mines, it depends on the mine. Big, modern open pit mines with sulfides are likely nearly hopeless. Strip mines for coal probably can be reclaimed provided they are not in areas where erosion is likely. Many small legacy mines can be shuttered to have an acceptably low level of impact. You can probably tell when a mine can be safely shut down.

For oil and gas wells, there is a surprisingly high level of uncertainty. Modern plugging procedures will usually work for the near term, but if gas continues to migrate up the well bore, any weaknesses that develop in the well plug or around the outside of the well bore will allow the gas to vent to the surface. Degradation of the well materials will connect shallow and deep aquifers, which can be troublesome if the deep aquifers have sufficient pressure to invade a shallower drinking water aquifer.  Or if the deep aquifer has negative pressure, you can lose drinking water to the deeper aquifer. That oil and gas wells are not of the same material as the surrounding rock means that it is likely over long periods of time that some kinds of failures of the well’s plug will occur (chemistry and stress will focus on that interface).  How often is this likely? How often will a failure produce surface problems? We really aren’t certain.

One suggested solution for problem mines is to make use of the waste material. This might help for acid mine drainage, but is less helpful for some other environmental hazards from mines. It is unlikely that a plugged oil or gas well that leaks has any economic utility.

So at the end, what does full closure of mines or wells look like?  Mines are unlikely to have their footprint totally erased, and some will be problems for centuries, but many others will be available for other uses. Oil and gas wells are tougher.  Most rules require a plugged well’s pad to be returned to something looking like the original landscape. When bonding is insufficient (as has been the case in Wyoming, for instance), failed companies’ wells might not be reclaimed. But even where surface reclamation is done (and oil and gas companies like to show pictures of old well sites to show they don’t look particularly bad), the well below is still subject to failure and leaking. While some mine sites might well be safe to build on (and many mountain resort towns are in fact built on old mine sites), building on an old well is playing a bit of Russian roulette. Shallow aquifers could fail as well. Perhaps monitoring for natural gas and pollutants in the water would permit full reoccupation of well sites, but it seems just as likely that rules will prevent building on or too near old well sites.

What do local communities need to know? They should probably understand that oil and gas wells are forever–plugged wells in most cases will cause no problems, but given that we haven’t watched a bunch of wells plugged with modern techniques for a really long time, that there is a non-zero risk of future leakage, and so monitoring appropriate for the subsequent use of the land should be required. Ripping out as much of the oil and gas infrastructure as possible is wise. For mines, it kind of depends. Any mine with underground workings can later collapse, so building on top of such mines should be considered with caution. If a mine is leaking colorful water into streams, odds are this will continue for centuries and some kind of action is desirable, but know there are not, at present, permanent fixes.

Root problems of oil and gas

Here in Colorado there is a tremendous amount of anger, frustration, and finger-pointing going on over the risks and rights associated with oil and gas development. In part because of sloppy language, in part because of deliberate misrepresentation, in part because of financial gain, in part because of different assessments of risk, the controversy has people talking past one another. It reached something of a silly level when protesters in Boulder recently protested a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony because the symphony had accepted some money from an oil company. [GG isn’t sure what the message really amounted to: don’t let oil companies support the arts? Not like the symphony was investing in oil companies].

How did we end up in this mess?

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The Great Colorado Oil Blowup

Well, it was the well. In Firestone, Colorado, a house exploded because a cut gas line that should have been abandoned but was still connected leaked gas into the soil five feet from the house.  The odorless gas seeped into the basement of the house and was ignited. This determination is almost certain to ignite another, thankfully figurative, firestorm.

Leaving aside the inevitable lawsuits over that explosion, what does this mean and what should it mean for oil and gas development?

Let’s start with the easy part: what it should mean. Oil companies need to be responsible for the safety of their facilities (that includes being legally liable). New construction near existing oil and gas facilities needs to be aware of oil and gas infrastructure, including these flow lines. Government should enforce inspections of existing oil and gas infrastructure and assure the proper sealing and plugging of wells and flow lines being abandoned. Ideally, government should sponsor means of detecting unusual levels of hydrocarbons leaking at well sites and employ them as a means of recognizing trouble spots (CIRES and NOAA have been working on such tools).

Frankly, if GG lived near a well, he’d be trying to find out about the feeder lines and the history of the well. And quite possibly monitoring gas levels in the basement.

The good news is that the state has ordered oil and gas companies to pressure-test all lines within 1000′ of occupied buildings and to make sure abandoned lines are properly marked and capped. It is unlikely that industry will protest.

Unfortunately, that probably won’t be enough to prevent some future tragedy unless something else changes.

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Policy Proxy Hazards

The beginning of a five-part series on GMOs in the Boulder Daily Camera does a nice job of making clear one of the problems with complex problems in the public sphere, namely that very specific terms get burdened with ills not necessarily associated with the core meaning of the term.  Thus, as pointed out in this article, GMOs are a stand-in for mega-agriculture despite the fact that here in Boulder County, use of GMOs is made by small-acreage farmers and the use of GMOs has a smaller environmental impact than “organic” farming. Call this misrepresentation of a term a policy proxy: something that is used publicly as a substitute for some broader set of concerns.

Another policy proxy is fracking, as we’ve discussed many times. Fracking opponents are not usually concerned specifically about fracking but instead are complaining about dense industrial-scale oil development in residential areas or environmental impacts from oil and gas development to the need to reduce our carbon output. Arguably things like anti-vaxxing, creation science, and global warming attract similar concerns really directed at an opaque medical establishment, religion, and party identification.

Scientific proxies are useful so long as they are understood to be proxies.  A simple one is the use of a barometer in the 19th century to measure elevation: you are measuring air pressure and using the decrease of that with elevation to estimate elevation. Proxies fail when other issues interfere with the relationship you hope to exploit: for instance, a barometer also records storm systems and failure to account for that will not give you proper elevations (something familiar to those of us who have used altimeters when hiking).

Policy proxies are arguably even more hazardous. Take the GMO case in the Daily Camera article.We’ve been conditioned over the past several decades to accept “organic” produce as “better” produce and that organic farming means less harmful chemicals are used. GMOs are viewed as anti-organic, thus opposing GMOs is a policy proxy for wanting fewer harmful chemicals to be used. The problem is that these associations are weak. Some synthetic herbicides are less damaging than some organic ones; GMOs can allow for even less use of herbicides than in organic agriculture. So it is possible that accepting the simple policy proxy when opposing GMOs that people are actually advocating for a greater use of herbicides with a greater environmental impact.

Or consider fracking. In opposing fracking, advocates might be assuming that they are reducing the environmental impact of oil and gas development. But if fracked gas deposits replace strip-mined coal (as has been happening the past few years), is fracking really the environmental disaster?

Let’s face it: policy proxies are for mental lightweights and the peripherally involved.  They encourage tossing babies out with bathwater. They are designed to inflame opinions and they make it easy to make clever placards and impassioned speeches. In some cases they will align with good public policy, but in many cases they will impede it. So GG urges folks to oppose what really concerns them and not to fall into the trap of opposing things that seem to represent the bad stuff they don’t want. It can be possible to find alternate solutions once you abandon the simple proxies. GMOs can be bad if their use increases carbon output or increases pesticide applications or requires more damaging pesticides or compromise seed ownership for neighboring forms, but they can be good if they work the other way.  Fracking can be good if well pad locations are regulated, wellheads and casings and feeder lines are checked, and oil companies are liable for environmental impacts and the fossil fuels produced replace dirtier fuels; it can be bad if it enables bad practices.

Precise Opposition

GG has previously been frustrated with the combination of imprecise speech of anti-fracking groups as well as the double speak of industry. The reason you might want to be precise might be well illustrated by a recent home explosion in Colorado.

The exploding house killed two men working on a hot water heater in the basement; usually when you hear these things, it turns out there is a gas leak or something like that in play. The startling news has been the move by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to shut down 3000 wells they are operating while the wells are checked out (that is more than 5% of the active wells in the state). The exploded house was 170 feet from a 1993 well reactivated this past January. Although a new well can not be drilled there, houses can be built that close to existing wells (these houses are only a couple years old).

Oil companies are loathe to shut down operations (see opposition to claims of induced earthquakes, for instance). Shutting down this number of wells even as investigators are saying that they still don’t know what happened strongly suggests something may have gone wrong. Given that the oil company feels that shutting down wells is likely to reduce a risk, they are presumably not thinking that any gas leaked up around a bad casing job in the well but instead are concerned there might be leaks in the underground lines connecting wells to pipelines or storage facilities.

And here’s the thing.  This is not a modern, horizontally-drilled heavily fracked well. This is one of those older-style vertical wells. So when anti-fracking groups say they don’t want to stop oil and gas development but do want to stop fracking (as was the case in Longmont, Colorado a couple years back), this is the kind of well they think is OK. So once again a reminder: fracking is very rarely a cause of problems, but all the other stuff with oil and gas development is the real problem people are complaining about.

The irony might well be that if Anadarko’s infrastructure was the cause of the blast, there is likely to be enough of an outcry to allow far more stringent rules on any new oil and gas development–even though a blast caused by a leak of a subdivision gas supply line would probably not shut down the use of natural gas in houses. So “anti-fracking” groups might get their wish not because of fracking problems per se but because houses were built in the vicinity of active oil and gas operations.

(Equally ironic is the request from the Boulder County Board of Supervisors for companies to shut down all their vertical wells in the county–apparently unaware that it is the near-surface infrastructure that could be the problem, which can exist at both directional and vertical well pads).

It should be interesting to see what happens. Almost certainly it points to a need to check up on the older oil and gas infrastructure in the state. Whether it changes the politics of new oil and gas operations remains to be seen.

Capture and Release?

Petroleum has been one of the most peculiar “minerals” (in a legal sense) owing to its existence as a fluid; only groundwater faces similarly bizarre legal contortions. (If you want all the details, read Finders, Keepers by Terence Daintith.) The development of laws that were forward looking for conventional oil and gas development are now causing heartburn in unconventional development.

Recall that originally, you could drill straight down and hit an oil pool and oil might come out all on its own. The oil that came up could be coming from neighboring lands. Courts decided, using (of all things) the common law pertaining to capture of wild animals, to decide that this was OK.  If you “captured” that wild oil, it was yours to keep; hence, this is called the rule (or law) of capture.  This was utterly different than the decisions reached on other mineral rights that didn’t move around.

The result of the rule of capture was an insane style of production.  Each landowner wanted to get the most oil, and they wanted to preserve the oil under their land.  So they would drill as close to the land’s boundaries as possible and go as fast as possible in the hopes of extracting resources from neighboring lands and preventing loss of their own reserves. The result overall was a decrease in the total production from many oil fields as reservoir pressures decreased rapidly while at the same time maximizing surface damage.  The pictures of forests of derricks at, say Spindletop in Texas or Signal Hill in Southern California arose from this.

 

The rules were largely left to states, many of which started to introduce unitization laws that tried to remove the incentive to extract everything in the craziest manner possible. Colorado, for instance, has such a law. The basic idea is that if a field starts to be produced, all the mineral rights holders will gain from the extraction in some proportion. For this to work, some rights holders can’t stop the proceedings: if one mineral rights holder’s objections would prevent drilling and production, then all the other rights holders would be losing their mineral rights to some degree. So there is some measure usually applied.  Here in Colorado, all it takes is one rights holder to say they want to produce to trigger the unitization process, thus leading this to also be called “forced pooling”–you might not have wanted your oil and gas to be extracted, but you are forced into the pool so that others can get theirs.

Unhappily, this makes no sense with the latest unconventional resources.

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Why the AAPG should March for Science

Today the Geological Society of America (GSA) announced via email to members that it supports the March for Science (which is shown on the March for Science partners page but appears to be absent from the main GSA website). This is notable because GSA has far more professional members in the conservative oil and gas industry than, say, AGU, where the oil and gas folks are greatly outnumbered.

Two prominent earth science professional societies are still absent from the list: the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG) and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists (SEG). These are dominated by professional, private sector earth scientists who probably vote at the more conservative end of the scale. Why should they march?

Simple: Science is just as critical for them as for scientists pursuing topics favored by liberals. Their participation would help to balance the scales in the popular media more. They could help keep the March for Science a march for science and not simply become a march against Trump/GOP.

Well, you say, that is helping the people promoting the march and not the members of these organizations so much.  GG isn’t so sure.

Right now oil and gas companies face considerable emotional opposition to their operations. In the absence of respect for science, they are left with no real tools other than shear magnitude of political money to fight the anger of many communities assigning all their ills to oil and gas operations. Yes, sometimes the science shows those communities are right–but sometimes it shows that things are far more complex (e.g., some examples of natural gas migrating into aquifers are not from new activities but gas rising along old, abandoned wells with poor or degrading casings) and sometimes it finds there isn’t any merit to community claims. Furthermore, scientific understanding of the cause of any impacts can lead to the development of mitigation strategies that can allow resource development while limiting or eliminating harmful impacts.

Understanding and respecting science for what it is offers perhaps the best path forward in accommodating conflicting agendas in many disciplines.  Allowing science to be discredited as a tool in developing government policy might have some short term gains in some situations, but that will be counterbalanced by other situations where emotions run high and motivations will appear suspicious.  Science is, at its heart, simply a rational way to solve problems.

“Petroleum” and “Exploration” are modifiers to “Geologists” and “Geophysicists;” they are not the essence of them. Science is the essence of geology and geophysics.  GG is hoping that, as long as a lot of people are marching for science, that they are joined by the AAPG and SEG.  It’s best for all concerned.