Fuel for Thought: The Problem With Marcellus Shale

Pa. has its own drilling practices to reconsider.

By Jacob Lambert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 12 | Posted Jun. 15, 2010

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Last week, western Pennsylvania’s Clearfield County was home to a vilely majestic sight: “a 75-foot-tall geyser of natural gas and drilling fluid,” according to the Inquirer. “When we arrived on scene, natural gas and frack fluid was flowing off the well pad and heading toward tributaries,” John Hanger, of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Gas was shooting into the sky.” He added that the 16-hour-long surge “could have been ‘catastrophic’ to life and property in the area.”

This There Will Be Blood tableau came courtesy of Enron (now calling itself “EOG Resources”)—one of 65 natural-gas companies hunched over the state’s Marcellus Shale deposits. Last Monday, Hanger announced a “comprehensive investigation” of the incident and halted Enron’s Pennsylvania operations. In a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak wrote, “This accident highlights the significant dangers of these drilling operations, which are expanding in Pennsylvania at an unprecedented rate and scale.”

Gov. Rendell offered a teaspoon of his own criticism, saying that he was “very concerned about what happened.” As well he should be, as the gusher was tangentially his fault. Since radically expanding drilling in 2008—the “unprecedented rate and scale” invoked by Sestak—the governor has largely ignored its inherent ecological hazards. To him, expediency has been the thing: the more Enrons to pay up, move in and get pumping, the better. Given such Boom Town conditions, it should be no surprise that we’ve already had a spill.

It’s impossible not to draw similarities between the Enron “geyser” and the tragedy in the Gulf. Both featured a failed blowout preventer and “compromised seal integrity.” Despite the risk involved, neither had been foreseen nor seriously accounted for. In both cases, company executives expressed spurious regret. Of course, there are also glaring differences: The estimated 35,000 gallons spewed in Clearfield is a fraction of the million-plus gallons entering the Gulf each day. And the damage done by Enron, according to a DEP spokesman, was “minimal”; the same cannot be said of BP. For Pennsylvanians, though, the most significant difference is this: It is still early enough in the Marcellus Shale experiment to learn from last week’s mistake.

Oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico is a long-established business. The first well was dug there in 1946, with the number of platforms reaching 3,858 by 2006 (due to a government-imposed moratorium, 33 have been idled). President Obama has promised to change the way business is done on those rigs, last month telling a San Francisco crowd that “we have to revisit how these oil companies are operating.” But the conditions that caused the BP disaster were abetted by a deep coziness between drillers and regulators—an amity that mere “revisiting” won’t get rid of. As The New York Times reported in May, “At least seven new permits for various types of drilling and five environmental waivers have been granted” since the April 20 Gulf explosion. “Records also indicate that … federal regulators have granted at least 19 environmental waivers for gulf drilling projects … most of which were for types of work like that on the Deepwater Horizon.” Even now, the party continues.

In Pennsylvania, the Marcellus party has only just begun; such execrable patterns are not so deeply set. We are at the 1946 stage of our shale’s exploitation. And though the process has so far been dispiriting (the rush to drill, the lack of transparency and oversight), we still have the opportunity to get it right—or, rather, as right as it can be. Last Sunday, an early warning shot was fired 75 feet into the air. Harrisburg has ignored that warning—and continues to smirk at legitimate environmental concerns—at its state’s own peril.

So will Rendell take this chance to do right by Pennsylvania’s environment? To make all 65 producers, not just Enron, prove their competence? As of now, it doesn’t seem likely. He sees the Clearfield rupture not as an occasion to prevent future spills, but as a tool to push legislators to impose a drilling tax. “‘We needed a severance tax even before the accident,’” Rendell told the Inquirer . In the newspaper’s words, “He hopes the accident will mean the industry will ‘stop battling the tax.’” Certainly, the tax is important and necessary. But, the governor forgets, so are lakes and streams.

Some believe that the gulf spill will force us to rethink how we obtain our fuel, and I certainly hope they’re right. Ultimately, though, despite the daily-unfolding horror, such optimism feels baseless. Until the last ounce of crude or natural gas has been sucked from the earth, there’s simply too much money at stake. And whether it’s the Gulf of Mexico or an obscure Pennsylvania county, there is no crisis too large—or too small—to overcome all that cash. Unfortunately, it’s kind of the American way.

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Comments 1 - 12 of 12
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1. Tom said... on Sep 18, 2010 at 09:17PM

“Good article. It is important to realize that whether it is good or bad, natural gas and petroleum are part of the future of a heavily populated world. What we do need to learn is HOW to obtain these products safely. I can't believe we need to spend hundreds of billions of dollars developing more and deadlier weapons and better ways to spy on and control our citizens, but can't find the money to develop safer technology for obtaining those things we can no longer live without. I guess it really is all about priorities, and alas, environmental safety is not really very high on the list.”

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2. TSGordon said... on Sep 18, 2010 at 10:03PM

“The real problem is that the rock layers are anything but flat planes. Any and all vertical fissures can subsequently leak gas, which will transport fluid with it as it rises. This is the nature of shale filtration. All of the purest water in the world comes from capillary action as it is drawn upward into the natural springs. "Shale Fracking - Just say NO, Not Now, Not Ever!"”

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3. Dave said... on Sep 18, 2010 at 11:22PM

“Nothing is more important than money. Worship it, pray for it, work for it. People do not need a safe environment to live in, they will adapt or die.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Sep 19, 2010 at 12:31AM

“everything has an oil background---think about it. compare the lifetime accidents involving oil and gas and the daily mistakes in the US congress.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Sep 19, 2010 at 09:00AM

“There is a very good video on youtube showing the environmental consequences of "fracking", which involves a process of pumping toxic chemicals into the bore hole. All across America where fracking occurs, the ground water and land has been destroyed forever. The people of Pennsylvania should be very scared.”

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6. PosthumousDrinker said... on Sep 19, 2010 at 09:50AM

“"Deep Well Injection" was not allowed in Yucca Mountain, so why would you want an 'unknown' chemical waste mined by Halliburton in the NYC watershed? ...No wonder their DHS- Chief is in hiding! Hear that ticking time bomb?”

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7. Toxick1 said... on Sep 19, 2010 at 10:28AM

“Let's all go back to the pastoral life that the greenies want so badly. Let all the technology quietly rust away and divide North America up into little farms with no metal or oil. I wonder how long it would take for some less conscientious country to move in?”

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8. Old Driller said... on Sep 19, 2010 at 11:18AM

“A lot of bitching about fracking which is necessary to have production. Ban it, let people freeze and there will be a lot more bitching.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Sep 20, 2010 at 08:58AM

“what became of getting off fossil fuels? everyone needs to cut usage. less demand,less drilling. please conserve where you can or this is all your fault. if we use less the price goes down and the greedy pigs at big gas will go away.”

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10. Wychdoctor George said... on Sep 21, 2010 at 10:27AM

“You have an energy source which can power our electric generating plants for decades, reduce or eliminate dependence on coal and greatly reduce foreign oil. It is controlled by America, not by terrorist nations. Let's think about this - improve fracturing technology, better controls, or send megabucks to nations who sponsor terrorism. Let's think about this a while????”

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11. Anonymous said... on Sep 21, 2010 at 09:13PM

“Drill baby drill. I'm in the Haynesville shale, right in the bullseye. It's time I get some of the money. You bitchers destroy to make your living and most of you are no better than what you accuse the gas companies of doing. As long as you have money and your uppity life, you are against everyone else having a piece of the pie. Why don't you concentrate on the corrupt government that destroys everyone's life with their needless wars and medling in our business. We'll solve the frac issue, just like we found out how to drill shale. I would be more concerned about nukes and warmongers if I were some of you bitchers.”

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12. Grimzella said... on Sep 6, 2011 at 11:38PM

“i agree F U .. i need $$$$. you treehuggers can suck it. pay my bills and my grocery bill and maybe i wont have them drilling under my house. if u dont wanna pay them bills for me, then STFU, cause i need money NOW!!!”


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