Call it unconventional oil, tight oil, shale oil, continuous oil, you name it, but the end result is the same: the bottom of the barrel. Recent technological developments are changing the oil extraction industry dramatically and opening up oil reserves to economically viable extraction. Unequivocally, this new development will have repercussions for the environment and the development of renewable energy and a sustainable energy economy.

Hydraulic fracturing of a shale. Source: Environmental Protection Agency

Unconventional oil sources are created by the same processes as conventional oil—that is, through the combination of organic material, heat, and pressure. The main difference between the two is their ability to move underground. Conventional oil migrates upward due to its buoyancy. This oil moves through pathways in the underground rock in its fluid state and becomes trapped between impermeable layers of rock.

Unconventional oil, meanwhile, is formed in sealed spaces of rock and is not able to move up; it therefore remains in the source rock, trapped in unconnected pores. The development of new technologies such as hydraulic fracturing(or “fracking”), which is used to break up the porous rock in order to connect these micropores, is making the extraction of unconventional oil technologically possible and economically viable.

To put such advances into perspective, the amount of recoverable oil from the Bakken Reserve in the U.S. states of North Dakota and Montana increased 25-fold (an additional 3 to 4.3 billion barrels of oil) from the 1995 estimate, becoming the largest oil accumulation in the lower 48 states and accounting for 7 percent of the total U.S. onshore oil production. Other technically accessible shale oil resources in the United States include the Eagle Ford formation in South Texas and the Avalon and Bone Springs formations in southeast New Mexico and West Texas.

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Bakken, fracking, Fuel Quality Directive, greenhouse gas emissions, hydraulic fracturing, life-cycle analysis, Low Carbon Fuel Standards, shale oil, tight oil, Unconventional oil

On July 1, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) released its much-anticipated “Preliminary Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program.” Behind its fearsome name, this document outlines the parameters for a regulatory regime surrounding hydraulic fracturing in New York. The Preliminary Revised Draft SGEIS was undertaken after NYSDEC received thousands of public comments in response to the first Draft SGEIS it released in September 2009.

New York’s acceptance of hydraulic fracturing stands in contrast to recent developments in New Jersey and France, where legislators recently passed bills banning the practice. New Jersey’s bill, if signed by Governor Christie, would become the first such statewide ban in the U.S. Although New Jersey has only a small area of Marcellus and Utica Shale in the northwestern corner of the state, this legislation may put pressure on neighboring states with greater shale potential to strongly consider the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing. To date, few jurisdictions have attempted to impose such stringent environmental safeguards while still allowing hydraulic fracturing. Consequently, New York’s decision-making process will be closely watched by stakeholders around the world.

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environmental impacts, extraction technologies, hydraulic fracturing, natural gas, United States

Texas has been the heart of the U.S. oil and gas industry for decades.

On Friday, June 17, Governor Rick Perry signed a bill that mandates public disclosure of the chemicals that operators use during hydraulic fracturing in the state of Texas. With this legislation, Texas joins a growing list of states, including Montana, Arkansas, Michigan, and Wyoming, that have passed or are discussing legislation requiring the disclosure of the contents of hydraulic fracturing fluids.

The bill, H.B. 3328, will require operators to report the total volume of water as well as the chemical ingredients used for each hydraulic fracturing job through the website FracFocus.org. This website, jointly administered by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Inter-State Oil and Gas Compact Commission, was launched in late 2010, and participating companies have begun to voluntarily post records of wells fractured after January 1, 2011. Texas’s new law will require operators to post their well reports on the website beginning in July 2012, with the reporting of additional chemicals not included on the website’s form (which only includes chemicals regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, as reported on Materials Safety Data Sheets [MSDS]) to begin in July 2013.

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FRAC Act, hydraulic fracturing, natural gas, Texas

Shale gas is a relatively recent topic of discussion in the House of Commons.

The rapid development of shale gas in the U.S. has inspired a good deal of speculation about whether, when and how the so-called shale gas revolution will go global. In a report released earlier this week, the UK House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee concludes that while the UK could have significant a shale gas resource, it is unlikely to represent a game changer in the British energy portfolio. Nonetheless, the report finds, shale gas could present a useful additional source of natural gas, and one that can be produced with without major environmental risks if strong regulations are put in place.

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hydraulic fracturing, moratorium, natural gas, shale gas, United Kingdom

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts discussing the water-energy nexus.

Natural Gas Wellhead in Pennsylvania

Natural Gas Wellhead in Pennsylvania - Courtesy of Emily Grubert

Hydraulic fracturing, the technique used to extract natural gas from  shale and coalbed reservoirs, typically uses between 2 and 4 million gallons of water per well over the course of a few days – as much as the city of Washington, D.C. consumes in an hour. With such “unconventional” gas contributing a growing share of U.S. natural gas supplies, this water-intensive process has raised concerns that a large-scale shift in the power sector from coal to natural gas could strain the nation’s water supplies. In a new Worldwatch briefing paper, my coauthor Emily Grubert of University of Texas – Austin and I compare the water needs of electricity generated from coal and natural gas, from the point of fuel extraction to the point of power generation. Our analysis shows that generating a kilowatt-hour of electricity from a combined cycle power plant, even if unconventional gas is used, can consume less than half the water that generating the same amount of electricity from a coal steam turbine plant does.

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Barnett Shale, coal, combined-cycle power plant, dry cooling, hydraulic fracturing, Marcellus Shale, natural gas, steam turbine, unconventional gas, United States, water, water-energy nexus