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Hydraulic Fracturing and Environmental Issues: A Third Perspective

Review of Environmental Considerations Associated with Hydraulic Fracturing Operations: Adjusting to the Shale Revolution in a Green World, by James A. Jacobs and Stephen M. Testa Wiley, New York, 2019.
This article appeared in Vol. 17, No. 3 - 2020

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Hydraulic Fracturing and Environmental Issues

Environmental Considerations Associated with Hydraulic Fracturing Operations: Adjusting to the Shale Revolution in a Green World, by James A. Jacobs and Stephen M. Testa Wiley, New York, 2019. The shale revolution in the USA over the past decade has been phenomenal, but it has not been without its environmental issues and debates. Environmental activists have pushed for banning hydraulic fracturing altogether; the oil and gas industry has been all for it, no matter what. A third position – that of independent scientists and engineers – is obviously required in this debate.

In this third perspective environmental issues associated with hydraulic fracturing are scientifically, thoroughly, and honestly investigated and reported. Most of the literature and reporting on the shale revolution has focused either on environmentalist viewpoints or on the reservoir engineering and geomechanics of shale plays and fracking. This new book is a welcome addition to the literature and debate. With a large format – 576 pages, 15 chapters, 12 appendices, 222 figures and 163 tables – it is a monumental work on the subject. At the end of each chapter there are also references and suggestions for further reading.

A Systematic Approach

After an introductory chapter, the book opens with an informative history of hydraulic fracturing. Leaving aside ‘shooting wells’ with nitroglycerine in the 1860s, the first fracking was done in 1946 by Riley Farris and Bob Fast (of Standard Oil in Tulsa) in the Hugoton limestone gas field in Kansas. Interestingly, Riley ‘Floyd’ Farris applied for a fracking permit in 1998 – the same year Mitchell Energy in Texas achieved gas production from the Barnett Shale using slickwater fracking. Chapter 3 reviews the geology of the US shale plays, followed in Chapter 4 by an overview of prospect evaluation, drilling, and fracking (stimulation) techniques for tight (shale) oil and gas formations. The remaining chapters constitute the meat of the book. 

A systematic approach has been adopted here. The entire shale petroleum development process is divided into eight phases: prospect generation, planning, drilling, completion and stimulation, fluid recovery and waste management, oil and gas production, and well decommissioning and site restoration. Chapter 5 gives an overview of the environmental impacts in each of these phases; Chapter 6 is on the risks posed to surface and groundwater; and Chapter 7 is on induced seismicity. These two slim but critical chapters will require more work and elaborations should the book go to a new edition. Air-quality issues (flares, fugitive methane, etc.) and their mitigation measures are examined in the next chapter, followed by a discussion on land use and socioeconomic issues such as noise pollution and road traffic. Chapter 10 deals with drilling footprints, oil spills and other impacts on ecosystems and Chapter 11 with US federal regulations and how they pertain to fracking. This is followed by a chapter on water and soil sampling analysis methods, exposure pathways (e.g. surface spillage, abandoned wells, faults, non-structural migration paths, injected fluids) and operation site characterisation. Chapter 13 discusses the financial aspects of shale petroleum development as related to real estate and property value, road traffic, water supplies, land remediation, and so forth, while the following chapter briefly reviews legal considerations and case studies of environmental activism against fracking. The final – and longest – chapter reviews case studies of oil spills and forensic chemical methods from Pennsylvania, Texas, North Dakota, California and Colorado.

Timely and Comprehensive Book

James Jacobs and Stephen Testa, the California-based authors of the book, are both highly experienced petroleum and environmental scientists and they have done an amazing job of distilling so much technical information into a single volume. They also collaborated on a previous book, Oil Spills and Gas Leaks (McGraw-Hill, 2014). Both books will be extremely useful to geoscientists, engineers, managers and consultants in the petroleum and environmental industries. The new book could also serve as a textbook for training and academic courses in this field; each chapter ends with ten questions for examination, which could easily be expanded to include more exercises and calculations.

The authors conclude that shale petroleum, if managed well, provides economic development, but “managed poorly without effective mitigation measures, large-scale industrial processes have also been known to degrade the environment, lower availability and quality of water resources, negatively impact air quality, generate noise, odors, and dust, induce seismicity, and lower the overall quality of life for those living or working nearby.” In short, this timely and comprehensive book is a pioneering work in the environmental science of shale petroleum.

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