Texas is geologically rich in natural gas, a clean-burning fuel that creates good jobs while providing a low-carbon source of energy that helps reduce greenhouse emissions.
But with those significant benefits, some practices used in finding and producing natural gas may bring unwanted side-effects, especially for people living nearby. When air, water and noise pollution occur, residents complain and controversy erupts.
Such environmental concerns have grown in recent years, along with the accelerating growth of natural gas activities in various parts of the country — activities triggered by technologies that were developed in the gas-bearing Barnett Shale formation of North Texas.
Public debate about drilling activities has been particularly heated and prominent in the Barnett Shale region itself. Citizens and local officials have complained about potential threats such as methane, a flammable substance, in their water wells, and benzene, a toxic chemical, in the air they breathe.
Such concerns are not confined to North Texas. In Wyoming's Upper Green River Basin, for instance, ground-level ozone, a respiratory hazard, has been recorded unexpectedly during the winter - something that typically happens when air pollutants mix in warm, sunny weather.
Pollution is not the only worry that arises with increased natural gas activities. In some locations, concerns have also focused on disturbances to wildlife habitats when land was cleared for drill sites, roads and pipelines.
Now, as yet another major gas play takes off in a different part of Texas, we have a chance to anticipate and minimize such impacts. We can do that by coupling exploration and drilling activities with tools and procedures for preventing harmful side-effects that we have developed at the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), a nonprofit institution in The Woodlands.
The new gas play, wooing many operating companies, is unfolding in the Eagle Ford Shale, a geological formation that outcrops at the town of Eagle Ford, near Dallas, and reaches depths of more than 12,000 feet, hundreds of miles away in South Texas.
For years, the Eagle Ford was something drillers wanted to avoid, rather than aim for. They knew they should watch out for it on the way to other formations they wanted to tap. With directional drilling combined with hydraulic fracturing, however, wells now can be completed in the Eagle Ford itself, just as many have been in the Barnett Shale.
The economic results are impressive where those techniques are used. The Barnett Shale, for instance, now produces about 6 percent of all the natural gas produced in the 48 contiguous states. Next door in Louisiana, the economic impact is evident in the Haynesville Shale. In 2009, drilling in that formation yielded an estimated $5.7 billion in new household earnings for Louisiana residents, with more than 57,000 new jobs created and more than $10 billion in new business sales generated.
But what about those other issues, like water, noise and air quality? How can nearby residents and other stakeholders be assured that natural gas operators are acting in everyone's best interest?
Transparency and open communication are fundamental. Stakeholders need a common lexicon that can only come through collaboration. Measures to prevent and minimize air and water pollution start with accurate monitoring of drilling and related operations. Monitoring, in turn, provides data to key stakeholders to help ensure environmental standards are met.
HARC has pioneered just such an initiative through a partnership of universities, national laboratories, industry and environmental organizations. This effort, the Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems Program (EFD), harnesses new technologies, systems and methodologies for better monitoring.
The EFD program was launched more than five years ago with an unbiased agenda to address issues in a collaborative and open environment. It identifies, develops and transfers critical, cost-effective technologies that can provide policymakers and industry with the ability to develop reserves in a safe and environmentally friendly manner, integrating technologies to reduce impacts. The program's website is a well-used resource that transfers information to all stakeholders.
Workshops including ecologists, botanists, wildlife management experts, petroleum industry experts, regulators and concerned citizens helped us develop a new tool - a scorecard - that we believe offers much promise. It is similar to the U.S. Green Building Council's well-known scorecard for rating various aspects of building construction such as energy efficiency.
Our scorecard measures the effectiveness of natural gas operators' practices in minimizing the impacts of drilling in environmentally sensitive areas. It assesses operations and technologies with respect to air emissions, land disturbance, water pollution, waste management, impacts on biodiversity and societal issues.
The scorecard methodology produces an ecological understanding of the tradeoffs involved in producing energy, which can help operators plan and implement practices to manage and minimize risks. Operators who use new-generation rigs, low-emissions engines, advanced water-management systems, and small land-surface footprints can potentially earn the highest, five-star, rating.
The EFD scorecard can help develop a comprehensive baseline study of the Eagle Ford Shale, producing a detailed profile of the region's air and water quality, soil contamination, biodiversity and economics. With this information, a consensus can be reached on the key issues that should be monitored and measured as drilling activities multiply.
Technology gaps, best practices and research programs need to be discussed in an open forum with all stakeholders participating. There is no guarantee, of course, that this kind of organized dialogue can resolve conflicts that arise between what citizens prefer and businesses want to do.
But such an open, evidence-based process offers an opportunity to balance input from regulators, environmental organizations and concerned citizens with the abilities of operating companies, service companies and suppliers. The EFD program can be a valuable tool for resolving conflicts by providing the structure for stakeholders to exchange ideas, transfer technologies and develop unbiased science for sound policy. Let's use all the tools available to get it right in the Eagle Ford.