Gas and drilling not clean choices

Robert Howarth

Natural gas is marketed as a clean fuel with less impact on global warming than oil or coal, a transitional fuel to replace other fossil fuels until some distant future with renewable energy. Some argue that we have an obligation to develop Marcellus Shale gas, despite environmental concerns. I strongly disagree.

Natural gas as a clean fuel is a myth. While less carbon dioxide is emitted from burning natural gas than oil or coal, emissions during combustion are only part of the concern. Natural gas is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas with 72 times more potential than carbon dioxide to warm our planet (per molecule, averaged over the 20 years following emission). I estimate that extraction, transport and combustion of Marcellus gas, together with leakage of methane, makes this gas at least 60 percent more damaging for greenhouse warming than crude oil and similar in impact to coal.

The most recent method of hydro-fracking is relatively new technology, massive in scope and far from clean in ways beyond greenhouse gas emissions. The landscape could be dotted with thousands of drilling pads, spaced as closely as one every 40 acres. Compacted gravel would cover three to five acres for each. New pipelines and access roads crisscrossing the landscape would connect the pads. Ten or more wells per pad are expected. Every time a well is “fracked,” 1,200 truck trips will carry the needed water.

Drillers will inject several million gallons of water and tens of thousands of pounds of chemicals into each well. Some of this mixture will stay deep in the shale, but cumulatively, billions of gallons of waste fluids will surface. Under current law, drillers can use absolutely any chemical additive or waste, with no restrictions and no disclosure. Recent experience in Pennsylvania indicates regular use of toxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic substances. Out of 24 wells sampled there, flow-back wastes from every one contained high levels of 4-Nitroquinoline-1-oxide, (according to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation). It is one of the most mutagenic compounds known. Flow-back wastes also contain toxic metals and high levels of radioactivity extracted from the shale, in addition to the materials used by drillers.

Industry tells us that surface and groundwater contamination is unlikely, since gas is deep in the ground and drilling operations are designed to minimize leakage. Nonsense. The technology is new and understudied, but early evidence shows high levels of contamination in some drinking water wells and rivers in other states.

Accidents happen, and well casings and cementing can fail. The geology of our region is complex, and water and materials under high pressure can move quickly to aquifers, rivers and lakes along fissures and fractures. Flow-back waters and associated chemical and radioactive wastes must be handled and stored at the surface, some in open pits and ponds unless government regulation prevents this. What will keep birds and wildlife away from it? What happens downstream if a heavy rain causes the toxic soup to overflow the dam? What happens to these wastes? Adequate treatment technologies and facilities do not exist.

What about government regulation and oversight? The DEC is understaffed,underfunded and has no history with the scale and scope of exploitation now envisioned. Federal oversight is almost completely gone, due to Congress exempting gas development from most environmental laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, in 2005.

We can be independent of fossil fuels within 20 years and rely on renewable green technologies, such as wind and solar. The constraints on this are mostly political, not technical. We do not need to sacrifice a healthy environment to industrial gas development. Rather, we need to mobilize and have our region provide some badly needed national leadership toward a sustainable energy future.

Radioactivity and Natural Gas

Here is a copy of a letter a fellow concerned citizen wrote to the Environmental Quality Board in regards to radio activity and natural gas. This issue is quite alarming and has not been getting as much press coverage as some of the more obvious and worrisome issues. We are seeking answers and so far no one seems to be able to find them?

Dear Environmental Quality Board Members,

This is my second email concerning proposed changes in
Pennsylvania’s Wastewater Treatment Requirements and
it concerns radioactivity related to gas drilling in
the Marcellus shale layer in Pennsylvania.

First, I do not have a background in radioactivity.
However, I do know that DEC in New York State has
reported finding radioactive readings as high as
123,000 picocuries/liter in flow back fluids from
Marcellus wells up there. Their lowest reading was
14,530 picocuries/liter. The federal limit for
radiation in drinking water is 15 picocuries/liter.

The New York numbers seemed awfully high and I
am well schooled enough in geology to know that
Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shales were put down at
the same time as those in New York and that geology
doesn’t respect state boundaries. So, I sent a series
of questions to DEP to get some answers in mid-December.
Those questions were forwarded to the Bureau of Radiation
Protection in Harrisburg within a few days. I have since
followed up the original questions with a second email
on the 12th of January. To date I have received no
answers! Not even a note telling me that they are working
on the problem. Something isn’t right to my way of
thinking. Why the silence?

The questions asked in my emails in an abbreviated form:

1) Has Pennsylvania (DEP)taken radiation readings
from flow back water (the same liquids that have
already been discharged into some of our streams with
DEP approval) at some or any of our Marcellus wells?

2) What were the readings (picocuries/liter)?

3) When Marcellus wells are flared (burned, sometimes
for days, even weeks) how much radiation comes “up pipe”
with some of the liquids injected into the well as well
as small solid particles of sand and rock?

4) If our Marcellus flow back liquids and solids
are radioactive, is that radioactivity neutralized in
the heat of the burn?

5) How far away from the burn site will these liquids
and solids travel before falling back to earth and if
there is radioactivity present, should we be concerned?

I think I know some of the answers but I would like some
responsible state employee with the proper background
answer them for me. If what I suspect is true, then this
matter has the potential to be more difficult to deal
with than the TDS problem and I thought I should bring
it to your attention.

Frac In Depth

Here’s a link to a site that is industry driven. It gives you the energy industries take on what they are doing and a history of Fracking…that only includes information on the bright side of the coin. There’s a lot of water and sand but the other stuff is pretty nasty. Keep in mind that after the water comes out of the well, it has all sorts of goodies in it that are not mentioned in their graph. They can control what they put in the ground but it’s much harder to determine what’s going to come back out of it.

I’m not sure if they expected the radioactive materials they found in NY. The below link contains info from the DEC about the radioactivity.

Cornell Cooperative Extension Natural Gas Development Resource

This site provided by Cornell Cooperative Extension Natural Gas Development Resource Center has a lot of good info on it. Most of the events are old but the info about them is still there and as you scroll down the page there are links to other resources as well as explanations of answers to a lot of the questions that local residents have. If you are just starting to get involved with educating yourself or others on this topic it’s a great site to check out.

Radioactive waste water? uh oh!!d9&pId=HeOHCWXaPRs=&acn=zj!d9

Who Will Foot the Bill???

October 14, 2009

Hydro-fracturing gas drilling into the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale may mean big bucks for landowners and gas companies, but it also could cost large sums to taxpayers, if local governments end up shouldering the burden of environmental monitoring.

That possibility is one of the issues that state officials should address as the Department of Environmental Conservation holds public information sessions on new regulations for hydro-fracturing.

An article in this newspaper revealed that county health departments in New York would end up providing oversight of monitoring water quality in private wells that might be affected by the chemicals used by companies as they extract natural gas from shale lying underground.

Broome County, where officials believe that 2,000 to 4,000 gas wells could be drilled, already has started doing the math about that impact. Claudia A. Brown, county health department director, said Tuesday her agency has figured that if just 600 well pads go up in the county as many as 2,500 drinking water wells would have to be monitored. She already has asked other state officials whether there will be state aid reimbursement for the staff time spent on monitoring and investigating complaints.

In Chemung County, Environmental Health Director Tom Kump said he was unaware that local health departments might have to pay for the monitoring process. His department currently does simple bacteria tests for private water wells, costing around $12 to $15. But dealing with tests for the list of chemicals involved in hydro-fracturing could be much more complicated, he said. “There are a lot of questions we have, and we don’t have the answers yet,” he said.

In Tompkins County, Environmental Health Director Liz Cameron said word that local health departments might have to bear the cost of monitoring water supplies caught her somewhat by surprise. She chairs a gas drilling committee for the Tompkins County Water Resources Council and said the proposed regulations have forced a revision of educational information that the council intends to provide to the public about drilling and water wells used for drinking.

Counties such as Broome, Chemung and Tompkins already are financially strapped as it is, and with a fresh third-quarter report showing a further decline in sales tax revenue, the outlook for 2010 budgets looks as bleak as 2009. Adding more work with no money to offset the cost would further burden taxpayers, and that’s what could happen if the cost of monitoring private wells affected by drilling gets passed on to localities.

As part of the discussion of enacting regulations, state officials should include a fee structure that could be part of the permit costs to drillers that would compensate county health departments for the monitoring expense. It’s an expense the companies must be prepared to bear, and state officials should insist that it be part of the cost of doing business in New York.