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Thursday, November 1, 2012

HARC set to launch $4-million effort to reduce oil, gas impacts along Texas coast

EFD Virtual Rig

A web-based training course involving an interactive "virtual drilling rig"

The Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) is poised to launch a multifaceted, $4-million effort that will research and demonstrate technologies aimed at reducing the environmental impacts of oil and gas activities along the Texas coast.

With a recent boom in exploration and production work in Texas and elsewhere bringing economic hopes along with environmental concerns, the timely project typifies HARC's core mission "to improve human well-being and the environment."

The new Coastal Impacts Technology Program (CITP) is part of the broader, HARC-managed Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems Program (EFD). One major focus of CITP will be finding ways to minimize and mitigate the impacts of growing efforts to tap unconventional gas resources, such as those in shale formations.

Among its other anticipated benefits for fragile coastal ecosystems, the federally-funded CITP work is expected to help the National Park Service manage oil and gas operations in the Big Thicket Natural Preserve in East Texas and Padre Island National Seashore in South Texas.

HARC recently received $1 million in initial funding for CITP projects and has been informed that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has approved a second $1-million award, said Rich Haut, a senior research scientist at HARC who leads the EFD program, a collaboration involving universities, industry and environmental organizations. Haut added that he expects a third award – for $2 million – also will be approved this year.

HARC will oversee work carried out by others, such as university researchers, who are chosen for specific projects. CITP funds will be used in four key areas, all related to onshore ecosystems in Texas' 18 coastal counties, Haut said.

The four areas are:

Reducing energy production's environmental footprint. Four workshops held in Kingsville, Galveston and Houston have identified potential research topics, and proposal requests are expected to be issued soon for about a dozen projects. Possibilities include examining ways to capture air pollutants typically vented to the air from tanks; identifying methods for restoring old, abandoned well sites; figuring out how best to restore areas disrupted in pipeline construction; and selecting techniques for stopping the spread of invasive species by construction equipment.

Examining environmental mitigation. Researchers will investigate how to measure the impacts of oil and gas activities through selected environmental indicators.

Exploring interstate collaboration. Researchers will look at what other states that have received grants for comparable work are doing, identifying possible areas of synergy with the mutual aim of reducing impacts.

Workforce development. A web-based training course involving an interactive "virtual drilling rig" will likewise address what Haut believes is a need to integrate environmental awareness in "the mindset of employees from the board room all the way down to the field hand."

In addition to getting the Coastal Impacts Technology Program rolling, the Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems Program also has logged these recent achievements:

  • The program's EFD Scorecard, a computer-based model to help companies select environmentally friendly technologies, was successfully tested in a forest ecosystem. Appropriate scorecard adjustments are being made.
  • The U.S. Agency for International Development has awarded the next phase of funding to help the Ukraine with environmental and regulatory aspects of its development and production of shale gas resources. HARC is involved in establishing baseline environmental criteria before development occurs.