Conservancy Group, Industry Spans Environmental Gap with Siting Tool

by Karen Boman, Senior Editor

Just like death and taxes, the only other certainty in life for the oil and gas industry appears to be increased environmental regulations and protests from environmental groups about their activities. From the Obama administration’s bilateral agreement with Canada that will seek to reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, to the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management’s (BOEM) decision to update offshore air-quality monitoring regulations, oil and gas companies not only must grapple with low oil prices, but with increased regulations. BOEM’s recent central and eastern Gulf of Mexico lease sales drew protestors calling for an immediate end to offshore leasing and for a clean-up of Gulf of Mexico offshore infrastructure.

Oil and gas operators in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale play are also facing new regulations, which were finalized earlier this year by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. These new regulations include more stringent rules around permitting, waste handling, water restoration and identifying old wells.

While the stringent regulations and protests by environmentalists aren’t surprising, one thing that surprised me recently was new software tool being developed to aid drillers and midstream companies. It’s not the tool, but rather, the fact that it’s being developed by a global conservation organization, that caught my eye.

The Nature Conversancy’s (TNC) new tool, EnSitu, an ARcGIS-based analytical software tool, allows oil and gas companies to identify surface infrastructure layouts within their acreage that let them balance development costs and environmental concerns. The idea for the tool, which has been in development since 2013, was born out of discussions between TNC and Marcellus shale players, according to the Marcellus Shale Coalition Quarterly Magazine’s Winter/Spring 2016 edition.

Four Marcellus operators participated in development of the software tool, along with TNC, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and the Cadmus Group Inc. The tool was officially leased for beta testing in January 2015.

According to the Marcellus Quarterly, TNC’s goal with EnSitu is to provide operators with siting options for surface infrastructure that avoids and minimizes potential impacts on nature while accounting for financial and other constraints.

“When made early in the development planning process, improved siting decisions can be a valuable investment in risk reduction and regulatory compliance,” the Marcellus Quarterly reported.

EnSitu can generate alternative layout scenarios for surface infrastructure, using a sophisticated optimization algorithm and parameters set by the user, including pad dimensions, number of wells per pad and site-specific factors such as landowner preferences. It also can incorporate regulated setback distances in all states with shale operations currently within the Appalachian Basin, and include existing roads that could be improved and used for site access. This is typically less expensive than building new access roads. It also can conduct risk-ranking and trade-off assessment of various environmental and cost factors, incorporating but also going beyond regulatory requirements to reduce overall risk.

TNC is seeking patent and trademark protection for EnSitu. According to the Marcellus Quarterly, interest has been seen not only among Appalachian Basin operators, but by operators in other shale plays within the United States and internationally. As a result, TNC is now seeking an appropriate partnership to grow and maintain the tool for widespread use. These steps will be implemented in the coming months.

Having covered oil and gas for a number of years, I’m quite familiar with the rhetoric exchanged between the oil and gas industry and environmental groups – the former saying that environmental regulations will add costly, unnecessary regulations, the latter saying that regulations don’t go far enough. I don’t think the conversation should be an either-or discussion – we need both. Unfortunately, that’s an idea that has never seemed to catch on. Seeing a conservation group working with the oil and gas industry makes me wonder if there’s hope that the two groups can bridge the conversation gap.



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