Promise Tempered With Concern Over Shale Oil

A recent article at Oil And Energy discusses the coming boom in shale oil production. However, in the comments section, one poster raises concerns about the downside to shale production. The issues of environmental degradation raised in her post are legitimate concerns of both the oil industry and the U.S. government. A twin crisis is looming: the damage done by pollution and carbon loading of the global environment now driving climate change, and the ever growing demand for liquid fuels and natural gas. Both of these imperatives have to be met if world civilization is to both maintain its standard of living while bridging the transition to cleaner, renewable energy production and at the same time begin the process of repairing the environment and maintaining the health of the people living within shale extraction areas.

There are commercially proven technologies developed for other industrial processes, all adaptable for use in controlling air pollutants, excess heat from the extraction process, and carbon emissions. Stack-gas cleaning apparatus can capture hydrocarbon gasses as well as nitrous oxide and sulfur oxide from the wellheads before these can escape into the surrounding environment. Many of these devices were developed long ago to address pollution problems arising from petroleum refining operations and coal-fired power plants and can be adapted for shale oil operations as well.

The biggest challenge involves the control of toxic compounds before they seep into local groundwater sources. Shale extraction requires up to 3 barrels of water for each barrel of oil extracted. New technologies to address this challenge are presently emerging into the commercial market. These filter out organic and inorganic toxins, control groundwater contamination through recycling and reuse, and creating barriers between heated shale zones and groundwater reservoirs. One such method freezes groundwater located within natural rock fractures to seal off shale formations during extraction. Additionally, methods to contain spent shale are in development to prevent heavy metal contamination of the surrounding environment. These methods come closest to minimizing damage as far as possible while making future recovery and reclamation after closedown of wells feasible. Shale exploitation is vital to the industrial world, but should not come at the terrible price of hopelessly polluting either the local or global environment; a position shale producers sympathize with.