Regulators Cite Greater Shale Knowledge as Environmental Complaints Dwindle

Regulators Cite Greater Shale Knowledge as Environmental Complaints Dwindle
Teresa Marks, director of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality: “We did a lot of inspections the first three to four years.” | (Photo by Jason Burt)

Complaints about environmental hazards in the Fayetteville Shale Play have decreased as public, industry and regulatory knowledge and experience have increased, state regulators say.

That’s not to say fears about the environmental impact of natural gas extraction in the area don’t remain; they do. But a decade of shale play development has seen a resolution of some of the early concerns, and two of the Arkansas regulators most involved in overseeing the gas industry in the play credit the growing “maturity” not just of the industry but of their own agencies and the public.

“A lot of the early-day problems were related to just the general unknown,” said Larry Bengal, director of one of those agencies, the Arkansas Oil & Gas Commission. “A lot of issues were blamed on the industry because the knowledge base was not there from policy-makers all the way to the general public to the regulators. But that’s all matured and [concerns are] now being handled and addressed in a more proactive way as opposed to reactive.”

When the geologic formation known as the Fayetteville Shale Play began to be developed, the technique used to extract natural gas from the play — hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — was new to Arkansas. Neither the public nor regulators knew what to expect.

As drilling increased, the AOGC and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality found themselves nearly overwhelmed by the challenges they faced. The AOGC, which had offices in Fort Smith and El Dorado, the traditional energy-producing parts of Arkansas, added an office in Little Rock and a field office in Conway, and its staff grew from 27 to 44, most of them inspectors. Bengal said about 40 percent of the commission’s work involves the Fayetteville Shale. ADEQ added four inspectors and an inspector supervisor to deal with environmental complaints.

Teresa Marks, who will retire as ADEQ director at the end of this month, said the development of the play generated many complaints, “largely coming from people who lived in remote areas” that had never seen any industry come in. These mostly rural residents were concerned about possible contamination of their water wells as well as that of area waterways. They also worried about noise generated by the drilling operations and air emissions.

“We did a lot of inspections the first three to four years,” she said. “Now, those have dropped off tremendously as people have become more informed about what’s going on and as the drilling has kind of slowed down some.”

The Oil & Gas Commission had an extensive body of regulations dealing with the production of oil and gas, Bengal said. But it, too, had to adapt its oversight to the new fracking techniques. “We had to develop specific rules and regulations to deal with those challenges,” Bengal said.

In the development of the shale play, the ADEQ primarily regulates impacts to air and water; the AOGC primarily regulates the production process and the impacts from that.

In fracking, fluid injected under high pressure into the shale rock creates fissures that allow the gas to escape and be collected. The fracking fluid consists of water and sand (more than 99 percent) and chemicals, some of them hazardous. Fracking requires huge amounts of water, a million gallons or more per well.

In the early days of the development of the shale play, environmental concerns, many of them intertwined, mostly centered on the following issues:

  • The environmental disruption caused by the building of roads to drilling sites and the construction of the drilling sites themselves as well as pipelines to move the gas.
  • Increased sediment in water sources caused by the environmental disruption.
  • The disposal of the fracking fluid.
  • Potential contamination of groundwater caused both by the drilling process and by the disposal of fracking fluid.
  • Burdens on the water supply because of the large amounts of water needed for fracking.
  • And, later, earthquakes caused by the injection of used fracking fluid into disposal wells.

“There was a lot of clearing going on in areas that had been very pristine,” Marks said. “There were a lot of sediment problems that were happening just from the building of roads and the building of the well pads themselves. That was one of the biggest concerns we heard voiced.”

“The other issue that came into play pretty immediately was the disposal of this tremendous amount of wastewater that was generated by this process,” she said. Some of the waste needed to be disposed of in deep-ground injection wells. But some was safe to be applied using “land farms.”

These operations posed particular problems. In late 2008, the ADEQ launched a study of these facilities. In April 2009, the ADEQ released its report, saying that 11 of these drill-water storage and disposal operations had violated their permits.

“It was very concerning because there was not one of the land farms that was in compliance with their permits,” Marks said. The agency developed new regulations and several of the operations were shut down. Only three remain open.

Both agencies had to develop new policies and regulations to deal with the disposal of fracking wastewater. Trucking operations sprung up to move the wastewater from the drill site to disposal wells in other parts of Arkansas and even in Oklahoma. The AOGC, for example, adopted regulations that included a manifest system to track fracking wastewater, where it was picked up and where it was hauled.

“In the last half of 2008, we were drilling over 100 wells per month, a high of over 120 in August of 2008,” Bengal said. “It slowly declined to about 50 wells a month now. But the trucking issue grew at the same pace. And in the summer of 2008 and into 2009, we had permitted over 1,400 trucks operating in the Fayetteville Shale area, moving that fluid.”

As the exploitation of the Fayetteville Shale continued, the infrastructure, including the drilling of disposal wells, also began to be developed. Those wells, in turn, caused problems.

In late 2010, Faulkner County began experiencing a swarm of minor earthquakes, including a magnitude 4.7 quake in March 2011, the state’s largest since 1976. In June 2011, the Arkansas Geological Survey concluded that drilling wastewater injected into the disposal wells had triggered those earthquakes, and the next month the AOGC shut down the four disposal wells in the shale play and prohibited the drilling of any new wells in the area.

That same year saw the AOGC begin requiring the full disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking.

“We were the second state to do that, Wyoming being the first state,” Bengal said, adding that Arkansas’ methodology of reporting these chemicals is going to be adopted by FracFocus, the national hydraulic fracturing chemical registry.

Increased recycling of fracking fluid by drilling companies — a practice both more environmentally friendly and cost effective — in the shale has greatly reduced the amount of wastewater that must be disposed of, leading to a reduction in the problems associated with disposal.

In October 2011, the U.S. Geological Survey said it had found no signs of contamination of 70 water wells in Van Buren County because of fracking.

In 2012, a nonprofit called State Review of Oil & Natural Gas Environmental Regulations Inc., based in Oklahoma, reported that Arkansas’ regulation of the fracking process was “well managed.”

And in May 2013, researchers at Duke University and the U.S. Geological Survey, who had sampled 127 shallow drinking water wells in the shale play area, said they found “no evidence of groundwater contamination from shale gas production in Arkansas.”

Since then, news accounts of complaints about environmental issues in the Fayetteville Shale have dwindled. But concerns remain.

Emily Lane of Greenbrier, representing, an educational nonprofit, said her group was focusing on air quality in the shale play these days. The group has determined the area is a “formaldehyde hot spot” and has submitted its findings to an online journal called Environmental Health.