Water and Shale Gas

New drilling techniques have increased the amount of gas that’s accessible, but whether it’s truly recoverable may hinge on whether concerns about water are addressed convincingly

12 min read
Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Dimock, PA

Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Inevitably, the cliché that experts use to describe what’s going on in natural gas is “game changer.” The discovery in the last decade that new drilling techniques could open up vast reserves of fossil energy trapped in shale rock formations has produced what ordinarily cautious experts are calling a “natural gas revolution.” That revolution “is already changing the national energy dialogue and overall energy outlook in the United States—and could change the global natural gas balance,” as Robert Ineson and Daniel Yergin, two such experts, put it late last year in The Wall Street Journal.

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Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates and for decades one of the top names in energy analysis, bases that vision on a radical reappraisal of U.S. natural gas reserves. The much more optimistic assessment is formed almost entirely on reconsidering shale gas, which until about a decade ago was considered too difficult to extract. A year ago, the Potential Gas Committee, a consortium of academic and industrial experts coordinated by the Colorado School of Mines, boosted its estimate of U.S. gas reserves by 45 percent, the largest such increase in the committee’s 44-year history. Combined with U.S. Department of Energy assessments, the total available future supply in the United States is now nearly 60 trillion cubic meters (2074 trillion cubic feet)—enough to meet the country’s gas needs for about 90 years, at current rates of consumption, or perhaps half that long if consumption is doubled.

Run all vehicles—or at least all heavy vehicles—on compressed natural gas; replace gas generation with wind. If done on a large scale, the Pickens program would make the United States much more independent of foreign oil. But the plan would help mitigate global warming only if there were enough wind to also substitute for coal.
—T. Boone Pickens plan

This is important, obviously, because energy demand is going to keep increasing fast, and natural gas can substitute for oil in a world that’s becoming increasingly short on fossil fuels. What’s more, gas is a clean and relatively low-carbon fuel. So, if solar fails to live up to its promise or wind runs into limits, or if nuclear still seems too costly and too risky, natural gas is well placed to take over. In principle, there appears to be enough newly recoverable gas in the United States to replace all the country’s coal-fired power, which generates nearly half the country’s electricity and accounts for more than a third of its carbon emissions. (Substituting gas would cut those emissions in half.) That’s why a seemingly improbable combination of energy specialists and environmentalists, including Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens and New York environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., have been singing the praises of natural gas.

Change electricity dispatch rules so that gas-fired plants are brought online ahead of coal base load. Per kilowatt-hour, gas-generated electricity produces only half as much carbon as coal. However, putting gas ahead of coal in the dispatch queue could drive up costs and complicate reliability rules.
—Robert F. Kennedy proposal

Newly accessible shale gas reserves may be equally large and enticing in other parts of the world, notably China and Eastern Europe. There, the so-called unconventional gas could represent a threat to Russia’s dominance of energy markets. But everywhere there’s a catch, and it’s not a small catch, though Yergin and Ineson call it the only one. It’s water.

To begin with, recovery of shale gas requires large quantities of water, which is injected to break up deep rock formations. The quantity of water involved may not be a big issue in, say, Pennsylvania, which is one of the most water-rich U.S. states and sits atop a huge shale gas reserve. But it can be important in the water-parched states of the U.S. Southwest and other dry places. As a recent Worldwatch Institute report put it, “the sheer volume of water consumed during hydraulic fracturing could make unconventional gas production costly and unsustainable in many areas of the world that are water constrained.”

Shale gas extraction’s effect on water quality is an even bigger issue. The water that’s injected contains a complicated recipe of chemicals that’s cooked up to address various needs, and by the time it has been recovered it has picked up still more chemicals, including a lot of salt and sometimes radioactive materials. Those chemicals, and the gas itself, can contaminate local water supplies. Considering that all politics is local, as the saying goes, if you add up all the particular situations where citizens have become alarmed about impacts on their water quality, this could be much more than a minor matter—especially considering that threatened local water supplies could include those of major metropolises, including those of New York City.

Thus, gas may be recoverable in theory but not in practice. And as many an expert has observed, there can be big difference between what nature provides and what the local community will permit.

The ability to recover shale gas is the result of two convergent technologies: horizontal drilling and what’s technically known as hydraulic fracturing of the shale formations, or “fracking.” The term has lately been used to refer to the combination of both technologies, but hydraulic fracturing—the injection of water to liberate oil or gas—has been used for decades.

It’s actually the horizontal drilling that’s the truly disruptive innovation. Once a well is sunk about 2 kilometers into the ground, advanced computer controls now make it possible to gradually turn the bit and guide it horizontally for 10 km or more to within centimeters of target spots. This sideways drilling makes it possible to access much more gas from a single hole, thereby improving the economics. At least equally important is that sidling in sharply reduces the surface footprint associated with lifting a given quantity of gas, which makes the whole process much more palatable to denizens of the drilling area.

“You can develop 1 square mile [of subsurface field] and yet disturb only 1 percent of the surface,” says Matt Pitzarella, a spokesperson for Range Resources Corp., a Texas oil and gas company that originated in Ohio and is now drilling in Pennsylvania and New York. “Exploiting the gas doesn’t turn the surface into Swiss cheese.”

Horizontal drilling in combination with hydraulic fracturing was first done on a large scale during the last decade in the Barnett Shale formation in the Bend Arch–Fort Worth Basin, in Texas, where the techniques proved highly successful. Now they are being transferred to the Marcellus Shale, a gigantic geological formation under virtually all of Pennsylvania and much of upstate New York, with flanks stretching into West Virginia and Ohio. The gas formed hundreds of millions of years ago in the Devonian era, a long geologic age in which Pennsylvania’s coal and oil also came into being, though mostly by separate processes and at different times.

Today’s Marcellus reserves, mainly located in Pennsylvania and upstate New York, often are said to be the world’s second largest, after a natural gas deposit straddling Qatar and Iran. What’s more, the gas is top quality, almost pure methane. And it can be extracted right in the heart of the country’s most densely built natural-gas pipeline network.

Vera Scroggins

Photo: William Sweet
Dimock Denizen: Vera Scroggins keeps a watchful eye on shale gas exploration in Dimock, Penn.

While it’s true that horizontal drilling sharply reduces an extraction operation’s footprint, in areas where fracking is taking off, its visibility is far from trivial. Visit a place like Dimock, Pa., a town just north of Scranton and just south of Binghamton, N.Y., and you’ll see many large clusters of water tanks; long convoys of big trucks carrying drill pipe, water, and other supplies; compressors, water-sand separators, and other machinery; and drilling derricks, which, at 30 to 50 meters in height, are not tiny. Far more subtle, as Dimock citizen Vera Scroggins points out, are the yellow wires running along the sides of roads to produce seismic readings, vent pipes installed at residential wells to remove methane that has leaked into drinking water, and the tops of plastic-covered semi-subterranean walls that have been installed to prevent chemical-laden surface water from migrating into fields adjacent to drill pads.

Scroggins, 59, was born in Germany and lived most of her adult life on densely populated and heavily trafficked Long Island. But she and her husband always longed to live the country, and so a few years back they moved to the area around Dimock, living first on a farm, then in the small town itself.

At least temporarily, gas drilling has made a mockery of what she and her husband hoped to find in Dimock. In all, says Scroggins, 62 wells have been drilled in an area about 5 by 5 km. When activity was at its peak, one resident counted 200 trucks per hour going through the town, and supplies were being brought in by helicopter as well.

Dimock, Penn. water

Photo: Tim Shaffer/Reuters
Cheers: A glass of water, reportedly taken from a Dimock, Penn., well on 7 March 2009, after the start of drilling operations there.

Though still at an early stage of development, Marcellus gas was expected to generate close to US $4 billion in revenues in 2009. Scroggins concedes that most Dimock residents and the local political establishment support gas exploitation, because they stand to make a lot of money from royalties. “Most homeowners are for it and don’t want to hear about problems,” she says. But some landowners wonder whether they’re being fairly paid for the gas that’s extracted from under their land [see sidebar, "The Landman Cometh"] and adequately compensated for damage done.

Enough Dimock residents have become concerned about such damage to directly challenge the drilling companies. Fifteen Dimock households have retained a New York City law firm and filed a suit bringing a number of complaints against Cabot Oil and Gas Corp., the company that’s been doing most of the gas extracting around town. When asked to comment on the lawsuit and explain why it installed gas vents on Dimock water wells if water contamination was not an issue, Cabot did not respond.

Cabot is typical of the companies getting set to exploit the Marcellus, firms like Chesapeake Energy Corp., EnCana Oil & Gas, Pioneer, and Range. They’re not household names.

Range is perhaps the leading Marcellus company at present, producing about 2.8 million cubic meters (100 million cubic feet) of gas daily, enough to heat about a half million homes. It expects to be extracting 5.6 million m3 a day by the end of this year, and 11.3 million by the end of next year. Extraction of gas from each well requires on average about 15 million liters of water, which is injected once, at enormous pressure (about 41 000 kilopascals or 6000 pounds per square inch) to lift and fracture the shale horizontally. (If the water escaped from a pinhole in a hose and you happened to be standing nearby, it could slice your arm off.)

So far, about 1100 wells have been drilled in the Marcellus, compared to 3000 wells in the Barnett at its 2007 peak, says Pitzarella. But even if 9000 were drilled in the Marcellus, “we’d still be using only 1 percent of Pennsylvania’s water,” he continues. Most of the water is then pumped out, treated, and recycled or disposed of following operations. Each well, over its 50-year lifetime, might produce 3.5 million m3 of gas. That’s an enormous benefit. As Range and other companies working the Marcellus “play” see it, water quality issues are trivial by comparison.

Gas companies are somewhat close-lipped about the concentrations of chemicals they use in fracking and the rationale for their use, though they make a show of fully listing all chemicals used so as to satisfy state regulators and concerned citizens. They complain, not unreasonably, that disclosure of their blends would be like a master chef’s giving his best recipes away or Coca Cola’s divulging its formulation. In a general sense, however, it’s known what purposes the additives serve.

Sand, one of the most crucial ingredients, is there as a “proppant,” to support and keep fractures open once they are made. Certain chemicals are added to “slick” the water, that is, to reduce friction within the drilling pipe when water is injected, while others prevent clogging when gas is collected through small perforations in the horizontal pipes. Thickeners give the injection fluid more body, so that with greater intrinsic pressure less water and fewer trucks are needed.

Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel at the Environmental Working Group, a public interest organization based in Washington, D.C., and author of a recent critical report about fracking, argues that many of the additives are distillates that are chemically similar to diesel fuel. The U.S. Clean Water Act limits the use of diesel in fracking operations, but it is mum about some similar chemicals. “The oil and gas companies are doing an end run around federal law,” Horwitt asserts.

The industry takes issue with that view and describes the chemicals they use as essentially benign. According to Range, the friction reducer polyacrylamide, is commonly used in contact lenses and toys, the biocide glutaraldehyde is routinely put in swimming pools, and the scale inhibitor ethylene glycol is commonly found in municipal water systems, to prevent pipe deposits.

“According to information obtained from state oil and gas agencies, there is not one documented case of drinking water contamination related to the hydraulic fracturing of a deep shale gas well,” claims the Marcellus Shale Gas Coalition, which includes all or most of the companies that worked the Barnett Shale during the last decade. “There has never been a documented instance of water contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing in the technology’s 60-year history,” says Range.

That would be news to Scroggins, who says many Dimock citizens have complained of malodorous and discolored water. Though Cabot refuses to concede wrongdoing or even that any kind of real problem exists, Scroggins points out that it has provided some residents with “water buffaloes”—freshwater supplies to substitute for the well water they normally use. The state department of environmental protection shut down Cabot’s operations in the town for three weeks. And in one case a water well exploded.

When asked to comment on the industry’s claim that no documented cases of water contamination exist, including in the Dimock area, Range says this claim is “technically correct” in that “when fracking is conducted properly, meaning all established procedures and protocols are followed, it’s a perfectly safe and proven part of drilling operations.” But that “when” is actually a big “if,” Range immediately concedes: “There have been cases of groundwater contamination…due to human error or mechanical failure.” There may also be cases, Range might have added, due to deliberate human wrongdoing, as a West Virginia story suggests.

Buckeye Creek, in Doddridge County, W.Va.

Photo: Louanne McConnell Fatora
Yuck: Buckeye Creek, in Doddridge County, W.Va., on 29 August 2009. Drilling fluid was dumped into the stream from a nearby site.

Louanne McConnell Fatora is a teacher whose family has owned a home for generations in an area of northern West Virginia that forms another part of the Marcellus. Last 24 August, after she and her 19-year-old son, Luke, arrived in Doddridge County for a short visit, he went down to nearby Buckeye Creek to get in some fishing. He came right back, shouting that there was something wrong with the water, and indeed there was: The entire surface was blanketed with a gooey orange-red gel. It didn’t take Fatora long to figure out that the gel must have come from a gas drilling operation upstream. So she started talking with regulators, who eventually required the driller to come in and clean up the site. The regulators never issued any formal determination of wrongdoing, however, which Fatora is still trying to obtain so that the same thing never happens again.

Personally, Fatora is convinced that the water contamination was not an accident but rather a deliberate dumping by the owner of the land where the gas drilling was done. Every summer, she says, that person hosts a major dirt-bike racing event, a multiday festival that even has its own Web site. This past year, with the event scheduled to take place just a few weeks before Luke’s discovery, used drilling fluid had been accumulating in a lined pond on the festival host’s land. Fatora figures that the landowner had decided to just get rid of it, figuring that nobody would notice.

There’s no doubt that the drilling company, Fatora’s neighbor, and West Virginia regulators would all dispute aspects of her account. But what local citizenry conclude on the basis of such incidents can be as important as the actual truth. Fatora is hardly alone in seeing her state’s regulation of gas fracking—which is almost exclusively done by state law, not federal—as weak and collusive. There’s a widely held perception among fracking critics that whenever a water issue arises, the industry’s modus operandi is to come in and fix it quickly—and then pay off aggrieved parties before the issue winds up in the courts or in the press.

Put together enough Technicolor streams, exploding water wells, and lawsuits and it’s easy to see that the Marcellus could turn out to be something somewhat less than a stateside Saudi Arabia or Qatar.

Easily the biggest local situations impinging on the development of Marcellus gas is the integrity of New York City’s water supply. The city is unusual or even unique in that almost none of its drinking water requires filtration. The water coming down from Catskill reservoirs is so pristine and pure, it routinely beats brands like Perrier and Evian in blind taste tests.

Gas companies would like to drill in a part of upstate New York that is within the city’s watershed. It’s a small but exceptionally promising part of the Marcellus. Local and state officials, eyeing the tax revenues they stand to gain, favor the drilling. But the city opposes gas development in the watershed, saying it would have to install multibillion-dollar water filtration plants, which even then might not guarantee pure water. The city has been getting some quiet support from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and in late April, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation ruled against gas drilling in the watershed.

The industry has adamantly opposed additional federal regulation, arguing that state regulation is entirely adequate. If Marcellus and similar shale formations are to live up to their promise, obviously much will depend on the industry’s conduct, posture, and attitudes, which to date have left ambiguous impressions. Most of the gas companies flatly refuse to talk with the press, and some of them don’t even have media or public affairs offices, which is unusual. Yet in the case of this story, the one company (Range) that was forthcoming was extremely forthcoming.

As for Cabot, though the company declined to speak with IEEE Spectrum, when Scroggins wants to visit a drilling site in Dimock, she just dons a hardhat and protective goggles, and generally nobody gets in her way. The day she showed me around Dimock, she simply walked right into the drilling command center. The driller’s manager and the gas company site boss told her flatly they were not allowed to talk. But Scroggins, a videographer with an investigative reporter’s instincts, started talking anyway. Soon Cabot’s man Jesus was telling her about his experiences extracting oil and gas in Venezuela and Mexico, while Pioneer’s Brent was telling me about his days in Wyoming, Utah, and Texas.

Scroggins gets along well with men like Jesus and Brent, despite her reservations about their work. Standing there with them on the drill pad in Dimock, you get the feeling that the local problems will be worked out on mutually advantageous terms, allowing the global revolution in natural gas to proceed. But that’s just one local situation of many, and just one reporter’s instinct.

This article was corrected on 30 June 2011.

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