Natural Gas's Contested Potential

Estimates of recoverable reserves are radically higher, but can the gas actually be recovered without dirtying water and air, or undermining cherished ways of life?

4 min read
Natural Gas's Contested Potential

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is the short-hand name given for innovations in natural gas recovery that have radically transformed the outlook for production and reserves, not only in the United States but in many other parts of the world as well, including China. But it’s rather a misnomer. The truly disruptive innovation is not fracking as such, a technique that’s been used for many decades in the oil and gas industry, but horizontal drilling into shale formations. Drilling first vertically and then horizontally, using advanced computer controls and seismological techniques, drillers can reach much more gas from a far smaller area of the surface. This makes all the ecological, social, and political ramifications of drilling much more manageable—and if indeed they are well managed, there may be a revolution in gas that will give the world another century’s worth of fossil fuel.

But can the ramifications be managed? A recent visit to Dimock, Penn., one of the most concentrated centers of gas drilling in the U.S. Northeast’s Marcellus Formation, and reports from DISH, Texas, a major locus of drilling in the Southwest’s Barnett Formation, showed that impacts on communities can be worrisome—and that industry claims are not quite what they seem to imply.

In Dimock, a small town north of Scranton, evidence of drilling is all around: arrays of large fresh water and waste water tanks; sizable equipment such as compressors and water filters; convoys of large trucks carrying pipe; hilltop rigs that can been seen for miles away. When operations were at their peak, says a local citizen, hundreds of trucks were coming through the center of town every hour, and supplies also were being delivered by noisy, intrusive helicopters.

Sand and a variety of chemicals are added to fracking water to keep seams open and reduce fluid friction. The industry claims that there’s no documented case of water supplies being contaminated by chemicals, ever or anywhere in the United States. But to judge from what one sees in Dimock, that’s more than a little misleading. Though the companies working in Dimock have refused to concede any wrong-doing, they have equipped some houses with “water buffaloes” to provide the water citizens normally would get  from wells. They’ve outfitted many wells with vents, to allow methane to escape that’s somehow got into the wells. (In one case, claims citizen-guide Vera Scroggins, a well cap actually exploded.)

Admittedly, venting of natural gas may not be a huge issue for local citizens, who are more concerned about toxins and carcinogens getting into their drinking water, to the extent they are concerned at all. (Most support  natural gas development  because of the huge monetary returns it will bring them personally and their communities.) But it’s an issue for the rest of us: Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and if too much of it escapes into the atmosphere during drilling and extraction, that could vitiate one of natural gas’s main advantages—its low carbon content  relative to coal.

What is more, if Marcellus development spreads to upstate New York into New York City’s watershed, it could threaten Gotham’s pristine water supplies. Potential show-stopping problems do not end there.

DISH, a small town north of Dallas, is in the heart of Texas’s Barnett formation, where horizontal gas drilling techniques were perfected in the last decade. Originally called Clark, it renamed itself five years ago in a deal with EchoStar Communications, owner of the DISH network. In exchange for calling itself DISH, each of the town’s citizens get free satellite television for a decade.

That’s been a pretty good deal for DISH, but what about natural gas? According to Mayor Calvin Tillman, who spoke late last year to Pennsylvania’s League of Women Voters about problems the Texans encountered, gas development brought concerns not only about water but also air. DISH, Tillman told the Pennsylvania women (who are preparing a critical report about Marcellus development), is at the hub of the natural gas boom that has brought Texas an estimated $8-10 billion in revenues in the last decade and 100,000 new jobs. Gas and water pipelines criss-cross the town, in which  five companies have installed 11 compressors that are noisy and smelly. But when citizens brought their concerns about the volatile organics associated with the compressors to the attention of the companies and Texas regulators, they got a brush-off. That severed trust between the citizens and the companies, Tillman reported.

When the town commissioned its own study, spending 15 percent of a year’s budget on it, not only methane but a number of known carcinogens were found in “fugitive emissions” from drilling operations. 16 chemicals including benzene were found to be “above the effects screening level.”

The gas industry  has been fighting proposals for Federal regulation. It claims state regulation is adequate. But there are many documented instances of citizens finding state enforcement weak, collusive, and non-credible. And according to a report published by ProPublica, an organization that supports investigative reporting, of 31 drilling states surveyed, only four have detailed regulations governing gas fracking and only 10 require disclosure of the chemicals used.

The gas industry, comparing formations like the Marcellus to Qatar gas and Saudi oil reserves, has been running ads saying that gas could be the bridge to a world powered by wind turbines. It may actually be the other way around: Wind may be the bridge to a world powered by gas. But that will only be the case if the industry plays it straight with the public.

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