Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Ethics and Fracking

by Stephen Crittenden
Stephen Crittenden

Independent consultant - TEFL and Geoscience

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this paper solemnly engage the author

Picture credit:

As a geologist in the oil and gas exploration industry for over forty years I have had many opportunities to work with unconventional gas and oil targets: coal, organic rich shales and low permeability rocks (Carboniferous to Tertiary) in the Middle East, Far East and Europe. Colleagues and I have published articles in academia and have written many reports for clients including lacustrine source rocks (eg Cole and Crittenden, 1997)

I have compiled a few paragraphs that are pertinent to all of us in the Oil and Gas industry. I have worked in the industry and it has put food on the table for my family and me and provided energy, warmth and clothing and has in general given us a "good life". I have worldwide seen a lot of rocks, a lot of fossils and a lot of oil and gas and in general most people I have lived with and worked with have been caring, responsible and decent human beings both rich and poor. I have witnessed exemplary Corporate Social responsibility ..... But, I have also seen with my own eyes some "bad practices" both deliberate and accidental (avoidable) and some due to ignorance. In the world today Oil and Gas explorers and producers more often than not suffer negative publicity for, in my opinion, three main reasons.

1) The lack of clarity in explaining to the public what it is we actually do, why we do-it, where we do-it and how we do-it and what are the risks to people, infrastructure and the environment. Energy is required by all and energy poverty (and of course energy greed) is the cause of most of the woes suffered by human-kind in this world. Never-the-less our current world since the mid 19th century from a human perspective is driven by oil and gas; not just for energy but for a vast range of products that keeps our global economy and society alive and functioning. In fact we should say "all that we do is for you" ...... with addenda reflecting the attitude of normal business sense "as long as we make money" with "no damage to people, infrastructure and the environment" plus "safe job analyses" and "risk assessments" and as an industry "we mean what we say".

Attempts for clarity in explanations of "fracking" have been made but invariably most suffer from the use of undefined terminology and of "jargon" that is not understood by the general public. A lack of clarity leads the general reader to not just a lack of a full understanding but in many cases to a false understanding; getting it wrong, and often called in colloquial English language as "grasping the wrong end of the stick". In addition the situation is further confused and clouded by some well-meaning celebrities, some self serving politicians (local and national), organisations and journalists all jumping upon controversy bandwagons in order to blow their own ( often misinterpretations and misunderstandings) out-of-tune trumpets.

(For an explanation of the "stick" metaphor please refer to google for the many and varied references and understandings / misunderstandings of the etymology and meaning for the phrase. Thus, my point regarding clarification of terminology has been made!).

This leads to my second point:

2) For most of us ethics and compliance at work is not lip-service ( is that jargon?) and Corporate Social Responsibility is a reality. However, am I being too cynical if I make the observation that "Corporate Ethics and Compliance" is an industry in itself to provide a form of Corporate Protection smokescreen? I have worked for numerous companies and in the last ten years have noticed that their Ethics and Compliance Programmes are almost identical: a product of "cut and paste" from a common provider with little attempt at tailoring to a specific company's specific needs.. An Ethics and Compliance Programme within organisations is commonplace but far too often is regarded as a necessary annual one day (one hour?) diversion from the established norms of the business. Indeed in my experience employees display a corporate mistrust as most are in agreement that an ethical workplace and company is more than just a compliance programme completed "on-line". The highest ethical standards must be the norm throughout the company hierarchy and anything less should not be tolerated.

3) Poor Corporate Communication (coupled perhaps with public perceived corporate greed and lack of corporate ethics) with the general public has generated a lack of respect and a profound cynical distrust by the general public of all actions and statements by the Oil and Gas Industry and some local and national regulatory authorities. In the past (and indeed in the present) the Oil and Gas industry has suffered a poor reputation summarised as; "rape and pillage", environmental destruction, pollution and greed. This infamy (excused initially as a result of corporate ignorance, but nowadays that is no excuse) has with hindsight been well deserved but such infamy has not been the monopoly of the Oil and Gas Industry. Industry (and humanity) as a whole also fully deserves such a poor reputation. This stems from "destructive" practices established in pre-classical and classical times (eg prehistoric forest clearance, mining, quarrying, over-hunting, soil erosion and so-on) in addition to those established throughout subsequent history, the Industrial Revolution and up to the present day (eg poor agricultural practice, over fishing, colonialisation, globalisation, pollution of air, rivers, sea and land, war and ethnic cleansing / genocide), with little thought given to the consequences for humanity and the planet as a whole - nature. Woody Guthrie in his book "Bound for Glory" describes the Boom Towns of the oil field early days in the USA - the pollution, the riches and the poverty - he was one of the boom town rats.

One does not have to hazard a guess why the area in the midlands of the United Kingdom where the Industrial Revolution was born in the early 18th century is called the "Black Country". Equally one only has to consider the current pipeline ethical controversy in the USA (Dakota), the current pollution situation in the oil fields of the Niger Delta onshore, and the massive pollution caused by the Macondo disaster to realise that throughout human history while there has been over time change for the better, bad practice does persist - the common denominator is human greed.

It is no wonder that "fracking" within unconventional oil and gas exploration and "normal" production onshore is causing so much controversy within the general public. Oil and gas exploration and production is not without risk and is admitted but an operation correctly conducted has (and indeed must have) strategies in place that are designed to mitigate any risk to almost zero or to an acceptable (?) level. This simple concept needs to be explained openly and honestly to the general public. It is indeed ironic that most protesters do not fully understand the basic science, technology and engineering used in the Oil and Gas Industry for fracking practices; the subjects of their protest. However, to site a fracking zone beneath a Nuclear Power Station does not make good sense

My very simple explanation (KISS - google it) of what is "unconventional oil and natural gas and fracking" is as follows. (The ethics behind it I will not discuss. These concepts have been gleaned from numerous reports from various legislative authorities).

tight oil and gas: oil and natural gas found in low-permeability rock, including sandstones, siltstones, and carbonates.
shale oil and shale gas: oil and natural gas locked in fine-grained, organic-rich rocks - potential source rocks.
coalbed methane (CBM): natural gas contained in coal seams.
To allow it to move through rock to a well and to be pumped to the surface, hydraulic fracturing is used to crack the rock to create permeability flow paths. The fracturing (“fracking”) is achieved by pumping fluid into a well bore to create enough pressure to crack the rock layer. The pumped fluid usually contains a “proppant,” like sand, that helps keep the fractures open when the pumping pressure is released, to allow oil and gas to be produced to the well. To produce unconventional oil and natural gas, multiple horizontal wells (many drilled from a single pad) and multi-zone fracturing are used. These wells are started by drilling vertically (straight down) and then steering the drill bit so that it drills "horizontally" through the desired formation. The formations being targeted are often hundreds to thousands of metres below ground / seabed level and well below any usable groundwater aquifers and a good distance from natural fracture and fault zones. Horizontal well drilling and reservoir hydraulic fracturing has been used for decades in normal field development (eg Valhall Field offshore Norway - tight chalk), Improvements have made it possible to use these techniques to develop the flow of oil and natural gas out of fine grained low permeability rocks.

The hydraulic fracturing fluids used must be non toxic and the chemical additives and water contents of the fluids and the source and volume used recorded accurately in the daily record of operations for any well. The key is the protection of groundwater and surface water resources. Wells are designed (including a geomechanics and pore pressure study) with a full set of steel casing (total depth to surface) with a full cementing plan for the well bore annulus that will act as a barrier and prevent any hydraulic fracturing fluid regardless of whether or not it contains toxic chemicals, and the produced salt water and oil and gas from entering the penetrated rock formations and mixing with groundwater or surface water . Produced fluids that are returned to surface, such as oil and gas, hydraulic fracturing fluid and salt water from the producing rock formation, are monitored, separated, handled, stored, and disposed of under strict regulations. No fluids, including those that have been treated, should ever be allowed to be released into a natural water body. Unlined storage pits should never be used to store fluids produced from fracturing operations. All fluids that cannot be recycled or reused must be re-injected and stored in rock formations deep underground, far below groundwater sources.

Any vertical fractures that result from hydraulic fracturing are mostly in the range of tens of metres and rarely up to 200 metres. It is therefore extremely unlikely that correctly placed fractures in a correctly placed well bore could impact groundwater. No shallow hydraulic fracturing operations should be allowed, and the the borehole should never be close to any water wells.

Induced seismicity refers to earthquakes (ie seismic events) resulting from human activity. Typically, these earthquake events are low in magnitude and are rarely felt at the surface. Historically, earthquake events have been associated with coal mining, salt mining, oil and gas extraction activities and deep well disposal of waste-water. The evidence is very obvious in the salt mining and coal mining districts of the UK, in Kuwait and in the area above the Groningen Gas Field in the Netherlands, Hydraulic fracturing has been linked as a possible cause of earthquakes in North America.

IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics