Open a newspaper in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, West Virginia and part of Virgina and you will likely find an article on the hydraulic fracturing that is used to drill these wells. Politicians see this as a new ‘Boom’, while environmental groups are calling for a moratorium on drilling. This article will explore the hydraulic fracturing process, the reason for the excitement over the Marcellus Shale region, the dangers involved, and the public reaction to the process.
Why the interest in the Marcellus Shale Region?
The Marcellus shale region encompasses several states—NY, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have the largest deposits. It is estimated that this area contains around 500 trillion cubic feet of gas. No one really knows how much of the gas may be commercially recoverable; the potential, however, is that this supply could (in theory) supply the energy needs of the US for 20 years or more. The economic potential from the gas alone is nearly 1 trillion dollars at the well.
PA Governor Tom Corbett estimates that the industry could employ up to 200,000 Pennsylvanians by the end of this decade; and have an economic impact of $3.5 billion. However, the PA Department of Labor and Industry statistics refute that estimate somewhat. They report only 30,000 jobs in that industry, with 6100 created in 2010. The growth rate would need to increase substantially before the estimate given by Governor Corbett would come to fruition. Even then, the 200,000 job number is only around 3% of the total workforce in PA; a number estimated to be near 6.4 million.
How is the gas recovered?
The Natural Gas deposits in the Marcellus region are more than a mile down in the earth; and locked in the shale. Shale is a sedimentary rock made up of a clay minerals and other minerals, especially quartz and calcite. Many of the shale deposits in the United States hold Natural Gas Deposits that are being recovered using techniques of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
Horizontal drilling is a technique used to recover oil and natural gas from deep undergound in places where the reservoir is more horizontal; and where inserting the well from an end is preferable to inserting from above. the technique involves drilling down to just above the reservoir, then deviating the well bore from vertical around a curve into the reservoir until the desired bottom hole is reached. This technique allows for greater penetration into the reservoir.
Once the horizontal well has been drilled, they process of hydraulic fracturing can begin. This process involves the injection of between 1 and 9 million gallons of a mixture of water, sand and numerous other chemicals into the newly drilled horizontal well. This is done under great pressure, and the underlying shale deposit is then ‘fractured’ into numerous fissures, releasing the natural gas. Some of the fluid mixture is recovered; but much of it remains underground; which is a source of contention for environmentalists, as many of chemicals involved in the process are known carcinogens or are an endocrine disruptor. Plus, the fracturing itself releases radioactive materials and heavy metals into the water from underground.
Concerns over the extraction
There are numerous concerns over the process of extracting natural gas from deep shale regions like Marcellus, ranging from environmental, public health to economics.
- Economic Impact:
Much of the positive economic impact of Marcellus shale drilling in PA seems to have been widely overinflated by the proponents of the industry. The Considine and Watson report appears to used flawed models, when compared with on real data from PA Labor and Internal Revenue statistics. Another study based on NY Marcellus refutes much of the positive economic data involving Marcellus Drilling. Also, PA does not tax the gas operations specifically as other states do; though efforts to get a tax passed are ongoing. The estimated positive economic impact pales when compared to agriculture, tourism and recreation in the region affected by Marcellus Gas Wells. Gas Wells are estimated to have a $22 billion impact; while the Agriculture, tourism and recreation numbers are almost $400 billion; nearly 20x that of the Gas Wells.
- Environmental Impact
There is much debate over the the environmental impact of Marcellus Shale Gas Extraction process. The EPA plans to study the process, but their findings won’t be released until 2014. Just recently a blowout at a Chesapeake Energy Well near Loyal PA played out over several days and dumped fracking fluids in a tributary of the Susquehanna river. There are numerous concerns over these fluids in the area; aside from Marcellus Shale; the biggest economic factor in that area is tourism—a large percentage of which is governed by the coldwater streams in the area housing both stocked and natural populations of trout. PA is widely known as a flyfishing destination; and the Susquehanna River is known as a world-class smallmouth bass destination. There have been fish kills attributed to frack fluid spills in PA. The economic impact of the destruction of these fisheries would mean substantial loss dollars to PA from direct and indirect revenue sources. Other states with substantial shale deposits have similar issues. Not only that, but there are several known threatened species who have habitat in the area where these wells are being placed. The potential Environmental Impact appears to be rather large; and these operations do not fall under the purview of the Clean Water or Safe Drinking Water Acts, thanks to the Halliburton Loophole that was part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 passed by the Bush Administration. There is also the destruction of wildlife habitat caused by the installation of the well pad site and its associated equipment creates.
- Public Health Issues
Landowners near well sites have reported numerous issues with their water, the most well-known is Dimock, PA, a town where chemicals used in the hydrofracking process have been found in the town water supply; rendering in unusable. The chemicals used in the process range from guar gum, to toxins such as benzene, toluene, xylene, naphthalene, methanol, formaldehyde, and a host of other toxic chemicals. Many of these are also known to be endocrine disruptors. Recently, a homeowner found that Barium was another substance used at wells drilled near her home; and her blood barium levels were 110 micrograms per liter; more than 100x normal. Her water supply was tested and found to be undrinkable.
- Other issues
These gas wells are employing numerous individuals who come from out of state to live and work here temporarily; which brings up the point that the gas wells have an estimated life span of about 7 years; meaning the jobs around each well are also temporary. There is an increase in traffic—specifically truck traffic—in traditionally rural areas that are not used to the level of traffic, and the 24×7 operations of the Gas Wells. There is an increased burden on local services, such as Police, Fire and EMS. People seeking the quiet of a rural lifestyle are being assaulted with noise on a 24×7 basis. There is a danger of explosion or fire at the well sites that the local communities are ill-equipped to handle. The blowout in Loyal, PA in April of 2011 didn’t even begin to get controlled until 13 hours after it happened; because a special response team needed to be shipped in from Texas—even though there was a local team within a couple of hours; but the well operators chose to use the team they were familiar with. Declining property values due to contaminated wells are a major concern, as well as the loss of lenders (including FHA) and insurance companies who refuse to lend money or insure these ‘high risk’ properties where gas leases have been signed.
There have have been numerous violations (1614 between January 2008 and August 20, 2010) by gas drillers in PA alone over the past several years, resulting in widespread environmental impact. The industry refuses to acknowledge (for the most part) that their drilling operations even might be causing damage to local water supplies in areas that have had problems. In PA, the waste frack fluids may be disposed of at water and wastewater treatment plants; even though they are not equipped to decontaminate the fluids of chemicals and materials that are detrimental to the environment and even the local public health. The state even permits direct dumping of these fluids into local creeks and streams.
The State of PA has formed a commission that is supposed to study drilling impacts and propose solutions and regulations. However this committee is very top heavy with industry executives (12 out of 30 members, it used to be 13 until Chesapeake Energy dropped out), government agencies affiliated with the industry and has a very small number of environmental group representation. There is no Public Health representation; nor anyone representing local communities affected by drilling.
With all of the negative effects that have been documented (not just in PA but nationwide) with this process, the US should declare a moratorium on these operations until such time as economic impact studies, environmental studies and public health studies can be completed. No method of extracting fossil fuels is 100% environmentally safe; the same goes for the extraction of the rare-earth compounds that we use in day-to-day electronics, or even for most anything we use in day-to day living. However, to have an industry that is virtually unregulated and that can cause public health issues (and has already done so) seems to be an irresponsible act based on our own desires to live a ‘comfortable’ lifestyle; without forethought on how our lifestyle impacts the world at large. .
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