Marcellus Shale- Energy Solution and the Environmental Threat

written on January 19, 2011 by Darrell Bragg

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The drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale rock formation, that extends into eastern Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia, creates both an economic boom for the states and for the communities where the drilling is done, providing a possible long-term and cleaner energy solution to using coal and oil.  Recent history tells us, however, that the environmental impact, when human error and technology fail, can be costly to local families and communities, and could be far more reaching if adequate safety oversight isn’t in place.  The estimated 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas created by this well-known rock formation is causing excitement throughout the region.  There are concerns that only 50 trillion cubic feet of this may actually be extractable, but even this large amount of natural gas reserve, so close to the high demand, oil burning northeast, is both a clean fuel alternative and a resource that can potentially last the next 20 years.

The Marcellus Shale is a rock formation 150 to 300 feet thick and as deep as 8,000 feet.  Inside the pore spaces in this black, low density, organically rich shale rock is natural gas.  The deep shale formation has been known about for decades, but the cost and technology required to extract it made it all but untouchable until the past few years.  The composition of the shale rock, which is comprised of vertical natural seams, and the inadequate technology of the time, meant that drillers were limited to moving vertically along the seam, thus limiting the amount of gas that could be taken.  Now, drillers can bore a vertical hole thousands of feet, then turn the drill bit horizontally, breaking through many of the natural seams. This allows the drillers to extract much more natural gas out of the well. 

This all sounds good, so what’s the problem?

The issue that keeps arising is centered on the fracturing method used to break up the Shale formation.  The method used in today’s drilling process is best known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.  A combination of water, sand and chemical additives is sent down the hole at extremely high pressure to fracture the well, which in turn, increases the natural gas flow when the water pressure is backed off.  The sand included in the fracturing process prevents the fractures from closing back up as the water pressure is reduced, allowing the gas to keep flowing. The chemical additives protect the drilling equipment from corrosives, help seal off the fractured area to prevent gas leaking further away from the hole, help to lubricate the fracture, enabling the natural gas to flow less constricted by foreign debris, and help kill bacteria that could eventually thicken and slow down the gas flow.

The debate is centered on the chemical additives.  What are the chemicals being used?  Those who know aren’t telling and those who want to know aren’t being told.  Since the 1980s the processes and chemical formulas have continued to change and be refined as industry leaders and innovators have found better ways to get the most out of each well drilled.  Fortunately, since the water and additives are sent into the shale rock formation much lower than water supply levels, there is little chance that the chemicals can leak into the water tables.  The real danger is what happens with the fluids and chemical additives as they leave the drilled hole and the storage of the fluid once it is out.  Since the fracking fluid is kept in a plastic lined lagoon next to the well, the most common problems are leaks in the pipes during the transfer of the fluids--to the well or to tanker trucks tasked with taking the fluid to a water purification site. The primary concern is to minimize and eliminate surface leaks to prevent the contamination of streams, rivers and aquifers supplying communities with water, as well as the water tables for landowners near the drill site. 

The most highly documented spill that contaminated a community aquifer was Dimock, Pennsylvania in 2008.  This extreme case resulted in high levels of methane, iron and aluminum tainting the water supply. The installation of multiple water-filtration systems did little as the water was still unusable.  All water must now be brought in--including water for bathing.  The land is useless and the homes in this small town have little to no value.  Although this is the most extreme of the documented cases, these complaints cannot be ignored.  Several states have enacted drilling moratoriums until closer inspection of the drilling and disposal process is evaluated.  However, drilling and hydraulic fracturing still continue in most areas at a very rapid pace. 

Eastern Ohio is also seeing a sizeable increase in Marcellus Shale drilling.  Columbiana County has seen an increase of 300 percent in new mineral-rights leases in 2010, while Jefferson County has seen an increase of nearly 800 percent of new mineral-rights leases in the past nine months alone.  Due to the recent increase in Ohio drilling of the Marcellus Shale, the Northeast Ohio Gas Accountability Project is advising land owners to be very careful in signing leases and to make sure their lawyers use protective wording in the leases they do sign.  The group also advises testing of the groundwater before and after drilling for potential contaminants. This not only protects the landowners from polluted water, but also allows the industry to gain a better perspective on the affects that the process might have on the quality of water near the drilling site.       

The answer sounds so easy.

It is a fact that drilling and transporting the Marcellus Shale gas to market is important to keep natural gas prices low. High energy costs can be a major deterrence to economic recovery, which is why the drilling of this exceptionally large natural gas resource is seen to be an important step in moving toward recovery.  The manpower and material resources needed for the drilling projects provide an influx of money and jobs to the local community.  If these communities can tolerate large trucks rumbling through their streets all hours of the day, and all the heavy equipment and other inconveniences that come from the drilling process, then the economical reward may well be worth the nuisance.  

The question that will continue to be explored is if the drilling of the Marcellus Shale formation can be done with the right amount of regulation and oversight. This must not unfairly prohibit drilling, either financially or legally, while at the same time protecting the water supplies and environment of the communities affected by the drilling sites.  The technology is available to drill into this very old and well-known rock formation and maximize the amount of natural gas coming from the well.  The question remains though:

Does this technology include new and better ways to protect the land, wildlife and water from human accidents or is it simply for the sake of increased profits?