Sharpe: Gas well health risks debunked

George Sharpe
Investment Manager – Merrion Oil & Gas
George Sharpe, Merrion Oil and Gas investment manager

Oil and gas threat map
Dang, I found out I have been living in danger all my life and never knew about it.  I’m not sure how I’m still alive, much less healthy.  Yes, the self-appointed saviors in the environmental obstruction business (Earthworks and others) have recently published an “Oil and Gas Threat Map” warning that anybody within a half mile of a well location is at an elevated health risk.  This contention is so ridiculous it is laughable.  But sadly, what isn’t funny is the fact that millions of innocent laypeople living in those areas will believe this fiction and fear for the health of themselves and their families.

Let me start by admitting that oil and gas production DOES impact the environment.  A gas well takes up an acre or so of land, and as discussed below, there are some minor emissions.  In those emissions there are compounds that at high enough concentrations would be toxic, or cancer causing.  As long as there are ANY emissions, the environmentalists will be able to point to those compounds and claim that there is a health risk, without making any effort to quantify that risk or put it in perspective.   A wise man once said, “There will always be the 10 leading causes of death.”  So there is always risk we take just by living.

The accompanying table compares cancer incidence and death rates of San Juan County versus the national average.  Given the dire warning from our green protectors, you might expect San Juan County, with tens of thousands of wells and a couple of coal power plants, would be double or triple the national average?  Interestingly, we are well below the national average on both.  And specifically for lung cancer and bronchus deaths, which would be elevated in areas with significant airborne toxins, San Juan County is only 70 percent of the national average.  Hmmm… that certainly doesn’t support the contention that health risks increase near oil and gas wells.

Cancer rates for San Juan County

Radius of “Danger!” is ridiculous
And their half-mile radius of danger — where the heck did THAT come from?  If they were going to make up a number, why didn’t they say a mile, or even 10 miles.  Silly radicals could have scared a LOT more people!

When the Barnett Shale started the shale revolution, Fort Worth, Texas, was the epicenter.  The city worked with the EPA to commission the “Fort Worth Natural Gas Air Quality Study” to help them make setback rules based on science, what a novel concept. (In Colorado, the radicals are trying to get an initiative on the ballot to do it by popular vote.)  During the study, more than 15,000 air samples were taken in and around various facilities.  They concluded that “the ambient air monitoring data did not reveal any evidence of pollutants associated with gas production activities reaching concentrations above applicable screening levels.”  Further, they ran air dispersion modelling (versus actually taking samples), and even for the worst case scenario (large compression facility on multi-well pad), they predicted that all contaminants would be below EPA’s trigger levels within a few hundred feet of the location.

Gas well equipment and flow
Let’s take a look at a typical gas well site to see what all the hubbub is about. Please refer to the accompanying diagram.  What is actually happening on a wellsite is boringly simple.  A wellhead sits over the wellbore, which has several layers of cemented pipe protecting all formations from the producing formation to surface.  Fluids go into the separator, where time and temperature allow the gas, oil and water to gravity segregate.  The oil and water are dumped to individual tanks, where the oil is trucked to a refinery and the water to a disposal well.  Gas comes off the top of the separator, through a sales meter, and into the sales pipeline.  If the well pressure is lower than the line pressure, a compressor is needed to boost the gas into the line.  An oil well has exactly the same equipment, but it would also have a pumping unit over the wellhead to lift the fluids out of the wellbore.

Gas Wellsite Equipment and Flow

During this process, the wellbore fluids are 100 percent contained in the steel pipe and equipment, and never see the light of day.  NONE of the produced fluid is getting into ground water and NONE is going into the air.  Having said that, there are several emissions sources, all relatively small when put in perspective.  1) A pumper’s pickup will come by several times a week.  2) Water and oil trucks will come in when needed to empty those tanks.  3) Many compressors have a natural gas engine which emits exhaust.  4) Older separators will use gas off the sales line to operate the pneumatic controls, so every time the separator dumps fluid, there is a small “pssst” of emitted gas.  Note that most new wells are being equipped with zero emission separators, but many marginal wells can’t afford the cost.  5) The oil in the tank will also evaporate some over time.  The tanks have positive pressure thief hatches that keep the gas in the tank, but as fluid is produced into the tank, a pressure relief valve will allow some of the vapors to escape.  Most of the new Mancos wells being drilled are equipped with vapor recovery units to capture that gas, but again, most marginal wells can’t afford the cost.

The bottom line is that there ARE emissions from wellsites.  But as evidenced by the EPA study, if you live near one or play near one, as we all do in San Juan County, your health is NOT at risk.

Environmental obstructionists will never stop
The environmental obstructionist organizations, of which there are WAY too many, will say whatever they want and whatever it takes to get the public to fear and hate the oil and gas industry.  If they do provide numbers to back up their allegations, those numbers are rarely put into context.  Oil and gas production definitely impacts the environment.  But don’t kid yourself, so do solar and wind.  And while the industry has and will continue to work towards minimizing that impact, it will never be zero.  So the obstructionists will always be able to point at whatever the impact may be, and regardless of how miniscule it is when put in perspective, wave their arms and berate the industry for ruining YOUR life.  Their goal is not to improve how oil and gas operations are conducted, but to eliminate the industry all together — NOW!  The absolute insanity of that goal is a topic for another day.