Can biochar reduce the environmental impact of drilling?

Researchers with the Southwest Research Institute (“SwRI”) and The University of Texas at San Antonio (“UTSA”) reported last week that they have created and tested substances called “biochar” for use in treating flowback water from wells using hydraulic fracturing.

In a press release, the researchers note that biochar is a stable, charcoal-like substance created from plant-based agricultural waste. The biochar operates by attracting and retaining water, trapping impurities in the water in the process.

The researchers tested the efficacy of different types of biochar in filtering from water the specific substances oil and gas companies use in their fracking fluids. 

UTSA mechanical engineering professor Zhigang Feng said that the team’s “research demonstrates that this is a product that can reduce the environmental impact of drilling in a way that is safe and inexpensive to industry.” 

While it remains to be seen whether the oil & gas industry adopts the use of biochar in its operations, the research seems promising.

For more information, see the SwRI press release.

This post was written by Barclay Nicholson ( or 713 651 3662) and Jim Hartle ( or 713 651 5695) from Norton Rose Fulbright's Energy Practice Group.

Shale and hydraulic fracturing updates – a complete offering

At Norton Rose Fulbright, we continue to lead the discussion on legal developments surrounding hydraulic fracturing. On Wednesday, September 17 at 11:00 am (Sydney/Session 1) and 3:00 pm (Cape Town/Session 2), we will host a web seminar focusing on the lessons learned in North America and how they apply globally.

Our web seminar speakers and moderators are at the forefront of the shale conversation and have authored and contributed to publications that explore key issues in developing unconventional resources.

Alan Harvie, Eddie Lewis ,Barclay Nicholson and Matt Ash have articles featured in The Shale Gas Handbook which acts as a quick reference guide for companies involved in the exploitation of unconventional gas resources.

Oil and gas companies have traditionally protected the composition of hydraulic fracturing liquids through state-level trade secret laws. Barclay Nicholson and Alan Harvie have contributed to Trade Secrets in hydraulic fracturing hydraulic fracturing which takes an in-depth look at the balance governments strive to maintain between protecting the health of their citizens and supporting energy development.

For the latest overview of recent litigation involving shale and hydraulic fracturing, the following publication authored by Barclay Nicholson is available for download.

Web seminar: Legal lessons learned in shale plays in North America

With North America leading the way in shale oil and gas production, interest is mounting globally in the unconventional hydrocarbon sector. On Wednesday, September 17th , we will host a web seminar on Legal lessons learned in shale plays in North America, which will look at the key legal issues that have arisen in North America related to shale development, the lessons learned, and the implications for countries where shale development is still in the early stages.

This web seminar will be broadcast in two separate sessions for Asia/Australia audiences (session 1) and Europe/South Africa audiences (session 2) respectively. If you are unable to register for a session, a recording of the web seminar which will be made available after the event.

Session 1: Wednesday, September 17
  • 9:00 am – 10:15 am Hong Kong, Singapore 
  • 11:00 am – 12:15 pm Sydney, Melbourne 
To learn more about the seminar and register please access the following link: Legal lessons learned in shale plays in North America – Session 1

Session 2: Wednesday, September 17, 2014
  • 6:00 am – 7:15 am Los Angeles 
  • 7:00 am – 8:15 am Calgary 
  • 8:00 am – 9:15 am Houston 
  • 9:00 am – 10:15 am New York 
  • 2:00 pm – 3:15 pm London 
  • 3:00 pm – 4:15 pm Cape Town 
To learn more about the seminar and register please access the following link: Legal lessons learned in shale plays in North America - Session 2

Report cites “multitude of factors” for Lac-Megantic train derailment

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada (“TSB”) released an investigation report on August 19 on the Lac-Megantic, Quebec train derailment that resulted in fires and explosions, destroyed much of the town and left 47 people dead. Citing 18 factors that contributed to the incident, TSB is now calling for additional safety measures to prevent runaway trains and more thorough audits of rail companies’ safety management systems.

The report cited Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway (“MMA”), the company operating the runaway the Lac-Megantic train, for having a weak safety culture without built-in systems to manage risks. In addition, the report found poor training, employee monitoring, and maintenance practices at MMA; issues with industry guidelines for securing unattended trains; and problems with tank cars used to carry crude oil. Investigators also learned that Canadian transportation authorities did not audit MMA often or thoroughly to address MMA’s safety gaps.

In response to the accident and the report, the Canadian government is passing new safety standards for tank cars carrying crude oil, requiring those that do not meet the new standards to be phased out by 2017. The report provided additional recommendations for the government to ensure that unattended trains are always secured, especially when passing through heavily populated areas.

This post was written by Barclay Nicholson ( or 713.651.3662) from Norton Rose Fulbright's Energy Practice Group and Kathleen McNearney ( or 713.651.5698).

Texas Railroad Commission seismologist speaks on agency’s motivation in proposing injection well rule amendments

Last Monday, August 25, 2014, Texas Railroad Commission seismologist Craig Pearson testified before the Texas House of Representatives. Pearson noted that researchers from Southern Methodist University continue to track ongoing, extremely low-grade seismic activity in North Texas, which he called “micro-earthquakes.”

Pearson continued, stating that the Commission believes that it is a “change in pressure that’s affecting existing faults in the earth and allowing them to move and cause earthquake[s].” He said that one of the proposed rule amendments would require injection well operators to calculate the magnitude and physical extent of pressure increases their wells cause to rock formations, which may in turn help the Railroad Commission identify the potential for induced seismicity. This is part of an overall effort by the Commission to systematically analyze injection well risks instead of dealing with issues on an ad hoc basis as they arise.

Notably, the Texas Oil and Gas said it has some “initial concerns” about the rule amendments, but that is has not yet finalized comments on the proposal.

Texas proposes rule to evaluate seismic activity related to fracking

On August 12, 2014, the Railroad Commission of Texas (“RRC”) approved several proposed amendments to fracking regulations in the Texas Administrative Code for publication in the Texas Register. These proposed amendments relate generally to additional permitting requirements for disposal wells. Additionally, the proposed amendments would codify the RRC’s authority to request increased monitoring and reporting related to seismic events near disposal wells and to modify, suspend, or terminate a permit if fluids are not confined to the injection interval.

Over the past several years, suspicions of a connection between hydraulic fracking and earthquakes have spurred many studies and debates. In effort to better understand the impact of oil and gas extraction activities, the RRC hired a seismologist several months ago to clarify the root causes of earthquakes that some insist are connected to fracking. In relation to bringing a seismologist on board, Commissioner David Porter commented that “[t]his will allow our agency to further examine any possible correlation between seismic events and oil and gas activity and gain a more thorough understanding of the science and data available.”

To introduce the proposed amendments, the RRC states in the proposal that “[w]hile few earthquakes have been documented over the past several decades relative to the large number of disposal wells in operation, seismic events have infrequently occurred in areas where there is coincident oil and gas activity.” Therefore, the proposed amendments incorporate several provisions that require additional collection and evaluation of seismic activities near proposed disposal wells, and the potential to impose additional monitoring and reporting of seismic data for areas surrounding existing disposal wells.

Proposed Amendments to Section 3.9 and Section 3.46

The RRC proposes amendments to Title 16, Sections 3.9 and 3.46 of the Texas Administrative Code, relating to Disposal Wells and to Fluid Injection into Productive Reservoirs, respectively. Although these sections regulate two different types of disposal well permits, the proposed language in both sections would adopt the same new requirements and rules.

Section 3.9 currently requires anyone “who disposes of saltwater or other oil and gas waste by injection into a porous formation not productive of oil, gas, or geothermal resources” to obtain a well disposal permit. 16 Tex. Admin. Code § 3.9. Section 3.46 currently requires anyone “who engages in fluid injection operations in reservoirs productive of oil, as, or geothermal resources” to obtain an injection permit from the RRC. 16 Tex. Admin. Code § 3.46(a). Section 3.46 regulates injection into productive formations for either enhanced recovery or for disposal. However, the proposed new language relating to seismic activity would apply only to those wells permitted under Section 3.46 for disposal purposes.

The only proposed amendments that would automatically require all applicants to perform additional duties are those proposed in Sections 3.9(3)(B) and 3.46(b)(1)(C). The proposed amendment to these two subsections would require applicants for disposal permits under Sections 3.9 or 3.46 to include with the application for the permit the results of a review of information from the United States Geological Survey (“USGS”)1 regarding the locations of any historical seismic events within the estimated radius of the 10-year, five pounds per square inch (“psi”) pressure front boundary of the proposed disposal well location. A “pressure front” is defined as the zone of elevated pressure that is created by the injection of fluids into the subsurface. A “10-year, five psi pressure front boundary” is defined as the boundary of increased pressure of five psi after 10 years of injection at the maximum requested permit injection volume.

The other proposed amendments would serve to formally recognize the RRC’s authority to regulate seismic activity related to the disposal wells. For example, if the well is to be located in certain areas seen as having an increased risk that fluids will not be confined to the injection interval,2 the proposed amendments would authorize the RRC to request additional information during the permitting process (Sections 3.9(3)(C) and 3.46(b)(1)(D)) and more frequent monitoring and reporting of injection pressure and injection rates (Sections 3.9(11)(A)–(B) and 3.46(i)(1)–(2)). Additionally, the proposed additions of Sections 3.9(6)(A)(vi) and 3.46(d)(1)(F) would authorize the RRC to modify, suspend, or terminate a disposal permit (after notice and opportunity for a hearing) if the injection is suspected of or shown to be causing seismic activity.

How to Comment

The proposal will appear in the August 29, 2014, issue of the Texas Register for a 30-day comment period ending September 29, 2014, at 12:00 p.m. However, comments concerning these proposed amendments can currently be submitted online.

This post was written by Eva Fromm O'Brien ( or +1 713.651.5321) and Jennifer Caplan ( or +1 713.651.5372) from Norton Rose Fulbright's Environmental Practice Group.

1According to the RRC’s memorandum describing the proposed amendments, the USGS has the ability to detect and locate all seismic events larger than magnitude 2.0 throughout the continental United States. The RRC states that this ability makes the USGS the de facto source of seismic event location in the United States.
2The RRC identifies the following conditions as several factors that may increase the risk that fluids will not be confined to the injection interval: complex geology, proximity of the baserock to the injection interval, transmissive faults, and/or a history of seismic events in the area shown by information from the USGS.

Canada’s TSB determines crude oil in train derailment to be unaffected by fracturing fluid additives

On July 6, 2013, shortly before 1:00 am, a Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway freight train which was parked for the night on a hill seven miles above Lac Megantic, Quebec started to roll. The unit train carrying approximately 48,000 barrels of crude oil produced from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota in 78 DOT Class III tank cars reached a speed of 65 mph and 63 of the tank cars derailed in the centre of the Town, spilling approximately 37,000 barrels of crude oil and causing fires and explosions which destroyed 40 buildings, 53 vehicles and killed 47 people, many of whom were relaxing in bars and restaurants in Lac Megantic's scenic downtown on a warm summer evening.

On August 19, 2014, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) released its 181 page report of its investigation of the tragedy. The TSB, like the National Transportation Safety Board in the united States, investigates transportation safety. It is not a function of the TSB to assign fault or determine civil or criminal liability.

The TSB found that the accident in Lac Megantic was due to 18 human and mechanical causes, including improper application of the brakes on the parked train, ineffective training and oversight by the rail company and poor regulatory oversight by Transport Canada. In its investigation, the TSB considered the volatility and flammability of the crude oil cargo, including how it was characterized, documented and handled for the purpose of transportation of dangerous goods laws.

Some public commentary after the disaster suggested that as some Bakken crude oil was produced through the hydraulic fracturing of wells, that hydraulic fracturing fluids in the crude oil in the tank cars contributed to the scope of the disaster.

The TSB considered this possibility but dismissed it. The TSB said after examining the properties of the crude oil that: "There was no indication that the crude oil's properties had been affected by contamination from fracturing process fluid additives."

Review a copy of the TSB's report.

This post was written by Alan Harvie ( or +1 403.267.9411) from Norton Rose Fulbright's Canadian Energy Practice Group.