Gas aplenty: But at what cost?

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in Wilderness Magazine, our annual publication that features in-depth coverage and features about the day’s most pressing conservation issues. Become a member and receive a free copy!

By Susan Q. Stranahan

For a struggling land trust with a $300,000 annual budget, the deal was enticing: Sign a lease to allow gas drilling at one of its preserves and pocket $5 million. But after much soul-searching, the North Branch Land Trust, based in northeastern Pennsylvania, said no thanks.

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Nowadays a lot of such soul-searching goes on in the Keystone State. Just as the Gulf of Mexico became the poster child for the risks of offshore oil drilling, Pennsylvania is now at the center of the growing debate over exploiting massive reserves of natural gas buried within the rock formation known as Marcellus Shale.

Nearly two-thirds of Pennsylvania is underlain with Marcellus Shale, which stretches from Upstate New York into West Virginia. Some experts believe there is enough gas in Pennsylvania alone to supply all the nation’s needs for 10 to 15 years. But will tapping this gas do too much damage to the land and water?

Gas line map.As the nation struggles to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, natural gas is being touted as a “bridge” fuel that can transition the U.S. from polluting coal and oil to renewable sources such as solar and wind energy. Marcellus gas has the added advantage of being near populous northeastern markets.

So, the rush to drill has begun. Pennsylvania has issued more than 4,000 permits since 2005, and the pace is accelerating. More than a quarter of the state has been leased for exploration. By some estimates, 50,000 natural gas wells may be drilled in the state in the next 20 years.

In contrast, New York State has imposed a moratorium on drilling until environmental impacts can be determined. Of prime concern is protecting metropolitan New York’s drinking water, which comes from the Marcellus-rich upper Delaware River basin.

Marcellus gas, like natural gas in most of the U.S., is extracted by a process known as hydrofracturing — “fracking,” for short. The Marcellus formation lies 6,000 to 8,000 feet below ground. (Pennsylvania’s aquifers lie above that.) The gas well is drilled vertically to a depth of about a mile, and then horizontal drilling occurs over large areas. More than a million gallons of water, sand, and chemical additives are injected under extremely high pressure to fracture the shale and bring the gas to the surface. Each well may be “fracked” multiple times.

Flowing back up with the gas is briny waste, which is 10 times saltier than sea water, plus chemicals known as fracking liquids. The identity of those chemicals has become a point of contention. The industry claims the mixtures are safe, but has balked at disclosing them, saying the components are proprietary. Among the chemicals that have been identified are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. The waste also contains radioactive elements from the shale itself. Environmentalists have pressed for disclosure, saying fracking poses a threat to drinking water supplies.

Some of the waste remains below ground, its ultimate fate uncertain. What flows to the surface is often stored in large pits awaiting disposal. Leaks and spills have been reported at a number of sites.

Concern about hydraulic fracturing is not confined to the Northeast. “In western Wyoming’s Pinedale Anticline, where fracking has occurred for over a decade, there is wide speculation that it was the cause of nearly 90 contaminated wells,” says Steff Kessler, The Wilderness Society’s Wyoming Program manager. The industry blames natural causes, and there were no baseline water tests to help resolve the argument.

Earlier this year, Wyoming became the first state to require drillers to disclose the components in the fracking liquids to state regulators. Conservationists plan to track this provision as new drilling applications are filed. The information will either be posted automatically on the state’s oil and gas commission website, or will require a request for release of the information under the state’s Public Records Act. “We hope this will start to shed light on the chemicals within these fluids, so that nearby residents can test their home water wells for constituents of concern. This information is important for public health protection.”

Gas development. Photo by arimoore, Creative Commons.Another concern is the impact on the land. The North Branch Land Trust’s Paul Lumia points out that acreage, often in remote, forested regions, must be cleared for drilling pads. Access roads, compressor stations, and other processing equipment must be constructed. Trucks hauling water and wastes ply rural roads; vast quantities of water are sucked from small streams to feed the drilling. Miles of pipeline will eventually snake across the land to hook up with a large transcontinental gas pipeline that traverses Pennsylvania.

Residents who live near drilling sites in Pennsylvania have reported contaminated drinking water wells and sickened livestock. Chemical spills have polluted streams and wetlands. In June, a Marcellus well in western Pennsylvania exploded and burned out of control for 16 hours.

Soon after that incident, 1200 people showed up at an EPA meeting near Pittsburgh. Many demanded tougher regulations. The 2005 Energy Policy Act exempted hydraulic fracturing from compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. Because the process was pioneered by Halliburton, a major oil field services firm once headed by Vice President Richard Cheney, the exemption became known as the “Halliburton loophole.” The EPA is currently reassessing the exemption, and for the moment, regulating the industry falls to state governments.

“There is no such thing as zero-impact drilling, even when it goes well,” says John Hanger, who heads Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The Pennsylvania Land Trust Association’s review of DEP records documented 1435 violations of state oil and gas laws due to gas drilling or other earth disturbance activities related to natural gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale between January 2008 and June 25, 2010. The association identified 952 violations as having or likely to have an impact on the environment.

The state has more than doubled its number of regulators and is updating drilling rules, some of which are more than 30 years old. Permitting fees and fines for infractions have been increased to help pay for the beefed-up operations. Environmentalists argue that such steps are not enough, and there have been increasing calls for a moratorium on drilling until Pennsylvania can catch up with the frenzied pace.

For many in Pennsylvania, the revenue to be derived from drilling is too attractive to turn down. In advance of drilling, energy companies blanketed the state, offering leases at rates that have soared to $4,000 an acre. Last year, Pennsylvanians were paid an estimated $1.8 billion for drilling rights. And everybody is getting into the act. In Lackawanna County leases were signed by a local Bible college, a cemetery, and a sewer authority, among hundreds of others. Along with the influx of money comes the promise of thousands of jobs and ongoing royalty payments for gas extracted.

As Pennsylvania sprouts “mailbox millionaires” and drilling rigs, Lumia concedes the money was tempting. But when he ponders what might have happened to the Howland Preserve, a protected parcel on a beautiful Susquehanna River oxbow, he feels confident that the decision was right.

Shale map.
Gas development. Photo by arimoore, Creative Commons.


Susan Q. Stranahan, a freelancer living on Maine’s Chebeague Island, was a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer for 28 years. She is the author of Susquehanna, River of Dreams, and has written for The Washington Post, AARP Bulletin, Mother Jones, and Fortune, among others.