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Issue No. 99 - March 1, 2017

1. Study identifies 6,648 spills at fracking sites in four US states

Spills at US fracking wells
A research team composed of scientists from Duke, Harvard, and Yale Universities and other research institutions have published a new study in Environmental Science & Technology, which reveals that over ten years in four states, 6,648 fracking-related spills occurred. This number is far higher than the 457 spills reported by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 11 states between 2006 and 2012. While the EPA figures concern spills that occur only during the fracking phase of gas and oil exploitation, the new study takes into account spills that occur over the entire process of gas or oil production.

The study examined data from four states: Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota and Pennsylvania. The authors have published the spill data in the form of an interactive map. Of the 6,648 spills found to have occurred in these states between 2005 and 2014, for a total of 31,481 fracked wells, the highest number of spills was in North Dakota, where there were 4,453 incidents. Incidents covered by the research include spills of hydrocarbons, chemically-laden water, fracking fluids and other substances. The study found that spills were reported each year at between 2% and 16% of wells.

The higher rate of spills recorded in North Dakota compared to the other states is explained by differences in reporting requirements among states. North Dakota requires that any spill larger than 42 gallons be reported, while the reporting threshold in Colorado and New Mexico is 210 gallons.

In an interview with Research Gate the lead author of the new study, water specialist Lauren Patterson, explained that their research found an average of 55 spills per 1,000 wells in any given year, and that 75% of the spills occurred within the first three years of a well’s life. Most of the spills occurred when storing materials in tanks and pits and moving fluids via flowlines.

Speaking to BBC News, Dr. Patterson explained that the causes of the spills were varied, with equipment failure and human error important factors.

The study's authors conclude that "Enhanced and standardized regulatory requirements for reporting spills could improve the accuracy and speed of analyses to identify and prevent spill risks and mitigate potential environmental damage."

2. Fracking caused Pennsylvania earthquakes

Fracking Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has announced that a series of small earthquakes which occurred in Lawrence County last year were "likely correlated to natural gas hydraulic fracturing".

On April 25, 2015, a series of low-magnitude earthquakes that began at 4:17 a.m. in North Beaver, Union and Mahoning Townships showed a "marked temporal/spatial relationship" to hydraulic fracturing activities at the North Beaver NB Development well pad, operated by Hilcorp Energy Company, according to the DEP statement. The well pad lies within a five-mile radius of the epicentres of the reported earthquakes. Between three and five earthquakes, with magnitudes ranging from 1.8 to 2.3 on the Richter scale, were recorded by seismic recording networks in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

At the well pad in question, Hilcorp was using a technique known as "zipper fracturing", or hydraulic fracturing operations that are carried out concurrently in two horizontal wellbores that are parallel and adjacent to each other. When contacted by the state, Hilcorp voluntarily suspended operations and later reported that they would discontinue hydraulic fracturing and stimulation operations at the well pad indefinitely.

A report published by the DEP recommends that the practice of zipper fracturing be discontinued when there is less than a quarter mile between lateral portions of adjacent wellbores. It also recommends that Hilcorp maintain operation of its own seismic network in the area.

A study published the journal Science in November 2016 by Canadian geoscientists found that in western Canada the majority of injection-induced earthquakes are caused by hydraulic fracturing. In the US, the majority are caused by the injection of fracking wastewater. The study found that "stress changes during operations can activate fault slip to an offset distance of > 1 km, whereas pressurization by hydraulic fracturing into a fault yields episodic seismicity that can persist for months." The research covers more than 900 seismic events dating back to December 2014, including a 4.8-magnitude earthquake in January 2016 in northern Alberta that could be the strongest fracking-induced earthquake ever.

Fracking Earthquake Alberta

3. Methane emissions from oil production up to twice as high as estimated

Methane Emissions of Oil Wells

A new study from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria has found that global methane emissions from oil production between 1980 and 2012 were as much as double the amount previously estimated, as Climate News Network reports.

According to study author Lena Höglund-Isaksson, the discrepancy is explained by the different production management systems and geological conditions around the world, which other studies have not taken into consideration. Previous figures have been based on what happens in North American oilfields, applied equally to the rest of the world, an approach that Dr. Höglund-Isaksson qualifies as "rather simplistic", given that gas recovery rates from oil production are much lower in other parts of the world.

The new study estimated global methane emissions from oil and gas systems in over 100 countries over 32 years, and also considered emissions of ethane, a gas released along with methane and easier to link directly to oil and gas activities. The study found that global methane emissions were as much as double previous estimates, particularly in the 1980s. A decline in the Russian oil industry in the 1990s contributed to a global reduction in emissions until the early 2000s. In these years methane recovery systems were becoming more common and contributing to reducing emissions.

Since 2005, however, emissions from oil and gas systems have been fairly constant. According to Dr. Höglund-Isaksson, this is due to the rise of shale gas production, which has largely offset the emissions reductions achieved through greater gas recovery.

Methane (CH4) is a greenhouse gas which is up to 105 times as potent as carbon dioxide (CO2).

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