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Managing Unconventional Oil and Gas Development As If Communities Mattered

Managing Unconventional Oil and Gas Development As If Communities Mattered

Mark Squillace 

Over the past decade, unconventional oil and gas plays have revolutionized the domestic oil and gas industry. Oil and gas are, of course, finite natural resources. They can be developed only so long as they can feasibly and economically be extracted from the ground. Not so long ago, many experts predicted that the world had reached or would soon reach peak oil—the point where humans had used more than half of the recoverable hydrocarbon resources. Further development would presumably occur under the cloud of mining an ever diminishing resource that was more difficult and expensive to access. While a few naysayers remain, talk of peak oil seems to have largely gone away. This change in perspective about oil and gas resources has come about almost entirely because of the evolution of horizontal drilling and the recognition that such drilling when combined with fracking of low permeability rocks, especially shale rock, can yield commercial quantities of oil and gas at a reasonable cost. Suddenly, the development of hydrocarbon resources that had seemed so implausible only a few years earlier became accessible, and before long these “unconventional” oil and gas resources proved to be lucrative new sources of oil and gas.

But with the new technologies and the resulting rush to develop unconventional resources have come a new series of environmental challenges that have yet to be resolved. With horizontal drilling comes highpressure hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”. And developing these fracked wells presents a range of environmental problems that, in many cases, go well beyond the problems associated with conventional oil and gas development. Although fracking itself has been around for more than half a century, fracking a horizontal well that might be two or three miles long in a lateral direction requires the use of significant quantities of fracking fluids at extremely high pressures—far more water introduced at far higher pressures than are used to frack a conventional well. These big frack jobs typically require multiple pump trucks to create the pressure, and hundreds of water tanker trucks to deliver the fracking fluids. A substantial portion of that fracking water will return to the surface as “flowback,”4 accompanied by many new contaminants including volatile organic compounds. This flowback must be carefully managed to minimize the risk to humans and wildlife from water and air pollution.

Notwithstanding the many new problems often attending horizontal drilling, there is a silver lining because unconventional development actually offers many potential advantages in terms of minimizing environmental impacts. These advantages and the means for realizing them are described in conjunction with an assessment of the environmental problems in Part III of this Article.

Beyond well development itself, much infrastructure is needed to support unconventional oil and gas development, including, for example, compressor stations for natural gas, storage tanks to hold the recovered resources, and gathering lines and pipelines for transporting them to market. All of these facilities pose their own environmental challenges, especially for protecting air quality and the health of people who live, learn, and work near oil and gas development. 

To be sure, many of these problems exist with conventional oil and gas development. But the breakneck pace of unconventional development in some parts of the country, and the special problems that such development poses, have so exacerbated the environmental risks and so inflamed some communities that they are increasingly drawn to efforts to enact outright bans of oil and gas development, or its chief surrogate—fracking.

This Article is offered to engage policymakers, community leaders, and the oil and gas industry on ways to retool unconventional oil and gas development to better protect communities and oil and gas workers, even while promoting the efficient development of oil and gas. It begins with a description of unconventional oil and gas development and the technologies that have evolved to support it. This is followed by a lengthy discussion of the environmental problems associated with that development. Even as the environmental costs are considered, however, the Article acknowledges the substantial opportunities that unconventional development offers for more sensible and cost-effective production of oil and gas resources. In addressing these costs and in laying out the opportunities, the focus is on better planning, and the need for regulators to become more proactive in their approach to regulating oil and gas development.

Four particular categories of impacts are addressed: (1) surface impacts; (2) impacts on water resources; (3) air quality impacts; and (4) community impacts. In the course of laying out these impacts, this Article proposes various strategies for responding to them with a particular focus on the necessity of good planning. The Article concludes with additional recommendations for designing an effective and adaptive regulatory program for unconventional oil and gas resource development.

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