Speakers talk about fracturing

06 22, 2012 by The Advocate

Oil and gas companies need to do a better job of explaining the scientific evidence that shows hydraulic fracturing doesn’t contaminate drinking water or cause earthquakes, according to speakers at Thursday’s sessions of the LSU Center for Energy Studies Gulf States Energy Retreat.

Mike Brownell, director of regulatory affairs for Chesapeake Energy Corp., said part of the problem is that there are so many federal agencies — the Department of Energy, the Bureau of Land Management, the Environmental Protection Agency — taking their own individual look at the process in which water, chemicals and sand are forced into a formation to crack rock and release oil or natural gas.

The same thing is going on in states, he said.

“That iterative process is not bad for industry. It’s not bad for the environment and, quite frankly, it’s not bad for any of us that want to live and fish and do all these great things we want to do in the outdoors,” Brownell said. “But the rhetoric about it is what’s bad.”

At some point, the industry and the country need to get to the real facts, he said.

The huge supplies of natural gas have created an enormously polarized set of circumstances that pit alternative energy supporters against their former ally, natural gas producers, Brownell said. The alternative energy folks were first perplexed by this development, which pushed alternative energy solutions far into the future, and then very angry, he said.

Charles “Chip” Groat, who led a University of Texas-funded study on the impact of fracking, said the report looked at regulatory agency records of violations and also the limited amount of academic papers on the technique in three different formations: the Haynesville, Barnett and Marcellus shales.

The report found no direct evidence that fracking contaminated ground water, said Groat, who is now president and chief executive officer of The Water Institute of the Gulf, a Baton Rouge not-for-profit.

The study also showed that some of the claims about shale gas development may have been overstated or weren’t based on good science, Groat said.

Most of the attention has been focused on the horizontal section of the well, where the fracturing takes place, Groat said. But the vertical section of the wellbore is where as many things, or more, could happen, and most of the violations in shale wells resulted from poor cementing of the wellbore or badly installed casing, the steel pipes.

People were also very concerned about the small amount of chemicals added to the water used in fracking, Groat said.

“The fact is there’s probably more nasty stuff in the formations that are being fractured, in terms of natural contaminants, if you want to call them contaminants,” Groat said.

Cortlan Maddux, a partner in the Jones Walker law firm, sponsor of the Energy Retreat, said the firm is seeing two types of legal disputes.

The owners of mineral rights want to get their old leases tossed so they can cash in through new deals, and property owners who don’t own the mineral rights that want to cash in by suing over problems with groundwater, Maddux said.

The disputes come down, in a way, to public relations, Maddux said. Energy companies have to educate the public.

Nicole Duarte, another partner at Jones Walker, said the challenge for energy companies and their defense attorneys is putting together a story that the average person or jury member can understand.

“We deal with a situation where we have a lawsuit filed, and the lawsuit says, ‘Here’s my well. I have these samples. I think it’s your company. This is the stuff that they found in my well. I don’t think I had this stuff or I didn’t have this stuff before you started fracking around me, before you had surface activities near my property so ... pay me $400 million,’” Duarte said.

Duarte said there are a number of tools, such as chemical analyses and isotope measurements that can determine the source of methane, but that complicated process requires a simple explanation.