Unconventionals on GOGEL
More and more oil & gas comes from unconventional production. 48% of the oil & gas industry's short-term expansion listed on GOGEL 2022 comes from unconventional hydrocarbons. Unconventional hydrocarbons include tar sands oil, coalbed methane, extra heavy oil and Arctic oil & gas, as well as oil & gas from unconventional production methods such as fracking or ultra deep drilling.
Oil & gas companies go to great lengths to reach these often hardly accessible resources. They push their operations onto indigenous land, into Arctic waters or the deep ocean. They use riskier production techniques that endanger people and the environment. Often, unconventional hydrocarbons have a larger carbon foortprint compared to conventional oil & gas. Many unconventional oil & gas projects turn into a reputational risk for the companies and their financial backers.
Fracking is an extraction method used to access gas and oil trapped in deep rock formations. Oil & gas producers drill wells and pump so-called fracking fluid into the ground to crack open the rock and release the trapped oil and gas resources. 83% of global fracking takes place in the US (Rystad Energy).
To extract unconventional oil and gas through fracking, companies need to drill many more wells than for conventional oil and gas production. More wells translate into more gas leaks. Gas consists mostly of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. Over a 20-year time span, methane has an 86 times higher warming effect than CO2. In addition, the fragmented fracking infrastructure creates spider webs of roads, wells and gathering pipelines. In some cases, these fracking “landscapes” are so enormous they can be seen from outer space.
Fracking fluid is dangerous for humans and the environment. It consists of pressurized water, toxic chemicals and sand. The exact chemical composition of the fluid is often unknown as the companies define this information as confidential business interests. It is therefore impossible to completely assess the dangers of fracking fluid. However, a study from 2016 by scientists from Yale University found that at least 157 chemicals used in fracking fluid have serious health impacts and interfere with children’s physical and cognitive development.
After the oil and gas has been extracted, the companies dispose of wastewater, often by injecting it into underground disposal wells. The high pressure of wastewater injection as well as fracking itself destabilizes the ground and increases the risk of earthquakes. According to the National Resources Defense Council, the central and eastern United States experienced more than 1,000 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or higher in 2015. For the years from 1973 to 2008, the annual average was 25.
Fracking poses a serious threat to ground and surface water. The extensive use of water increases the risk of water shortages and droughts in fracking regions. Oil, gas or fracking fluids can seep through the cracks created in the rock and into the groundwater. In addition, spills, deliberate dumping or inadequate storage and disposal of fracking fluid or wastewater contaminate soil and surface waters. A case in point is the Vaca Muerta project in Argentina, where fracking companies dump wastewater into illegal and unsafe open pits.
GOGEL includes data on the proportion of a company’s hydrocarbons production from fracking of shale oil, shale gas, tight liquids and tight gas. These resources can only be extracted through fracking.
Oil & gas companies’ activities in the Arctic pose a grave threat to its ecosystems and the region’s traditional inhabitants. In addition, Arctic drilling speeds up climate change in a region already hard hit by global warming. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Arctic is heating up twice as fast as the rest of the globe.
Both onshore and offshore oil and gas production harm the unique aquatic, coastal and terrestrial ecosystems of the Arctic. The low temperatures, high waves and dark and foggy winters mean that spills from offshore oil and gas production in the Arctic are impossible to contain. And the slow rate of biological degradation of oil at near-zero temperatures means that it will remain in the environment for decades.
Onshore production has different, but similarly severe consequences for the region. Service roads, pumping stations, pipelines, open waste pits and hundreds of wells fragment the landscape. This infrastructure makes the journey more difficult for nomadic tribes and animals that need to move across the Arctic landscape in response to the changing seasons. Companies need to transport the produced oil and gas to the rest of the world. The oil and gas expansion in the High North thus comes with a heightened risk of spills and pollution from shipping accidents.
Climate change makes oil and gas extraction in the Arctic easier, but also more dangerous. The Arctic tundra is thawing due to global warming. This creates gigantic sinkholes and destabilizes the ground under pipelines and waste pits. Spills of wastewater, gas and oil become more likely. Oil and gas production and the related industrialization emits soot (black carbon). The soot falls onto the nearby ice and turns it black. As a consequence, the ice absorbs more heat, melts faster, and climate change speeds up.
GOGEL uses the Arctic definition of the Arctic Monitoring & Assessment Programme (AMAP), a working group of the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council and other actors use the AMAP definition to measure and monitor pollutants and climate change impacts on ecosystems and human health in the Arctic. The AMAP working group produces sound science-based, policy-relevant assessments and public outreach products to inform policy and decision-making processes on the impact of climate change in the Arctic. Urgewald therefore considers this the best definition for financial institutions seeking to develop impactful policies on the Arctic.
Extra heavy oil has numerous characteristics that make it difficult to produce, transport and process. In many ways, it is similar to bitumen, the petroleum component of tar sands. The energy intensity and technological challenges related to its extraction are similar. However, extra heavy oil is slightly less viscous. The Orinoco River Belt in Venezuela holds the world’s largest extra heavy oil reserves.
Extra heavy oil is a high-density type of oil with an API gravity below 15°. The lower the API gravity, the heavier the oil. This means the oil does not flow well. Producers need to use different techniques to heat up the deposits for the extra heavy oil to become less viscous. Only then can they extract the resource. Before the oil can be transported through pipelines, the companies need to thin out the extra heavy oil with lighter oil. However, the resulting blend is often still very “thick” and almost impossible to clean up in the case of a spill.
The recovery methods require lots of water, because the heating process involves large amounts of hot steam. Upgrading and refining processes also require water. The oil production often draws from the same water sources as neighboring communities and therefore increases the risk of water shortages for the local population.
Extra heavy oil is chemically complex, and next to other components it contains heavy metals and high levels of sulfur. Before companies can upgrade the extra heavy oil into more manageable blends, these unwanted components must be removed. This creates toxic waste. During and after the removal process, these toxic substances can escape into the environment and the resulting pollution poses a major hazard to people’s health. Extra heavy oil also has a lower hydrogen share than conventional oil. Companies add hydrogen to improve the ratio, but burning it is still difficult and dirty. The many complex processes necessary to be able to use extra heavy oil make it one of the worst types of oil in terms of climate impact. According to the American Geosciences Institute, Venezuelan extra heavy oil emits ca. 600 kg CO2 per barrel within its entire lifecycle. In comparison, conventional light West Texas oil emits approx. 480 kg CO2 per barrel.
Tar sands are a mix of tar, clay, sand and bitumen. Bitumen is a very dense and viscous form of petroleum that cannot be pumped like conventional oil. This makes oil from tar sands hard to extract and difficult to process. Producing oil from tar sands is very carbon intensive and has immense impacts on local communities and the environment. The world’s largest deposits of tar sands lie in Alberta (Canada), and most of the oil produced here is exported to the United States.
There are two ways to produce tar sands oil. When the deposits lie less than 75 meters below ground, the companies use open pit mining. The impacts are comparable to lignite mining. Large areas of forest are cut down and the fertile topsoil is blasted away. Wetlands are drained and the natural course of rivers and streams is diverted. Left behind are vast areas of total destruction. The resource is then transported to a processing plant to separate the bitumen from the clay and sand. This process requires large amounts of water. To produce one barrel of bitumen from open pit mining, the companies need 3 to 4 barrels of new water (not recycled). After the separation, a poisonous slurry remains. This slurry is stored in enormous lakes, that the industry calls tailings ponds. The dams, which hold back the tailings often leak and contaminate the surrounding environment. The volume of these toxic tailings ponds has now surpassed 1.6 trillion liters in Alberta and is steadily growing. Shallow tar sands resources are less common than deep tar sands deposits, but their environmental impact far outstrips their volume.
In cases where tar sands deposits are more than 75 meters underground, companies extract the bitumen directly (in-situ). The in-situ extraction methods use steam, chemicals or heat to make the bitumen less viscous so that it will flow to the surface. In-situ extraction uses less water and doesn’t require tailings ponds, but it also generates wastewater, which is stored in the same well the bitumen was extracted from and can seep into the surrounding soil and water.
All the way from the underground deposits to the end consumer, tar sands emit more greenhouse gases than conventional oil & gas. After bitumen is extracted (or has been separated in the case of open-pit mining), it needs to be upgraded in special refineries. The upgrading process requires additional resources and energy. A study by the US Congressional Research Service found that fuel derived from tar sands generates up to 31% more greenhouse gas emissions than the US average on a well-to-wheel basis. Moreover, bitumen refining creates a byproduct called petcoke. Some coal-fired power plants use petcoke instead of or in addition to coal. Petcoke is even more emission-intensive than coal. This makes the climate footprint of tar sands even worse. In addition, the transportation of tar sands oil through pipelines poses a severe threat to the environment because conventional technologies cannot tackle spills of tar sands oil. Most tar sands pipelines transporting oil from Alberta run through indigenous peoples’ lands.
Coalbed Methane (CBM) or Coal Seam Gas (CSG), is fossil gas, which occurs in coal seams located between 200 and 1,100 meters underground, where pressurized water in the coal seam keeps it trapped. To extract the methane, companies need to lower the water pressure. This requires pumping extensive amounts of wastewater to the surface. This water must be treated before it can be used for anything else. Sometimes, gas companies need additional pressure to crack open the coal seams in order to release the methane. In these cases, they use fracking. In Australia, the country in the world with the most coalbed methane production, up to 40% of CBM wells are fracked.
The multiple adverse effects related to dewatering make CBM an extremely harmful type of gas production. On average, US CBM production pumps 78,000 liters of water out of the coal seams every day. As a consequence, the groundwater level can sink, with severe impacts on wetlands, lakes and rivers and the plant and animal species and people that depend on them. In some cases, people’s drinking water supplies can run dry. The water that gas companies pump out of the coal seam is full of salt and contains heavy metals and radioactive components. Leaks or spills can contaminate surface waters or seep into groundwater supplies. Even when the gas companies filter the wastewater, massive amounts of toxic waste remain.
Ultra deepwater wells are located at least 1,500 meters below sea level. Most offshore production takes place on the continental shelf (maximum 125 meters depth). Deepwater (125 - 1,500 meters) represents approximately one third of total offshore production, while ultra deepwater accounts for approximately 9 percent (Rystad Energy). Ultra deepwater oil production is unconventional, because it is much more risky than offshore production on the shelf, and the consequences of accidents are more severe. The lion’s share of ultra deepwater production takes place in US and Brazilian waters.
Drilling in ultra deepwater is similar to working in outer space. In very deep water, temperatures are close to freezing and water pressure is extreme. At the same time, the oil & gas resources are very hot and wells are under enormous pressure from within. These temperature extremes put great strains on equipment, and companies have to steer everything that happens down at the borehole remotely. This increases the chance of errors and makes it more difficult to correct them when they happen.
Accidents at these depths are almost uncontrollable, and the high pressure on the wells means accidents have catastrophic effects. In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon wellhead exploded at 1,260 meters depth. Oil shot into the water with massive force and polluted the aquatic and coastal ecosystems. The spill killed birds, fish, plants and mammals. The full impact of the disaster is still unknown. The Deepwater Horizon disaster is, however, only a foretaste of the consequences of blowouts in ultra deep waters. Researchers have found that for every 30.5 meters of additional depth, the likelihood of accidents like leaks or blowouts increase by 8.5 percent (Muehlenbachs et al, 2013).
The risk of accidents is the biggest threat related to ultra deepwater production, but even routine drilling activities can have severe impacts on fragile ecosystems at the bottom of the sea. Biological systems operate at a notably slower pace here than in shallow waters, which makes them much more vulnerable. And our knowledge of these systems is very limited. We still know more about the surface of the moon than about the complex web of life at the bottom of the sea.