The studies are plentiful and wide ranging. The oil and gas industry is acutely aware of the environmental challenges associated with unconventional production. Many basins are seeing increased levels of air toxins, and wastewater injection has caused seismicity issues in Oklahoma and some in the Permian Basin.

However, despite many prevailing notions, the industry is not sticking its collective head into the same ground into which it drills. A closer look into the science community’s observations of these environmental issues reveals a wealth of useful information oil and gas companies are leveraging to mitigate the impacts of hydraulic fracturing. For example, Stanford geophysics professor Mark Zoback has performed groundbreaking work in identifying areas in the Permian Basin where seismicity issues could arise from wastewater injection.

“Operators who are applying for a permit for an injection well now know to request information on the closest fault, how far they are from the basement [and] they ask to see what the stress fields are,” said Laura Capper, president and CEO of EnergyMakers Advisory Group. “There is a heightened awareness of understanding those contributing factors.”

The Oklahoma Corporation Commission is being proactive in its efforts to avert future seismic activities in the Arbuckle Formation by issuing a new directive designed at “keeping future volume increases in check.”

In addition, companies like Equinor and BP have made no secret about their designs to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in their operations. Exxon Mobil has touted the need for carbon capture efforts, and Occidental Petroleum is fully employed in carbon capture practices in the Permian.

At oil and gas conferences and exhibitions across the U.S., companies are touting new systems and processes— systems such as electric fracturing fleets and zero-leak valves—that make significant impacts on the environment.

Meanwhile, organizations like the South Texas Energy & Economic Roundtable (STEER) serve as a bridge between the oil and gas industry—in STEER’s case, in the Eagle Ford—government agencies and the public. STEER Interim President Chris Ashcraft said the organization provides emission data from Eagle Ford operations to the Alamo Area Council of Governments so the council can accurately build emissions models and identify how best to improve regional air quality. Ashcraft said one example of the work operators have embraced in recent years has been a concerted effort to reduce flaring.

“Flaring was a huge issue early on in the Eagle Ford,” he said. “But there’s been a focus on putting infrastructure and pipelines in place to reduce the amount of flaring and ways to utilize flared gas.” Ashcraft said when new environmental regulations are issued, operators often work ahead and work quickly to adapt to the new mandates.

“When they see regulations coming, they’ll work to push it through the right way,” he said. “To the point where ultimately those environmental impacts are mitigated, and because they view those efforts as having a social license to operate.”

Read E&P magazine's December 2018 "Unconventional Yearbook" issue's environmental chapter.

Brian Walzel’s Completions and Production column originally appeared in the December 2018 edition of E&P.