Do scientists get variable pay? New studies on oil and gas safety issues tumbled out this week as if their authors were scrambling to trigger their year-end performance bonuses.
But seriously, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that linked fracture stimulation by EnCana Corp. in Wyoming to contamination in the area’s groundwater is a blow to the burgeoning shale gas industry. It’s the first time a credible scientific body has made the link. Until now opposition has been based on vague correlations, anecdotal evidence and hunches on the part of people opposed to the pressurized cracking of underground rock formations.
Never mind the caveats that would limit the implications—for example, that the EPA studied shallow, vertical wells unlike those most commonly used for shale gas extraction. This horse has left the barn. EnCana and the rest of the industry can appeal the EPA’s findings, but that shouldn’t be the public thrust of their response. The public has a lot more trust in the EPA than in them. They should instead re-examine their practices that might have led to traces of, for example, diesel turning up in the Wyoming groundwater and come up with standards that would make leaks along the well bore impossible before less appropriate and more costly rules are thrust upon them at a time when natural gas prices are hitting 10-year lows.
I expect this debate will shift now from whether fracking is harmful to the environment to a cost-benefit analysis. Frankly, most industries, indeed most human activities, are harmful to the environment, so the question for the public is what are we willing to condone for our own comfort and well being.
By contrast, two studies of EnCana spinoff Cenovus Energy’s carbon capture and storage project in Weyburn, Sask., debunked claims by the owners of a nearby farm that carbon dioxide pumped into depleted oil reservoirs was escaping. One was commissioned by Cenovus but the other came from the independent IPAC-CO2 research group at the University of Regina.
Meanwhile, a group of 20 scientists studying the Otway Project in Australia since 2008 confirmed Dec. 14 that the CO2 there was behaving as it was expected to and the practice is indeed an effective way to keep greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere for thousands and perhaps millions of years. CCS is not the bonanza for energy producers that fracking may be—indeed, it adds about a third to the costs of a power plant in the best-case scenarios—but it’s one way the hydrocarbon-based energy industry can keep its social licence to continue operating in a carbon-constrained future.