Tapping the energy stored in a rock formation called the Marcellus Shale has been an economic boon to Pennsylvania, but is the state paying an environmental price?
In this special report, energyNOW! Chief Correspondent Tyler Suiters interviews residents of Bradford County in northern Pennsylvania, the heart of the Marcellus Shale. The residents blame nearby gas drilling for methane contamination in their water wells, while the energy companies say they aren't responsible.
Mike Phillips says his home in rural Bradford County used to be a paradise, but since energy companies began drilling nearby using a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, it has turned into a nightmare. He says his tap water and that of some of his neighbors has become contaminated, and he no longer feels safe living in his home and drinking the water. He blames a group of gas wells near his home for the problems.
John Hanger, the former head of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, explains why the Marcellus Shale is so important to gas producers. Hanger, who now works with a law firm representing both energy companies and environmental groups, says the Marcellus Shale is the second-largest natural gas resource in the world. He says drilling is an industrial process with its own risks, but the risks of using coal and oil are much greater than those of using natural gas.
Another landowner, Sherry Vargson, tells energyNOW! that she wanted to lease her land to a gas company because she thought it would help end U.S. dependence on foreign oil. She says she was also told that natural gas would not be environmentally hazardous. Now, she says, the well pad near her home now looks like an industrial site, and she can no longer use the main pasture where her dairy cattle once grazed. Her water also became contaminated with methane since the drilling began. The gas company, Chesapeake Energy, installed a methane venting system to her water well, but Vargson says she still does not feel completely safe. Chesapeake tells energyNOW! in an e-mail it does not believe its activities have impacted the Vargson water well.
The well on Vargson's property is one of about 3,000 that have been drilled in Pennsylvania in the past five years. Other landowners who have leased their property to gas companies say the drilling has been a lifeline to them. Dairy farmer Roy Thomas says the nearly $1 million a year her gets from Talisman Energy for the six gas wells on his property has allowed his family to keep its farm financially safe. He says he's had no problems with his drinking water.
In the seat of Bradford County, Towanda, business is also booming. Restaurant owner Karen Parkhurst says she's coming off the best year in the past five, and she credits drilling in the Marcellus Shale for the surge in income. County Commissioner Mark Smith says the community has benefited from the jobs and higher salaries offered by the shale-gas industry. But he cautions that rural Bradford County isn't getting enough tax revenue from the gas industry to cope with the influx of people and heavy equipment. He also says he's worried about the impact of drilling on the area's water quality.
The current leader of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Michael Krancer, says he believes the state is doing a good job of regulating the gas industry and protecting drinking water. Kathryn Klaber of the Marcellus Shale Coalition calls shale gas a "game changer among game changers" for the U.S. energy sector.
energyNOW! explains the process of fracking. Crews start by drilling through the aquifer, and line the well with steel and cement. Then they drill horizontally, into the shale, detonating small perforating charges, and pump in millions of gallons of fluid: About 98 percent water, with sand and chemicals mixed in. Under immense pressure, that fluid breaks up the rock, fractures it, and releases the gas.
Tony Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell University, discusses his reservations about the fracking process. Ingraffea was once a consultant for the oil and gas industry, but is now a critic. He says much of the fracking water returns to the surface quickly, but much more stays in the ground, returning later after dissolving other materials that can be dangerous, including salts, heavy metals and naturally occurring radioactive substances. These substances, he says, can be harmful to drinking water supplies. The industry, and some politicians, say the practice is safe. In Capitol Hill testimony, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and others have said there is no evidence that the fracking process itself has contaminated groundwater. Bur Ingraffea says the fracking process only covers the breaking of the rocks thousands of feet underground, not drilling the well, bringing the gas out of the ground and handling fracking fluid after it has returned to the surface.
There have also been accidents, including fluid spills, leaks, overflows and blowouts. Klaber says like any industrial process, drilling safety requires constant vigilance and continuous improvement. But Phillips says he has seen and heard very little from the DEP that has made him feel like he's being protected. He says it took more than two months to get initial results from his water tests to confirm that the water was contaminated, and a state finding that gas well drilling was responsible. Chesapeake says it doesn't believe its drilling is to blame, but it is working with the Phillips family and the state to resolve the dispute.
Phillips has hired a professional hydrogeologist for an independent analysis of his well water. The hydrogeologists, Jim and Garth Llewellyn, point out the bubbling in the well that indicates methane is present. Because the region has a history of methane in its water wells, they are encouraging residents to get baseline testing of their water before drilling begins, so they can determine what impact gas drilling may have had. Krancer says if the cause of water problems is determined to be shale drilling, his department will do something about it.
In the past year, companies shave paid out millions of dollars in state mandated settlements and fines, including $900,000 from Chesapeake Energy for faulty cement casings, which Krancer's DEP says caused methane to leak into private water supplies, including those of the Vargsons and Phillips. Chesapeake says it disputes the DEP findings, but agreed to a settlement and to enhance its casing and cementing practices because it was the right thing to do.
Smith, the county commissioner, says one contaminated water well is too many. Krancer agrees, but he points out that other industries, such as the airline industry, aren't perfect. The state has enacted new regulations for cement and steel casings, but Ingraffea argues that they are not effective.
Image credit: Marcellus Protest via Flickr
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