Are you Annoyed and Alarmed by Fracking?

 

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I have worked in the environment industry on both sides of the fence (Government and private) for more than 30 years.   I have seen topical issues come and go but the fracas that surrounds fracking stuns and alarms me more than most because it seems that unlocking a potentially  low cost environmentally friendly energy resource should be something that we all embrace.

I have done almost no work for the oil and gas industry and consider myself far from an expert in the area but because I work in the area of environmental management my friends often ask “What do I think of fracking?”.

My initial response was always – “Look I don’t know much about it but I would be highly doubtful that is as bad as it is portrayed in the media simply because it is so widely practiced without being stopped from by the regulators”.

My experience (having been a regulator for more than 15 years) is that regulators are a conservative bunch and if an industry or process is bad and likely to lead to pollution and complaints they would generally not approve proposals based on that technique or industry.  This view was based on that personal experience and little research.

More recently, I was commissioned to do a tiny piece of work for the conventional gas industry in the mid-west of Western Australia, which meant that I had to do some research to satisfy myself that the company I was to work for and the projects they were implementing were sound.  Following this research, I have formed a much stronger view in regard to fracking and its potential for impacts on the environment.

My view, having done that research, is that the widespread opposition to fracking is based largely on misunderstanding and, in many cases, misrepresentation (by films such as “Gasland”).  I can see little or no evidence that fracking is contributing to poor environmental outcomes – provided basic safeguards are adopted. (Please note there is significant evidence in a Google search that suggest this is not the case but a modicum of additional investigation shows that most (if not all) of the articles relate to poorly managed conventional oil or gas wells and have nothing to do with fracking).

The published literature shows little or no evidence that fracking – per se has contributed to any significant adverse environmental outcome.  It is a technique that has been long used by the oil and gas industry to develop gas reservoirs both on-shore and off-shore but the literature does not suggest that fracking has contributed to poor environmental outcomes.

One may well ask why this has been the case and the answer lies in the geology of most oil and gas reservoirs.  They are generally by nature located deep beneath the earth’s surface and confined beneath many highly impermeable layers of rock and soil that have contained the gas an oil for millennia and exclude overlying groundwater aquifers.  This means there is an essential disconnect between most oil and gas reservoirs and the groundwater aquifers that we humans access for drinking and other uses such agriculture.

Fracking involves the pressurizing of the rocks and soils containing the gas or oil using high pressure water so that it fractures, becomes more permeable and can yield more product.   The water used for fracking typically also contains a range of chemical additives including impermeable silica particles to prop the micro-cracks in the rocks open once they are created, some acids that dissolve minerals, bactericides and chemicals that alter the properties of the fracking fluid to optimize performance.  The vast majority of the fracking fluid is recovered once the fracturing process is complete.

So what are the risks? – A very reasonable question.

I think the answer is pretty clearly really – minimal where the reservoir being targeted is several kilometres below the surface of the ground.  In such circumstances there will be multiple confining impermeable layers between the fracked rock zone in the gas reservoir and any overlying aquifer that is likely to be tapped for human use.  These layers will prevent the escape of fracking fluid or gas or oil from the reservoir.

Clearly, the risks associated with accessing shallow coal seam gas deposits (say in the upper 100-200 metres of the soil profile) are different given the proximity of this resource to groundwater aquifers used for agriculture or potable consumption.  This is not say gas/oil extraction in these areas cannot be achieved safely but clearly the risk is greater and the level of design and management control to ensure no adverse environmental impact is concomitantly greater.

Coal seam gas extraction will be the subject of a further post in this blog.

If you require additional assistance or information on this issue, please don’t hesitate to contact me:

Noel Davies – Principal/Director, Aurora Environmental

0408 999 056 or

noel.davies@auroraenvironmental.com.au

http://www.auroraenvironmental.com.au

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WA’s New Environmental Standards – Why any Industry operating in WA should Take Note

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Firstly let me start with the good.

The Department of Environmental Regulation (DER) in WA is fast tracking the development of  an extensive series of environmental policies, guidelines and Standards.  This is a welcome and long overdue development as the articulation of environmental policy has languished in WA for many years.  The lack of written policy and training for DER (I use this term to embrace DER and its many predecessors)  staff has greatly hampered the successful implementation of the regional service delivery model commenced during Bryan Jenkin’s tenure as CEO in the late 1990’s and being continued by the current administration.

Now my concerns.

New environmental policy documents are being produced at a rapid rate by a new directorate (Strategic Policy and Programs).  This group is producing multiple documents simultaneously and taking them through the development, consultation and review stage in a matter of months with implementation following immediately on the heels of a limited consultation program.  It is apparent that there is not a lot of consultation occurring between those in the department developing the policies and those who will be implementing them in real world situation in the Licensing and Approvals and Compliance and Enforcement directorates. It would also appear that those developing the standards and policies are not experienced practitioners but rather are scanning publications around Australia and the world looking for examples of environmental best practice and then suggesting its adoption with little thought for the consequences for those who will need to comply with or implement the policies within WA.

The consultation model to date has very much followed the much criticised development model of ”design and defend” rather than being truly consultative and talking to the industries who will be affected by the policies during the policy development phase.  The result has been a reluctance to act on comments when they are received and some defensive responses by DER staff when the policies are criticised in consultation meetings.

The approach to implementing the new standards is to pick them up as requirements to be met when considering new approvals or renewals of existing approvals.  This is an effective and powerful  approach as it gives non statutory policy documents and standards the same power as legal instruments such as statutory regulations   and Environmental Protection Policies while retaining the flexibility to amend the policies and standards quickly when required or to be more selective in the way that they are applied.  In view of this powerful approach to implementation, it is essential that the standards and policies are practical and pragmatic in nature.  If this is not the case, regulators and proponents will soon find it extremely difficult to successfully negotiate approvals.

The Composting Standard currently in consultation is an example of the sort of difficulties that will occur unless a more practical approach is adopted by DER.  The design, siting and management standards specified in this document are collectively so stringent that it is doubtful that any existing windrow composting  could comply and very few new proposals will be commercially viable.

Another issue that compounds the difficulties resulting from the approach taken in the new policies and standards is the more punitive and less flexible  enforcement approach that is being adopted by the DER.  Recent interaction with the regulatory groups in the Department indicates a move to rigid application of the new standards  and guidelines with little room to argue for flexibility.

It is to be hoped that overall a more practical and pragmatic approach is adopted so that the State can benefit from the improved policy framework.  If it is not both existing licensees and those looking at new proposals will to carefully examine implications of the new policy framework.