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Gas Shale and Hydraulic Fracturing Work for Our Nation

Recent distress in the nation’s economy has not dampened the new natural gas boom sweeping up the Appalachians. Until recently, natural gas could not be economically produced from “tight” rock formations like the Marcellus Shale stretching from Western New York into Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. The widespread use of modern hydraulic fracturing techniques has changed that.

Gas contained in the Marcellus does not easily flow through the rock to a well except along cracks in the rock known as “fractures.” Hydraulic fracturing—sometimes called “fracing” or “fracking” — involves injecting fluid into these tight formations at very high pressures to create man-made fractures. Generally, the more fractures created, the more gas production. Fracking has made production from the Marcellus Shale possible and created thousands of jobs in its wake.

The new technology carries the promise of opening for exploration natural gas deposits in other areas of our nation, including the Barnett Shale surrounding Fort Worth, Texas, and the Antrim Shale in Michigan.

This bonanza comes with a cost. With increased drilling come increased surface use and more chances for spills and accidents. Fracking operations are noisy, require a great deal of water, and may involve heavy truck use of country lanes and town streets. The biggest concern, however, is the potential for water pollution.

The type of fluid used for fracking varies, but it is usually over 99 percent water and solids with the remainder being additives that promote flow of the fracking fluid through the pore space in the rock. The solids are the “proppant” which is typically sand, ceramic pellets or similar material that is carried into the fractures. The proppant is left in the crack when the fluid is pumped back out, propping the crack open and allowing the oil or gas to flow to the well.

No evidence directly connects injection of fracking fluid into shale with aquifer contamination. In 2004, the EPA released the results of a study that found no confirmed instances of contamination of drinking water wells by fracking fluids in the ground. This finding is not surprising as fracking fluid is pumped through a concrete-lined borehole to formations generally thousands of feet below the aquifers containing drinking water, minimizing this vector of contamination. After environmentalists criticized the conclusiveness of the 2004 study, another study by the EPA is planned, although conflicting opinions have arisen over its scope, which may push the completion date of the study into 2012 or later.

The potential for water contamination comes after the fracking has occurred. Industry sources say that operators receive back 20-40 percent of the fracking fluid when they pump it back to the surface. If improperly handled, this fluid could potentially harm surface water assets just like other liquid waste from drilling operations. Methods exist and are being further developed to reuse, treat, or contain the used fracking fluid. State regulations and enforcement to make sure these methods are applied, however, are currently not well developed.

Legislation to regulate fracking has been introduced in Colorado and Pennsylvania and passed in Ohio and West Virginia. The New York legislature has a number of pending bills before it that would increase fracking regulation. These bills propose a variety of restrictions, including new guidelines for where and when fracking can take place, require heightened environmental impact statements before issuing a fracking permit, and even call for a permanent ban on fracking within a certain distance of any unfiltered source of drinking water. One bill requires the disclosure of any chemicals used in fracking fluid.

With the memory of oil platform trouble in the Gulf of Mexico fresh in the public’s mind, however, an unfortunate push exists in New York and other places to ban all fracking, purportedly until the technology can be “proven” safe, and to require federal oversight of fracking. The New York State Senate recently voted for a temporary moratorium on fracking until May 15, 2011. This delay is purportedly to allow time for the Department of Environmental Conservation of New York to further study fracking. Other bills propose various longer or permanent moratoriums on all fracking.

Hopefully, these delays are not attempts to keep moving the goalposts back by dedicated opponents of the oil and gas business. While a responsive state regulatory framework and vigorous, impartial enforcement of those regulations is necessary, draconian measures such as rolling moratoriums or federal oversight of fracking are not. New York is well able to regulate fracking while at the same time allowing development of natural gas and enjoying the jobs and revenue it brings.

Dr. Kulander, is an attorney with Haynes and Boone, LLP in Houston. He received his B.S. and M.S. in Geology from Wright State University in Ohio, his Ph.D. in Geophysics (Petroleum Seismology) from Texas A&M, and served as a geophysicist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C., and Denver.

Chris Kulander
Dr. Kulander, is an attorney with Haynes and Boone, LLP in Houston. He received his B.S. and M.S. in Geology from Wright State University in Ohio, his Ph.D. in Geophysics (Petroleum Seismology) from Texas A&M, and served as a geophysicist for the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C., and Denver.
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5 thoughts on “Gas Shale and Hydraulic Fracturing Work for Our Nation

  1. I really support nat gas to replace coal and help reduce our carbon footprint. But the drilling industry should drop this stupid hiding the chemicals added to the fracking fluid. it has become a red herring. I worked for DuPont and disclosure never impacted any products. Also the industry should hire a 3rd party Safety, health and environmental company to audit your operations and post the results so the public can see them.. Secrecy on your part implies your doing bad stuff to our water..

  2. The issue of fracking and the overall impact of shale gas exploration will be increasing under the microscope as shale gad development moves forwards in Europe. Both sides, pro and con on shale gas development in Europe, will be following developments in legislation and regulation in the US closely. http://www.naturalgasforeurope.com

  3. > draconian measures such as . . . federal oversight. . .. New York is well able to regulate fracking while at the same time . . .enjoying the jobs and revenue it brings.
    Draconian? Driving through SW PA, (where horizontal hydrofracking is in full swing) I was surprised to see this sign in front of a water testing company on Route 30: “MARCELLUS SHALE Gas Drilling Near You? Test your WATER here.” I do not want this in NY State. Both sides should agree to remove the hydraulic fracturing exemptions from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, Superfund, and a host of other federal environmental rules. (Including criminal penalties for willfulness, and attorney fees.) If it is safe, the industry has nothing to fear from the rules. If it is dangerous, we need protection. The Clean Energy Jobs and Oil Company Accountability Act of 2010, currently pending before the Senate, would eliminate the drilling industry’s 2005 exemption from the Drinking Water Safety Act and would require producing companies to disclose the chemicals used in their drilling activities.
    Jobs? Look at Towanda PA where horizontal hydrfracking is in full swing. You cannot get a motel room because of the out of state employees (already trained on rigs we do not have in NY.) You will find workers and managers with Texas, Oklahoma and Calgary accents. Once the drilling is done, there is little residual employment and a legacy of expensive damage to groundwater and transportation infrastructure that eats up any “revenue”.

  4. It is up to the EPA and State agencies to enforce the law. Get active and put pressure on the local politicians!
    You will always have damage to the environment in these type of drilling and mining operations. However, the damage can be mitigated by proper containment and treatment of resulting drilling muds, tailings and waste water. There are also more modern methods of solids separation and membrane filtration for the waste fracking fluid solutions. It is worth the extra $$ from the resulting profit bonanza to protect our precious water supply. The proximity of the East Coast Mega-opolis demands it.

  5. Apparently the rig workers in the Marcellus Shale aren’t the only ones with Texas accents — I believe the author has one too! Thanks for the out-of-state advice, but if I want a Texan to tell me how to handle my water I think I’ll just go straight to Boone Pickens. From the sound of it, the author already did!

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