When I first learned about the Marcellus Shale almost two years ago, it was a real eye-opener. This deep geologic formation extends over 95,000 square miles through parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York.
Formed about 380 million years ago, the Marcellus Shale is rich in organic material derived from plants and animals that have been compressed through time and geologic pressure to form natural gas that is trapped in the shale's natural fractures. The Marcellus Shale formation is found 4,000 - 8,500 feet below the ground surface and is 50-200 feet thick.
The high-volume reservoir of natural gas in this shale is estimated to hold more than 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas valued at more than one trillion dollars. The really "great" news was that a large percentage of the Marcellus Shale and its thickest formations are found in northern Pennsylvania.
What a great economic opportunity this gas well drilling and production will be for the financially depressed counties in the northern tier of Pennsylvania! The state may even be able to balance the budget with revenue generated from gas-well drilling on state-owned forest and gamelands. This all sounds almost too good to be true ... and I believe it is.
It is true that this gas lies thousands of feet below us and the technology now exists to extract this "valuable" resource. But at what risk? I moved to Potter County more than 30 years ago not because it was a great economic opportunity, but because I wanted to live, raise my family and recreate in an area one would consider pristine. I believe the "Marcellus Shale Play," as those in the industry call it, has the potential to be the worst environmental disaster of our generation.
Why do I say this? Because the gas industry is not "playing." They are investing millions of dollars in leases, land acquisitions, equipment, exploration and manpower to extract this gas from the shale and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania lacks the personnel and the regulations to properly oversee these activities.
Gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania for over a century and there haven't been all that many problems, but Marcellus Shale gas production is a different ball game. Extraction of natural gas from Marcellus Shale requires much more water than traditional shallow vertical gas wells.
Once the well has been drilled with a new technology called "horizontal drilling," the drillers pump 3-5 million gallons of water mixed with sand and "proprietary chemicals" under very high pressure into the well to expand and hold open the fractures in the shale formation, allowing the natural gas to flow more freely. This is "hydro-fracing" (fracking) and it is the basis for the concerns of many people who place a great deal of value on cold, clean water.
The problem presented with this much higher volume of water usage is twofold. First is the withdrawal of millions of gallons of water from Potter County's streams and rivers. Those wells drilled in the Susquehanna River Basin must apply for a water withdrawal permit from the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.
This process seems to be working satisfactorily, although in the summer of 2008, Horton Run, a tributary of the East Fork of Sinnamahoning Creek and classified as an "Exceptional Value" trout stream, was virtually de-watered by water withdrawals for gas well fracing. The Allegheny River and the Genesee River have no such basin commission and have no regulatory agency, other than DEP, to provide oversight on water withdrawals.
Currently a gas well permit must be accompanied by a "water withdrawal plan," but no one is in the field to oversee these proposed withdrawals from the Allegheny or Genesee watersheds.
This inconsistency of water withdrawal standards between various river basins or watersheds adds to the problem. In the last two years, fish, including wild brook trout, have been left rotting in the sun when gas companies pumped Pennsylvania streams dry, including Cross Creek and Sugarcamp Creek in Washington County.
Four gas companies have paid $1.7 million to settle charges of illegal water withdrawals.
The second issue is the "fracing fluid." This mixture of water, sand and chemicals pumped under tremendous pressure down the well has its own set of problems. One problem, proper storage of this chemical mixture, became apparent recently.
On September 25, 2009, in Dimick, Pa., Susquehanna County, DEP initiated a cease-and-desist order to Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., a Houston, Texas-based energy company. They were also fined and ordered to re-engineer their storage of frac fluid. This order came after three separate spills of the chemical LGC-35 from a gas drilling site. DEP officials report over 8,000 gallons spilled from a loose-fitting pipe connection and entered a wetland and creek. Information provided by Halliburton Co., which supplies the lubricant, states that the chemicals in the lubricant are potentially cancer-causing.
A Cabot Oil & Gas spokesman says that the substance is "relatively innocuous," but may cause eye, skin and breathing irritations. Whichever is accurate, I know I do not want this stuff entering my drinking water supply nor the streams of Potter County.
The second problem with the "hydro-fracing" process is the tremendous pressure necessary to send this mixture down the well to open the fractures in the shale.
The well pipe is cased in cement the first few hundred feet through the freshwater aquifers. However, mistakes and accidents happen. Steve Kepler, a biologist with the PFBC, states his concern about damage to groundwater by citing a recent case in Centre County, in which a gasdrilling operator hit a regional aquifer, polluting Little Sandy Creek, a wild brook trout stream that delivers cold, oxygen-rich water to a cooperative trout hatchery.
In areas of northcentral Pennsylvania, methane gas has been found coming out of people's water faucets and percolating up through the ground. This gas is termed "free gas" because it is odor-free and invisible. It is also highly flammable and explosive. I don’t want methane gas in my water supply or bubbling up in my backyard.
The third and biggest challenge facing the gas industry and the DEP is what to do with the frac fluid once it does its job and comes back up the well. I am told by those in the industry that approximately 80 percent of the fluid sent down the well returns as "waste water," or 2-4 million gallons of toxic residual waste water per well. The enormous volumes of water pumped into these deep wells dissolves salts, metals and radioactive substances that are naturally occurring within the Marcellus Shale.
Besides the chemicals previously added to the frac fluid, this residual waste water contains toxins such as benzene, ethyl benzene, toluene, xylene, heavy metals, salts and naturally occurring radioactive materials. This waste water is estimated to contain up to 229,500 milligrams of total dissolved solids (TDS) per liter (mg/L), as compared to permissible limits of 500 mg/L in drinking water -- that is a factor of 500 times more TDS than is permitted.
Gas well operations have been going on without proper planning about what to do with these million gallons of residual waste. Most has been trucked away from the well sites to one of the two water treatment facilities in the state specifically managed to handle waste water from oil and gas operations. These facilities are designed to handle fluids from shallow gas well operations, not the much more toxic fluids from Marcellus Shale wells. Faced with inadequate and only two treatment facilities available to treat this gas well residual waste, companies went to municipal water treatment facilities for help. Several were willing to treat this residual waste, until DEP found out about this practice and shut them down. How many millions of gallons of improperly treated waste entered these watersheds has yet to be determined. Scientists, engineers and private entrepreneurs say they're working on developing new residual waste water treatment facilities, but nothing appears to be ready in the immediate future.
With nowhere to properly treat this residual waste, the concept of reusing it to hydro-frac other wells has arisen. I think this is a great idea; fewer withdrawals of clean water from our streams and rivers and recycling the toxic fluids. The challenge is where to store the millions of gallons of residual waste. It makes sense to store it right at the well site to be used again for another "frac job."
However, placing this stuff in retention ponds on top of the mountains where most of the well sites are located scares me. I am confident these ponds are well engineered and lined with the most modern plastic liners that money can buy, but so was the ill-fated Thompson Hollow landfill.
Built several years ago under DEP specifications on top of Thompson Hollow hill, it was closed a few years later because of toxic leachate leaking from this properly lined site into Lyman Run and eventually Lyman Lake. In late July, a reported dumping of residual waste was investigated by DEP on a gated road leading to a gas well off Cowburn Road in Allegany Township.
A Part 2 of this story is planned for the next issue of PA Trout.