I’m Sorry, Marcellus Shale, but Fracking Just Isn’t Safe


It’s been a long time since I posted anything that had anything remotely to do with politics and social issues, but I think this would be just as a good time as any, especially since this relates to an issue close to my home. As a lifelong resident of Southwestern Pennsylvania, I’m all too familiar about natural gas drilling of the Marcellus Shale. In fact, I still remember when the leasing and gas drilling began in my area around my senior year in high school. Yet, the issue regarding the drilling of Marcellus Shale didn’t come to the forefront until my later years in college. While natural gas companies and a lot of government figures swear by every word that the drilling for natural gas in Pennsylvania has benefited the state economy and created jobs for people in this state. Furthermore, they say that natural gas gives us energy independence from foreign oil.

However, I have yet to see any economic progress or at least the growth that benefits my area or my life. While there’s been a lot of drilling in my area, I can’t say that anyone who’s leased has become in any way rich. Not to mention, as of 2014, Pennsylvania is the only state in the entire country not to enact a tax on natural gas. Sure nobody likes taxes but I see a a lot of unfairness with gas companies being free to lease land and drill on Pennsylvania land at no cost to them. This was particularly true when the constant weight of large gas trucks caused small creek bridge to collapse on my road. It wasn’t repaired until a little over a year later, which is no surprise to me since my road isn’t on PenDOT’s high priority list. Now Western Pennsylvania is no stranger to adverse road conditions due to rugged terrain, temperate climate, and high precipitation rates. Yet, there’s no doubt in my mind that the gas trucks were responsible for a bridge collapse on my road. But, all the repair costs were paid by Pennsylvania taxpayers who are required to do so, not the tax-exempted gas companies. Now I’ve heard that a Marcellus gas tax would threaten the industry in the area. Yet, I think Pennsylvania should tax the gas companies on the basic premise that if a company wants to use state land and infrastructure, then it should pay a tax like everyone else in Pennsylvania. As for jobs, while I know many people in the area who’ve leased their land for drilling, I don’t know anyone in my neck of the woods who works the drilling sites. And it’s said that many employees are from out of state.

Yet, my biggest gripe with the Marcellus Shale drilling in my neck of the woods is the process of hydraulic fracturing, especially through horizontal drilling. Now fracking is a well stimulation technique in which gallons of highly pressurized fluids (usually a mix between water and chemicals) are pumped into a well to fracture deep rock formations. This process allows oil and gas flow more freely. And when pressure is removed, small grains of fracking proppants hold the fractures open once the deep rock stabilize so the well’s contents can be extracted indefinitely.

Here's a graphic illustration on how hydraulic fracturing works.

Here’s a graphic illustration on how hydraulic fracturing works in the Marcellus Shale drilling scheme.

Now fracking is a highly controversial practice, no less so in Pennsylvania. Sure it may allow more accessible hydrocarbons which is good for the economy but at what cost? Gas companies may reap the royalties but people still have to live near where these wells are drilled. Not only that, but a lot of drilling takes place on agricultural land, which I can personally attest to since I live near a few farms. Thus, as someone who lives near a few drill sites, I don’t see any reason why I shouldn’t be environmentally concerned. After all, even when the wells run dry, I still have to live in the area. And if I decide to move out, then so would my parents and grandparents. So yes, I think I do have the right to know whether fracking is safe or not. But do I believe fracking is safe? Absolutely not.

Since drilling on the Marcellus Shale began in the later 2000s, there have been a lot environmental concerns such as water contamination, fresh water depletion, air quality degradation, earthquake risks, noise pollution, surface pollution, and other possible impacts on wildlife and human health. Not to mention, I’m familiar with at least the noise pollution aspect since shale drilling typically goes on 24/7 and yes, it’s noisy as hell. Not to mention, each site has bright lights during the night, which may cause light pollution as well. And I can verify the bit about that fracking uses 1-8 million gallons of water per operation (plus thousands of gallons containing chemical additives), which would create the need for 400 tanker trucks to transport it. Thus, leading to a lot of road damage and a collapsed bridge that won’t be repaired until the following year. Since tanker trucks use a lot of diesel, how I could occasionally smell the gas during some of my morning walks, the occasional sight of burning flame on a drilling tower, and the fact a lot of gas well explosions were reported on the news, I might want to add air pollution (though it’s unclear to what extent) and global warming from carbon emissions. Not to mention, I’d like to include deforestation to the impact list as well since I’ve witnessed a large chunk of trees cut down to make way for a drilling pad and other infrastructure like pipelines and compressor stations. As far as I know, gas drilling causes all these things, which may lead to wildlife devastation and a toll on human health.

Then there’s the water contamination factor, which is the biggest concern of all. We know well that fracking uses a lot of water that’s mixed with chemical proppants injected deep within the earth’s surface. Yet, there’s considerable debate on these chemical additives are and whether they’re harmful, whether the flowback waste water could be properly disposed or treated, and whether the fluid or methane is contaminating sources of fresh drinking water. Not to mention, there’s the question of whether a frack conducted in the optimal situation can pose potential harm to the water sources. And do these gas companies perform these fracking operations with health and safety in mind? If not, then how often do these bad practices occur? There have been a lot of reports and studies pertaining to groundwater contamination due to fracking. Yet, we’re not sure if such contamination is due to drilling near old industrial developments, normal drilling side affects, or just bad business practices. However, the reason there’s so many unreliable research studies on this is because they’re funded by agencies that are trying to make people see the situation their own way. Those who say that fracking is safe are most likely funded by the companies themselves. Others that don’t say it’s safe may possibly be funded by environmental groups.

Here's a photo of what a typical natural gas drill pad looks like. Now drilling and fracking operations have the tendency to take days at a time.

Here’s a photo of what a typical natural gas drill pad looks like during a drilling and fracking operation. Now drilling and fracking operations have the tendency to take days at a time.

However, I can tell you one thing. When it comes to believing either the gas companies and environmentalists, I’m more likely to side with the latter. Sure gas companies may say that fracking is safe and will go through great lengths to prove it. Yet, since they tend to make money off gas drilling, they’ll tell you that fracking is safe even if there’s irrefutable evidence to the contrary. In other words, you can’t trust them. And in the United States, it doesn’t help that fracking fluid recipes are allowed to be treated as trade secrets by the companies who use them. Now this doesn’t increase my confidence, especially if the environment and health at stake. Though some companies have disclosed, not all of them have. And those who have may not be the most reliable. Yet, a congressional committee report from 2011 states that fracking fluid contains 2,500 proppants with more than 650 of them listed as either known or possible carcinogens under the Safe Drinking Water Act or hazardous air pollutants.

Even if fracking is safe under optimal conditions, there are many things that could go wrong in the natural gas drilling pad during the process. And one small mistake can spell environmental disaster for the community. A well can allow natural gas migrate up and out of the rock into water or basements. While leaking methane is potent greenhouse gas, it’s also a potential safety hazard. Then there’s the casing factor (or cement sheath that surrounds the newly drilled well). Casings improperly made could cause the gas migrating along the outside or possibly leave cracks in the sheath. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), 6,466 wells were issued 219 violations notices from 2008 to 2013, accounting for roughly 3% of all wells. Still, the DEP still didn’t find any evidence of groundwater contamination from methane leaks. Of course, knowing it came from 2013, I’m not surprised that they’d say this since the department head was a Tom Corbett appointee (and Corbett was known to receive $1 million from the gas companies for his 2010 gubernatorial campaign). However, the 2009 Dimock incident has demonstrated that it certainly can, especially if it leads to someone’s water well exploding. Not to mention, the other 209 times oil and gas operations damaged water supplies from that same time period according to a DEP account reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Yet, since Pennsylvania isn’t the most environmentally friendly state, to say that fracking causes groundwater contamination is difficult to say, from a scientific standpoint anyway. This is because baseline data for groundwater conditions before drilling isn’t publicly available (and mostly collected by the gas companies themselves). Not only that, but some states like Pennsylvania, don’t have good groundwater monitoring because it’s not required by law.

If it’s not the groundwater contamination through methane leakage and explosions, then it’s through the fracking fluid itself. Now mixing a lot of chemicals in millions of water gallons isn’t a great environmental practice, especially if the proppants are toxic. However, not all fracking fluid comes in exactly flows out with estimates varying between 5-90% of fluid remaining in the ground. While much of the tainted water is found far beneath the Marcellus Shale and groundwater supplies (as far as we know), there have been reports of contaminated groundwater at shallow well sites in West Virginia and Wyoming. Water that does come back (called, “flowback”) is stored on these large pits until it can be transported through a waste water facility or disposed of at an EPA-licensed disposal well. It’s said that less than 10% of the water is evaporated, reused, used for irrigation, or discharged to surface streams through an NPDES permit. Most Marcellus Shale wells are said to absorb most of the water pumped into them. But an article from Scientific American predicts that these wells will soon begin to produce water carrying toxic and possibly radioactive contaminants leached from surrounding rock as well as lots of salt. This is already happening in Pennsylvania’s waterways and if the state decides to evaporate this water, then it would have to deal with how to get rid of 10 million tons of salt left over.

This is what a typical natural gas drilling site under fracking operations looks like at night. Now such operations go on 24/7 until completion so that means locals have to deal with blaring bright lights and noise all through the night.

This is what a typical natural gas drilling site under fracking operations looks like at night. Now such operations go on 24/7 until completion so that means locals have to deal with blaring bright lights and noise all through the night.

Nevertheless, the waste pits on drill sites usually store flowback water in the open air where it can poison unsuspecting wildlife or evaporate into the atmosphere untreated, possibly leading to acid rain. These can be as large as football fields. Now these can also be prone to accidental spillage with its contents possibly finding their way to a nearby stream or perhaps seeping into the groundwater. And it doesn’t help that most drilling takes place on farms which can lead to poor soil and damaged crops. There was even a case in Pennsylvania in which cows had to be quarantined over waste water leak on a farm as well a leak that contaminated a community’s drinking water in Washington County. Luckily, waste water pits aren’t always present every drill pad you see.

The most dominant method of fracking flowback disposal in all areas but Pennsylvania is underground injection, which is basically dumping the water back where it came from. In Pennsylvania, this isn’t possible due to geology and regulations so the water is treated and reused. Yet, it’s said this won’t last forever. Not to mention, there have been instances illegal flowback dumping reported in Ohio, Virginia, and California that might also contaminate local waterways and drinking supplies as well. And while some fracking flowback gets treated and reused (mostly in Pennsylvania), the EPA says that most water treatment works in the country aren’t set up to treat it. In Pennsylvania, such method is common practice for years but the volume greatly expanded with the Marcellus Shale boom. Some treatment plants may not even be equipped to handle some of the fracking fluid’s more toxic components. And when water treatment plants may treat some of the fracking water, it can’t always treat it all. Thus, this leads to some of the water being discharged to rivers, lakes, streams, and drinking supply.

Here's a rough diagram from Gasland on how fracking can affect the environment. This can pertain to chemicals getting into the water supply in particular.

Here’s a rough diagram from Gasland on how fracking can affect the environment. This can pertain to chemicals getting into the water supply in particular.

I know that environmentalists have their own agendas and sometimes exaggerate their claims. But despite some inaccuracies, there are some things that even the noted anti-fracking film Gasland can’t make up. Even though a fracking disaster may happen on one of those rare occasions, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen in your neck of the woods. Not only that, and just because the gas drilling companies may take every precaution to ensure their fracking operations do any harm, doesn’t mean that mistakes can be made or something can (or will) go terribly wrong. Even if those disasters only happen less than 10% of the time, that doesn’t me we shouldn’t worry about them. And when it does, the environmental consequences are devastating. Now even if fracking doesn’t cause water contamination doesn’t mean it’s perfectly safe since the process can at least affect the air quality during the operations, which is a fact we can’t ignore.

Let’s face it, natural gas may be a cleaner fuel than coal but that doesn’t mean that it’s a eco friendly. In fact, it’s a fossil fuel just like any form of energy you get from the ground and emits carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. Nor can we say that it’s extraction process is environmentally safe either since fracking still pollutes and can still do considerable harm on local wildlife and human health. And though the gas companies may say fracking is perfectly safe, this doesn’t mean that they’re willing to share information on what’s in their fracking fluid or any baseline data on groundwater conditions before drilling ever took place. Thus, you just simply can’t take their word for it. Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but from what I’ve seen, heard, wrote, and read, I just have no confidence that fracking is safe under any circumstances. I know fracking is here to stay and there’s nothing I can do about for now. And despite that I’ve heard how Marcellus Shale drilling helps Pennsylvania, I just don’t think the risk contaminating millions of gallons of fresh water all for extracting natural gas is worth it. If there was a greener way, I would probably be more compliant but until there is, I can’t see any way I can support such measures. So sorry, Marcellus Shale, but I just don’t see it.


One response to “I’m Sorry, Marcellus Shale, but Fracking Just Isn’t Safe

  1. Very disturbing stuff. I share your concerns. I also agree that it is very unpleasant living near these drilling sites. Human nature being what it is, I have very little trust in the gas companies and our elected officials to report risks, assure compliance with safe practices, etc. It’s not in their back yards and there are profits to be made. We need to develop safer and more eco-friendly energy sources- this can’t be it.

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