Unconventional gas is a natural gas resource which requires more complicated and expensive techniques to extract than regular gas reserves. The three most common types of unconventional gas resources are tight sands, coalbed methane (CBM), and gas shales.
The extraction of all forms of unconventional gas typically involves hydraulic fracturing or 'fracking', involving the pumping at high pressure, water and sand down the well.
Fracking involves drilling to down to depth and often horizontally, and then injecting a slurry comprising water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals to fracture the shale deposits at intense pressure. The sand props open the fractures and, when the slurry is pumped back to the surface, natural gas – freed from pores in the fractured rock – flows.
The practice of fracking for gas from shale and tight gases is well established in the United States of America and is becoming more common in Canada. Western Australia is highly prospective for shale gas in the Kimberley region and for tight and shale gas throughout the Perth Basin, which stretches the length of the coastal plain from Busselton through to north of Geraldton.
In the USA, chemicals such as benzene and hydrocarbons such as diesel are part of the mix. Groundwater has been contaminated with these chemicals.
Recent studies into the relatoinship between gas and water wells in New York State and Pennsylvania have found a high correlation between proximity to producing gas wells and methane-contamination in drinking water wells.
Concerns have also been raised in the USA about the secrecy surrounding the chemicals used in fracking operations and their impacts on human health and the environment.
The level of concern is such that the United States Environmental Protection Authority is engaged in a study of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater that is expected to provide an interim report in 2012 and final reports in 2014.
The Western Australian Department of Mines and Petroleum (DMP) has recently introduced new regulations after a report into the reguations surrounding unconventional gas exploration found a number of gaps in regulation, including that environmental management plans were unenforceable.
Our new regulations ensure that all chemicals used in fracking in Western Australia must be disclosed to the public and makes a summary of environmental management plans available from the DMP.
These new regulations have created a level of transparency that is very welcome, but there is still room for improvement in the transparency around monitoring and enforcement of the environmental management plan.
France and Bulgaria have both banned fracking as a technique for extracting gas.
There needs to be a further consideration of the place of unconventional gas in our energy mix now and into the future. Fracking is a water-hungry process and we are facing further reductions in available water due to climate change. The world already has more conventional fossil fuel than we can afford to burn. Developing unconventional sources should be a distant second place to developing renewable energy sources.