Silly question?… It seemed so to me until I was introduced to a layer of black rock buried more than a mile beneath us here in Northeastern PA.

Seems the old-time geologists knew all about this 400 million year old backwash of organic stuff, a layer of thick black shale called The Marcellus, that lay compressed deep below us. The geologists knew it contained natural gas; but it was a “tight” formation that would be hard to crack, let alone get to, in a cost-efficient manner.

Five or so years ago, Devon Energy down in Texas came up with the answer: horizontal drilling combined with water fracturing, or “fracking.” You got down there with the drill bit and opened a pathway into the shale, then pumped high pressured water – millions of gallons of it, mixed with chemicals and a touch of diesel fuel – through the natural fractures in the shale. And voila!…out pours that contained gas, in volumes measured by millions of cubic feet daily!

According to T. Boone Pickens, who has spoken in front of any number of Congressional committees, a bill has already been sponsored that would commercially develop the use of domestic natural gas in big trucks, buses, and power plants. Pickens has demonstrated that we have beneath us a fuel source that would power America for the next ten to twenty years, while we ponder, at our leisure, an answer to the replacement of our dwindling and increasingly expensive oil supplies. Natural gas is much “greener” than dirty coal or oil. And we have the gas here – AT HOME – which would reduce our 37.5 billion dollar trade deficit 73%, by some 27.5 billion dollars a year.

The Saudi oil fields may not be nearly as bounteous as they claim; Mexico’s Cantarell field is dwindling; Venezuela is downright hostile; and China has whisked the development of Iraq’s nascent oil fields out from under the noses of Congress – after the trillion dollars we spent on the war in Iraq and the lives lost trying to secure that oil bounty. Unsettling, to say the least….

Yet we have this enormous layer of Marcellus shale beneath us here in Northeast Pennsylvania – in fact it stretches westward into West Virginia and northward into southern New York State. It may turn out to be one of the largest sources of shale gas in the world, if the hundred or so wells Cabot Oil & Gas have drilled in the past year around Dimock, PA, thirty or so miles south of Binghamton, New York, continue to perform as they have in past months. On test, Cabot’s wells average a flow of 7.5 million cubic feet of gas per day – with little drop-off!

This is serious gas, folks. And it’s darned near pure methane; needs no filtration or refining; and can be injected directly into the nearby Tennessee Gas Interstate pipeline. With a scant two hundred miles to the New York City Metropolitan area, pipeline transportation costs is at a minimum. Great for the gas drillers, great for leasing property owners, great for America!

But hold on…there’s a catch.

To get this gas out from under our peaceful countryside, we have to first drill down over a mile and then turn the bit 90 degrees until it reaches out in the Marcellus shale as far as a mile from the well head. (The shale lies beneath us in horizontal sheets that are in excess of 250 feet thick.) Then the drillers case the hole with steel pipe, blow holes in it with explosive charges, and force “frack” water and chemicals into the shale – up to four million gallons of water per drill site. That opens up the shale; the gas pressures back up the casing to the well head. But you first have to withdraw the water from the well bore and casing so the gas has a clear path to flow up and out.

Most of that frack water comes back up, but it’s not the lovely pure water it was before it was hauled to the drill pad from hydrants, local town wells, and the Susquehanna River. The “used” frack water is now loaded with impurities and chemicals (the chemicals were added to the fresh water before insertion into the well bore). Upon removal we find that the “used” water is now mixed with ground Uranium, wayward gases, drilling mud and lubricants, and bits of petroleum in the shale that never quite blossomed into gas. What do you do with this mess?

Well, you trucked it to the drill site in huge tankers; then with similar trucks, you must truck it away and get rid of it. All this is plenty tough on our roads. Sure, some of this expensive water can be reused drilling the next well; but the more it is recirculated, the more ┬ácontaminated it becomes. And where does THAT water go when it is hauled away? Darned if I can tell you. I suppose Penna.’s D.E.P. can. I do see it moving out of the area. I just hope it’s going to bona fide treatment plants and not down some old mine borehole. (In the past, PA has had a sad history of such problems.)

I live in Tunkhannock. Everyday I watch water tankers (5,000 gallons a truckload) coming out of one of our town well sites with our precious domestic water, carting it off to the gas drillers. It takes about 200 loads to equal a million gallons of water and, as I said before, drilling and fracking a well can consume up to three or four million gallons of water – depending on how many wells are drilled on a single drill pad. Our water bills have gone up. They tell us that deferred maintenance costs to the town delivery pipe system is the culprit. I trust that is the case. Nonetheless, water and sewer bills have risen. And just how healthy is the aquifer beneath us that supplies all this water? I don’t recall hearing anything about that. What happens if we turn on our faucets and our showers and they start spitting black goo, or worse – just slow to a trickle, then quit.

Bear in mind the drillers, manning millions of dollars worth of complex rigs, have our best interests at heart. But they do make mistakes. Cabot, perhaps innocently enough, is alleged to have made several goofs drilling their initial wells. Whatever the cause was, methane gas has been leaking into a number of residential wells near some of their drilling sites, rendering the water unfit for human consumption, not to mention the explosive aspects. In fact, the concrete cap over one well was reported to have been blasted a dozen or so feet from the well.

The Penna. D.E.P. (Department of Environmental Protection) pleaded with Cabot to redress the wrongs, but corrective action was slow in coming. In a somewhat Draconian move, the Penna. D.E.P. has issued an order, this past week, that Cabot is to cease ALL drilling activity in a NINE SQUARE MILE AREA, immediately pay the State a $240,000 fine, plug the 3 wells causing the problem, must install and pay for permanent water treatment in the 14 homes affected; and pay $30,000 a month further until such time as the affected residential water supplies are again made whole. Cabot states they will comply.

All well and good. But what if Cabot, the driller, was NOT remiss in their handling of the casing that ran through the water table. What, instead, if after the fracking, done by – I would suppose – a subcontractor to the driller, some of the freed gas had unavoidably entered and followed a major fault running through the shale and thus traveled upward from the depths into the problem areas? Who knows what paths methane gas might take after a body of Marcellus shale has been ruptured? Water falls; gas rises. Water is withdrawn by pumping; but gas will pressure through the earth anywhere it finds a path of least resistance. Is it possible that the fracking, and not the drilling, could be the problem? Forgive me for that thought – it’s unscientific and, indeed, not a pleasant one. What knowledge yet awaits us as this play continues to maturity?

Okay…now which do you think you need most? – the fuel, or the water?

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