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Natural Gas Industry Slow to Adopt Safer Drilling Methods

Dec 17, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

The natural gas drilling industry has been slow to adopt methods that would make it environmentally safer to use hydraulic fracturing to extract gas from shale.

Shale gas drilling involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. This opens existing fractures in the rock and allows gas to rise through the wells. The practice makes drilling possible in areas that 10 to 20 years ago would not have been profitable. But the use of toxic chemicals, and the disposal of waste water produced by the hydraulic fracturing process, pose serious environmental hazards.

According to a recent ProPublica article, energy companies have figured out how to drill wells with fewer toxic chemicals, and enclose wastewater so it can't contaminate streams and groundwater.  The use of "green" chemicals - such as mineral oil - could go a long way to improve the safety of the hydraulic fracturing process.  Yet while a few drillers have made such a switch,  these safer methods are not used very much in the 32 states where shale gas drilling is currently taking place. In addition, it is still too difficult to gauge how safe any given company's drilling fluid is.  According to ProPublica, most companies still keep the exact makeup of their fluids a secret from state and federal regulators.  There are also no laws that dictate what chemicals can be used for drilling on U.S. soil.  

Disposing of the wastewater from hydraulic drilling is another environmental problem that could be addressed with the adoption of safer methods.  According to ProPublica, for the most part, waste is now collected in open, dirt-brimmed waste pits where it sits until it's hauled off to treatment facilities or injection wells.  While it awaits removal, the toxic water can seep into the ground, or even overflow the pit when there has been heavy rain or snow.

According to ProPublica, this hazard can be eliminated through the use of a closed loop system, a series of pipes that gathers the waste as it comes out of a gas well, separates some of the water for reuse, and confines the concentrated leftovers in a steel tank.    Yet in spite of the clear advantages of a closed loop system, ProPublica says the drilling industry continues to aggressively fight efforts by states to enact regulations that would encourage their use.


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