About 3 years ago a friend who lives near Tunkhannock told me that a company knocked on his door one day and said he had a deposit of natural gas on his land and offered him a nice check upfront if he would agree to let let them drill for it on his land. He discussed it with his wife and they signed a contract that included a promise of royalties that have yet to be paid.
He now regrets that decision because he is dealing with the noise and destruction of his property similar to what has been documented at bob's blog.
When he first told me about it I thought it was great because we need more energy and local people would make a few bucks but it is now obvious that if that the regulators in DEP and EPA don't get a handle this it has the potential of causing as much environmental damage in the 21st century as the coal mines did in the last two.
Headlines like these are scary.
Dimock, Pennsylvania: A community paying the price for natural gas production with hydraulic fracturing fluid spills
Not really understanding all the issues involved I asked my friend Kayak Dude to explain it for us.
Drill, Baby, Drill?
Should we open our state forests to additional natural gas drilling to (finally) strike a long-overdue budget deal? My fellow Pennsylvanians…not so fast.
The drilling process known as "hydrofracturing" is barely underway in this commonwealth, and we've already had three chemical spills in less than a week, multiple fish kills, and many folks in Dimock, PA ( Susquehanna County ) cannot drink the water coming from their wells. Is this acceptable? I think not.
I've been following the growth of this whole Marcellus Shale natural gas play for almost two years. Those in favor of widespread drilling and those in opposition, with the oil companies offering big upfront checks and the promise of new found riches to the former, are locked in a battle of words and wills being played out in local, regional and national government and the media.
What is the truth? Is the estimated amount of recoverable natural gas locked in the Marcellus Shale Formation (MSF) truly a major step toward our nation's goal of energy independence? Is the state budget really the place to put our natural resources out for bid? Do the oil companies really care about Pennsylvania's environment? Have they truly drilled 10,000 wells "without incident'? Are environmentalists justified in raising concerns about the whole hydrofracturing process and its aftermath, or are they just doing that tree-hugging liberal NIMBY ( don't forget unpatriotic ) thing again?
Let's look at the facts. The oil industry and geologists have known about "gas shales" for decades. In early 2008, some PSU and NYU professors "stunned" the oil industry by estimating that the MSF contained approximately a two year's supply of natural gas based upon current consumption levels. This estimate far exceeded prior yield expectations. But wait. Less than 9 months later, the same professors revised their original estimates based upon information PROVIDED BY AN OIL COMPANY. Yes, Virginia…that's true. Their new yield projection was seven times higher than numbers they offered earlier that same year. It has since doubled again, somewhere near a 30 year (estimated) supply. I wonder if these same two professors grade on a similar curve? I wonder how long I'd have a job if I routinely revised my estimates sevenfold in either direction? "Ooops! Sorry guys, we're only going to see a $30 million profit this year, not the original $210 million I projected..." Waddya mean, I'm fired?
Fact is - the manner in which they drill into the MSF, which is over a mile beneath the surface, is radically different from the "10,000 safely drilled wells" already in production. The drilling technology - developed by Halliburton, repeat, HALLIBURTON - is relatively new.
Once the drill bit approaches/enters the MSF, it is slowly turned from vertical to horizontal, and heads laterally another 3,000 feet or so. Andnot just in one direction, but several. Think of a spider web, and you'll get the picture. At this point, water, sand, and a whole slew of chemicals - both known and unknown - are injected into the MSF under great pressure to fracture the rock - a.k.a. hydrofracturing or "fracking" for short - and release the natural gas trapped in the MSF. And for the record, we are talking about a ~million of gallons (or more) of water per well per day. That water is being taken from our streams and rivers as well as municipal sources, i.e. our drinking water supply. Now, once thousands of gallons of chemicals - many of them highly toxic to anything needing water to exist ( like us ) - are mixed with the water and injected underground, about 40-60% of that mixture stays down there. The rest ( flowback ) returns to the surface along with the natural gas that is released. In addition to the toxic brew of chemicals, the flowback/fracking wastewater contains an extremely high levels of salts, metals and…radioactivity. I've read reports that the MSF drilling wastewater is about ten times saltier than sea water. Problem is, right now, our existing wastewater treatment plants cannot handle or adequately treat this flowback water. Not even close. And since the drilling companies will not release a complete list of all chemicals used, the plants that want to treat this water - and release it back into our streams and rivers - still don't know what to they need to treat and/or remove!
That's a brief overview of the fracking process, and there's far, far more to consider. PA's forests and farms are being cleared for access roads and drilling sites. PA's Endless Mountains are being quarried for the stone to pave the access roads and the drill pads. Small trout streams are having their waters siphoned away. And on, and on...and on.
It doesn't take a degree in rocket science, or environmental science, to understand what the long-term impact this will have on PA. Short-term, those people who sign leases will get some up front money to be followed - provided the drilling begins and is successful - by a steady stream of royalty checks for however long the well produces. Once that money stops coming in, they will be left with an empty bank account, probably having their drinking water trucked in like the folks up in Dimock, and when they try to sell their property years down the road, they will be in for a very rude reality check.
For anyone who wants to learn more about both sides of this issue - and it is not going away anytime soon - my advice is to educate yourselves. There's plenty of information out there from both sides of the debate. And while you're at it, please consider dropping our ex-VP Dick Cheney a quick line and ask him why he decided to exempt the hydrofracturing process developed by HALLIBURTON from the Safe Water Drinking Act while behind closed doors in 2005? I'm sure he'll be quick to respond.
Cynic that I am, I do not believe the oil companies "we care about your environment" mantra. I've seen what they've done elsewhere. And whenever someone who stands to make money from MSF drilling opens their mouth, I always envision the following: "I wonder how many times Bernie Madoff said: Don't worry, your money ( replace with property ) will be safe with me..."
Economic revitalization? Jobs? A prosperous new future? Haven't we all heard that before? Remember the inflatable dam?
Don is the author of Susquehanna River Sentinal who has blogging for 10 years. Congratulations Don and Thank You.