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Utah and fracking

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Utah's 10-year Strategic Energy Plan, unveiled in 2011 by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, calls for tapping the state's oil sands and oil shale reserves while continuing to develop fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. The plan also calls for putting together an energy-efficiency plan, but concludes that wind and solar power are not likely to have "a major impact" on the state's energy portfolio over the coming decade.[1]

Introduction

Over the past decade hydraulic fracturing has increased in Utah’s Uinta Basin. Natural gas production in the area has steadily increased and reached an all-time high of 226 billion cubic feet (BCF) in 2006.[2] 2011 Utah natural gas rates were the lowest in the continental United States at $8.98 per thousand cubic feet.[3]

History

Environmental impacts

Methane leakage

In September 2012 researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado in Boulder reported preliminary results from a field study in the Uinta Basin of Utah suggesting methane leakage of up to 9% of total gas production, nearly double the cumulative loss rates estimated from industry data. The NOAA researchers collected their data in February 2012 as part of a broader analysis of air pollution in the Uinta Basin, using ground-based equipment and an aircraft to make detailed measurements of various pollutants, including methane concentrations.[4]

The research was published in 2013, and reported a methane leakage rate of 6.2 to 11.7% in the Basin.[5] The report vastly overshot the EPA’s estimate of .88 percent.[6]

Wastewater ponds

In 2007 14 fracking wastewater ponds were built by Danish Flats Environmental Services, in Clark County, near the Colorado border. The ponds are filled with oil and gas wastewater from fracking operations taking place in Colorado. Since that time the company has allowed the wastewater to evaporate into the air without acquiring an air quality permit. However, regulators have found that the company, by allowing the water to simply evaporate, was releasing methanol and other volatile organic compounds directly into the air. As a result the company was fined $50,0000 in early August, 2014. State regulators are now looking at dozens of other waste water sites around the state. Currently Utah does not require for groundwater monitoring by companies operating wastewater facilities.[7]

Ozone pollution

In 2010 and 2011, ozone levels in Utah's Uintah Basin soared. The peak value in 2011 was 139 parts per billion, according to Utah officials - 85 percent higher than the federal health standard of 75 ppb, and above the 99 ppb peak for 2011 in the bustling New York metropolitan area.

In response, the oil and gas industry made more than $100 million in investments to curb emissions and set up a system to cut activity on days when ozone is likely to form. Even with the reductions and investments, in March 2011, there was a 124 ppb ozone reading.

In winter 2012, NOAA and University of Colorado at Boulder researchers began fanning out across the Uintah Basin to determine the link between the area's 10,000 oil and gas wells and high levels of winter ozone.[8]

The multi-agency study found that 98 to 99 percent of the volatile organic compounds and 57 to 61 percent of the nitrogen oxides in the region came from oil and gas operations.[9]

In February 2013 a government study reported that Utah's oil and gas industry operations were the primary source of wintertime ozone-producing pollution in northeastern Utah.[10]

Environmental Working Group study

In January 2010 a report released by the environmental watchdog Environmental Working Group highlighted problems posed to drinking-water supplies by fracking, including contamination by cancer-causing chemicals. The report, titled "Drilling Around the Law," details a study that tracked six months' worth of chemical-disclosure records filed by several of the largest drilling corporations and includes information provided by some state and federal regulators, who concede they do not track fluids used in the process.[11]

Studies

University of Texas study

A study released in February 2012 by the Energy Institute of the University of Texas at Austin ("Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development") was reported by various media as determining that many reports of contamination are actually the result of above-ground spills or other mishandling of wastewater from shale-gas drilling, rather than the fracking process itself, and that many problems ascribed to fracking actually have other causes, such as "casing failures or poor cement jobs" (which was regarded as part of the drilling rather than the actual "well simulation," fracking process).[12]

Critics say that proponents of hydraulic fracturing have erroneously reported in the press and other media that the University of Texas Study found that hydraulic fracturing caused no environmental contamination,[13][14] when the study found that all steps in the process except the actual injection of the fluid (which proponents artificially separated from the rest of the process and designated "hydraulic fracturing") have resulted in environmental contamination.[15] The radioactivity of the injected fluid itself was not assessed in the University of Texas study.[15]

Statoil announced a $5m research agreement (part of which will focus on oil shale) with UT's Bureau of Economic Geology in September 2011, whose program director, Ian Duncan, was the senior contributor for the parts of the Texas study having to do with the environmental impacts of shale gas development.[16][15][17]

Proposed projects

On March 16, 2012, the Obama administration authorized the Gasco development project: nearly 1,300 new natural gas wells, including more than 200 new wells in the Desolation Canyon proposed wilderness and gateway areas in Utah. The Department of the Interior also rejected calls by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and tens of thousands of citizens to approve an alternative to Gasco’s proposal, which would have allowed for drilling while protecting the department’s plan to designate Desolation Canyon as wilderness and reduced the overall footprint and impact of the project. According to EcoWatch, the Desolation Canyon region is a $4 billion industry that generates approximately $300 million annually in state tax revenue and supports 65,000 jobs. Gasco is a Colorado-based natural gas company.[18]

In December 2013 it was reported that Denver energy developer James K. Munn was interested in leasing land for natural gas exploration in Escalante, Utah, a small town with a population of 800. Escalante is located "at the heart" (but not within the actual borders) of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Residents of the town were approached by employees of Front Runner Seismic, a Pennsylvania company that said they were representing Munn and seeking to lease their private property.[19]

Citizen activism

Legislative issues and regulations

Citizen groups

Industry groups

Resources

References

  1. Scott Streater,"Utah governor to push development across the West as WGA chairman," EnergyWire, June 14, 2012.
  2. "Drilling Boom Tied to Spike in Utah Air Pollution" Water Contamination From Shale, accessed February 29, 2012.
  3. "Utah natural gas rates lowest in U.S." Jasen Lee, Deseret News, November 10, 2011.
  4. Jeff Tollefson, "Methane leaks erode green credentials of natural gas," Nature 493, 12, January 2, 2013.
  5. Anna Karion et al., "Methane emissions estimate from airborne measurements over a western United States natural gas field," Geophysical Research Letters, 2013.
  6. "Huge amounts of methane are leaking from a Utah gas field" Lindsay Abrams, Salon, August 7, 2013.
  7. "Utah fracking fine highlights wastewater pond threat" Peter Moskowitz, AlJazerra, August 31, 2014.
  8. Mark Jaffe, "Like Wyoming, Utah finds high wintertime ozone pollution near oil, gas wells," The Denver Post, February 26, 2012.
  9. "2012 Uinta Basin Winter Ozone and Air Quality Study," Utah Department of Environmental Quality; EPA; the Bureau of Land Management; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Utah State University; the University of California; the University of Colorado, Boulder; and the Western Energy Alliance, Feb 1, 2013.
  10. "UTAH: Drilling is primary cause of ozone pollution" Energy Wire, Kriz Hobson, February 20, 2013.
  11. "'Fracking' pollutes our drinking water, study says" Amy Joi O'Donoghue, Deseret News, January 20, 2012.
  12. "UT study finds no direct link between fracking and groundwater contamination" Jack Z. Smith, Star-Telegram, February 16, 2012.
  13. Vaughan, Vicki (16 February 2012). Fracturing ‘has no direct’ link to water pollution, UT study finds. Retrieved on 3 March 2012.
  14. Munro, Margaret (17 February 2012). Fracking does not contaminate groundwater: study released in Vancouver. Retrieved on 3 March 2012.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development. Retrieved on 29 February 2012.
  16. Scott, Mark (17 October 2011). Norway’s Statoil to Acquire Brigham Exploration for $4.4 Billion. Dealb%k. New York Times. Retrieved on 4 March 2012.
  17. Barry Harrell (19 September 2011). "Norway-based energy company, UT agree on $5 million research program". Retrieved on 5 March 2012. 
  18. Stefanie Penn Spear, "Obama Administration Greenlights Disastrous Gas Development Project in Pristine Wilderness," EcoWatch, March 16, 2012.
  19. "Fracking in Utah’s Escalante canyons?" Jana Richman, High Country News, December 4, 2013.

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