Would you rather have clean energy or clean drinking water?
Your answer may depend on what side of the Marcellus Shale drilling debate you’re on. It’s either a job creator, a huge step toward ending our reliance on dirty energy and a cash cow of revenue, or it is a hazard that could have life-changing consequences for millions of people.
There are only a couple bits of information we can all really agree on: The Marcellus Shale is huge (an underground layer of sedimentary rock covering nearly the entire state of Pennsylvania and extending all the way down to Tennessee); and it contains copious amounts of natural gas (one scientist estimated that the shale reserves contain up to 500 trillion cubic feet of gas).
Here’s something else you should agree on: That drilling for said gas could lead to several different environmental disasters. (And probably will if we let this happen).
Evidence is building that drilling could be as dangerous as it is lucrative, primarily due to the drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing. “Hydrofracking” as it is known in drilling circles (yes, there are drilling circles), involves the pumping of “fracking fluid” into a well at pressures that force the shale to fracture. The natural gas is then extracted by injecting water, sand and other chemicals into the fractures under high pressure to release it.
The nature of these “chemicals” is what has many people up in arms. In a study of the effects of fracking fluid on drinking water, the EPA noted that most fracking fluids contain diesel fuel, which consists of a cocktail of toxic chemicals that can damage the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Thirsty, anyone?
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation analyzed wastewater in several wells in the state and found insanely high levels of radium-226, thousands of times the limit that is safe to drink. Radium-226 is a highly radioactive chemical that can lead to lung and bone cancer, among other diseases. When you take into consideration that the Delaware River and Schuylkill River watersheds are both located near the Shale, these findings are even more alarming. The New York City DEP concluded that drilling the Shale “presents potential risks to public health and would be expected to compromise the City’s ability to protect the watershed and continued, cost-effective provision of a high purity water supply.” Wait, so why are we even arguing about this?
The township of Dimock, Pa., is a drilling hotspot in Northeast Pennsylvania, and now serves as a microcosm of the potential consequences of natural-gas drilling. Dimock, an impoverished town of 1,300 people in Susquehanna County, opened its doors to the Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation in 2008. Cabot has since drilled 73 wells, according to its most recent annual report, and in 2009 came under fire from the state Department of Environmental Protection for allegedly contaminating 16 private wells in Dimock with methane. The DEP recently ordered Cabot to pay for an $11.5 million dollar water pipeline to service the homes whose water supply were contaminated.
In the fall of 2009, the same year that the contaminated water was found, as much as 8,000 gallons of fracking fluid was spilled, some of which trickled into a nearby creek in Dimock as a result of “failed pipe connections” from Cabot drilling sites. The fluids contained highly toxic chemicals and possible carcinogens (substances that cause cancer). The DEP fined Cabot a mere $56,650 for the three separate spills, pocket change for a company that reported a net income of $148.3 million in 2009.
Aside from the environmental and health ramifications of natural-gas drilling, the one topic that the public seems to be ignoring is how all of this natural gas would be delivered to Pennsylvania residents. In his testimony to City Council, Philadelphia Gas Works COO Craig White iterated that PGW has “not contracted with any supplier to purchase Marcellus Shale Gas in the past or in the future.” PGW currently purchases all its gas from the Gulf region, and White highlighted the lack of a pipeline from the Shale drilling sites as a major factor down the road.
Unfortunately, it is highly likely that the Marcellus Shale will be drilled for gas. Like Big Tobacco many years ago, the drilling companies have powerful lobbyists and the money to stimulate local economies that can encourage legislators to devalue the environmental and human health of their constituents. Even more troubling is the fact that these companies can hide under the cloak of “clean energy alternatives,” a disturbing subtext to an already contentious issue.
As Rebecca Roter stood on Broad Street, heavy clouds threatening rain overhead, she brandished a bottle of murky water labeled “Bradford County.” Her question was: Would you want to drink this? The answer from the dozens gathered outside the Doubletree Hotel yesterday, was a resounding “No fracking way.”
President Obama has given the Department of Energy 90 days to look at ways to improve the safety of drilling for natural gas. The Environmental Protection Agency has already started an extensive review of how drilling affects drinking water.
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