Monday, March 29, 2010

Marcellus Shale Well Drilling is Highway to Hades for Pennsylvania

World Family,
This may look like a post for Pennsylvanians, but actually it is for 23 U.S. states, and anyone who cares about environmental responsibility and natural resources. For years, Falcon has been talking about alternate energy and global environmental responsibility. Many would think that natural gas (nat gas) would be a part of that formula: after all, it has less emissions than coal for sure, and is domestically available. Local is good, right?

Well, traditional gas wells have their problems, and it certainly isn’t as simple as the industry would like you to believe; but the recent explosion in unconventional well extraction, aka horizontal well drilling popular to extract gas in the Marcellus Shale…well, that has millions of problems, and it starts with the millions of gallons of water that it takes to perform the extraction.

Each frac of each well takes about a million gallons of water to operate. This is not the last ditch effort before a well goes dry employed in the past since the turn of the 20th century to get that last bit of gas out; this is going 5,000-10,000 feet below the surface of the earth, making a hairpin turn and then blasting water (called hydrofracking) to break up the shale and release the gas. The cracks are filled with sand. There can be up to ten fracs per well. This year alone, there are nearly 5, 200 permits under consideration for the commonwealth!

You may wonder, World Family, where the water comes from. Here is one of the biggest problems (I did mention millions of problems). The water is simply taken from streams, ponds, creeks, and rivers (which brings up an interesting fact: water is a resource that belongs to everyone in this state, not a government entity who has permission to give it away en masse), hauled away in trucks, and used, and then when it is filled with frac water (a combination of a litany of highly toxic chemicals and Total Dissolved Solids -TDS- a fancy term for heavy duty salt, four times saltier than the water in the ocean) and deposited back into rivers, streams, and ponds. Of course, all of the water isn’t recovered, less than half in most places, depending on topography. In Pennsylvania, the soil and sedimentary layers, along with quartz, limestone, oh, and radium (yes, Marcellus Shale contains radioactive radium) make the landscape hard to predict, and even harder to recover frac fluids. If one recovers 50% of the frac waters, that is impressive. The rest of that water stays in the ground…and permeates. Where it goes is obvious, even to the scientifically challenged, but oil and gas companies will tell you that there is ‘insufficient evidence’ that the fluids migrate. So have you ever seen totally contained fluids in soil? Me either, it moves, that is kind of the point. So, groundwater is impacted, and so are aquifers…to think that they won’t be or can’t be is idiotic.

Here is what I can tell you. Falcon works in risk assessment. Once upon a time, I did consulting work for the Department of Energy. I can tell you a LOT about how to remediate things out of water: organics, chemicals, TNT, even radionuclides, but it is very, very hard to remove that which is contaminated underground, and it is very difficult to improve the quality of water that is not only TDS contaminated, but also highly acid, like fracwater can be.

That is what happened to Dunkirk Creek in the late August-September of 2009. Someone dumped a lot of fracwater into the creek and killed everything: 155 species, gone. In just 20 days, it was a dead zone, except for a very interesting algae, not indigenous to the region, that gave away the very equipment from Texas that was used to dump the contaminated water. The pH was extremely low. Need a comparison. Take a can of soda (pH of around 2.0) and pour it into your bathtub water. Wanna get in? No? Well, neither does anything else. I am not even talking about the HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) that is probably in that can of soda as well.

Which brings up another problem I have not heard discussed anywhere except in my nearly 4 times a week lectures and workshops in various places around PA, NY, WV, and OH: what about everything else in the water? What happens when those chemicals used in fracwater (of which we have no list or concentrations because the oil and gas industry doesn’t have to tell us) combine with some other things in our water, like…xenobiotics (fancy word for pharma drugs that people like to dump down their toilets when they are out of date, or just used and expelled in the usual fashion, if you know what I mean), HFCS, or a variety of other substances? What happens? Who is responsible for remediation and clean-up? What happens when animals and humans ingest this combo-water? We don’t know. And here is something even scarier…
No one and nothing. Yes, you understood me correctly. Well, here is the starting point. You can get angry at the person or family that allowed the drilling on their land that is effecting your drinking water miles away, and you may want to sue them, but they don’t have any real money-they were paid junk by the gas companies. That $100,000 that looked so good to them at the beginning won’t cover squat as they and their children and their animals get sick, or the frac pond in their backyard overflows during a slow moving rainstorm, runs into their neighbors yards and contaminates everyone’s sewer and wells. Don’t look at the oil and gas companies: they are exempt. That was a gift from the Bush Administration back in 2005.

You can get mad at your municipality for not remediating the water, but they don’t even know what’s there (unless someone’s running water from their faucet catches on fire-then, they might have a clue that there is at least natural gas leaking into the system, but maybe not anything else. Yes, that has happened, and continues to happen). The municipality is responsible to the sewer authority (here in Allegheny County, it is ALCOSAN) to clean up anything they know about…but how do they know? No one is required to tell. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP in PA) can only do so much because the laws are not in place to protect the resources, but you would think that we a name like the Department of Environmental Protection, they would certainly do more than they do…which in this issue, is frankly, no offense, not much. They are trying to change regulations, but not fast enough. Permits are being issued with language clearly stating that water will be transported out of the various basins that are protected (a clear violation of Commerce laws), but no one is halting permits on the basis of those indications. Since the water of the commonwealth belongs to the people, and the water is being used without the people’s permission, then who is responsible?

Right now, no one and nothing…not unless the people begin to make their elected officials, and those who are appointed to do various jobs involving environmental responsibility live up to their mission statement. Does it feel like a horror movie yet? It does to me. It is a waking nightmare for millions of people, and we can’t wake up from it.

Hey, but it’s all worth it, right? We get energy independence! Not so fast. Many of those oil and gas companies touting American presence are increasingly being acquisitioned by foreign interests. The same BS that happened in oil will happen in gas-it already is. And about those jobs…the industry itself says it will only make 25-27,000 in the next 5 years…that is in the entire state! Wow…isn’t that like the population of a Pittsburgh neighborhood? We could employ 5 times that in alternative energy, and those would be union jobs, with good training, good pay, and we would still be able to drink the water!

There has been one other thing (like these aren’t enough to worry about) that has concerned me, and when I have brought it up in lecture, sometimes I get a strange look. Today, however, my email box was full with people who heard the same thing I did: that there was an earthquake in WV. Yes, this region is actually capable of having earthquakes, but hadn’t for a real, real long time. I have been concerned that based on the soil’s constitution, the number of holes already in PA (like Swiss cheese) and the combinations of other types of fossil fuel acquisition, along with ground gases (methane, radon, gas leaks, and a partridge in a pear tree) that we could have major upsets to groundwater, seismic activity, and even underground explosions if the proverbial ‘perfect storm’ of wrong conditions came together.

Here’s my question for the oil and gas industry: has anyone ever calculated the actual cost of what it takes to do horizontal well drilling? The answer would be no. No one included the cost to resources, to agriculture, to forestry, to hunting, to fishing, to quality of life. It’s time that those concerns were made part of the equation. I know, that may be uncomfortable for some, but it must be done. Water is our sacred currency. It is the key to life. I am not willing to sacrifice my state and 22 other states of this country to become a dead zone so someone else can make a dollar. It is not acceptable. It is not negotiable.

Is the industry truly aware of the risks? Most of them probably aren’t, but some are aware enough to have sold their acres of mineral rights to other companies (we will call them suckers) to remove themselves from the liability and possible inglorious lawsuits yet to come when large waterways are impacted and the drinking water of millions becomes effected. That could happen as early as this summer, 2010. Dominion sold their land because they didn’t want the liability-they are happy providing the lines for transport. Consol bought it, thinking it will all be okay. Hmmm…

So, what are the options? What are the solutions? Well, first of all, there needs to be a moratorium on all additional permits. Let me say it plainly:


Pennsylvania will be enough of a guinea pig and its natural wildlife and pristine streams subject to lab rat techniques while this issue is examined by the DEP and now, EPA. Yes, it is time to let scientists, not activists, lobbyists, or corporations look at the science and risk involved in this process. They must be objective, lucid scientists whose soul has not been bought by the devil (like one geologist told me, “ it’s a fine practice, just don’t ask me about the water”-yeah, right). There can be plenty of looking over each other’s shoulder; an improved system of checks and balances is desired.

Can this type of drilling be done safely? Well, at the turn of the 20th century, no one thought so. That deep extraction has serious implications, especially with chemicals that have huge health impacts. Can well linings be made securely enough, and wells allowed to cure long enough to be safe, not prematurely used causing cracks? Maybe, but that doesn’t stop the migration of contaminated water left in the soil. Can this process be done without those chemicals? Probably, but not as effectively. Even the remediation plants in the state can’t keep up with the amount of contaminated water, and even if you have a phytoremediation site (3 pools with various beds of indigenous substrate designed to remediate what we know is there: TDS, heavy metals, etc.) for every municipality in the commonwealth, there is no telling what happens when all of these chemicals meet each other in the open river, or meet xenobiotics, or for that matter, the pH problem. Taking water and replacing that water with contaminated water and thinking nothing will go wrong is ridiculously foolish.
It already has. It will continue until several steps are taken.

One: All chemicals (including the proprietary ones) must be identified in concentration and frequency to the DEP and EPA. No one can treat the water if they don’t know what’s really in it.

Two: Algae could become our friend in bioremediation to correct pH, but we can’t do that without more research. That we just don’t have yet. Only one percent of the world’s algae has been researched for bioremediation that could also allow the algae to be used as biofuels, in certain instances (obviously, heavy metals must be attenuated or incineration employed, and that is probably still not a comfortable place for most people to be).

Three: More regulation (duh) needs to be in place BEFORE this process continues. My personal opinion is that other techniques and other fuel sources be introduced to companies that just can’t get out to the fossil fuel mind. There are other areas that they could employ that would make more money with less risk: biofuels (that are not food), sites that could be natural bioremediations and those plantings used for biofuels, since they would be inert if they were phytodegradators (ok, I know…too much science now, but I want to present solutions so that you know there are other options out there), and that has a trifecta: cleans up the mess, remediates the air, reduces carbon footprint. Yes! Employs more people, for less risk, improves the bottom line for the company, and makes for happy shareholders: by shareholders I mean those that hold those pieces of paper, and those that swim, fly, walk on two legs and four, because we are all ‘share holders’. We all have a stake in what happens to our resources.

Everyone: stand up. Put down the remote, and start to pay attention to what is happening to your resources. Maybe you can’t get your head around climate change. Can you get your head around the fact that it is time to make your politicians (public servants, remind them of that), your corporations, and your community work more effectively for you? Get selfish! These are your resources we are talking about! New York residents-are you ready to have horizontal well drilling effect the drinking water of 16 million people? Are you willing to risk that future-not 30 years away, but more like three-to a process that we clearly know doesn’t have enough regulation, and all the severance taxes in the world won’t save if there is even a small catastrophe?

ACTION: Write the EPA and let them know you support their investigation of this process, and you want vociferous attention paid to how this industry impacts your community, your state, and your planet.

This is my last post in my position as chair of my nationally recognized non-profit, who has a history of fighting for environmental issues. My last day is March 31. I will still belong to the organization, but I will not be a Water Chair who must defend the organizations’ decision to say that this kind of drilling is fine as a bridge fuel. It isn’t. It is the highway to Hades. I cannot and will not defend that position to anyone. Many, many people have told me they think that this group has lost its focus, and forgotten its origins of protecting wildlife, conservation, exploration, and sustainability. I would agree. They have decided to make one type of fossil fuel very evil (and it has its problems, believe me) in favor for another that has just as many drawbacks when ALL of the risk is added up. I got tired of people asking me if this organization had lost their minds. I am a scientist before an activist, and I am a sister of the earth before I am anything else.

My people go back centuries in these, the oldest mountains on earth. I know these rivers and streams, as did my grandmothers and grandfathers before me. I want this land, these hills, valley, and streams to be beautiful for my grandchildren’s grandchildren. I will defend them. There is no compromise of one devastating environmental practice over another devastating environmental practice. If they both suck, they both suck. Let’s do something that doesn’t suck. We have the technology, and we have the ability to start today.

Let’s begin…so that we and all that we love can continue.


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