Controversial path to possible glut of natural gas

Water and chemicals injected at high pressure can extract more gas – and possibly pollute drinking water.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    In my backyard: Gas drilling rig sprouts in Remuda Ranch Estates, near Fort Worth, Texas.
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After decades of declining US natural-gas production, an advanced drilling system so powerful it fractures rock with high-pressure fluid is opening up vast shale-gas deposits.

Instead of falling, US gas production is rising, with up to 118 years’ worth of “unconventional” natural gas reserves in 21 huge shale basins, an industry study in July reported. Such reserves could make the nation more energy self-sufficient and provide more of a cleaner “bridge fuel” to help meet carbon-reduction goals urged by environmentalists.

Shale gas reserves have a powerful economic lure. Companies, states, and landowners could all reap a windfall in the tens of billions. Some also predict lower heating costs for residential gas users as production increases.

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Now, scores of natural gas companies are fanning out from Fort Worth, Texas, where hydraulic fracturing of shale has been done for at least five years, to lease shale lands in 19 states, including Pennsylvania and New York.

But some warn that by expanding “hydraulic fracturing” of shale, America strikes a Faustian bargain: It gains new energy reserves, but it consumes and quite possibly pollutes critical water resources.

“People need to understand that these are not your old-fashioned gas wells,” says Tracy Carluccio, special projects director for Delaware Riverkeeper, a watchdog group worried about a surge in new gas drilling from New York to Pennsylvania and from Ohio to West Virginia. “This technology produces tremendous amounts of polluted water and uses dangerous chemicals in every single well that’s developed.”

Traditional gas wells bore straight into porous stone, using a few thousand gallons of water during drilling. But dense shale has gas locked inside.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” and horizontal drilling unlock it.

Each hydraulically fractured horizontal well can require from 2 million to 7 million gallons of fresh water mixed with sand and thousands of gallons of industrial chemicals to make the water penetrate more easily.

This frac-water mixture is blasted at high pressure into shale deposits up to 10,000 feet deep, fracturing them. The sand lodges in the cracks, propping them open and providing a path for the gas to exit after external pressure is released.

Besides using vast amounts of groundwater, scientists and environmentalists worry that toxic frac water – 30 percent or more – remains underground and may years later pollute freshwater aquifers.

Millions of gallons of frac water come back to the surface. It could be treated, but in Texas it is most often reinjected into the ground.

Millions more gallons of “produced” water flow out later during gas production. This flow, too, is often tainted with radioactivity and poisons from the shale. Often stored in pits, that waste can leak or overflow while awaiting reinjection.

Simply put: “Each of these wells uses millions of gallons of fresh water, and all of it is going to be contaminated,” Ms. Carluccio says.
Industry spokesmen say such fears are overblown.

“The wells we drill ... are insulated with concrete,” says Chip Minty, a spokesman for Devon Energy, an Oklahoma City-based gas company that pioneered hydraulic fracturing in the Barnett shale formation beneath Fort Worth, Texas. “The purpose is to protect any kind of aquifer or ground water layer. Those processes are controlled by regulatory agencies, and that keeps us safe from any kind of aquifer pollution.”

A pioneer in “best practices,” Devon has also developed a way to purify and reuse frac water. But those techniques are costly and not widely used at present. Whether such practices will be required elsewhere is an open question.

Targets for this new kind of drilling
One huge target is the Marcellus shale basin that spans large parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. States are eager to get to get new revenues – and so are many landowners lining up to sign leases.

“I’ll be glad to welcome the crews with open arms,” writes Al Czervic in the Catskill Commentator, an online publication. “Drill here, my friends,” he writes, “Drill here. And then, drill some more.”

But amid this gold-rush-type fever in the Delaware and Susquehanna River Basins, voices warn that environmental safeguards and industry standards need to be beefed up before drill bits hit – or the great gas boom could exact a steep price in polluted water.

“Decades ago, we weren’t careful with coal mining,” wrote Bryan Swistock, a water resources specialist with the Penn State Cooperative Extension, in a recent statement. “As a result, we are still paying huge sums to clean up acid mine drainage. We need to be careful and vigilant or we could see lasting damage to our water resources from so many deep gas wells.”

State environmental agencies and industry experts say multiple systems will be in place to safeguard water.

“The current balanced management approach works – allowing for effective state regulatory programs that appropriately protect the environment while providing for the essential development of oil and gas,” wrote Steph­­anie Meadows, a senior policy adviser at the American Pet­rol­eum Institute, a Wash­ington trade group, in an e-mail response to Monitor questions on hydraulic fracturing.

Where safeguards failed
Still, one can point to examples where those safeguards did not work. New Mexico and Colorado, which have struggled with leakage from frac-water waste pits involving gas exploration, are now moving forward with legislation.

“There are numerous instances in various states of surface water and drinking water contamination from hydraulic frac­­turing,” says Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources De­­fense Council in New York. “Nobody, including the industry, has done any in-depth examination to find out the impact on ground water. We are seeing some bad stuff coming out of individual wells and taps.”

The nation’s shale-gas guinea pigs reside in 15 counties around Fort Worth, where shale-gas extraction using hydraulic fracturing has been validated in recent years. The results have brought wealth to some, but infuriated others.

Charlotte Harris and her husband signed a mineral lease last year. But she’s upset now. She sharply recalls a day last November when her drinking-water well died and a new gas well 100 yards from her Grandview, Texas, home was born.

She washed dishes that morning as usual, she says in an phone interview. But after a shower, her skin itched terribly and she realized the water had a sulfurous odor. Later that day, without warning, her toilet erupted. Water shot out of it “like Niagara Falls.”

About that time, she learned, powerful pump trucks at the nearby well site were sending pulses of water mixed with sand and chemicals thousands of feet down into solid shale to fracture it to increase the flow of gas. She and her husband now believe some of that fluid escaped under pressure much nearer the surface.

After the Harrises complained, the drilling company had the water tested but found no problem. Harris’s next-door neighbor, John Sayers, had a lab test his well water. The lab found toluene, a chemical used in explosives, paint stripper – and often in drilling fluids.

Almost a year later, the Harris family well water, once clear and sweet, is murky and foul-smelling. Ms. Harris’s husband, Stevan, trucks in about 1,500 gallons twice a week, at 15 cents a gallon.

“We’re not using that [well] water for anything at all,” Mr. Sayers says. “I was told not to drink, wash, or anything. Not even water my grass with it.”

Is New York City drinking water at risk?
In July, New York’s governor signed a bill to expand shale-gas drilling using fracturing technology, which could bring the state $1 billion in annual revenues. But the state is first requiring an updated environmental assessment and may yet require companies to reveal the type of chemicals they mix with the water they shoot down the wells – something that Texas does not require.

New York City is one of only four large cities in the nation with unfiltered drinking water. It flows from the northern Catskill region. That’s the same basin in which gas companies want to drill.

Drilling “is completely and utterly inconsistent with a drinking water supply,” said New York City Councilman James Gennaro at a press conference last month. “This would destroy the New York City watershed, and for what? For short-term gains on natural gas.”

But while New York has a drilling freeze pending its environmental review, a gas-drilling rush is on in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River region. Scores of wells are being drilled, with applications pending to drill hundreds more. In the long run, some say there may be 10,000 new gas wells across the region.

“We’re hearing various stories ... about flow backwater,” says Susan Obleski, a spokeswoman for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, which oversees water usage. “We could eventually be seeing 29 million gallons a day usage by this industry. That sounds like a lot, but golf courses use double that.”

The concern, however, is that the most productive gas drilling areas tend to be in remote, forested areas, with forested streams – headwaters areas. If water is removed in significant amounts from there, it could damage ecosystems and Susquehanna watershed water quality.

The SBRC has issued two cease-and-desist orders to companies illegally re­­moving water. It has told 23 others to clarify requirements, and found that about 50, in all, are vying for water, leases, and drilling permits in the region.

Tiny Nockamixon Township, which has resisted gas drilling, is being sued by natural-gas drillers. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case in which some towns are seeking to overturn lower court decisions that keep municipalities from having laws regulating gas drilling inside their borders.

Back in Texas, some are fighting the practice of reinjecting frac water into the earth. In Erath County, near Fort Worth, Bill Gordon has successfully protested several new commercial injection wells that, according to him, would have pumped as much as 30,000 barrels a day of untreated frac water underground.

A recent lightning strike set one such well on fire, proving to Mr. Gordon that volatile chemicals remain in the fluid.

“Nobody knows what’s in this drilling fluid,” he says. “I think we need to know.”

What’s being injected deep underground?

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are not new. Both date back decades. But their combined use to get gas from shale formations is new within the past decade.
Hydraulic fracturing has long been used to get gas from coal beds, a process some say is similar to shale-gas fracturing.

An Environmental Protection Agency study in 2004 concluded that hydraulic fracturing to get methane gas from coal  beds “poses little or no threat” to drinking water supplies. But several EPA scientists have challenged that finding.

“EPA produced a final report ... that I believe is scientifically unsound and contrary to the purposes of law,” Weston Wilson, a 30-year EPA veteran, wrote in a whistle-blower petition in 2004. “Based on the available science and literature, EPA’s conclusions are unsupportable.”

Today, chemicals used in fracturing are considered by the companies to be trade secrets. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempts companies from being forced by the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and other federal laws to reveal what chemicals are in their fracturing fluids.

But some say that it’s critical to know what’s being injected deep underground.

“We’re very concerned about this toxic drilling and hydraulic fracturing,” says Gwen Lachelt, director of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project in Durango, Colo. “We need to know what’s in what they’re putting into the ground.”

[ Editor's Note: The original version of this article described a New York bill as a way to “permit” shale-gas drilling using fracturing technology. In fact, fracturing was already permitted. The new bill changes “well-unit spacing” in a way that opens the way for greatly expanded use of hydraulic fracturing in tandem with horizontal drilling. ]

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