2008-11-20 / Local & State

Natural Gas Rush Stirs Environmental Concerns


ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - Advanced drilling techniques that blast millions of gallons of water into 400-million year-old shale formations a mile underground are opening up unconventional gas fields touted as a key to the nation's energy future.

These deposits, where natural gas is so tightly locked in deep rocks that it's costly and complicated to extract, include the Barnett shale in Texas, the Fayetteville of Arkansas, and the Haynesville of Louisiana. But the mother lode is the Marcellus shale underlying the Appalachians.

Penn State geoscientist Terry Engelder believes it could supply the natural gas needs of the United States for 14 years.

But as word spread over the past year that a 54,000-square-mile shale field from southern New York to West Virginia promised to yield a trillion dollars worth of gas, environmental alarms were sounded.

Would gas wells damage water wells? Would chemicals poison groundwater? Would fabled trout streams be sucked dry? Would the pristine upstate reservoirs that supply drinking water to New York City be befouled?

"This gas well drilling could transform the heavily forested upper Delaware watershed from a wild and scenic natural habitat into an ugly industrial landscape that is forever changed,'' said Tracy Carluccio of Delaware Riverkeeper. She'd like a moratorium on drilling to allow an inventory of natural areas to be done first.

So loud were the protests in New York that Gov. David Paterson directed the Department of Environmental Conservation to update its oil and gas drilling regulations to reflect the advanced drilling technology, which uses millions of gallons of water and poses waste-disposal challenges.

Now, while new drilling rigs sprout in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, development of the Marcellus in New York is on hold until next year, while the DEC holds hearings and drafts regulations.

Gas developers say environmental alarms are exaggerated and New York could miss out on much-needed capital investment and jobs if it takes a heavy-handed regulatory approach.

"These are surgical operations utilizing the most advanced drilling technology known to man,'' Tom Price Jr., senior vice president of Chesapeake Energy, told state lawmakers in Albany at a recent hearing.

The heaviest Marcellus Shale drilling activity is believed to be in Pennsylvania, where regulators say they need to hire dozens more inspectors to monitor the rapidly prolifering drilling sites and add capacity to treat waste water from the wells.

Concerns over impact on water wells and communities has prompted a state Senate panel to schedule a hearing for Tuesday.

Pete Grannis, New York's environmental commissioner, said there are 13,000 active gas wells in upstate New York and there has never been a documented case of groundwater contamination resulting from gas drilling.

The technology that has raised concern involves horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. Thousands of wells have been drilled and fracked in New York in the past 50 years, Grannis said. But refinement of the technology makes it feasible to extract gas from deeper, denser shales.

The latest technology, known as "slick water fracturing,'' uses far more water than earlier methods - 1 million to 5 million gallons for each fracking operation, Grannis said. That fact, and the proximity of the Marcellus to New York City's watershed, prompted the regulatory review.

Deborah Goldberg is an attorney for the environmental law firm Earthjustice. She said the water used to frack wells is mixed with chemicals that pose human health hazards, but federal laws don't require disclosure of them.

However, New York and Pennsylvania regulators promise full disclosure of all chemicals, which industry insiders say are not hazardous. John Pinkerton, chairman and CEO of Range Resources, said used fracking fluid is no more toxic than what goes down the drain at a hair salon.

Roger Willis, who owns a hydraulic fracturing company in Meadville, Pa., said thousands of frack jobs have been done in rock formations above and below the Marcellus shale in New York state with no damage to aquifers.

Willis said frack fluids are isolated from groundwater by steel and concrete well casings. The well bore goes thousands of feet deeper than potable water supplies, through multiple layers of rock, until it reaches the gas-rich shale. Then it turns sideways and continues horizontally for several thousand feet.

The fracking fluid is blasted into the shale, opening cracks that let trapped gas escape. The fractures are held open with sand mixed with the fluid.

Flowback pipes collect the gas and used fracking fluid, which now has a high concentration of salt from the ancient sea where the shale sediments formed.

The well casings that are meant to protect groundwater have been known to fail.

"There are going to be some problems, although they're not commonplace,'' said Bryan Swistock, a water resources expert from Penn State. "Laws on the books are adequate to take care of that.''

The biggest problem is that there aren't enough state inspectors to make sure drillers follow regulations, Swistock said. "There has been discussion of raising permit fees to hire more inspectors,'' he said.

Disposal of salty fracking water is problematic because of limited capacity in existing treatment plants, which can't remove salt but can only dilute it to an acceptable level for discharge into rivers.

Alternatives include new recycling technologies and injection well disposal.

More than 5 billion gallons a year of frack water is shot into the earth for permanent disposal in Texas, said Gene Brock, president of STW Resources of Midland, Texas. "That's water that could be reclaimed and utilized,'' Brock said.

STW provides portable desalinization plants for drilling sites.

While New York and Pennsylvania require that waste water be stored in a holding pond with an impervious liner until it's disposed of, critics fear such ponds could leak, or overflow in a rainstorm.

Earthjustice wants regulators to require storage of all wastes in steel tanks.

The Delaware and Susquehanna river commissions regulate water use in much of the Marcellus region of New York and Pennsylvania.

Susan Obleski, spokeswoman for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, said the agency expects the gas industry could require up to 28 million gallons of water a day from the Susquehanna watershed when it ramps up.

"To put it in perspective, golf courses take about 50 million gallons a day, and nuclear power plants use 150 million gallons,'' Obleski said.

The concern isn't how much water is used, but where and when it's taken. Withdrawals during dry seasons or from small streams in remote areas would have a greater environmental impact than in other cases, Obleski said.

Tom Rathbun, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said the agency favors recycling and reuse of wastewater and encourages withdrawals from streams during highflow periods such as early spring.

"One of the most expensive items in the drilling process is water, so the less we can use, the better,'' said Scott Rotruck, a Chesapeake executive. "We're finding ways to use less water, transport less water, and find ways to reuse it.''

Besides water concerns, the Natural Resources Defense Council is worried about air emissions from the hundreds of tanker trucks that will haul water to and from each well, and the clearing of large land areas for each site, said NRDC attorney Kate Sinding.

"There are reports of well and surface water contamination, human and animal health impacts, and air quality impacts'' at drilling sites around the country, Sinding said. "No regulatory agency has done the work to compile all of those, so you just have a lot of individual reports collected over time. To us, all of those reports substantiate the potential risks.''

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