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With all this natural gas, who needs oil?

It's home-grown, plentiful, and touted as the best way to wean the US off Mideast oil. But there are limits to how far the US can tilt toward a natural gas economy. 

(Page 6 of 7)

Methane has long been a problem in northern Pennsylvania because of the geological formation and its history of oil and gas exploration. Brian Oram of B.F. Environmental Consultants, a Dallas, Pa.-based firm, says that even before the Marcellus Shale drilling began more than half of Pennsylvania's private wells didn't meet federal drinking-water standards. Of those, 3 to 5 percent had significant problems with methane.

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  • Graphic US shale gas fields
    (Source:US Energy Information Admin./Graphic:Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

"Methane's been a hidden secret in north Pennsylvania for a long time," says Mr. Oram. "But I also don't want to suggest that someone's methane levels may not have changed because of drilling."

Today the Vargsons' drinking well is so laced with methane that when Ms. Vargson turns on the faucet in her kitchen and lights a match, it catches fire. The contaminated water forced the family to sell its herd of 60 dairy cows and take jobs off the farm. And the royalty checks steadily decreased after the first few months. Vargson says the last few have been about $70 each.

She remains convinced that wherever the methane in her water is coming from, it wouldn't be there if the well on her property hadn't been drilled. "I still believe we need to become less dependent on foreign oil and that we need to find ways to use other resources," she says. "If they would only extract this gas safely, I'd get on their bandwagon. But knowing they can do this safely and aren't, that's my biggest holdback."

For the promised natural gas revolution to transform the nation's economy, advocates say such environmental problems will have to be overcome. And it isn't just the occasional faucet contaminated with some volatile organic compound. There are also the unanticipated consequences, like a series of small earthquakes that recently rattled the Youngstown, Ohio, area. The state determined their cause was a hydraulic fracturing wastewater well improperly sited on a fault line. It has issued new regulations to prevent similar tremors.

While gas companies defend their techniques as environmentally sound, some industry officials admit they could do more to allay public concerns. From the start, they believe they should have addressed the causes of the methane in the wells in northeast Pennsylvania and other states.

"We should have stepped up and said, 'It doesn't have to do with fracturing, but it has to do with well integrity, and let me show you why and how it can be addressed,' " says Mark Boling, a lawyer with Southwestern Energy, a Houston-based oil and gas firm active in Pennsylvania.

Along with the environmental concerns, there's concern about whether natural gas's economic benefits will last. Local opposition to fracking could leave vast tracts of the shale gas undeveloped. New York State has already deemed its major watersheds off limits to drilling and put strict limits on where fracking can be done. Several towns have banned it all together.

In Pennsylvania, which just passed a statewide law regulating the practice, several towns have gone to court to block the statute primarily because it takes away local officials' authority to decide where drilling can take place.

There's also the mercurial law of supply and demand. Natural gas prices are notoriously volatile. The warm winter and generous supplies of natural gas from the current drilling boom have plunged prices to a 20-year low. That has made tapping the shale less profitable. The pace of drilling in Pennsylvania has already slowed, with rigs moving to more oil-rich fields. Will the jobs now vanish? If drilling slows too much, will prices spike again?

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