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February 28, 2013

Stephen Verotsky | Cautious optimism seen in Marcellus Shale industry

“I dream things that never were and say, ‘why not?’ ”

Robert Kennedy

The oil and gas industry should be applauded for developing the technology that makes it possible to extract natural gas that is trapped in the Marcellus Shale. However, as with most industrial procedures, there are unwelcomed outcomes that should be of concern.

Marcellus Shale is a gas-rich formation that extends under five states in the Northeast. Most of the current production is in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Those who support Marcellus Shale natural gas production claim that it will be a boon to Pennsylvania’s economy much like coal was in the first half of the previous century. In addition, they claim that because of its abundance, most cars in the future will be powered by liquefied natural gas.

If either prediction is even somewhat accurate, then everyone should do all that they can to make the industry successful and safe.

Of special interest, especially to those of the baby boom generation, is the prospect that the United States may finally become energy independent.

Throughout their lives, baby boomers have heard, “We must protect our interests in the Middle East.” Those interests are viewed as an abundance of cheap oil.

The oil embargos of the 1970s, the ever-fluctuating prices at the gasoline pumps and costly wars have been the results of our interests being in conflict with the interests of those who live there and, we often forget, own the oil.

Boomers will admit that they would prefer to live the rest of their lives without becoming anxious about anything that relates to crude oil, gasoline or the Middle East. Marcellus Shale may make that possible.

Initially, environmentalists were concerned that the wells would contaminate ground water. As a result of the precautions currently employed by the industry, which include the encasement and the cementing of the wells to a depth below the water table, those concerns have diminished.

Environmentalists remain concerned about the methods used to fracture – or frack – the shale that allows the trapped gas to escape. Fracking occurs in the horizontal section of a well.

Hydrofracturing, the most widely used method, consists of pumping a mixture of upward of 3 million gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep into shale formations. Within 30 days, 10 percent of it resurfaces as wastewater.

It is this wastewater that has drawn a great deal of attention from environmental groups. Because of the chemicals contained within, environmentalists contend that well sites and surrounding areas are being contaminated.

And they question whether the methods used to process the water that is collected are safe for the environment. The most prevalent method is to dispose of the water in injection wells. Another is to treat it and re-use it to frack additional wells. (The industry is not specific as to what the treatment process involves.)

The oil and gas industry has developed nontoxic fluids that have been used for fracking. But, they have as yet to be widely embraced by drilling companies.

Halliburton, a Houston-based energy company, has developed a product called CleanStim, which uses only food-industry ingredients.

GASFRAC, a Canadian company, has perfected a waterless, liquid propane gas-gel fracturing technology that could alleviate concerns over the use of chemically laced water. To date, the company has safely performed more than 1,600 gas frackings, mostly in Canada. It was originally developed by Chevron in mid-2000.

The gel reverts to a gaseous state underground and is returned to the surface in a recoverable form. Ostensibly, this seems too good to be true.

If it is, and since the cost of gasfracking is comparable to hydrofracking, the question is: Why isn’t this method being embraced by the industry and the environmentalists as well?

It has not been reported whether or not the recovered gas is radioactive. If it is, hopefully it is at a level that does not pose a threat to humans.

Studies from a U.S. Geological Survey found that wastewater from hydrofracking can be highly radioactive. The radioactivity is caused by radium, which is present in the Marcellus Shale. Because it is soluble in water, it dissolves and it is brought to the surface. (It is not clear if Geiger counters are being used at all drilling sites.)

One geological survey found that a wastewater sample was 3,609 times more radioactive than the federal limit for drinking water. To bring it into compliance, each gallon of wastewater would need to be diluted with 3,608 gallons of water that did not contain any radioactive particles. To dilute the previously mentioned 300,000 gallons of wastewater would take an astounding 1.08 billion gallons of water. (The North Fork Reservoir contains 1.2 billion gallons.)

American scientists and engineers are the best in the world. It seems reasonable to conclude that, given the time and resources, they could develop a method to fracture shale that did not involve the use of any liquid.

There is much at stake with the Marcellus Shale. If it is properly managed, a great deal could be gained. In order for that to happen, all parties, including members of the oil and gas industry, environmental groups, government, scientific community and the general public, must work together. This is a unique situation, one in which if everyone does not win, then we all lose.

Stephen J. Verotsky of Johnstown, a retired high school mathematics teacher after 36 years of service, is an occasional contributor to the editorial page.

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