Risk, Sustainability and Oil Sands

I was recently invited to to give a talk on risk and sustainability at the CSPG-AAPG Oil Sands and Heavy Oil Symposium: A Local to Global Multidisciplinary Collaboration. The symposium is being jointly sponsored by the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists (CSPG) and the American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG), the two predominant petroleum geology organizations in North America. It will be held in Calgary at the Metropolitan Centre on October 14-16, 2014.

According to the organizers, the conference is expected to attract 500 geologists from Canada and the U.S., plus representatives from other heavy oil producers in China, Venezuela, and Russia. The topics of discussion will include the international nature of oil sands and heavy oil resources, the geology and characterization of producing deposits, technological advances, and sustainability.

My talk will be part of a session on regulatory and sustainability issues, being co-chaired by Kevin Parks and Travis Hurst. I’ll be speaking on work that I have been doing with Michael Lounsbury, Lianne Lefsrud, and Chang Lu that looks at multiple perspectives on risk, with a particular emphasis on cross cultural understandings of risk. Our analysis finds that technical, financial and perceptual understandings of risk are seldom sufficient to explain how societies decide what is risky, what is safe, and whether and how to proceed.

Update: A copy of my presentation is below. Additionally, a short companion paper is available through SSRN.

National Geographic Bakken Shale Cover Story

The March 2013 issue of National Geographic proclaims: “America Strikes Oil: The Promise and Risk of Fracking.”

201303 National GeographicInside is a 32-page story entitled “The New Oil Landscape” by Edwin Dobb, with photographs by Eugene Richards. You can read the story online and view an album of the photos.

In his introductory column, editor-in-chief Chris Johns framed the stakes this way:

Flip a coin. Heads or tails? The odds are fifty-fifty either way. Make a bet and take your chances. A gamble is just that–a decision that has risk attached to it. Someone wins. But someone loses. When it comes to fracking–the process of extracting otherwise unreachable oil and natural gas by driving fresh water mixed with other substances, some toxic, into layers of rock–the bets become less mathematically clear…

As with other unconventional formations, such as the Barnett, Haynesville and Marcellus, extracting hydrocarbons from North Dakota’s Bakken Formation depends on a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. What’s different about the Bakken Formation is that it produces shale oil. (Though considerable natural gas is also produced, it is often flared).

[A]dvances in drilling and extraction technology bave made it possible to remove oil from deep, widely dispersed deposits. Since early 2006, production from what’s known as the Bakken formation has increased nearly 150-fold, to more than 660,000 barrels a day, moving North Dakota into second place among domestic suppliers, behind Texas and ahead of Alaska.

But clearly more than technology, geology and economics are at stake. Early in the article, Dobb asks:

[C]an the inestimable values of the prairie–silence, solitude, serenity–be preserved in the face of full-throttle, regionwide development, of extracting as much oil as possible as fast as possible?

After reviewing the evidence firsthand, by the end of the article, Dobb concludes:

To believe the old lifestyle will survive intact is to ignore the wrenching changes that have already reshaped this corner of the prairie.

Note: In August 2010, National Geographic published a package of stories — “The Great Shale Gas Rush” — on the Marcellus Formation.

Some Recent Unconventional Shale Research

Recently, I’ve stumbled across a growing number of studies related to various aspects of unconventional shale drilling and hydraulic fracturing, a number of which are specific to the Marcellus Formation. Below are a few highlights:

Estimation of Regional Air-Quality Damages from Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Extraction in Pennsylvania, by Aviva Litovitz, Aimee Curtright, Shmuel Abramzon, Nicholas Burger and Constantine Samaras, in Environmental Research Letters

The Relationship between Marcellus Shale Gas Development in Pennsylvania and Local Perceptions of Risk and Opportunity, by Kai A. Schafft, Yetkin Borlu, and Leland Glenna, in Rural Sociology

Source Signature of Volatile Organic Compounds from Oil and Natural Gas Operations in Northeastern Colorado, by J. B. Gilman, B. M. Lerner, W. C. Kuster, and J. A. de Gouw, in Environmental Science & Technology

Analysis of BTEX Groundwater Concentration from Surface Spills Associated with Hydraulic Fracturing Operations, by Sherilyn A. Gross, Heather J. Avens, Amber M. Banducci, Jennifer Sahmel, Julie M. Panko, and Brooke E. Tvermoes, in Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association

Generation, Transport, and Disposal of Wastewater Associated with Marcellus Shale Gas Development, by Brian D. Lutz, Aurana N. Lewis, and Martin W. Doyle, in Water Resources Research

These studies are all in addition to the 13 articles published as part of Environmental Practice’s December 2012 special issue on hydraulic fracturing.