Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Shale Gas: A Fracturing Issue

By Jennifer De Shields

The face of a rural Pennsylvania town is changing. The town of Dimock, Pennsylvania was your typical American farming community. It was a small, relatively lower income town where everybody knew each other and made their living running dairy farms. Up until relatively recently, few Dimock residents knew they were sitting on top of one of the largest natural gas shales in the world.

The Marcellus Shale runs from central New York State all the way through most of Pennsylvania and into West Virginia, as well as into Ohio and parts of Maryland. In 2002, the United States Geological Survey calculated that the Marcellus Shale contains an estimated 1.9 trillion cubic feet of gas. In 2008, the estimated amount of gas jumped to 500 trillion cubic feet. The estimated amount of gas could supply enough power to the entire country for two years, and is valued at being worth one trillion dollars.

Tapping this wealth of natural gas would sound like a step in the right direction to environmentalists, but the opposite is true. The mining technique to extract the natural gas isn’t an environmentally sound practice. Hydraulic fracturing, also know as “fracking” and “hydro-fracking,” is a mining method that involves blasting rock/shale at high speeds with chemical-infused water. The force of the blast and chemicals encourages gas to break apart from the rocks. Although hydraulic fracturing is being used more frequently now, the practice has been around for over half a century. The mining technique was first used commercially in this country in 1949, and has since grown in popularity. The practice is very loosely regulated; hydraulic fracturing is exempt from most environmental rules and acts.

Although this method is very successful at retriving gas and oil, there are many environmental risks. The practice puts local water resources at risk because of possible contamination from fracturing chemicals. Local water resvioirs could be at risk of overuse because the technique requires around 4 billion gallons of water per day. Communities and towns will see their landscape littered with gas wells and problems with their drinking water.

Despite the possible environmental problems, some people believe that the economic benefits it can have for towns outweighs the environmental damage. People living on land good for mining could have their properities leased by gas companies and earn thousands, and for some millions of dollars. Local hotels and restaurants could see a rise in profits due to workers using their facilities. It’s even possible that some residents could get hired by the gas companies and would have steady incomes.

The issue of hydraulic fracturing is contentious. Victoria Switzer, a resident of Dimock and anti drilling activist, sees both sides of the issues.

“It’s a mixed review you know,” Switzer says, “You have a handful of land owners that are making more money than they ever imagined. And like I said, you have restaurants and diners and the bars and hotels, those kinds of things are really raking in the money.”

Although a few lucky people have made a large profit off of drilling, Switzer hasn’t seen too many Dimock residents get rich. “ The average person out here though isn’t seeing any significant wealth, they’re just seeing the destruction of the road, reduced water or diminished water, or even non-existent water,” she said.

Water is a big issues with hydraulic fracturing. The drilling companies need billions of gallons of water for the fracturing process. Water contamination due to fracuturing operations is common. Complaints about polluted water have been documented in several states where drilling has taken place; Alabama, Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming had had complaints from residents who claim there have been changes in their water quality or quanity after operations started. Pennsyvannia is no different; Dimock residents are having issues with their water also.

“ We get a water delivery every Friday,” said Switzer. “The gas company brings us water to drink and to cook with. Everybody is disconnected in Dimock from well water; that’s the big dirty secret. Even some of the wealthy land owners don’t drink their water.”

Even though the company provides clean water to cook and drink, the residents aren’t given clean water to bathe with.

Water quality isn’t the only problem Dimock residents have. Methane gas from wells can leak into homes. Although inhaling methane isn’t dangerous, small amounts can lead to explosions.

Switzer noted: "Their proposal is that they’re going to put a methane airator on everybody’s homes and that’s going to solve our problem. They were supposed to put (methane warning devices) on, but they did not. Our levels are very low now. We started at 2%, then 8% to 12% after drilling on top of the valley. At 12% the DEP ( Department of Environmental Protection) put a vent on our well, and that seems to work; it reduced the methane. So I’m not so worried about methane. Now people on Carter Road have it at 37%; and Penn State says that between 10%-15% can be explosive depending on the conditions. A well already exploded on New Years Day.”

Despite issues with water quality and methane leaks, drilling is still going on in Dimock and soon hydraulic fracturing will begin in New York and other states that extend into the Marcellus Shale. Unless law makers attempt to stop energy companies, there will be scores of other American towns that will have the same problems as Dimock.

Jennifer De  Shields is a journalism major at Ramapo College. She aspires to a career in environmental writing.

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