Natural gas drilling has become a hot issue recently in Pennsylvania, even as close as Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood and the Powdermill Nature Reserve. The question of whether or not to drill raises a number of political and personal concerns as abstract as the economy and as immediate as the water we drink.
On one hand, companies and individuals could make substantial profits. Communities could benefit from job creation and funds from leases and taxes. On the other, they risk costs to enviromental and public health. Natural gas could bridge the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, since it releases 25% less carbon than coal. Extracting it, however, could also result in lasting damage to watersheds and public drinking water, and the people and wildlife who depend on them.
Typically, proponents of drilling include the companies, people, and organizations who hope to profit from the wells. Opponents include people wary of the risk to the environment and the danger of disasters. Recent accidents related to extractive industries have populated headlines with stories of the catastrophic BP Gulf Oil spill, last Wednesday’s Clairton County coke works explosion, the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion, and natural gas-specific incidents like the Clearfield County shale well blowout and an explosion at a two-day-old gas well near Moundsville, WV. Given these events’ casualties and devastating impact and the many questions related to drilling, many politicians and citizens are calling for more studies, cautious timelines, and regulatory legislation before new drilling endeavors proceed.
The source of the gas is the Marcellus Shale formation, which extends about 1 to 2 miles below the surface of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia. This shale contains natural gas. Break the rock, and the gas releases. Recent advances in drilling techniques have made accessible areas where drilling was previously too expensive. That means that areas above the Marcellus Shale are now appealing drill sites, and companies have been approaching landowners–even in highly-populated areas like Pittsburgh–for permission to drill below their properties.
To extract the resources, drillers combine two techniques. One is horizontal drilling, which makes more shale accessible than the old drilling technique. The other, and the more controversial, is hydraulic fracturing (also called hydrofracturing, water fracturing and fracking). In hydraulic fracturing, drillers blast a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the shale to fracture it, releasing the gas into a pipeline. The fracking process raises the most alarm among those opposed to shale drilling because of the chemicals in the frac fluid. In response to public concerns, in June the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released a list of the chemicals involved in fracking. Many are hazardous. Residents of Dimock, PA claim that methane released in a nearby drilling operation poisoned their well water, and some evidence suggests that fracking can also contaminate groundwater, but companies and government investigators maintain that the cause of such pollution is unclear. An article from The New York Times presents a thorough, well-balanced analysis of the many facets of the natural gas debate in Pennsylvania, including the influence of the region’s coal-mining history, the industry’s past in Texas, and New York State’s recent natural gas debate.
A source anyone reserching shale drilling is likely to come across is Gasland, an impassioned and controversial TV documentary that has sparked many people’s interest in the discussion of natural gas drilling. While the industry issued a rebuttal to the film’s claims, and some critics disagree with its approach, Gasland’s website does offer some informational material and advice about activism, and the film certainly appeals to the emotional side of the debate. (To get an idea of the radically different spins put on the issue, compare the Gasland site’s description of the fracking process with this one from an industry coalition.)
Links in this post connect to many articles and resources. For more information, also see NPR’s informative series discussing shale drilling. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette lists all of its coverage related to local natural gas issues. The PA DEP also offers several fact sheets about Marcellus Shale drilling on its website. Recently, the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments developed a data-sharing tool called Fractracker to “provide citizens with a common place to share their experiences regarding natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale play.” The CLP Reference Department has compiled a comprehensive list of printed, audiovisual and web resources about energy, which is sure to be helpful to informing your opinion about natural gas drilling in PA and elsewhere.
Our city and county governments are currently planning their responses to demands for shale drilling in our community. Please do what you can to become informed and active. Whatever your stance on drilling, our drinking water, environment, and neighbors who work at these sites are too precious to take this issue lightly.