Posted on January 19, 2010 by R. Kinnan Golemon
In the past several decades, due in large measure to the persistence of innovative independent oil and gas operators, advancements in drilling and completion technology and the increased demand for natural gas during the expanding economic times that existed prior to year-end 2008, a paradigm shift occurred in the domestic natural gas market that will have significant impact in areas of the U.S. that, heretofore, were not significant producers of the commodity. Prior to this development, supply tightness and price volatility were characteristic features of the natural gas market. Now, due to these ” Mega” shale and tight sands gas plays, there will be increased environmental scrutiny of this sector’s activities, in addition to the dampening of price swings.
The U.S. gas supply currently is predicted to be at least 150 years at use levels similar to those existing in 2008. Only a few short years ago, forecasters were predicting the need for massive imports of liquefied natural gas to meet predicted near term demand. This change in conditions has very significant implications politically and certainly presents interesting opportunities on a variety of fronts for environmental attorneys.
One particularly interesting aspect of these newly found natural gas reserves is the fact that a significant portion of this exploration, production, processing and transmission activity will be occurring in areas of the U.S. that have had limited exposure to such activity. The last ten (10) years of rapid expansion of natural gas activity in the Barnett Shale area of Texas, i.e., North Central Texas and the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex, is a forerunner for what is likely to occur as the resource development expands to other known shale deposits.
Needless to say, there is opportunity for tremendous growth in local tax base, ample employment opportunities for certain skill sets, increased income to property owners, and, most certainly, a variety of allegations of environmental harm from anti-drilling opposition. Much of the latter in the very recent past in the Barnett Shale area has been directed at perceived increases in emissions of air contaminants, e.g., VOCs and “toxic” constituents. To date, snapshot air quality sampling has not confirmed any problem. (see January 12, 2010, Texas Environmental Quality Press Release – Oil and Gas Air Tests in Ft. Worth find “No Cause for Concern”.) However, on the same date, the Mayor of Dish, a rural community of less than 200 residents, was appearing before another state agency, the Texas Railroad Commission, seeking a cessation to all natural gas drilling, production, processing and transmission activity with the contention that this community was besieged by toxins and odors emanating from nearby natural gas activity. (Additional TCEQ air sampling results from recent tests in that rural setting are due to be released this month.)
Numerous other environmental related contentions relative to the development of the Barnett Shale reserve have generally been directed at the well completion phase where large volumes of fresh water with additives are utilized in hydraulic fracing (pressurized mixture for breaking apart the formation rock to allow for the natural gas to flow), the disposal of wastewater and the specifics of the proprietary formulas for the additives. In addition, there are a variety of claims relative to general safety, increased truck traffic and disturbances of property for the placing of associated gathering and transmission lines.
This paradigm shift in the natural gas reserve potential should afford many in our profession an excellent opportunity to provide sound advice and counsel utilizing the experiences we have gained in addressing similar issues in the past.