Conservation Matters February 2014

The Texas Land, Water and Wildlife Connection

Learn about Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems program in new video

By Kathy Wythe

Learn about Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems program in new video

Dr. Susan Stuver, research scientist for the Texas A&M Institute of Renewable Natural Resources (IRNR), works to help reduce the environmental impact of oil and gas development in Texas as part of the Environmentally Friendly Drilling (EFD) Systems program. The EFD program recently released a new video about its work, narrated by Stuver and filmed in DeWitt County in South Texas.

Stuver interviews several researchers from The Texas A&M University System who are conducting field trials on new technologies in air emission measurement and water screening as well as soil and manure sampling in the Eagle Ford Shale region. South Texas shale plays are experiencing unprecedented energy development, and hydraulic fracturing is being used to complete the many wells being drilled in the area, Stuver said.

The EFD program is a partnership of universities, nonprofits, industry and others formed to reduce the environmental footprint of oil and gas operations. The Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), a nonprofit organization in The Woodlands, manages most of the projects under the program. IRNR and the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station’s Global Petroleum Research Institute are also part of the program.

The video is one component of several IRNR energy program projects funded under the EFD umbrella, Stuver said. Jesse Alonzo, IRNR program manager, also works with her on these projects.

EFD’s Technology Integration Program (TIP) was initiated in 2012 to identify and facilitate the integration of various projects that can lower costs, improve performance and reduce the environmental footprint of oil and gas operations. More than 30 universities, 11 national labs, more than 25 oil and gas companies and several consulting firms participate in the TIP Program. Stuver manages and coordinates the 20 plus TIP research projects west of the Mississippi as part of the West Regional Center.

Stuver said IRNR is working with others to develop a better and more advanced air emissions inventory method for oil and gas production. Emissions inventories, which are compilations of pollutant quantities measured over time, are used to help simulate airshed models, much like water sample information is fed into watershed models. Oil and gas production activities can produce such air pollutants as nitrogen oxides, hydrogen sulfide and even particulate matter such as dust and frac sand, Stuver said.

“If the inventories are too conservative and you are overestimating emissions, you are introducing a lot of error into those regional airshed models,” she said. “This project’s main focus is to improve the models by collecting more accurate data from the oil and gas industry.”

Stuver said there are two ways to collect an inventory of air emissions: by directly measuring emissions with instruments or by estimating emissions with math. Since direct measurement is expensive, much of the emissions are estimated. These emission estimations are calculated using engine load, which includes horsepower and other factors, and multiplying the load by an emissions factor. However, Stuver said, research has shown that these calculations usually overestimate the actual emissions. “If you don’t have proper data for engine load and you assume 100 percent engine load, you can introduce 600 percent error in the regional airshed models for a fracturing operations,” she said.

“We are creating an entirely new calculation system based on fuel consumption instead of horsepower,” she said. “We have found that calculations based on fuel consumption are much more accurate since engines hardly ever run at 100-percent engine load. In fact, for drilling, some engines may not run at all and are there only as back-up.

“Assuming idle engines are running at 100-percent load introduces extreme error whereas fuel consumption gives a much better picture of how much these engines were actually working during a job.” 

In another project, IRNR researchers are actually measuring the air emissions. GSI Environmental Inc., a consulting firm, is the contractor for the project; its goal is to establish and develop a protocol for ambient air quality sampling at oil and gas sites. “Currently there is no protocol for sampling air emissions with open path infrared beam technologies from oil and gas sites,” Stuver said.

The group is using advanced field-site equipment called an open path Fourier Transform Infrared or FTIR spectrometry, which is a giant laser that emits harmless infrared beams. “Different air pollutants absorb the infrared spectra differently, so the equipment creates a fingerprint of different pollutants in the air,” Stuver said. “The laser not only detects the air pollutants but also measures them by how much is being absorbed.”

What is not known, she said, is exactly how to use the equipment at oil and gas sites, so IRNR’s researchers are developing a protocol for its use. Stuver said they hope to answer such questions as: Where you put the FTIR? How far downwind you put it? How long do you collect information? How do you calibrate it for testing different chemicals? And how do you best analyze the data with three dimensional weather stations and inverse modeling?

Stuver said this project will help establish what emissions are in the field and if they are significant, and then the team will identify best management practices needed to maximize reductions of those significant emissions.

In another project, which falls under EFD’s Coastal Impacts Technology Program, Stuver said they are conducting a comparison study of emissions released by diesel-powered rig engines and fracture pumps with the same engines equipped with dual-fuel or bi-fuel kits. 

IRNR is also working to identify best management and remediation practices and engineering solutions, Stuver said, to address problems because of the introduction and proliferation of invasive plants by oil and gas equipment in the Eagle Ford shale region.

Since oil and gas companies travel to different sites, they sometimes transport nonnative plants and soil on the equipment. “Ranchers are starting to see plants such as tree tobacco, which is poisonous to cattle, or other plants that cattle can’t eat, take over the grass,” she said.

“We are evaluating different types of mobile wash technologies such as equipment wash racks that capture and reuse waste water for cost effectiveness, mobility, water use and reuse, and seed capture.”

Although IRNR’s energy program is currently researching projects associated with fossil fuels, its scope is much broader.

“Our energy program also deals with reducing or eliminating any environmental impacts associated with providing power to people, whether you are talking about producing it, which means extracting it from the ground, or generating it, which includes renewable energy such as solar, wind and hydro-thermal,” Stuver said.

Back to Top