The black color of the Marcellus Shale is characteristic of shales that have a high content of organic compounds. These compounds can include the simplest organic gas, methane, which has one carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms. In the southwestern part of Pennsylvania the gas also includes hydrocarbons that consist of long strings of carbon atoms with many hydrogen atoms chemically attached to the long strings. Examples of these gases are ethane and propane, and the extracted gas is called “wet gas” (which has nothing to do with water).  Before wet gas can be used, the methane has to be separated from the other gases. This requires more expense for the gas company and an array of physical facilities to do the processing.

Hydraulic fracturing. Drilling a simple vertical well into the Marcellus and hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracing or fracking) it with extreme pressure releases only a relatively small amount of gas. No one will get rich with this type of well. The type of well that taps into the Marcellus is one in which the drilling goes down, curves, and then proceeds to be extended horizontally. This allows the drill to penetrate many vertical fractures in the shale which facilitates the accumulation and extraction of gas. Then, by fracing the shale in the horizontal openings, and using a mixture of water containing a slurry of rounded sand grains and proprietary chemicals, much more gas can be released from the shale. The sand grains are used to keep the pores created by the fracing open, so the gas can travel freely and be collected. The proprietary chemicals help to lubricate the slurry, keep microscopic organisms from living and reproducing, and releasing some of the gas that is chemically adsorbed on the clay particles that make up the shale.

Water consumption at drillling sites. Drilling requires a five acre footprint for the drill rig, holding ponds, and space for all the trucks that contain water, sand, chemicals, and other supplies.  Each well uses one million to five million gallons of water. In Pennsylvania, between Jan 1, 2010 and June 18, 2010, 1800 drilling permits were issued and  636 wells were drilled. The amount of water taken from rivers and reservoirs for the 636 wells is minimally 636 million gallons, and potentially as much as 3.18 billion gallons. This is for the first half of the year. The total number of Marcellus wells from 2005 through June 18, 2010, is 1866. This number will soon be multiplied many times as more permits are issued in the latter half of 2010 and into future years.

Fracing fluid uncertainties. The fracing technique has been used to extract gas from the Barnett Shale in Texas. To say that the technique  has been perfected and creates no environmental problems is a gross understatement of the process. An article wirtten by Stephen Cleghorn, and published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, Sunday October 10, 2010, ( indicates that a part of the problem is the mental anguish caused by the uncertainty of what is coming. He also cited some informaiton from Tioga County that should be of concern to all farmers and ranchers, as well as hunters,

“…the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 cattle after they drank gas- drilling fluids that overflowed from a pond of drilling waste. It tasted like salty water to them,  which they like. The Agriculture Department required that the young calves be held out of the  food chain for two years for fear that the toxins in the drilling fluids – including the heavy metal  strontium – would get deposited in the calve’s bones and find their way into humans who ate  their meat.”

Certainly deer would also drink the fracing fluid, not just from overflows and spills, but also from the holding ponds. As wellsites proliferate, so also will the availability of holding ponds.

How much drilling waste of fracing fluids is associated with each well? In Texas, the amount of reflux of drilling fluid to the surface following the fracing can amount to 40% of the total fluid used. In Pennsylvania the amount of reflux is considerably less, only 10 to 15%. Even so, 10% of five million gallons is 500,000 gallons. This reflux contains any number of chemicals. A preliminary list of fracing chemicals has been compiled by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

How is the fracing waste handled? It is stored in large holding ponds created by the drilling company.  These ponds are not supposed to overflow or leak. Companies are required to maintain no less than a two foot freeboard (the distance from the top edge of the pond to the top of the reflux fluid in the pond). Some of the fluid could be reused in another drilling operation from the same or another  five acre drilling pad. Much of the fluid is eventually slated for treatment to dilute it down to no more than 500 parts per million of total dissolved solids (TDS). This however does not remove any of the toxic chemicals in the reflux liquid.

How much TDS is in reflux liquids? If the fracing process uses only one million gallons, and 99.5% of the fluid is water and sand, then only 0.5% would be TDS. This amounts to a TDS concentration of  5,000  parts per million. Not all the reflux fluid is toxic by human standards if diluted down to less than 500 parts per million. Although the list of fracing compounds is extensive, the companies are not required to disclose the formulas they use; they only have to disclose the names of the chemicals, and not the percentages of each.

Legal aspects of the problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has asked nine different gas-drilling companies for their list of fracing chemicals .  At the present time, this request is an exercise that ignores the lack of ability of the EPA to do anything about the problem of toxic chemicals in the reflux. In July and August of 2005 the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate passed an energy bill that President Bush signed into law on August 8, 2005. Section 322 exempts from the Safe Drinking Water Act methane gas drilling using fracing. At the time, this section of the bill exempted 16 companies who were operating in the western United States from lawsuits related to pollution of underground water sources due to fracing techniques. Section 323 exempted these same companies from the Federal Water Pollution Control Act for construction activities in the areas of gas drilling. Interestingly, these same 16 companies gave nearly 15 million dollars to federal candidates, and spent more than 70 million dollars lobbying Congress.

The difficult part of all this is that the same restrictions make it impossible for the EPA to have any real regulatory control of fracing fluids in the eastern United States. It is up to the state governments to provide the rules and limitations on water pollution related to drilling and fracing fluids. In the years 2009 and  2010, several bills and acts related to these problems have been proposed in the PA General Assembly, the PA House of Representatives, and the PA Senate.  The bills and acts were subsequently  referred to committee and none have become law. One proposed bill would require revealing the exact formula used only to emergency responders in the event of a spill that creates a health hazard; and then only if the emergency responders request the information.

Gas migration. If well casings are not properly centered and sealed with concrete after being placed into the drill hole, then methane gas and even fracing fluids can leak upwards into fresh water aquifers, contaminating individual or municipal water supplies. Natural fractures in rocks may also allow this same type of contamination.  How often  can this happen? Natural fractures that would allow gas and fluids to leak upward from the depth of the Marcellus Shale (5,000 to 7,000 feet beneath the surface) are unknown in Pennsylvania. Mistakes in centering and cementing well casings are also uncommon, but not unknown. The danger is that methane gas is a silent killer if allowed to accumulate in a building. It can also be highly explosive. Methane gas cannot be seen, and it is odorless. The odor that is smelled in gas piped to a person’s home has an artificial odor put into it by the gas company.  Residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania, have their water contaminated by methane gas that only showed up after a nearby Marcellus gas drilling operation. The solution to their problem is going to initially cost about 11.8 million dollars. There is no guarantee that the gas drilling company will ever have to pay , particularly with the change in leadership in Harrisburg in January, 2011.  The fact that the methane is in their wells means that all of their wells should be properly capped and isolated from any water line leading to their buildings. This cost is not included in the 11.8 million dollar estimate.

Proponents of gas drilling. Those who will gain financially from massive gas drilling operations include the gas drillers, gas companies, land owners, politicians and lobbyists. There is no doubt that the financial rewards are huge and compelling. However, the arguments used by the proponents to not strengthen the laws and regulations (by keeping the bills and acts in committee so they cannot be voted on and signed into law) and to not tax the industry (particularly a severance tax) are completely self-serving and spurious. Let us examine their arguments (in bold italics):

1-There will be a pronounced increase in the number of jobs in Pennsylvania, as many as 100,000 in the next two to five years. Since 2005, 1458 Marcellus wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania and about 3300 related new jobs created. That is just a little over 2 1/4 jobs per well. In order to accommodate the increase in waste water facilities to dilute the reflux fluids, and by being generous, let us say 3 new jobs per well.  Once the job is done, the same people move on to another well site. This does not create new jobs, it simply shifts many of the jobs around. The number of well sites depends partially on the number of specialized drilling rigs that can do this type of drilling, which at the present time is somewhat limited. So let us do the math,  100,000 new jobs in another five years, and only 3 new jobs per well site (which is probably overstating the number) means that about 33,333 wells will have to be drilled.  This is not realistic, as would also be the number 200,000 new jobs that some proponents are advocating. The proponents that make this argument are appealing to the unemployed or underemployed in the state. However, not many of them will see an improvement in their job situation from the Marcellus drilling projects.
2-The State will benefit greatly from the drilling program. How will the state benefit? The Department of Environmental Protection has had to increase the number of  inspectors, which did create new jobs, but also increased the state payroll without a concomitant increase in tax revenue from the drilling industry. The severance tax is as good as dead with our new state administration. The result of this could be even more ecologically devastating than the residual effects of the coal mining which has polluted much ground water with dissolved iron, sulfuric acid, and bacterial contamination, not to mention the scarification of the landscape.  The State will not benefit, only the drillers and producers of the gas, the landowners, and others with financial interests will benefit.

3- Seventy percent of the money spent in drilling will be taxed at 3.1% to return to the state coffers. This argument is used to support the idea that the drilling companies are paying their fair share of taxes. What it really represents is the income tax of the workers on the drilling rig, the workers that haul supplies, water, chemicals, and other support items to the drilling operation. The companies themselves are not being taxed.  The largest fee the individual company may have to pay to the state is a proposed permit fee of ten dollars per well; and that is ostensibly to offset the cost of remediation of environmental problems associated with the drilling. This fee, which would also be very inadequate,  has died in committee.

4- Drilling and fracing techniques, if done right, will eliminate any environmental problems. Even many of the proponents agree that accidents can and will happen. The sustainability of the environment will suffer even if stringent legal measures regulate the industry. There is a significant difference between protecting people and animals in the environment and simply hitting a drilling company with a fine after the damage is done. A fine of several thousand dollars is a drop in the bucket to the industry and will do little to engender better production practices. Accidents can occur, but most of them could probably be avoided. Of the 565 violations by drilling companies from 2005 to June 18, 2010, the majority were for problems that either caused significant environmental damage or the potential for such damage (see the last page of the response of Secretary Hanger to Mary Jo White ). Although some of the violations were administrative lapses, many were not. It is interesting to note that many of the drilling companies had multiple violations. It is also important to note that “accidents” in the industry view are often lapses in procedure, judgment, technical implementation, or outright disregard for the environment or the law.

5- Waste reflux fluids can be safely diluted to 500 parts per million and then be safely dumped into  streams and rivers. This may well be true for the non-toxic part of the dissolved solids, but the concentration of each chemical is undisclosed (because the companies consider the formula to be proprietary), and even very small amounts of some toxins could be harmful. Sport fishing could be affected by the dumping of diluted reflux fluids into streams and rivers. If the concentration of toxins is too small to kill the fish outright, some toxins and dissolved heavy metals could contaminate fish so that even more species would be listed as dangerous to eat.

6- Forced pooling will help conserve energy resources. Two issues are included in this statement. First, forced pooling, which is common in most states, makes it impossible to avoid having the Marcellus Shale under the land you own being drilled. If you do not agree to voluntary pooling of your land into a larger drilling unit, then the company can still drill under your land. They will have to pay you a royalty proportionate to the amount of your land to that of the entire drilling unit; and the amount will be the state mandated minimum of 12.5% of the net gas value for your portion. At least one landowner that has signed a lease is receiving a royalty of 20%.  Forced pooling according to some people is considered a way of cheating landowners that do not voluntarily become part of a drilling unit out of  their fair share. Second, by any dictionary definition of the term “conserve” and by any common sense definition of “conserve” the use of the term by the gas industry and state lawmakers has just the opposite meaning with respect to the gas resource. The meaning they ascribe to the term “conserve” is to extract as much as they can from each drilling site and leave as little behind as is possible. This would maximize the ability of the gas industry to extract the most gas for the least expense. In other words, the law provides the gas industry a boon in conserving (in the dictionary and common sense meaning) their expense and efforts in maximizing their return.

Additional information:

The following websites provide more informaton on many aspects of the Marcellus Shale drilling operations, including some legal ramifications and proposed (but not enacted) PA laws:

Marcellus Shale Protest

What to do? Drilling of the Marcellus Shale, and incidently, the Utica Shale which is an even deeper black shale, will continue for many years to come. Everybody uses energy, and everybody likes money. The only question is, will the landowners and voters in Pennsylvania decide to become more active in influencing the elected politicians. There is probably only one group of people that can influence the politicians more than the industry and their lobbyists, and that is the voters; but only if they become actively involved.  Sadly, if history is any indication of the future, voter activity will only occur after the western and northern tier counties of the state have been drilled and re-drilled under the present laws and proposed legislation which is grossly inadequate to produce a healthy and sustainable environment.

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