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Shell doing its best to make fracking safe, water friendly

October 5 2011 at 05:00am

By Jan Willem Eggink, General Manager Upstream Operations, Shell South Africa

Some of you may have seen this image on television or the internet. A man reaches across and turns on his kitchen tap. He takes a lighter and applies it to the stream of water, it bursts into flame. The flame is attributed to the presence of methane gas.

It is a powerful image. But it is important to be clear about the source of the gas. While critics suggest natural gas drilling as the cause, there is considerable evidence that dissolved methane can occur naturally in ground water. Indeed, according to the Department of Water Affairs, methane gas has been found in shallow water wells in the Karoo.

Confusion and misinformation about connection between natural gas drilling and water supplies feeds into public concern about the safety and environmental impact of shale gas production, and contributes to worries about the exploration for natural gas in the Karoo. The public is right to demand high standards.

For the industry, there are two clear tasks at hand: first, we must continue to maintain the very highest operational standards. At Shell, our efforts are underlined by a set of global onshore shale gas operating principles that provide a framework for protecting water, air, wildlife and the needs of local communities.

We support regulation that is designed to reduce risks to the environment and keep those living near our operations safe.

Second, we need to dispel the significant misconceptions about shale gas production. I would like to address the main misconceptions about shale gas, underlined by the fact that shale gas under the Karoo may help South Africa to develop a secure and sustainable energy supply.

We understand that people have concerns about the issues and allegations raised by opponents of shale gas extraction, and we feel it is important to address these. The allegations have many factual discrepancies and do not reflect Shell’s operations.

One major misconception is that hydraulic fracturing poses a significant risk to fresh water aquifers. A very recent report of the US Energy Department that has been looking at potential health and environmental implications of hydraulic fracturing confirmed that when a well was designed and constructed correctly, ground water would not be contaminated. We think we need well-targeted and strictly implemented regulation to preserve public confidence that the shale gas revolution really is a force for good.

We believe that protecting fresh water aquifers is not difficult: the natural gas in some cases lies thousands of metres below aquifers. So it is virtually impossible for liquid or indeed gas, to reach drinking water.

Nevertheless, we follow strict standards to ensure that wells are constructed correctly. We line our wells with multiple steel and concrete barriers to prevent gas or liquid from leaking out of the well itself.

I should highlight that fracking has been successfully performed more than a million times in the US alone over the past 60 years in vertical wells and more than 20 years in horizontal wells. We do not hydraulically fracture wells unless we have pressure tested the well bore for integrity.

Another criticism relates to water consumption and use. According to various studies, including one by the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US, the water intensity of shale gas ranks among the lowest of all energy sources. We recognise that in an arid area like the Karoo, even limited water use may be a concern. Again, sound operational practices can address these concerns. Shell strives to avoid competing with local water needs. We will not operate wells where isolation of our completion and production activities from potable ground water cannot be achieved. And wherever possible, we use non-potable water, including the recycling and reusing of water from our operations. Nobody will go short of fresh water because of our operations; either in the exploration phase, or if there is any further development. This is a legally binding commitment.

One example of how we work with communities to find the best solutions for the water use is in China’s Shanxi province. Here we are developing the Changbei field, we funded the construction of 240 underground water-storage tanks and 12 water-pumping stations, providing about 3 000 people better access to drinking water.

A third debate results partly from a paper by Cornell University, which stoked fears that greenhouse emissions from shale gas far exceeded not only those from conventional gas, but even those from coal.

While we agree emissions from all energy sources need to be better understood, the quickest and cheapest way to reduce emissions is to switch power generation from coal to gas.

The assumptions made in the Cornell paper stand in stark contrast to the International Energy Agency (IEA) analysis, which found that, on a well to burner basis, emissions from shale gas exceed those of conventional gas by as little as 3.5 percent in the best case scenario and by 12 percent in the worst. Rigorous operations management helps to get to the lower number. The IEA stated: “…total emissions from (shale gas) production are only slightly higher than for conventional gas: and both the water and climate impacts can be mitigated using existing techniques”.

A conclusion recently backed up by a research paper from Carnegie Mellon. In any event, shale gas-fired power still emits only about half the CO2 of coal-fired power, which was confirmed in the US National Energy Technology Laboratory study comparing newest gas and coal technology.

Some people disagree about how South Africa should meet its energy needs in the future. We want to promote debate and have a solid discussion based on facts and not on misconceptions.

At Shell we believe onshore exploration and production can and must occur in an environmentally responsible manner. Anything less is unacceptable. I know that this won’t convince everybody.

And we can never have all the answers, but our exploration activities will provide a large amount of answers to the question, whether the gas is there and can be produced commercially. We’re determined to be transparent and open about our proposals, and to address all concerns.

Eggink is the upstream general manager for Shell in South Africa.

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