As companies at the forefront of the UK's shale gas industry plan a substantial expansion in the number of drilling sites, a research report from NEL and the UK’s National Measurement System warns that there are many hurdles to overcome if Europe is to replicate the USA’s successful exploitation of unconventional gas (shale gas and coalbed methane).
The report calls for purposely developed European regulations to control the environmental impact of waste water, a by-product of hydraulic fracturing and production. This by-product can contain significant levels of contaminants and is one of the biggest challenges for the industry. The total volume of water required to fracture a typical well can be up to 20,000m3, which may result in up to 600 truckloads of water having to be transported to a well pad. Up to 40 per cent of this water will be returned as flowback water.
NEL warns that shale gas waste water management is complex; it cannot simply be discharged into watercourses. Also, unless effectively managed, water withdrawal in certain areas may depress aquifers and affect ground water flows.
Europe can learn vital lessons from the US shale gas experience, which is regulated by a complex set of laws. In 2011 the US Environmental Protection Agency stated that1: “Currently, wastewaters associated with shale gas extraction are prohibited from being discharged to waterways….treatment plants may not be equipped to treat this type of wastewater, resulting in the discharge of pollutants….where they can impact drinking water or aquatic life.”
NEL also highlights that if Europe is to benefit from the potential economic and ‘alternative energy’ benefits of shale gas, waste water transportation must be done economically and sustainably as the emissions from transport could undermine it being considered a greener source of energy.
Dr. Ming Yang, Environmental Consultancy Services Manager at NEL, said: “There is definitely an appetite from European operators and stakeholders to be involved at the dawn of this new energy sector. However, companies with interests in the exploration of shale gas must consider the environmental implications and proper water management remains one of the biggest challenges which they must plan for and tackle. The regulatory framework in Europe related to water and waste water treatment & disposal was established without shale gas Exploration and Production in mind. There is now an onus on European regulators to have clear rules specifically in place by which operators must abide.”
Shale gas represents significant potential for Europe, bringing many benefits to economies and domestic energy supplies. In the US, shale gas production has increased 12-fold over the last ten years and currently accounts to 25 per cent of total US gas production. The USA is expected to overtake Russia as the world’s largest gas producer within the next two years. Since 2004 the UK has been a net importer of gas as North Sea production steadily declines.
1 EPA Initiates Rulemaking to Set Discharge Standards for Wastewater from Shale Gas Extraction http://water.epa.gov/scitech/wastetech/guide/upload/shalereporterfactsheet.pdf