By Beverly Milestone Maisey
The Marcellus Shale, the huge reserve of natural gas that lies under much of the Appalachian region of the east coast of the US, has become one of the most controversial issues facing states that sit on top of it. To drill or not to drill remains the question. On the one side are those excited about drilling for natural gas. Dollar signs float before their eyes at the prospect of the riches this site possesses.
According to some experts, the Marcellus Shale contains enough natural gas to last us for perhaps as long as twenty years. For the energy hungry appetite of the United States, this sounds like a dream come true. And those who are for the drilling would agree. According to the pro-drilling camp, this is a very good thing. Not only will it help us satisfy our need for energy, but it will bring much needed jobs to the areas involved. Landowners who sit on top of the shale will benefit by leasing their land for drilling. And, of course, let’s not forget all the wonderful tax revenues available to the states which allow the drilling (See http://marcelluscoalition.org for more on this view).
Business groups, local and state governments, corporation swith an interest in drilling, either directly or indirectly, newspapers and other media outlets along with some individuals are all for the drilling, the Gulf of Mexico spill and the coal mine explosions notwithstanding.
Those opposed to the drilling have their reasons, as well, including environmental damage, overuse of infrastructure and health issues related to environmental damages. The environmental impacts are varied and plentiful including air, noise, light and water pollution and increased traffic which will strain infrastructure not built to handle it. One of the most important issues is the potential for aquifer contamination and wastewater runoff which could impact the drinking water for the entire Delaware Valley.
In order to obtain the gas, companies use hydraulic fracturing or fracking. This is where huge volumes of a liquid combined with sand or other particulates, and chemicals are pumped under pressure into the fracture. The sand or other particulates prevent the fracture from closing and then the gas can freely flow upward to the surface through the well.
Problems have already occurred in places where drilling has begun. Methane from a fracked gas well caused a home to blow up in Cleveland, Ohio in 2007. Closer to home in Dimock, Pa., Susquehanna county, several hours northwest of Philadelphia instances of wastewater spillage into creeks as well as contamination of well water have been noted and lawsuits have ensued.
The destruction to habitat and the environmental devastation these operations cause is easy to spot but difficult, if not impossible to reverse. Many companies refuse to even divulge the chemicals they use for fracking, even though the US government requires them to when there are health concerns.
Other things to consider when looking at this issue is the fact that the 2005 Energy Policy Act exempts hydraulic drilling companies from the Safe Water Drinking act and other federal water laws. According to Representatives Waxman and Markey, “there is virtually no federal regulation of hydraulic fracking”. They also stated, “In New York, the State Department of Environmental Conservation analyzed wastewater extracted from wells and found levels of radium-226 as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink. Others have raised concerns about water scarcity, since the drilling and hydraulic fracturing of a horizontal shale gas well may require 2 to 4 million gallons of water.”
In addition, corporations are not responsible for cleaning up after themselves. We, the taxpayers, will be paying for many years after the gas is gone to clean up the environmental damage, infrastructure repairs, health damages and cost of the contamination.
Lastly, we need to ask how much of the gas captured and transported by pipelines to ports along the east coast will actually remain in the United States. Thirty-two percent of the leases owned by Chesapeake Energy have been sold overseas.
Given the lax oversight of the BP oil rig and of how unprepared both BP and the US government have been in dealing with this one crisis, how much faith should we place on our government overseeing something as potentially devastating as hydraulic drilling for natural gas?
Pennsylvanians are not alone in questioning whether natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale is the right thing to do. Many communities living over the shale are asking whether or not they want to look for short term profits or the long term health of the communities the shale impacts, including those whose sources of water could be diverted for drilling purposes or contaminated.