Cleaner Drilling: If We’re Going to Drill Anyway, Can We Make It More Efficient? Technological Innovation and Concern for the Environment Are Helping to Clean Up Drilling for Oil and Gas

While a fully electrified, renewable-powered energy system would be the most environmentally friendly option, the fact remains that fossil fuels still provide a majority of our power.

cleaner drillingIt doesn’t seem we’re going to stop drilling for oil and natural gas — now the leading fuel for electricity production — anytime soon. Many political and economic powers are, in fact, pushing for more drilling. Plus, getting to a system powered entirely by renewables would take a long time.

Natural gas at least burns more cleanly than coal, but burning fossil fuels isn’t the only time they affect the environment. The process of getting them out of the ground can have a substantial environmental impact as well.

Drilling for natural gas, extracting it from wells and transporting it through pipelines causes leakage of methane, a gas that is 34 times better at trapping heat over a 100-year period than carbon dioxide. Drilling activities can also result in air and water pollution, as well as increased erosion, sedimentation and habitat fragmentation.

To minimize the impact of our energy system on our environment, we need do everything we can to reduce the impact of drilling. Doing so could make the eventual transition to a grid powered primarily by renewables a much smoother one.

Cleaner Fracking?

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, has enabled oil and resources companies to reach wells they couldn’t before and helped power the natural gas boom in the U.S. However, it uses lots of water, creates wastewater, releases methane gas and may contaminate water sources.

Some drilling companies, however, are trying to change its reputation as a dirty process.

Traditionally, fracking involves pumping chemically treated water at high pressures into rock formations to crack them open to enable access to petroleum reserves. A newer method uses liquefied propane gas (LPG), a petroleum product, instead of water.

After injection, heat and pressure change the LPG back to gas form. Instead of staying underground, like chemically treated water would do, it comes back to the surface where the drilling company can recover it.

A company called GasFrac originally developed the technology, but the company’s new owners have shelved the LPG fracking project. There’s still hope, though, that someone else will pick back up where GasFrac’s new leadership left off.

Cleaner Drilling Equipment

Another environmental factor in the drilling process is the equipment used to complete it. Most of it runs on diesel fuel, which releases a lot of carbon, particulates and other substances. Recently, oil and gas companies have been testing out equipment powered by natural gas and solar energy.

One reason drilling sites need to use diesel is because they’re often in remote locations with no access to the electric grid. By setting up microgrids, drilling operations can get the benefits of a grid anywhere, which can reduce environmental impact and fuel costs.

One such technology called the FlexGen hybrid system uses battery storage and smart controls to improve fuel efficiency. It works with any fuel, reducing dependence on diesel.

Treating Wastewater

Drilling operations produce large amounts of wastewater contaminated with metals, brines and radionuclides. Oil and gas companies capture and store that wastewater onsite before sending it off, often to an underground storage facility.

Scientists and engineers have developed several treatment options for this wastewater. One of the most promising is the CleanWave system, which uses positively charged ions and bubbles to remove pollutants. Another is membrane distillation, a desalination process that enables drilling operations to reuse the water without first diluting it with fresh water.

Stopping Methane Leaks

Methane leaks are one of the most significant direct environmental impacts from drilling sites. During the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency announced rules aiming to cut these emissions by as much as 45 percent by 2025.

The Trump administration and the oil and gas industry have repeatedly tried to get rid of the new rules, but have been blocked by the courts.

Researchers are working on how to reduce these methane leaks. One recent paper suggests using infrared cameras to spot losses and then plug them, often with simple fixes, such as replacing old seals or tightening bolts. Because the profits from stopping these leaks might not cover the costs of monitoring for them, regulation might be necessary to curb these planet-warming emissions.

Oil and natural gas will never be the cleanest energy sources available to us, but they’re not the dirtiest, either. While a zero-emissions renewable energy system would be ideal, we’re not there yet. Oil and natural gas will have to, at the very least, act as a stepping stone to a sustainable energy future. And since we’re using it, we may as well make it as clean as possible.