Fracking and Where the Oil Industry Got It Wrong

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Experts have known for years that natural gas and oil deposits existed in deep shale formations but, until recently, the vast quantities of natural gas and oil in these formations were not thought to be recoverable.

Today, through the use of hydraulic fracturing, combined with sophisticated horizontal drilling, extraordinary amounts of deep shale natural gas and oil are being safely produced, especially in the Western hemisphere – U.S.A., Canada and Latin America.

Hydraulic fracturing has been used by the natural gas and oil industry since the 1940s and has become a key element of natural gas development worldwide.

In fact, regardless of whether they are vertical or horizontal wells, this process is used in nearly all natural gas and oil wells drilled in the world today. Properly conducted modern hydraulic fracturing is a safe, sophisticated, highly engineered and controlled procedure.

In the UK, however, the consensus seems to be that shale gas will not be a ‘game changer’ as it is in the US. There is, for example, less land available to drill on and landowners do not own the rights to hydrocarbons exploitation beneath their land.

Given the latest developments in the British Government’s energy strategy with respect to shale gas, when referring to “onshore chemicals pumping”, at a high pressure, whilst aiming to get the rock formations to “open” and release the gas, it’s not surprising that the hydraulic fracturing activities are causing so much public disturbance, unrest and outright riots.

It would be difficult to imagine, in the United Kingdom of 2019, an industrial process which could cause so much public concern as “fracking”.

For the industry as whole, for those operators aiming to exploit the shale gas resources, the social engagement component battle has been lost before it had begun. Whether this is just the first battle of a longer war, it remains to be seen and decided at a later date by the parties and drivers involved in this lengthy, controversial, inaccurate and passion fuelled battle:

  • Oil operators
  • UK Government
  • Local communities
  • Local, national and social media outlets
  • Third-party influences (personal, political and group agendas)
  • Energy resources availability and cost-efficiency
  • Economic viability of the proven resources
  • Environmental and geological data

In a report issued by Watson Helby, it has been argued that “the energy firms see public relations in terms of the share price, not in the wider context of ensuring that the society gives them a license to operate”.

The wider oil & gas industry is primarily driven by scientists – geologists, engineers, drillers and experts in their own right who are very comfortable analysing and reporting on fixed assets. There are stand-alone departments in almost every major oil & gas operator across the world, departments simply entitled – with a slight variation – “Asset Management”.

But their reputation, the way they interact with the local communities, the way they process the social information, report and act on it, are not tangible; they are “intangible”. Unsurprisingly, there are no departments called “Intangible Assets”.

Local environmental impacts, as produced by hydraulic fracturing activities, can give rise to issues related to the public’s acceptance thereof. With respect to a genuine stakeholder engagement, a reactive and delayed approach does not serve the oil industry – on the contrary.

On one side, emotional comments are made by individuals with little or no accurate information but, on the other side, a very small group of drilling contractors are following unsafe practices, fracking too high and too close to aquifers and not lining their wells well enough.

What the oil industry should strive to ensure is a continuous education process and support of the local communities with regard to their acceptance and/or understanding of the terminology used, the processes entailed by the fracturing activities and the potential impact any of the stages could have upon their livelihood.

Contrary to a conventional well, which is cased to specifically prevent the drilling and operational fluids to interact with the strata and possibly contaminate the aquifer, in hydraulic fracturing the fluid under pressure is pushed outside the cased well into the adjacent strata and, revealing the real problem of hydraulic fracturing – the potential interaction of the fracturing fluid – which is a mixture of water and various chemicals, including acids – with the adjacent aquifer.

Industry experts who wished to maintain their anonymity for the purposes of this article, have stated that:

The “specific tools we have at this very moment to model the flow of gas and liquid in the strata are not very precise and the water contamination can and did occur. There is no effort to model the aquifer itself … displaced gas can also enter the aquifer, like it is the case in several US sites. The problem is that if this happens near urban agglomerations – or isolated farms – this may cause big problems”.

Industry expert

If the last statement above is to be summarized, it could be easily inferred that the unbiased technical answer to the question of whether hydraulic fracturing is dangerous for the public at large or not is it depends.

Based on the international studies that have been recently performed, a genuine institutional change may take a generation or more. Using network sociotechnical methods, changes in culture and climate can be instituted more quickly with all stakeholders being aware and actively involved.

Realistically, no suggestion to change the oil and gas industry’s approach to local communities’ engagement will happen overnight. Empirical and anecdotal evidence show that such changes require years of effort and, generally, a restructure of the current corporate procedures, Integrated Management Systems and Business Management Systems.

the companies in the oil and gas sector most definitely have a commitment to:

  • Continually inform the local communities
  • Improve the way their communication is delivered to communities,
  • Listen to, understand and address the communities’ concerns;
  • Ensure the enhancement of the social, economic and environmental situations in the regions where they run projects.

Every operation taking place in the oil and gas industry nowadays has a recording of every action taken every 10 seconds.

Relevant documentaries can be made from the data gathered, thus securing a visual and accurate representation of what is happening during the fracturing process and, simultaneously, based on the information gathered during the normal operating conditions, one can carry out logging operations every year to show variations in subsurface conditions.

A report issued several years ago by the US Department of Energy acknowledges that most experts believe that there is relatively little risk associated with the fracturing process, in terms of its serving as a pathway for the contamination of underground sources of drinking water. 

Of a greater concern, as mentioned in the same report, is the possibility for the well construction failures to allow the contamination of drinking water aquifers.

The oil and gas industry should be willing to take into account the voices and opinions that exist in society and find a way to incorporate them into responsible/sustainable development.

Resources extraction/exploitation all over the represents an industry that is under increased scrutiny whether it be deep-water, oil sands, Alaska’s North Slope or Niger Delta.

As the recent UK events have clearly indicated, the social “approval” trumps the regulatory one – as such, the technical experts may need to get much more involved in the facilitation of technical solutions. Perhaps the time has come for the industry (and governments) to begin addressing the co-creative consultation process as a way to get public support and to mine the innovation potential that lies hidden in a concerned public.

Media’s input could be a way into mining the knowledge that exists. The industry saying: “we’ve been using this technology for years” is probably not going to come across as being progressive, collaborative or solution oriented. If people are concerned about groundwater quality, they need to be reassured, explained, listened to and involved.

The line of thought whereby “if only we could educate them, then it will all be ok” is unlikely to survive in a real world scenario. That said, the time has come for industry (and governments) to begin looking at co-creation as a way to get public support and to mine the innovation potential that lies hidden in a concerned public.

Image by Anita starzycka from Pixabay

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