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Marcellus Shale: Riches Today, Regrets Tomorrow?

Almost all of us will use natural gas extracted from the Marcellus by a process called “fracking” (short for hydraulic fracturing). And so, like mountaintop removal, you and I figure into the story every time we benefit while others pay the true costs of our energy convenience.

The table for this energy feast is one we’ve dined at before–an ancient sea bed called the Appalachian Basin. Hundreds of millions of years even before coal, and even deeper in the earth, shallow seas accumulated deposits of silt consisting largely of microscopic sea organisms in a sediment which has since been compressed into a previously-ignored hydrocarbon-bearing rock known as the Marcellus shale.

The mining process for shale, perfected by Haliburton in the late 40s, has until recently been a very expensive form of mining, mostly restricted to vertical wells out west. The process was largely neglected until incentivized by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which, under pressure from certain politicians of the times, infamously exempted “fracking” from the Clean Water,  Clean Air, and Safe Drinking Water acts. (Read that sentence again and let it soak in.) Consequently, US shale gas has risen from 1% in 2000 to 20% of supply in 2009.

New technologies and higher gas prices as well as geo-politics have colluded to bring this controversial form of mining to a new prominence in recent years near eastern US population centers like Philadelphia and New York City. And Appalachia is being hailed as the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas.”

Mining the Marcellus involves several essential tools and methods. Let’s look at a typical well. Since 2003, drill bits at the end of a vertical shaft can be turned to cut a hole horizontally for thousands of feet —a technique we’ve seen employed in the Deepwater debacle in the Gulf recently. Once the horizontal shaft is created, the shale will be explosively fractured by water pressure and chemicals to release the methane gas.

A single fracturing event requires (1) from one to seven million gallons of fresh water taken from surface or groundwater sources locally (a single well can be fracked up to 18 times); (2) sand or ceramic beads that will keep open the fissures created by the enormous pressure; and (3) some fifteen thousand gallons of a chemical soup called “fracking fluid.”

Until recent public pressure brought about a partial release of this information, the chemistry of fracking fluid–like oil dispersants in the Gulf–was a “trade secret” and beyond the light of health-science scrutiny. Some of this fluid stays underground, its long-term future unknown; about 75% comes back up the drill casing to the surface, a total volume over a drilled community of hundreds of millions of gallons of possibly radioactive and consistently chemical-laden “produced water” or “flowback” that must be be dealt with.

Marcellus hydro-fracking is today’s Gold Rush. It is a feeding frenzy in which many are getting very rich very fast. The industry is largely unregulated and often favors corporate benefits over community costs. Here’s a quick view of the face-off as of late 2010:

* Like the Deepwater technology, hydrologic fracturing in the Marcellus has been declared safe (cough!) by the industry.

* Violations and mistakes have resulted in contamination of individual wells by methane and other hydrocarbons resulting in illness and numerous videos online of flammable tap water.

* In New York state, no fracking will take place during an indefinite moratorium—at risk, the drinking water for 19 million citizens.

* New rules went into effect in Wyoming on September 15, 2010, requiring natural gas drillers to disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing

* The shale mining movie “Gasland” is gaining widespread attention.

*Homeland Security is tracking individuals and groups known to oppose current methods of shale gas mining.

An enormous reservoir of fossil fuel energy is tied up in deep shales. Natural gas has a lower CO2 footprint than liquid petroleum or coal. It’s also sadly true that we do not have other transitional fuels in the wings to sustain us across the inevitable switch from carbon-based to non-carbon-based energy sources. But while considering the short-term advantage of extraction, we must take into account the full, long-term costs. This story is just now bubbling to the surface. I’d suggest you not light a match anywhere near it.

– Fred First, Floyd, VA

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