The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects a 29% increase in U.S. natural gas production by 2035, “primarily driven by economics of shale gas.” As an energy source, natural gas has a major advantage over coal or oil, because when combusted it emits less carbon dioxide per unit than other fossil fuels and fewer pollutants like back carbon or soot and mercury. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that “an increase in natural gas consumption could lead to a reduction in U.S greenhouse gas emissions compared to other fossil fuels.”
However, hydraulic fracturing (sometimes called “fracking”), a natural gas drilling process, has been a controversial topic due to its potential environmental and societal impacts. Fracking injects large amounts of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break apart rock and free natural gas. Recent technological advances have unlocked stores of previously inaccessible natural gas, resulting in a fracking boom.
“Hydraulic fracturing has become a contentious public policy issue because of concerns about the environmental and health effects of its use,” states ASCE Executive Director Patrick J. Natale, P.E., CAE, F.ASCE. “The American Society of Civil Engineers [ASCE] supports the exploration and production of oil and natural gas energy resources by means of hydraulic fracturing when based upon sound engineering and industry practices that protect public health, safety, and the environment.”
Added ASCE President-Elect Robert D. Stevens, Ph.D. P.E., F. ASCE, “Extracting more oil and providing pipeline capacity are critical to help support electricity generation and reduce our dependence on coal and imports.”
Exploring the Opportunities and the Challenges that Lie Ahead
On July 21-23, ASCE held its first Shale Energy Engineering Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—increasingly one of the most active regions of shale energy exploration in the U.S., where the effects and impacts of shale operations and production have become part of community member’s daily lives. The purpose of the conference was to provide a platform for engineers, scientists, researchers, public officials, and government regulators to present the latest research and applications related to shale energy civil engineering. Sponsored by ASCE, the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, and Leggette, Brashears & Graham, Inc., Hatch Mott MacDonald, along with 16 other organizations, the conference offered attendees a menu of over 100 experts in 35 sessions and short courses, which were divided into four tracks dealing specifically with shale energy and its relationship with: water resources and management, geological and geotechnical, environmental and public policy, and infrastructure development.
“Civil engineers have a major role to play in the development of shale energy,” explained John E. Durrant, P.E., F.ASCE, ASCE’s senior managing director of Engineering and Lifelong Learning. “This conference addressed the questions: what can we do to reduce the risks to the environment and safety but particularly to water contamination and other environmental issues? And how can we deal with the infrastructure needed in these areas where they are being developed?”
“There are numerous conferences throughout the year addressing shale energy, but most of them are organized and sponsored by the industry itself and most of them talk about how to improve hydraulic fracking,” noted Conference Chair Kemal Niksic, P.E., M.ASCE, an associate with Hatch Mott MacDonald. “This conference really focused on the challenges that lie ahead with developing the means and technology to carefully monitor all aspects of shale works by encouraging the development of technologies that would allow [petroleum] engineers to do more cost effective shale exploration. And what that allows us to do as civil engineers is to minimize the impact on our water resources, surface and groundwater aquifers, geological stability of impacted areas, air quality, and infrastructure assets such as roads, pipelines, water, and wastewater networks.”
Engineering Jobs of the FutureRecognizing the importance of shale energy development and the role civil engineers play in both Pennsylvania and the U.S., the conference opened with an address from the state’s governor, Thomas W. “Tom” Corbett.
“[Shale energy] is the future and it is also the past,” he told the audience at the Opening Plenary Session. “Some engineers went back and said, ‘we can get some stuff that is in the ground that we can’t quite get’ and then they figured out how to do that—and how to do it safely.
“But, I want you to think about the conversation that you are going to have today and tomorrow [at this conference]. What is the impact of engineers, particularly your engineers that are just coming out of all the great colleges across the county, what are they going to see when they are 65 or 70 [years old], what will they be responsible for? Well, I will tell you one of the things that they are responsible for and you [engineers in the audience] are responsible for is potentially changing the geopolitics of this world in the ability to get to this natural gas.”
Corbett when on to explain that 10 years ago, Pennsylvania was an importer of natural gas and now thanks to shale energy exploration and development, the state is now a large exporter of natural gas to other states in the U.S.—helping to make Pennsylvania more energy independent.
“I would like to see us sell it to other countries as well because it changes the geopolitics of the world,” Corbett stated.
While the natural gas drilling process itself is under the direction of petroleum engineers, fracking has increased the demand for civil engineers tasked with projects such as designing better surface ponds for storing wastewater. Also, environmental engineers and wastewater-treatment specialists use their expertise to alleviate problems after a well has been fracked by either treating the water or by developing no- or low-water technologies. And transportation engineers are tasked with redesigning the surrounding roads that carry the tanker trucks that deliver the water and the pump trucks that inject the liquid into the ground.
Fracking-related engineering jobs are in fact on the rise. Testifying last November before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, A. Daniel Hill, P.E., department head and professor at Texas A&M University’s Harold Vance Department of Petroleum Engineering, estimated there are “tens of thousands” of engineering jobs directly related to shale developments. Hill said in his testimony that he expects job creation for engineers to rise, especially as more natural gas reservoirs are discovered across the country.
Never Seen a Gas Drilling Rig Before
Among the highlights of the conference was a day-long technical tour of the Range Resources Appalachia Park, which has seven shale gas drilling rigs scattered throughout Cross Creek Park. Attendees got a chance to see how Range Resources has successfully overcome traffic, zoning, and geological issues, unique to the area.
“I would say that about 90% of the civil engineering community has never gone to a gas drilling rig and we were very fortunate to have a technical tour of two different kinds of wells, one for fracking and one for production,” says Niksic, who is also the president of ASCE’s Pittsburgh Section.
Another highlight was a panel discussion moderated by Anthony S. Bartolomeo, P.E., F.ASCE, president and CEO of Pennoni Associates, Inc., and also chair of ASCE’s Industry Leaders Council, entitled “The Current State of the Industry from the Oil and Gas Industry Prospective.” Among the panelists who brought their unique perspectives, knowledge and experience in dealing with many of the issues surrounding shale oil and gas exploration were Paul Hagemeier, vice president of ALL Consulting; Kevin Teichman, Ph.D., senior science adviser in the Office of Research and Development at the EPA; and Loren Anderson, M.S., CPESC, strategic projects manager at the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
“The panel discussion [which took place the first day] was designed to set the stage for the rest of the conference,” Niksic says. “Paul Hagemeier is an industry veteran and he gave the audience a great perspective on what was done in regard to shale energy for the past 5-to10 years and where things are going. Kevin Teichman is one of the leaders in the government’s interagency research efforts on the effects of shale works and he discussed the latest findings, and Loren Anderson provided us with an insight into the current state of the shale industry, specifically for one of the most active formations in the U.S.—the Marcellus Shale Coalition here in Western Pennsylvania.”
Importance of Shale Energy to Civil Engineering
Both Corbett in his opening address and Stevens in his keynote luncheon speech emphasized not only the importance of developing shale energy here in the U.S. but also the role that civil engineers are going to play.
“It is extremely important to develop this [shale energy] industry,” stressed Corbett, “not just for us but for generations into the future.”
“Shale energy engineering presents opportunities for our profession,” noted Stevens. “As stewards of the built and natural environment, we need to include sustainability principles in project plans, hold drillers responsible for minimizing environmental damage to site and surrounding area, limit truck size and weight, impose additional fees or taxes to pay for roadway damage, encourage the construction of pipelines rather than trucks, and map the locations of hydraulic fracturing drill sites for future generations to clearly show where fracking has occurred.
“As civil engineers, protecting the public’s safety is paramount; we must be leaders in shale energy engineering.”
Durrant felt that one of the important things to come out of the conference was the need for standards development within the regulatory environment.
“ASCE will continue to provide opportunities for content in this field, in this area, and in this industry,” Durrant said. “Whether that includes a follow up conference, annually or biannually, or content at other ASCE venues or partnering with others in the field is currently under discussion.”
Proceedings from the Shale Energy Conference are now available in the ASCE Library.