The time is now for shale industry to take the lead in environmental performance
The announcement in June by Shell Chemical Appalachia that it will build a multibillion-dollar ethane cracker plant in Beaver County is a game changer.
The cracker, which will convert natural gas liquids into ethylene for use in manufacturing, is the first of what could be several similar facilities to be located in the Appalachian Basin. This decision is a clear statement that the basin's gas resources will have significant economic and regional implications for decades to come.
Along with this comes concerns of what these facilities and greater extraction activity mean to the region's environment. Rather than dwell on conjecture we should look at the scientific facts.
Multiple studies have confirmed that risks of leaks and spills to ground and surface water can largely be managed by a groundwater protection program that includes geologic studies and monitoring, green completions, limiting use of open pits, requiring closed loop systems on impoundments, reducing toxics in fluids used and careful casing and cementing of wells.
Risks to air can be managed by limiting flaring, use of modern compressors, engines and trucks, fleet and comprehensive leak detection and monitoring programs.
Against this backdrop, the Energy Information Administration, in its Annual Energy Outlook 2015, forecasted that despite the recent slowdown in activity, the United States remains on pace to transition from a “net importer of natural gas to a net exporter by 2017 in all cases.”
Now is the time for production companies and service providers to demonstrate how they intend to address environmental challenges. Now also is the time for the public to insist that shale gas production voluntarily meets a set of high-performance standards that go beyond federal and state regulations and that forward-thinking companies have demonstrated are attainable.
Five years ago, Chevron Appalachia, CONSOL Energy, EQT Corp. and Shell Appalachia came together to explore the possibilities for improved performance. They were joined by the Environmental Defense Fund, Clean Air Task Force, Pennsylvania Environmental Council, the Group Against Smog and Pollution, among others. By bringing industry and environmental groups together to map a path forward, they formed a one-of-a-kind collaboration in the Center for Sustainable Shale Development.
As we have worked to define and update performance standards, we've found that it is possible to incorporate scientific consensus on best management practices to limit the fallout associated with gas development. We've worked with producers that voluntarily opened their facilities and records to independent auditors to evaluate operations. And we have conducted multiple audits of operations to certify companies able to demonstrate that they meet leading standards.
The center's beyond-the-minimum approach has demonstrated that committed energy and environmental leaders can agree on responsible actions when development takes place. These should not state merely a hope — “we will try” — but a commitment to “we will.”
As we move into this next phase of natural gas development, this region has an exceptional opportunity to lead the way for the rest of the nation and the world in terms of transparency, accountability and environmental responsibility. The good news is we now have a proven road map and the time to do it right.
Susan LeGross is executive director of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, based in Pittsburgh.