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Fractured Lives

Detritus of Pennsylvania's Shale Gas Boom

By Edward Humes

Gas developers say they can extract shale gas safely and responsibly. Range Resources leads the industry in recycling the water used to frack wells, rather than disposing of it, and has had fewer violations per well than any other drilling company in Pennsylvania. Even so, a 2010 Pennsylvania Land Trust study found that the company had caused a "serious environmental incident" in one out of eight wells. The industry average in Pennsylvania is six out of eight.

Most national environmental groups, the Sierra Club among them, argue that the boom has proceeded too quickly and with insufficient scientific study and testing. (For more on the Club's position on fracking, see "Clearing the Air on Natural Gas.")

Some groups and community organizations—such as actor Mark Ruffalo's Water Defense—take a harder line. They assert that fracking ought to be banned outright as an unfixable threat to water, air, and climate. New York State, sitting atop its own impressive Marcellus Shale reserves, has had a de facto ban on fracking in place for the past four years as the state's Department of Environmental Conservation completes a review of whether it can be done safely and, if so, with what sort of regulatory oversight. Governor Andrew Cuomo has said a decision on whether to permit fracking in New York is likely to be announced by summer.

Aubrey McClendon, the colorful head of natural gas giant Chesapeake Energy (which donated $26 million to the Sierra Club from 2007 to 2010), calls this debate "tiresome" and derides safety concerns as the invention of renewable-energy zealots. He suggested in an October 2011 interview with Forbes that no industry, "whether it's flipping hamburgers, driving a car, growing corn or manufacturing any product, could possibly compete with [fracking's] virtually flawless record," which he dated back to 1948. McClendon has since come under fire for his financial dealings and has left his post as company chairman, though he remains Chesapeake's chief executive officer; his views on fracking remain representative of the gas industry's.

But linking today's fracking practices with those from 60 years ago is akin to comparing the Wright brothers' plane to the space shuttle, says Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University researcher who has analyzed both the geological and the climate impacts of fracking. Yes, some old vertical oil wells were fracked in the 1940s. But the technology for drilling very long horizontal wells through deep, thin layers of shale is new, and combining it with fracking is even newer. And the long horizontal shafts necessary for today's shale gas extraction require up to 100 times as much fracking fluid as old-school vertical wells did.

"This is a very new process, despite what the industry asserts," Ingraffea says. "It is an extreme form of energy development, full of unknowns. It's been embraced not because of science, but in the absence of good science."

A large part of the gas industry's argument is based on its uniquely narrow interpretation of "fracking." In common parlance, the term encompasses the entire process of shale gas extraction, including these steps:

  • leasing and clearing a prospective well site;
  • building a well pad that can accommodate eight or more individual wells;
  • digging containment pits and ponds for drilling and frack fluids;
  • drilling the vertical portion of each well, which in southwestern Pennsylvania can be 6,000 to 7,000 feet deep;
  • drilling the well's horizontal leg, up to a mile long;
  • installing casing and cement in the well shaft to inhibit gas and chemicals from flowing freely into soil, streams, and aquifers; trucking or piping in millions of gallons of water for each well;
  • ringing the well with 12 to 18 high-pressure diesel pumps on flatbed trucks;
  • fracturing the shale to release the methane by using explosives and then injecting fracking fluids at pressures of up to 9,000 pounds per square inch (about nine times the pressure needed to crush the U.S. Navy's best submarine on its deepest dive), along with sand and ceramic "proppants" to keep the fractures open;
  • capturing and removing or recycling the "flowback" of brine, hydrocarbons, sand, and toxic fracking chemicals; and
  • controlling, processing, measuring, pressurizing, and piping the gas away from the completed wellheads.

When industry spokespeople talk about "fracking," however, they insist it means only the high-pressure injection of fluid and none of the other steps in the gas-extraction process. This is how, for example, Rex Tillerson, chief executive of ExxonMobil, could tell Congress, "There have been over a million wells hydraulically fractured in the history of the industry, and there is not one, not one, reported case of a freshwater aquifer having ever been contaminated from hydraulic fracturing."

This linguistic two-step also explains why a recent University of Texas study was celebrated by the industry and reported in the national media as exonerating fracking as a source of water pollution, even though it reported that every step of shale gas extraction except for the injection of fracking fluid has been linked to incidents of environmental contamination.

The promised economic benefits of the shale boom are no less murky. Overproduction of shale gas, which now accounts for more than 30 percent of domestic natural gas production, has pushed the price of a million BTUs down to $2.50 as of spring 2012; in July 2008, before the boom drove down prices, they spiked as high as $13.68. This is great for consumers, but it's breaking the drillers' backs; prices that low can't cover the $7.6 million average cost of fracking a single well. The result is that some drillers in Pennsylvania's "dry gas" (i.e., methane-only) areas—notably giant Chesapeake Energy—are pulling out and heading for honeypot wet-gas leases in Ohio. The industry is also pushing to expand export facilities for sending liquefied natural gas to more-lucrative foreign markets. Doing so is good for the corporate bottom line but punctures the argument that rapid and lightly regulated shale gas drilling will lead to energy independence.

That argument took another hit when the initial sky-high estimates of the amount of gas in the Marcellus Shale were cut by two-thirds in the U.S. Department of Energy's January 2012 analysis. And the industry's claim of a 100-year supply—touted by President Obama in this year's State of the Union address—is based on counting not just known and technically recoverable reserves but also estimates of gas reserves that are variously termed "probable," "possible," and "speculative"—which means they are neither proven to exist nor known to be recoverable. What the U.S. Energy Information Administration calls "proven reserves" will yield a supply that will last only 11 years at current rates of consumption; add in "probable" reserves and the supply could last an additional 10.

The gas industry's final argument in favor of extracting as much gas as possible as fast as possible is that methane is the cleanest fossil fuel. This appears to be true enough at the point of burning, and it's what initially persuaded many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, to hop on the natural gas bandwagon. But it ignores all that happens before a fuel is burned: It ignores the added energy needed for fracking, as well as the large amount of raw methane that during drilling leaks into the atmosphere, where it is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Models of emissions from fracked wells by Ingraffea and his Cornell colleagues Robert Howarth and Renee Santoro demonstrate that nearly 8 percent of fracked methane can leak into the atmosphere, making fracked natural gas the dirtiest fossil fuel of all in terms of climate change.

These findings were derided by the industry and contradicted by more optimistic research models, but recent data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado, derived from real-world measurements of actual methane emissions around fracking operations, confirm the Cornell researchers' results. Fracked natural gas, it appears, is a prescription for more climate change, not less.

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