Shale Gas Exploration: The Coming Storm

by Jay Kimball on 06 July 2010

When you see three mainstream media (Vanity Fair, HBO, and Bloomberg) covering the esoteric practice of hydraulic-fracturing (also know as “fracking”), pay attention. Vanity Fair’s report, A Colossal Fracking Mess; HBO’s report, Gasland; and Bloomberg’s report, Shale Game, all detail the nasty practice of fracking – a process used to release natural gas and oil from the earth.

How nasty is fracking? Watch this amazing video of a homeowner demonstrating one of the toxic side effects of Fracking taking place on land near this man’s home.

This video was posted a year ago, and has had about 130,000 views. Though it took a year for the story to hit the mainstream media – the cats out of the bag.

Burning water is just one of the side effects of fracking. Tests of fracking runoff show presence of benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, boric acid, monoethanolamine, xylene, diesel-range organics, methanol, formaldehyde, hydrochloric acid, ammonium bisulfite, 2-butoxyethanol, and 5-chloro-2-methyl-4-isothiazotin-3-one. (Recently, in congressional testimony, drilling companies have confirmed the presence of many of these chemicals.) In the Vanity Fair article, Theo Colborn, a noted expert on water issues and endocrine disruptors, said that at least half of the chemicals known to be present in Fracking fluid are toxic; many of them are carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, and mutagens.

HBO’s Gasland is a detailed journey around America, visiting the various communities where shale gas exploration is having an impact on health and wellbeing of the community. Special attention is given to the Marcellus Shale, which poses high risk to ground water for residents of Pennsylvania and New York.  All three reports detail this.

Each well needs 82 tons of assorted chemicals to get it producing. New York has banned shale gas drilling statewide until it adopts new rules. “We firmly believe, based on the best available science and current industry and technological practices, that drilling cannot be permitted in the city’s watershed,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in an April.

While the Vanity Fair and Bloomberg reports provide for gripping reading, Gasland’s use of video and narrative delivers a powerful compelling punch. After watching, I was thinking how grateful I was to not live in any of the numerous communities exposed to the toxic side effects of shale gas exploration.

Dimock Township in Pennsylvania is one of the towns that features in all three reports. The Bloomberg report says:

Victoria Switzer, who moved to Dimock Township, Pennsylvania, to build a $350,000 dream home with her husband, Jimmy, in 2004, had no idea how shale gas would consume her village of 1,400.

She says she found so much methane in her well that her water bubbled like Alka-Seltzer. Neighbor Norma Fiorentino says methane in her well blew an 8-inch-thick (20-centimeter-thick) concrete slab off the top. The $180 bonus Cabot paid to drill on Switzer’s 7.2 acres (2.9 hectares) and the $900 in royalties she gets each month don’t compensate, she says.

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “The 10 most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the oil company an I’m here to help.’

Transitioning from Fossil Fuels to Renewable Clean Energy

Gas/Oil production is peaking. The easy oil and gas has been consumed. What remains will increasingly be harder to get to and more complicated to extract. Witness the BP Deepwater Horizon debacle in the Gulf. The business of oil/gas extraction will get increasingly messy and rife with political and legal risk.

Oil ERoEI Trend

In 1950 we could produce 100 barrels of oil using the energy of 1 barrel of oil.  So the Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) was about 100:1.  Today that ratio has fallen below 10:1. Similar low ERoEI can be found for other fossil fuels.  The chart below shows the ERoEI for various forms of energy.  The highest ROI is in wind and solar.  This is where we are seeing double-digit growth.

ERoEI

The oil/gas industry has 100 years of inertia propelling it forward. The golden days of fossil fuels are behind us. The industry is a dinosaur now – kept alive by our addiction to fossil fuels. Renewable energy is our future. The faster we can make the transition, the less damage will be done as the beast staggers to its rotten end.

Bryan Walsh, one of my favorite environmental reporters, just published this evenhanded video that looks at some specific examples of toxic fracking related events in Pennsylvania, the heart of east coast gas extraction. The devastating impact on homeowners and communities is tragic.

Fossil fuels – RIP.

Peak Oil

 

Recommended Reading

Congress Releases Report on Toxic Chemicals Used In Fracking by Jay Kimball

 

  • http://www.8020vision.com Jay Kimball

    Tom Zeller Jr. at the NY Times has a good article on fracking in PA – Pennsylvania Governor Bans Fracking in State Forests.
    See http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/26/pennsylvania-governor-bans-fracking-in-state-forests/#preview

  • Safewater

    Thank you for the hydro-fracking summary. I work (20 years) for the State of Michigan and have enough knowledge in well construction, geological formations and ground water contamination to know that this article is accurate.
    1) The difference between a domestic/ agricultural water well and a hydrofracked gas exploration well is the water wells go straight down and the hydrofracked well goes extends horizontally for a 1/2 mile to 2 miles, or more.
    2) The toxic chemcals used to develop a hydro-fracked gas exploartion well and the gases released do not stay below the wellhead but are transversed horizontally under, possible, adjacent landowners.
    3) In Michigan, the Well Construction Code, Part 127 of Act 368 requires all private and public (municipal and non-municipal) wells to meet criteria for construction and isolation from sources of contamination, which originated at the surface and contamination which has penetrated the surface to create groundwater contamination plumes (which are required to be addressed.) Michigan has a solid history to ensure the public drills and receives safe drinking water.
    4)
    – There are approx 4000 municipal water well systems from which half of all Michigan residents receive their water.
    – There are approximately 10,000 schools, factories, campgrounds, restaurants, etc which rely on their well water to serve to the public.
    – There are approximately over million active private home owner water wells whom
    – There are numerous agricultural uses for irrigation.
    – There are numerous food processing facilities related to the Michigan’s agriculture which rely heavily on safe water.
    5) The Michigan hydro-fracking regulations need to fully ensure there will not be even one violation to the Michigan standards of safe water we have established for commerical and public use.

  • http://8020vision.com jaykimball

    Thanks for the info Safewater.

    The easy oil and gas is gone. As Big Oil tries to extract the deeper sources, they need to err on the side of “First, do no harm.”

  • http://8020vision.com jaykimball

    Energy In Depth, the PR and lobby firm for The Petroleum Institutes tried to write a critical response to the Movie Gasland, mentioned above. They put a misleading spin on information in Gasland to soothe and silence public curiosity about gas drilling.

    Josh Fox, the director of Gasland does a nice job deconstructing their PR campaign. See it at:

    http://1trickpony.cachefly.net/gas/pdf/Affirming_Gasland_Sept_2010.pdf

  • http://8020vision.com jaykimball

    Fracking is a toxic process that can destroy community water systems. Investors that are shareholders of companies that use fracking to extract natural gas are demanding that those companies to report the risks associated with fracking.

    Leading U.S. investors today announced they have filed shareholder resolutions with nine oil and gas companies, pressing them to disclose their plans for managing water pollution, litigation and regulatory risks that are increasingly associated with ever-expanding natural gas hydraulic fracturing operations (also known as “fracking”) in the United States.

    See:
    http://www.ceres.org/Page.aspx?pid=1324

    http://iehn.org/resolutions.shareholder.detail.php?pageid=100

  • LuAnne Kozma

    We’ve formed a group to ban fracking in Michigan: Don’t Frack Michigan.
    Please see our website: http://www.dontfrackmichigan.org

    Contact us and attend our meetings!

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  • http://8020vision.com jaykimball

    Fracking news in the UK at Sky News:

    http://news.sky.com/skynews/Article/201102115925456

    Notable quote:

    “Given that we need to get our emissions down very radically, the idea of trying to extract yet another fossil fuel, with more carbon emissions, is completely at odds with the scale of the challenge we need to deal with climate change,”

  • http://8020vision.com jaykimball

    In a very detailed well researched article, the New York TImes added a new important toxic side-effect of fracking – radiation in public water systems. See:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/27/us/27gas.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1&hpw

    Here’s an excerpt:
    “With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself.

    While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of internal documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.

    The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.

    Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.”

  • http://8020vision.com jaykimball

    Fracking likely related to over 700 earthquakes in Arkansas area. See:

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2011/02/18/133864321/arkansas-is-shaking-50-earthquakes-in-past-week-700-in-last-six-months

    Excerpt:
    “Scott Ausbrooks, geohazards supervisor for the Arkansas Geological Survey, said the quakes are part of what is now called the Guy earthquake swarm — a series of mild earthquakes that have been occurring periodically since 2009. A similar swarm occurred in the early 1980s when a series of quakes hit Enola, Ark.

    “Ausbrooks said geologists are still trying to discover the exact cause of the recent seismic activity but have identified two possibilities.

    ” ‘It could just be a naturally occurring swarm like the Enola swarm, or it could be related to ongoing natural gas exploration in the area,’ he said.”

  • http://8020vision.com jaykimball
  • rbot

    I used to work at a oilfield servicing company in Houston, TX. It was purchased by Baker Hughes last year. We had a bunch of PhD’s in white coats running around the ‘frac lab”. I didn’t know much about the process, as I just worked on computers in the lab. They were all wearing protective gear in the lab, and working with substances that were clearly marked as ‘hazardous’. They had these huge trucks that would go out on “frac jobs”. I had no idea the insidious nature of this operation….

  • http://8020vision.com jaykimball

    Thanks for telling your story rbot. I hope you are working someplace safer these days.

  • http://8020vision.com jaykimball

    Committee Democrats Release New Report Detailing Hydraulic Fracturing Products

    “Today Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry A. Waxman, Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Edward J. Markey, and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Ranking Member Diana DeGette released a new report that summarizes the types, volumes, and chemical contents of the hydraulic fracturing products used by the 14 leading oil and gas service companies. The report contains the first comprehensive national inventory of chemicals used by hydraulic fracturing companies during the drilling process.

    “Hydraulic fracturing has helped to expand natural gas production in the United States, but we must ensure that these new resources don’t come at the expense of public health,” said Rep. Waxman. “This report shows that these companies are injecting millions of gallons of products that contain potentially hazardous chemicals, including known carcinogens. I urge EPA and DOE to make certain that we have strong protections in place to prevent these chemicals from entering drinking water supplies.”

    “With our river ways and drinking water at stake, it’s an absolute necessity that the American public knows what is in these fracking chemicals,” said Rep. Markey. “This report is the most comprehensive look yet at the composition of the chemicals used in the fracking process, and should help the industry, the government, and the American public push for a safer way to extract natural gas.”

    During the last Congress, the Committee launched an investigation into the practice of hydraulic fracturing in the United States, asking the leading oil and gas service companies to disclose information on the products used in this process between 2005 and 2009.

    The Democratic Committee staff analyzed the data provided by the companies about their practices, finding that:

    The 14 leading oil and gas service companies used more than 780 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products, not including water added at the well site. Overall, the companies used more than 2,500 hydraulic fracturing products containing 750 different chemicals and other components.

    The components used in the hydraulic fracturing products ranged from generally harmless and common substances, such as salt and citric acid, to extremely toxic substances, such as benzene and lead. Some companies even used instant coffee and walnut hulls in their fracturing fluids.

    Between 2005 and 2009, the oil and gas service companies used hydraulic fracturing products containing 29 chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for their risks to human health, or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

    The BTEX compounds – benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene – are SDWA contaminants and hazardous air pollutants. Benzene also is a known human carcinogen. The hydraulic fracturing companies injected 11.4 million gallons of products containing at least one BTEX chemical over the five-year period.

    Methanol, which was used in 342 hydraulic fracturing products, was the most widely used chemical between 2005 and 2009. The substance is a hazardous air pollutant and is on the candidate list for potential regulation under SDWA. Isopropyl alcohol, 2-butoxyethanol, and ethylene glycol were the other most widely used chemicals.

    Many of the hydraulic fracturing fluids contain chemical components that are listed as “proprietary” or “trade secret.” The companies used 94 million gallons of 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that the manufacturers deemed proprietary or a trade secret. In many instances, the oil and gas service companies were unable to identify these “proprietary” chemicals, suggesting that the companies are injecting fluids containing chemicals that they themselves cannot identify.”

    http://democrats.energycommerce.house.gov/index.php?q=news/committee-democrats-release-new-report-detailing-hydraulic-fracturing-products

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  • alex

    hate on fossil fuels all you like but if it wern’t for then there would have been no industrial revolution no digital age no computers we’d be living in the 21st century with 18th centurt tec

  • http://8020vision.com jaykimball

    Alex, What would you like to see happen going forward?  Business as usual, more of the same?  Should we be investing in and transitioning to cleaner energy sources?  Should we continue subsidizing fossil fuels?

  • Kiwi’swife

    My family has been poisoned by natural gas drilling processes.  We were poisoned by H2S and other nasty chemicals.  We live in Garfield County Colorado.  Our local commissioners sided with the oil and gassholes, and tried to make our situation go away.  We have deaths and cancers in our valley, and its getting worse.  The corruption going on in our county is insane.  We are so worried about our childrens’ future medical needs after becoming so sick from the exposure.  Our local law enforcement and government don’t want to help anyone but the oil and gassholes.

  • http://8020vision.com jaykimball

    Thanks for telling your story. I am sorry that you are having this happen.  I imagine your property values are also being impacted.  Who wants to live in a toxic dump…

    Check out the links here for info on what you can do to fight back.

    http://8020vision.com/2011/04/17/congress-releases-report-on-toxic-chemicals-used-in-fracking/

    And here’s a link to Colorado organizations that are on the front lines, fighting natural gas drilling – to preserve neighborhoods, safe water and good health.

    http://www.gaslandthemovie.com/take-action/organizations-fighting-fracking?state_id=6

  • Kiwi

    Yes, these folks in the movies are friends of ours, and we are being represented by Napoli Bern Ripka from New York.  We were in the series in the New York Times called ‘Drilling Down’, if you want to catch up.  Our lawyers have successfully sued the state of New York on behalf of the first responders to 9/11 for $820 million.  They are going to pulverize Antero Resources and the other companies responsible for our poisoning.  We did a constructive eviction from our dreamhome, on 71/2 acres on Silt Mesa.  It has been brought to our local media’s attention, that neighbors of ours are now reporting poisoned wells, as well.

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