The Marcellus Shale: Bridge to a Clean Energy Future or a Bridge to Nowhere?

The Marcellus Shale is a “tight rock” gas formation located approximately six to nine thousand feet below the earth’s surface and underlies large portions of southern New York State, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia.  Millions of gallons of water, combined with a chemical slurry and sand are injected into the well bore at extremely high pressure to develop the gas locked in the shale.  This process fractures the shale, which creates fissures—or passageways—that are propped open by the sand and allow the gas to migrate freely to the well head.  In December, 2010 then-Governor David Paterson vetoed the New York State legislature’s six month moratorium on vertical and horizontal hydraulic fracturing but replaced it with an Executive Order banning horizontal hydraulic fracturing until July 1, 2011.  This ban ensures that high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale can’t occur in New York State until this summer, at the earliest.

The moratorium came in response to immense public pressure to slow down the seemingly inevitable authorization of high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing slated to begin without adequate review of the environmental impacts or sufficient oversight by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).  (DEC’s release of the Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement in 2009 was met with widespread criticism for its failure to address a broad spectrum of environmental concerns.)  Based on reports coming out of Pennsylvania, there is little wonder that New York residents are concerned about hydraulic fracturing here.  Pennsylvania has experienced rapid development of the Marcellus Shale through hydraulic fracturing over the past two years and reports of ground and surface water contamination have become a recurring theme in the wake of the gas drilling boom there.  Water contamination issues highlight one of the main concerns cited by opponents to hydraulic fracturing in New York State.

Because of the high volumes of water used in the process, contamination issues arise from the drilling process itself as well as the treatment of the flowback water that returns from the well after the shale is fractured.  Currently, Pennsylvania is the only state that allows drilling wastewater to be treated at publicly owned treatment works (POTWs) as the primary method of disposal.  Not only do the chemicals used in the fracturing slurry pose treatment problems, but the Marcellus Shale is a geologic formation heavily saturated in salts.  The water pumped into the wells to fracture the shale dissolves large quantities of these salts (and heavy metals such as barium and strontium) which must be dealt with at wastewater treatment facilities before discharge into surface waters.  However, without knowledge of the chemicals used in the process (the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing chemicals from the disclosure requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act), or the technological capability of a POTW to treat such high concentrations of salts and inorganic materials such as heavy metals, POTWs are not adequate to treat the high volumes of flowback or “produced” water.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner John Hanger stated in April, 2010 that “[t]he treating and disposing of gas drilling brine and fracturing wastewater is a significant challenge for the natural gas industry because of its exceptionally high [total dissolved solid] concentrations. . . Marcellus drilling is growing rapidly and our rules must be strengthened now to prevent our waterways from being seriously harmed in the future.”[1] In his comments, Hanger noted the increase in total dissolved solid (TDS) levels in the Monongahela River in 2008 that exceeded safe drinking water standards.  Portions of the Marcellus Shale underlie the Susquehanna and Delaware River Basins, as well as large parts of the New York City Watershed–which supplies unfiltered drinking water to nearly ten million New Yorkers. Under the current dSGEIS, drilling in these critical watersheds would be permitted.  Concerns such as these, and others related to groundwater contamination, have raised red flags in New York and resulted in the current temporary moratorium.  Dealing with these issues is a crucial step that must be taken before development of the Marcellus occurs in New York State and is a major reason why the current moratorium is important and should be extended.

While the environmental concerns inherent in the use of hydraulic fracturing technology raise serious questions about water contamination, other questions about developing the Marcellus Shale in New York encompass the increasing role that natural gas plays in our national energy strategy.  What role will natural gas play as we move toward a cleaner energy future?  How does the development of significant natural gas reserves further our transition from fossil fuels to renewable fuels?  Will natural gas help us reduce our demand for dirty coal-fired generation facilities while we develop clean renewables or does cheap natural gas have the opposite effect and actually displace the development of clean renewables?  Is natural gas actually cleaner than coal when greenhouse gas emissions are assessed using a life-cycle analysis?  Can natural gas really be a “bridge fuel” to clean renewable energy future?  As citizens and consumers we should demand answers to these questions (and many others) from policy makers and regulators at the local, state and federal level.

While America’s energy future will continue to rely heavily on fossil fuels for some time, this fact does not excuse us of our responsibility to vigorously develop alternative energy resources and integrate them into a long term national energy strategy.  Our transition from a carbon fueled economy to a renewable energy fueled economy will take leadership and vision.  There is no question that natural gas will play an important role in this transition.  However, the current void of leadership on these broader policy issues, particularly at the federal level, is unacceptable.

Our dependence on ever increasing quantities of foreign oil for transportation fuels, increasingly devastating methods of developing coal for electricity generation, the risk of another catastrophic offshore oil drilling accident, aging nuclear facilities, and the potentially severe environmental drawbacks of hydraulic fracturing beg the question: what is our energy strategy for the twenty-first century?  While there is no silver bullet solution to our energy challenges, continuing the “gold rush” mentality “business as usual” formula of energy production is not sustainable; and hoping that technological development will eventually solve our energy challenges is untenable.  We need leadership and vision.  New York State’s decision to take a more careful review of the impacts of developing the Marcellus Shale is a step in the right direction but it is only a starting point.

If natural gas is going to be a bridge fuel to a cleaner energy future we must have a plan for achieving that future; and that plan must include proper regulation of gas drilling that ensures it does not pose unacceptable risks to other natural resources.

[1] Pennsylvania Dept. of Envtl. Protection, PA Must Take Action to Protect Water Resources from Drilling Wastewater, Other Sources of TDS Pollution: Proposed Rules will Help Keep Drinking Water, Streams and Rivers Clean (Apr. 6, 2010).

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