University websites collect oil and gas information for public use
BY ERIC LIDJI FOR GREENING OF OIL
Communities near oil and gas development know what they want: for the work to be done as safely and soundly as possible. They don’t always know how to ask for that, though. So as natural gas development expands in the United States, several universities are filling that gap by providing information about best practices to the public.
Where you put something is REALLY important
The Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies at the University of Arkansas runs a website on the Fayetteville Shale, which extends under the northern half of the state.
The site covers many aspects of Fayetteville Shale development.
The Infrastructure Placement Analysis System, or IPAS, is an attempt to “debottleneck the permitting process,” according to Greg Thoma with the College of Engineering.
It allows companies to screen potential drilling locations early in the development process to find out whether one site may have environmental or regulatory hurdles that a nearby site does not. Then, regulatory can screen those locations and proposed changes.
The idea grew out of work Thoma did in the Osage Prairie, looking at how aging oil and gas infrastructure might pose more or less of an environmental risk depending on its location. His overarching philosophy is “the location of the infrastructure matters.” For instance, in most cases, it’s worse for a pipeline to fail over a river than over a field.
When Thoma and his partners decided to apply for a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, they added features to the website geared toward helping the public.
A schematic lays out the entire natural gas development process, from leasing mineral rights to closing a well after production ends. Each section includes links to the specific state and federal regulations companies are required to follow for various activities, as well as technologies and practices that can reduce the impact of natural gas development.
The site also includes a dynamic map pinpointing the location of every well drilled into the Fayetteville Shale to date, along with basic production and permitting information.
“The websites don’t do anything on the ground,” he said. “What we hope is that people, especially developers in particular, use the website to screen the placement of infrastructure so that they can place well pads and gathering lines in less environmentally impactful locations.” Sometimes, moving a drill site slightly can significantly reduce environmental risks without much consequence for the driller. In some parts of Arkansas, for instance, Thoma said that setting up a drilling rig could increase the risk of sediment runoff, but “you could move it a couple of hundred of yards and get out of that area.”
Thoma said that with the right funding, the site could be replicated in other shale plays.
Out of Colorado: 7,773 BMPs and counting
While the University of Arkansas is focusing on a single-state play, the University of Colorado is collecting information about developments across a five-state region.
The Intermountain Oil and Gas Best Management Practices Project collects the mandatory and voluntary things that industry does to make oil and gas drilling less harmful to the environment in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
Because new items get added every day, it’s hard to measure the size of the database, but as of this week the site contains more than 7,700 individual best management practices.
For instance, number 4,376: “When feasible, heavy equipment and trucks should use bypass routes to avoid municipalities, schools, rural residential or other sensitive areas.”
That comes from the Western Governor’s Association 2006 handbook on Coal Bed Methane Best Management Practices, and the site includes a link to the full document.
The database went online in March 2009 after several years consulting with industry, government, environmental and conservation groups and landowner organizations.
“We do think of the audience as very broad. It’s easier to say who we don’t think it’s for: We don’t think it’s for the specialist,” said Kathryn Mutz, who maintains the database for the Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Colorado Law School.
The database aims to become comprehensive, often linking to the work of more detailed databases to create a wide-ranging collection of information on everything from air and water quality, to aesthetics and noise pollution, to cultural and socioeconomic concerns.
The website also directly compares how each state in the region handles certain issues.
On setbacks, for instance, Montana prohibits development within a quarter mile of certain waterways. Colorado regulations require new wellhead to be at least 150 feet from roads and buildings, (or one and a half times the height of the derrick, whichever is greater).
That information is useful because it crosses state lines in a way that state governments don’t always do, allowing communities to compare their state to neighboring states.
That provides a model for other multistate plays in the United States, like the Haynesville Shale in Louisiana and Texas, or the Marcellus Shale stretching under New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia and several other northeastern states.
With the long timelines for oil and gas developments, Mutz said it’s hard to measure the impact of the relatively new database. But, she said, web traffic is steadily increasing and she continues to get calls from cities looking for information as they craft ordinances.
Mutz said the Natural Resources Law Center is exploring ways to expand the database, both geographically to include other regions and in the materials it offers. She would like the website to have a mapping component like the one at the University of Arkansas.
Like Thoma, Mutz noted that a comprehensive database of best management practices is only useful if communities are actually using it. “It protects the environment only if people use the information, but they can’t use the information, they can’t implement the practices that actually protect the environment, until they know what they are,” she said. “So we help lead people to the practices that are appropriate to their particular situation.”
Contact Eric Lidji at firstname.lastname@example.org
Links of interest
The University of Arkansas website on the Fayetteville Shale
The University of Arkansas’ Infrastructure Placement Analysis System
The Intermountain Oil and Gas BMP Project, run by the Natural Resources Law Center
Red Lodge Clearinghouse, an earlier project of the Natural Resources Law Center
A map of oil and gas leases and right of way leases in Allegheny County, Pa from the Pittsburgh Neighborhood Community Information System at the University of Pittsburgh
A Barnett Shale air-sampling map from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
Shale news in brief
Pennsylvania State Rep. Karen Boback plans to introduce a bill giving county conservation districts additional oversight over the Marcellus Shale. “When it comes to protecting our water, air and other natural resources, I say the more oversight, the better,” Boback said in a statement. “Conservation districts have historically been active in implementing programs for pollution and sediment control, and I believe they have a valuable role to play as the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania continues to develop.”
The 74 natural gas drillers in Pennsylvania had until Aug. 15 to report production levels to the state. Only 41 did, according to the Department of Environmental Protection.
The 33 companies that met the deadline, though, include some of the most active operators in the region, including Chesapeake, CNX Gas, EQT and Range Resources.
The Pennsylvania DEP and the Pennsylvania State Police plan to ramp up roadside inspections of trash haulers, including trucks involved in Marcellus Shale operations. A three-day blitz in June resulted in 250 vehicles being taken out of service for violations.
Conservation and community organizations want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the House Energy and Commerce Committee to investigate whether drillers violated the Safe Drinking Water Act by using diesel fuel for hydraulic fracturing.
EQT is voluntarily listing some of the chemicals it using in hydraulic fracturing.
Lackawanna College in northeast Pennsylvania is offering a two-year Natural Gas Technology curriculum starting with “Introduction to the Oil and Gas Industry.” The course is an attempt to help people from the area land jobs in the natural gas industry.
The EPA says pieces of Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s clean-air permitting program that do not meet federal Clean Air Act requirements.
The following are comments from our readers. They do not represent the view of Greening of Oil or its owner.