"By learning to responsibly produce shale gas, the U.S. is in a position to materially improve the human condition."
-Vikram Rao in "Shale Gas: The Promise and The Peril"
"And if the worst fears about the drilling are borne out, those at the forefront of the movement will be remembered for the damage that they wrought rather than the blessings they bestowed."
-Gregory Zuckerman in "The Frackers"
Part one of two.
The promise of tapping the vast oil and natural gas reserves in shale formations is enormous, and Rao's enthusiasm is echoed by many others. President Obama, in his State of the Union Speech on Jan. 28 stated: "Natural gas - if extracted safely, it's the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution that causes climate change."
The key word in Rao's statement, echoed in the "peril" of his subtitle, warning by Zuckerman and "safely" in Obama's speech may be "responsibly." In the view of a number of environmental and scientific groups, it's an open question whether shale gas and oil resources can be developed and used in sufficiently environmentally safe ways with current and near future technologies in today's fractious political environment.
President Obama made similar statements on natural gas development last June, basing his remarks largely on EPA studies at the time on control of methane release. His position was widely quoted by energy industry sources and was endorsed, with considerable member dissension, by the Sierra Club. But several scientific groups have since challenged the EPA figures, finding methane releases dangerously far higher.
In mid-January positions hardened with the Sierra Club, in alliance with other major environmental groups, demanding less reliance on fossil fuels and greater reductions in CO2 emissions, while the American Petroleum Institute and allied Institutes called for more development of oil and gas resources.
In our area the major natural gas controversy concerns "unconventional gas development," largely synonymous with fracking, of the Marcellus Shale.
First, let's review some terms and claims.
The Marcellus Shale Formation is a layer of sedimentary rock 6,000 to 9,000 feet below the earth's surface encompassing 54,000 to 96,000 square miles (depending on the source), below most of New York, all but the southeastern part of Pennsylvania, most of West Virginia and eastern Ohio. (There's also a shallower "Upper Devonian" layer.) The Utica Shale is another shale layer 3,000 to 7,000 feet deeper and 170,000 square miles in area underlying mostly the same states plus parts of Kentucky and Tennessee. In Maryland the Marcellus Shale underlies Allegany, Garrett and and part of Washington Counties.
Fracking is a process of fracturing shale to release oil and gas by high-pressure injection of millions of gallons of water plus and sand/ceramic substances (proppant) and tens of tons of chemicals, some proprietary and some toxic. Modern fracking techniques, often called high volume hydraulic fracking (HVHF) - aka fracing, hydro-fracking, hydraulic fracking - were developed in the Barnett Shale deposits mostly in Texas in late 1990s. Up to 25 separate well lines can be extended off a single well pad with wells directed laterally or horizontally off a vertical line (at the "kickoff point") and extending as much as 10,000 feet through reservoir rock.
Fracking has been employed in the United States since at least 1947 but comparing earlier techniques to HVHF, even though many long-standard techniques are used, is like comparing the Wright Brother's Flyer to a Boeing 787.
For simplicity, "fracking" is used to indicate HVHF in these two pieces and "Marcellus Shale" is used for overlapping shale layers.
Sifting through books, articles, online material, and conducting interviews, one enters a world of dynamic developments with conflicting claims and scientific studies and disingenuous to outright misleading statements from both some industry proponents and some environmentalist opponents.
Here some of the major claimed benefits:
•Natural gas supplies for the U.S. for 100 years,
•Cleaner burning gas natural replacing coal and even oil and gasoline for some applications,
•Cheaper fuels, fertilizers and other products,
•Increased exports of gas and/or related products and improved balance of payments,
•Economic growth and job expansion,
•Major reduction in dependence on energy supplies from foreign countries and improved national security,
•Possible environmental improvement in China and other foreign countries by exporting fracking technology and products to replace coal.
Here are the major claimed risks to shale development:
•We will still be burning hydrocarbons and creating CO2 with attendant global warming issues,
•Enormous water use and creation of contaminated wastewater, possible pollution of streams, wells and aquifers,
•Release of methane, which, if not controlled, could have far worse consequences than coal burning,
•Risk of earthquakes, mainly due to disposal of waste water,
•Environmental and social costs of development, including heavy road usage, breaking up of communities and of forest tracts, creation of boom towns, decreases in real estate values and outdoor recreational opportunities,
•Creating disincentives to development of sustainable energy resources.
While other states, including New York, Maryland and parts of Colorado and most of Europe, have imposed bans or moratoriums on fracking, Pennsylvania has raced ahead with more than 7,000 fracking wells in operation and more being planned.
Early last October I was invited by Trout Unlimited (TU) to review "unconventional gas development" in Pennsylvania.
TU is a national organization whose mission statement is: "To conserve, protect and restore North America's coldwater fisheries and their watersheds."
TU's position is that sportsmen have a stake and should have a say in protecting natural resources as Marcellus Shale gas resources are developed. TU also listed 10 "Special Places" whose unique natural outdoor resources should be spared from fracking development. In Maryland that "special place" is the Savage River Watershed.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley authorized a 15-member commission to: "Assist State policymakers and regulators in determining whether and how gas production from the Marcellus Shale can be accomplished without unacceptable risk of adverse impacts to public health, safety, the environment and natural resources." See http://www.mde.state.md.us/Pages/Home.aspx for the commission's makeup and the state of their work.