By Mahinaz El Baz

The rapid development of unconventional gas resources in the past few years has dramatically affected the global energy market, increasing the possibility of having a source of low carbon energy to reduce dependence on coal and conventional oil and gas.

The mature oil and gas fields and the indispensable need for sustaining energy have rendered the unconventional fields’ development a tempting initiative. However, unconventional resources activities have been linked to a myriad of environmental and health concerns, generating public controversy that threatens to stop production activities in some areas.

The problems brought up by unconventional production include potential direct impacts to water quality and supplies, as well as air pollution. Moreover, some have raised concerns about potential long-term and indirect impacts from reliance on fossil fuels, resulting in higher greenhouse gas emissions. Nevertheless, many of the potential direct environmental impacts may be reduced with appropriate safeguards, existing technology, and best practices.

Water Quality

Although many technologies and strategies to minimize the risks associated with unconventional gas development are already being used by some international oil companies (IOCs), unconventional gas operations have continuously received attention for the potential negative impacts that its development may have on the environment and communities in which it occurs.

Water quality issues, for instance, have received much attention as a potential risk related to well stimulation by hydraulic fracturing. Claims of polluted well water have emerged in some areas in the USA where unconventional gas development has occurred, although regulators have not reported a direct connection between hydraulic fracturing of shale formations and groundwater contamination , according to a research written by Michael Ratner and Mary Tiemann entitled An Overview of Unconventional Oil and Natural Gas: Resources and Federal Actions.

Even though there is no evidence of a relationship between hydraulic fracturing of shale formations and groundwater contamination, managing wastewater associated with increased unconventional gas production activity has, in some cases, placed a stress on water resources and on wastewater treatment plants that were not designed to remove contaminants from hydraulic fracturing flow back and produced water. These impacts can be mitigated by investing in upgrading and developing control and treatment technologies that enable companies to reuse fluids for subsequent fracturing work.

Furthermore, temporary storage and transport of such fluids prior to treatment or disposal is one of the problematic aspects of handling flow back water. Equipment used to move fluids must be monitored and tested regularly to prevent spills, and precautions must be taken while transporting produced water to injection or treatment sites, whether via pipelines or trucks.

In other cases, fluids may be stored in lined or even unlined open evaporation holes, and even if the produced water does not seep directly into the soil, heavy rain can cause a pit to overflow and create contaminated runoff. Additionally, storing produced water in enclosed steel tanks would reduce the risk of contamination while improving water retention for subsequent reuse.

Air Emissions

Air emissions associated with unconventional gas production have also raised environmental concerns and have drawn regulatory scrutiny. Air pollutants can be released during various stages of production. Emission sources include road and pipeline construction, well drilling and completion, flow back activities, and natural gas processing, storage, and transmission equipment. Key pollutants include methane, which is the main component of natural gas and a potent greenhouse gas, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and various hazardous air pollutants.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the oil and gas industry is a significant source of methane and VOC emissions, which react with nitrogen oxides to form ozone. EPA has identified hydraulically fractured gas wells during flow back as an additional source of these emissions in the natural gas industry.

Emissions of pollutants can also occur where natural gas is produced in association with oil and natural gas gathering pipelines and other infrastructure are lacking. In such cases, the natural gas must generally be flared or vented.  Flaring reduces VOC emissions compared to venting, but like venting, it contributes to greenhouse gas emissions without producing an economic value or displacing other fuel consumption.

In the USA, EPA stated that the Environmental Protection Agency took another set of important steps under the Climate Action Plan in 2016. The agency adopted a strategy to reduce methane emissions and cut the potent greenhouse gas from the large and complex oil and natural gas industry. In 2025 it is expected to reduce 510,000 tons of methane, get a net climate benefits estimated at $170 million, and yield climate benefits of $690 million.

Seismic Risks

The possibility that drilling and hydraulically fracturing shale gas wells might cause low-magnitude earthquakes has received attention recently as a potential subsurface risk. According to a paper by Mark Zoback entitled Addressing the Environmental Risks from Shale Gas Development, “in 2008 and 2009, the town of Cleburne, Texas, experienced several clusters of weak earthquakes all registering 3.3 or less on the Richter scale. Since the town had never registered an earthquake in its 142-year history, some residents wondered if the recent increase in local drilling activity associated with the Barnett Shale might be responsible”.

Although no official connection was found between the hydraulic fracturing and these earthquakes, a study by seismologists with the University of Texas and Southern Methodist University indicated that the injection of waste water from gas operations into numerous saltwater disposal wells that were being operated in the vicinity could have caused the seismic activity.

Surface Water and Soil Contamination

Significant actions must be taken to ensure that extracted gas and chemicals do not contaminate surface water and soil during their transport, storage, and disposal, as the quantities of materials that must be stored at drilling sites and the volumes of liquid and solid waste that are produced should be handled over.  Hence, the companies should cooperate with government agencies, environmental organizations, and local communities to develop innovative technologies and practices that can reduce the environmental risks and impacts associated with developing unconventional gas resources.

Since instances of water contamination, air pollution, and earthquakes have been blamed on unconventional oil and gas extraction activities, understanding the techniques used to extract unconventional gas, especially shale gas formations, and the safeguards that exist to prevent environmental damage is critical to assessing the sources and magnitudes of risk involved in its development. However, not all companies in all countries adopt the QHSE schemes, which makes it an unpopular feature. Pico Energy’s QHSE Manager, Ibrahim Waly, said, “QHSE is not activated in most of the National Oil Companies (NOCs) in Egypt, while International Oil Companies (IOCs) are applying around 70% of the QHSE systems.”

Egypt’s Unconventional Gas

In Egypt, unconventional gas presents a great opportunity for the economy. Yet, along with this opportunity, the growth of unconventional techniques associates with increased environmental, social, and health risks, which might bring up public concerns and impose a roadblock to its development. Although strong resistance to unconventional schemes is not likely to come from the general population in Egypt, but rather from decision makers, NGOs, environmental organizations, and local communities, many of the IOCs operating in the country have far-reaching reputational concerns that will need to be managed.

Still, even the industry’s most harsh critics admit that many of the environmental concerns can be addressed if best practices are followed. Therefore, developing and adopting innovative best practices became a must in addressing the environmental risks associated with unconventional gas development. In addition, implementing strong regulations is necessary to ensure broader adoption of these practices and to minimize risks to the environment.