Controversial path to possible glut of natural gas
Water and chemicals injected at high pressure can extract more gas – and possibly pollute drinking water.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.