HARRISBURG, Pa. – So vast is the wealth of natural gas locked into dense rock deep beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio that some geologists estimate it’s enough to supply the entire East Coast for 50 years.
But freeing it requires a powerful drilling process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” using millions of gallons of water brewed with toxic chemicals, that some fear could pollute water above and below ground and deplete aquifers.
As gas drillers swarm to this lucrative Marcellus Shale region and blast into other shale reserves around the country, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking a new look at the controversial fracking technique, currently exempt from federal regulation. The $1.9 million study comes as the nation reels from the Deepwater Horizon environmental and economic disaster playing out in the Gulf of Mexico.
The oil and gas industry steadfastly defends the process as having been proven safe over many years as well as necessary to keep the nation on a path to energy independence.
Studies have “consistently shown that the risks are managed, it’s safe, it’s a technology that’s essential … it’s also a technology that’s well-regulated,” said Lee Fuller, director of the industry coalition Energy in Depth.
But because of the oil spill, conservation groups say the drilling industry has lost its credibility and the rapid expansion of shale drilling needs to be scrutinized.
“People no longer trust the oil and gas industry to say, ‘Trust us, we’re not cutting corners,’ ” said Cathy Carlson, a policy adviser for Earthworks, which supports federal regulation and a moratorium on fracking in the Marcellus Shale.
Just six years ago, an EPA study declared the fracking process posed “little or no threat to underground sources of drinking water,” and with that blessing, Congress a year later exempted hydraulic fracturing from federal regulation.
Now the agency, prodded by Congress even before the Gulf disaster and stung by criticism that its 2004 study was scientifically flawed and maybe politically tainted, will bring the issues to the heart of the land lease rush in the Marcellus Shale: Canonsburg, Pa., on Thursday and Binghamton, N.Y., on Aug. 12.
EPA hearings earlier this month in Fort Worth, Texas, and Denver focused on issues including drilling in the Barnett Shale of Texas, and in Colorado and Wyoming, which have experienced similar natural gas booms. Natural gas is also being recovered from the Haynesville Shale in north Louisiana, the Fayetteville Shale in northern Arkansas and Woodford Shale in southern Oklahoma.
In Texas, where drillers have sunk more than 13,000 wells into the Barnett Shale in the past decade, fear of the cancer-causing chemical benzene in the air above gas fields from processing plants and equipment has spurred tests by environmental regulators and criticism of the state’s safeguards.
Advancements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology in the late 1990s significantly increased the yield and economic viability of tapping shale gas wells and led to the current natural gas boom, starting in Texas with the Barnett Shale. Fracking is now considered the key to unlocking huge natural gas reserves across the United States as a greener energy alternative to coal or oil.
The Marcellus Shale is 10 times the size of the Barnett and is estimated to have a potential yield of 10 times as much gas (500 trillion cubic feet versus 50 trillion cubic feet).
At stake in the debate is not just the safety of water supplies but also thousands of jobs, profits for the gas drilling and delivery industry and a bonanza of royalties for landowners.
“We’ve got to get it right,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., a sponsor of the so-called FRAC Act, which would repeal the 2005 exemption and require regulation of fracking by the EPA under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
Though the drilling rush into Pennsylvania is barely two years old, more than 3,500 permits have been issued and about 1,500 wells drilled. Environmental problems are already bubbling up: methane leaks contaminating private water wells, major spillage of diesel and fracking chemicals above ground, and fish kill in a creek.
A well blowout in north-central Pennsylvania last month spewed natural gas and toxic fracking water out of control for 16 hours. State regulators found EOG Resources Inc. of Houston had failed to install a proper blowout prevention system – taking cost shortcuts.
A wary New York state has had a virtual moratorium on drilling permits for the Marcellus Shale region for two years while it completes an environmental review.
Hydraulic fracturing, first used commercially in 1949 by petroleum services giant Halliburton Co. of Houston, was developed to eke gas and oil from impermeable rock. Water mixed with chemicals and sand is injected at high pressure to fracture shale, the sand holding fractures open so gas can flow up the well.
Each frack job uses an average of 4 million gallons of water, delivered to a well site by hundreds of tanker trucks. Some of the “produced” wastewater that comes back up the well – briny, chemical-laden and possibly radioactive from exposure to naturally existing radon underground – is usually stored in open pits until it’s trucked to treatment plants or underground injection wells.
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