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5 myths about the Marcellus and natural gas industry

A tank of brine water related to a Marcellus shale gas well sits yards from the a house in Springhill in Fayette County. File photo

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By Timothy Puko
Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012
 

Backers of the state's natural gas industry often compare work in the Marcellus shale with keys dangling in front of a baby: It's the new attention-grabber.

Yet in many respects, it's an industry not unlike others.

Experts say people don't fully understand the consequences of drilling, leading some to raise worst-case scenarios about health and environmental issues that might not be factual.

“There is a real lack of data, and I think some people interpret that as (the industry) hiding something,” said Douglas J. Arent, who leads the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis in Denver.

Those who have concerns about the industry say it and its supporters provide overly optimistic safety proclamations.

“These are people's homes and it is their kids, and it's not surprising to me that there's some fear out there,” said Jim Marston, vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund's energy program.

The Tribune-Review talked with experts about five prevalent myths about the gas industry, to dispel speculation and look at facts.

Myth 1: Hydraulic fracturing of rock layers is the biggest problem associated with the gas boom

Fracking, or cracking rocks to free gas, is less risky than shoddy well construction, surface spills, and shortcomings or mistakes in gas drilling.

The technique that helped unlock vast quantities of underground gas, ushering in a rebirth for the U.S. drilling industry, led to confusion about fracking, and the term became a catch-all for the expanding gas development.

Experts say the semantics distract environmentalists and regulators from focusing on greater pollution risks from well failures, leaky storage units or abandoned wells.

“Wells can leak whether they're hydraulically fracked or not. ... If you misidentify the problems, you misidentify the solutions,” said Mark D. Zoback, a Stanford University geophysicist and member of President Obama's Shale Gas Development advisory committee. “Things get spilled, things get contaminated; when things aren't drilled properly, it can cause environmental problems down the line. But hydraulic fracturing is really not the problem.”

Duke University researchers who studied shale drilling in Pennsylvania found no evidence that fluids used during fracking migrate to the surface.

———

Myth 2: Drilling threatens public health minimally because crews can contain and clean up spills with relative ease

Chesapeake Energy Inc. CEO Aubrey McClendon told CBS' “60 Minutes” in 2010: “If something were to get away … you can go fix it.”

It actually can be tougher to clean up on-shore spills than off-shore spills, experts said.

Blowouts can happen underground, and there's often no way to contain or clean up a spill that spoils an underground aquifer, they said.

Chesapeake has not stopped a three-month leak in Bradford County. One well was part of a widespread methane leak that led to a record fine of nearly $1 million last year, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“The industry has responded at some points by claiming perfection,” said Jeremy Boak, a geologist at the Colorado School of Mines. “That's going overboard in providing the type of assurance that you could reasonably promise.”

Some aquifers could take as many as 1 million years to flush themselves out, said Michael E. Webber, an engineer at the University of Texas.

“It's clear that you're not going to have an accident on the scale of what happened in the Gulf of Mexico (the BP oil spill) ... but you're shifting an impact of scale for an impact in terms of time,” said Stephen B. Shaw, a hydrologist at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

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Myth 3: Widespread hydraulic fracturing may diminish water supplies

Drilling uses water, and people worry about its effect on streams. The state's often generous water withdrawal allotments and dry summers helped spur that concern.

Overly aggressive water withdrawals can impact small streams, but the industry doesn't use enough water to make a dent in major watersheds such as the Monongahela, Ohio or Susquehanna rivers, experts said.

Using 1 million to 5 million gallons of water per well puts it in line with many other industries, experts say.

“It pales in comparison to agriculture,” which is the top user, said Arent of the Denver institute.

Even in the energy sector, shale-gas drilling is comparable to coal and nuclear production in terms of water use per unit of energy recovered, according to a March study from the University of Texas Bureau of Economic Geology.

If wells produce as much gas as geologists expect, the industry would use a fourth of what coal mining uses and a third of what the nuclear industry uses, the study said.

Experts caution against pumping water from small streams with low flows, but note that Pennsylvania is a “wet” state compared with those in the West.

“The American Southwest's view of people in Pennsylvania worried about the water (quantity) is like, ‘Man, you guys are so water rich, what are you worried about?' ” said Texas engineer Webber.

———

Myth 4: Domestic natural gas production brought the United States close to energy independence

“You hear it from politicians all the time,” said Alan J. Krupnick, an economist who leads Resources for the Future's Center for Energy Economics and Policy. “This is just flat-out wrong.”

Most cars, trucks and buses rely on oil and gasoline, and that isn't changing quickly.

It might never be practical to convert to natural gas-fueled vehicles and construct millions of miles of pipelines to feed fueling stations, said Marston of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Such an overhaul could cost billions — even trillions — of dollars, said Webber, who is also associate director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy, and little investment has happened.

Surplus gas fuels power plants, replacing coal instead of imported oil.

“(Gas) certainly has the prospect to be a boon for energy security, but the claim that it's helping now is a stretch,” Webber said.

———

Myth 5: The natural gas industry caused ‘flaming' water taps and well-water problems across the state

Modern drilling contaminated some water wells, but the state has a history of substandard well water that's a bigger problem, experts said.

A 2011 Penn State University study funded by the Legislature did not find well-water pollution from drilling waste fluid or significant increases in methane levels in 48 private water wells within 2,500 feet of Marcellus shale gas wells.

Researchers found that before gas drilling, 40 percent of those water wells failed at least one safe drinking water standard, usually for coliform bacteria, turbidity and manganese. About 20 percent had dissolved methane — typically below safety levels — before shale-gas drilling.

Drilling probably didn't cause the flaming taps in Colorado, which appeared in the activist documentary “Gasland,” according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The movie showed other flaming taps from northeastern Pennsylvania.

But many such taps existed for decades because of leaking abandoned wells and natural seeps, experts said.

It's unclear how much drillers contribute to the problem of flaming taps and methane contamination, they said.

“We don't do before-and-after studies. We only do after studies,” Webber said.

Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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