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Thursday, July 23, 2009

How Safe is Natural Gas Drilling?

Posted By on Thu, Jul 23, 2009 at 10:35 AM

Natural gas is the miracle fuel we've been waiting for -- at least if Robert W. Watson is to be believed. In his op-ed in the July 19 Post-Gazette, "The bottom line on Marcellus Shale," the Penn State professor promotes exploitation of Pennsylvania's natural gas with classic double-talk ... while leaving out important information to the contrary.

Drilling for oil and gas, Watson writes, is both the way we've always done things ("It's been going on since before the Civil War") and the wave of the future ("the bridge fuel for the next several decades between fossil fuels and new alternatives"). He even notes that it's "the cleanest-burning fossil fuel." Given concerns about greenhouse gasses -- which are produced by burning all fossil fuels -- that's a rhetorical turn in a league with "slimmest sumo wrestler."

What Watson doesn't acknowledge -- indeed, what his piece seems designed to banish any thought of -- is that drilling for natural gas harms the environment, and might harm people, too. He focuses on exploitation of the Marcellus Shale, the huge deep rock formation underlying most of Pennsylvania. "[M]ost concerns raised about drilling Marcellus wells are of little consequence," he writes. Even those we should pay attention to "all are essentially minor and short-term challenges."

Watson correctly notes that many of these concerns revolve around water use in one form of Marcellus drilling: deep-well hydraulic fracturing. (However, he incorrectly leaves the impression that the deep-well and horizontal drilling techniques frequently used to extract shale gas are decades old; in fact, in their current incarnation they date only to the late '90s.)

In this process, large volumes of liquid are forced at high pressure down a well a mile or more deep, and up to half a mile laterally through the shale. The water fractures the rock and extracts the gas. The "fracking" liquid typically includes toxic chemicals to facilitate the process, sometimes including known carcinogens like formaldehyde and butoxyethanol. Underground, the water can pick up salts and heavy metals (also including known carcinogens). Some of this frack water stays underground; some is retrieved by drillers. (We wrote about this issue in our story, "There Will Be Crud" earlier this year.)

Environmental activists, pointing to documented cases of water contamination from gas drilling, have called for a moratorium on deep-well fracking, or at least for better regulation.

But the status quo is OK with Watson. Noting that each frack (there can be several per well) requires 3 to 5 million gallons of water, he calls the volume "not appreciable when compared to daily water consumption across Pennsylvania."

Is that our standard? (A gas-industry PR person used similar language when I asked him about water usage this past spring, comparing drill-water usage to water used on Pennsylvania golf courses.) How many millions of gallons constitute "appreciable" -- especially when 450 permits for Marcellus wells were issued last year alone?

Watson further dismisses the "additives" to frack water (whose toxicity he never acknowledges) as "used in very small quantities and concentrations." He also says because of the depth at which the shale lies, "fracturing does not affect groundwater." He seems not to have heard that methane (i.e., natural gas) has been reported newly contaminating wells near drilling sites, especially in Western gas fields, but also in Pennsylvania.

Finally, Watson says we shouldn't worry about the "flowback water," the contaminated frackwater drillers retrieve, because it all goes to permitted treatment facilities. Yet until recently, the state's Department of Environmental Protection let drillers hand the water over to municipal sewage plants, who simply diluted it before dumping it in the river. And though Marcellus wells are drilled nearly statewide (mostly in the Southwestern and Northeastern regions), Pennsylvania is home to only three such treatment plants.

In fact, Watson says the whole drilling and extraction process is sufficiently well-regulated to forestall any concerns.

Watson is not disinterested in these matters. The P-G's bio notes that "he is an emeritus associate professor of petroleum and natural-gas engineering and of environmental systems engineering," and that he chairs the technical advisory board for the state's Bureau of Oil and Gas Management

But as such, he must know that plenty of informed folks -- from property owners to advocacy groups like Clean Water Action -- have serious questions about how strictly the state is overseeing this multibillion-dollar industry. For instance, DEP has mere dozens of inspectors to oversee the state's tens of thousands of wells. This despite recent hires, many of whom will be kept busy simply processing drilling permits (of which there were 8,000 last year alone) for both Marcellus and non-Marcellus wells.

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