A Breath of Air

The natural gas industry has also found ways to reduce the greenhouses gases and volatile organic compounds it contributes to ozone pollution and climate change.

Although natural gas burns cleaner than other fossil fuels, the drilling and production of oil and gas is responsible for some 18 percent of the world’s human-caused emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas that is the main component of natural gas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. More methane is produced in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world except Russia.

Under the guidance of an EPA program, EnCana, the Canadian oil and gas giant, is curbing those methane emissions – and might save money doing it. Using infrared cameras, the company finds and seals methane leaks on wells and pipelines that would otherwise be invisible, sharply curtailing levels of some the most dangerous heat-trapping atmospheric gases. According to Richard Haut, project director for the Houston Advanced Research Center, a partner on the Environmentally Friendly Drilling Project, such programs could pay for themselves within two years, and then turn a profit as the extra gas captured goes to market.

The industry has also found ways to reduce another set of dangerous emissions that has been blamed for air quality problems in Texas, Wyoming, and Colorado, among other places: CO2 from trucks and processing plants and the ozone-causing volatile organic compounds. Last winter, when tests showed that high ozone levels had put sparsely-populated Sublette County, Wyo. out of compliance with federal air quality laws normally applied to the nation’s big cities, the industry took a number of straightforward steps to curb the pollution.

Questar Exploration and Production, a prominent Rocky Mountain drilling company, eliminated 62,000 truck delivery trips and the diesel exhaust that came with them by building a network of pipes to transport its fluids.

EnCana began using natural gas instead of diesel fuel to power its 150-foot-tall drilling rigs, a seemingly small change that resulted in 85 percent less volatile organic compounds being spewed into the air. EnCana also installed other, less polluting new equipment, including refinery-grade combustors.

Doug Hock, a spokesman for EnCana, said the company has spent some $25 million on such efforts since 2005.

“Technology is the key driver in all of this,” Hock said. “It is important for policymakers to first understand the technology being used and secondly, allow operators the flexibility for further innovation to occur. This, rather than blanket mandates, will ensure continued reductions in impacts.”

But the industry’s efforts in Sublette County were triggered by an aggressive push by the federal government.

Before the U.S. Bureau of Land Management allowed more drilling in the Jonah Field, one of the gas development areas on public land in Sublette County, the companies had to agree to reduce their emissions there. Companies understood that if they did not agree to the BLM’s conditions in the Jonah Field they might not get more permits to drill in other parts of Sublette County. “There is kind of a big hammer hanging over their heads,” said Chuck Otto, the BLM field manager there.

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  1. From Mary Sweeney
    December 14, 2009 4:27 pm EST
    While developing so-called “green” fracking fluids may indeed be a help, many problems with shale gas drilling would still remain. For example, no matter what sort of fracking fluid is used, naturally occurring radioactive materials that are normally buried deep beneath the surface of the earth will still be brought to the surface as the fluid returns out of the wellbore.

    Further, even if truck traffic is reduced, the huge number of gas wells, access roads, pipelines (for gas and water), and compressor stations required will leave the landscape forever scarred.

    For those who are not living in a shale area, please understand that they are not talking about putting these wells just in the wide open spaces. In NY state there really are very few “wide open spaces.” NY state law has negated local communities’ ability to zone these gas wells out of residential areas. The setbacks from private wells, waterways, homes, and municipal water wells are very small. In order to get an appreciable amount of gas from the shale, they will need thousands and thousands of gas wells—enough to turn upstate NY and much of PA into a huge gas factory in which the residents will be treated like so much expendable collateral damage.

    Many of us who have lived here for years and years, faithfully paying our mortgages and taxes, feel that we no longer have control of our own property. This is a huge land grab, and it’s not about energy independence, it’s about money. If this country were serious about energy independence, we would have a serious conservation plan in place and we would be seriously working on sustainable, clean energy sources like wind and solar. Instead, our homes and lives are being destroyed in order to produce more fossil fuel energy which will largely be used to run inefficient appliances and heat poorly insulated homes. No one—not even the most optimistic gas drilling advocate—says this gas will last forever. But we are going to spend a tremendous amount of money getting the gas out of the ground and cleaning up the resulting mess. And shale gas will never be cheap: the wells are expensive, the water disposal is expensive, and the wells deplete rapidly, so they will need a huge number of wells to recover an appreciable amount of gas. All of that money could be much better spent developing a clean, sustainable, 21st-century approach to energy production and use.

  2. From EnvtMemo
    December 15, 2009 1:56 pm EST
    I’ve commented at EnvironmentMemo on this article. While there’s a lot of good information in the article, there’s a lot of industry PR that needs challenging, as well. Diesel fuel was taken out of the mix because of severe problems it caused, and it was not exempted from regulation in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, so they basically had to stop using it. That they used it to begin with does not augur well.

    They are spinning some things they would be doing anyway, in an attempt to avoid having to do what they really have to do: commit to using only benign compounds for fracking.