A natural gas rig side by side with homes in Washington County, PA | B. Mark Schmerling
Detritus of Pennsylvania's Shale Gas Boom
By Edward Humes
Progressive America Rising via Sierra Club
The supple hills of southwestern Pennsylvania, once known for their grassy woodlands, red barns, and one-stoplight villages, bristle with new landmarks these days: drilling rigs, dark green condensate tanks, fields of iron conduits lumped with hissing valves, and long, flat rectangles carved into hilltops like overgrown swimming pools, brimming with umber wastewater.
Tall metal methane flaring stacks periodically fill the night with fiery glares and jet engine roars. Roadbeds of crushed rock, guarded by No Trespassing signs, lie like fresh sutures across hayfields, deer trails, and backyards, admitting fleets of tanker trucks to the wellheads of America's latest energy revolution.
This is the new face of Washington County, the leading edge of the nation's breakneck shale gas boom. Natural gas boosters, President Barack Obama among them, have lauded it as a must-have, 100-year supply of clean, cheap energy that we cannot afford to pass up. However, recent data suggest that supplies of shale gas may last for only 11 years and that the extreme measures needed to recover it may make it a dirtier fuel than coal. But that hasn't slowed the dramatic transformation of gas-rich regions from rural Pennsylvania to urban Fort Worth, Texas.
Driving this juggernaut is the amalgam of industrial technologies collectively known as "hydraulic fracturing," or "fracking," which releases the gases (the main component of which is methane) hidden deep within layers of ancient, splintery shale. With five major shale "plays" concentrated in eight states, and more under development, America has been transformed from a net importer of natural gas into a potential exporter.
Perched atop the 7,000-foot-deep Marcellus Shale formation, which undergirds most of Appalachia, Washington County not only boasts enormous reserves of methane but also leads the state in producing far more frack-worthy "wet gas" products: propane, butane, ethane, and other valuable chemicals that can mean the difference between a money pit and a money gusher. Although central Pennsylvania has more wells, this wet gas makes Washington County, in industry parlance, a "honeypot."
The lure of million-dollar payouts has led many farmers, homeowners, school boards, and town commissions to lease out their subterranean energy wealth. Royalty payments on leases so far have topped half a billion dollars statewide--money that, for some, is literally saving the farm.
"An unprecedented economic impact," Matt Pitzarella has called it. He's spokesman for the leading driller in this part of the state, Texas-based Range Resources, which in 2004 fracked the first successful Marcellus Shale wells--at the time a shot in the dark and now believed to be tapping the second-largest natural gas field in the world. Pitzarella ticks off stories of poor families who hit the gas-lease lottery and are now able to afford college tuition, new cars, and home makeovers.
But unlocking half-billion-year-old hydrocarbon deposits carries a price, and not everyone shares in the bonanza. For every new shale well, 4 million to 8 million gallons of water, laced with potentially poisonous chemicals, are pumped into the ground under explosive pressure--a violent geological assault. And once unleashed, the gas requires a vast industrial architecture to be processed and moved from the wells to the world. Imagine the pipes, compressors, ponds, pits, refineries, and meters each shale well in Pennsylvania demands, planted next to horse farms, cornfields, houses, and schools. Then multiply by 5,000.
"It's changed everything, all right," says Pam Judy, a resident of Carmichaels, in neighboring Greene County. Her now-unsellable dream home sits 780 feet downwind of three enormous gas compressors, which appeared in 2009. "It sounds like helicopters in the backyard," she says. "The fumes make me dizzy. My children get headaches and nosebleeds. Some opportunity."
"It's turned neighbor against neighbor," says JoAnne Wagner, an outspoken homemaker who battled unsuccessfully to keep fracking away from her children's schools in Mount Pleasant Township. She tells about the day she opened her garage and was hit by an overpowering, burning-chemical smell. Can she prove the source? No. But such stories are common in America's fracking capital.
"The gas companies have been given carte blanche to put anything anywhere," she says.
To get its way, the gas industry has employed prodigious lobbying, campaign donations, even the hiring of retired military psychological warfare experts to tar opponents as antibusiness, job-killing eco-fanatics. One result has been the unprecedented move in January by Pennsylvania's pro-fracking governor and legislature to strip towns and counties of their traditional zoning authority, which they were using to create no-frack buffers around homes and schools. The law also imposes a gag order on physicians, barring them from revealing the trade-secret chemical ingredients of fracking fluid--even to their patients.
Since the shale boom began, gas companies have been cited by Pennsylvania regulators for more than 4,100 violations. The citizen's group PennEnvironment studied 3,355 of these reported violations, from 2008 to 2011, and found that more than 70 percent likely posed "a direct threat to our environment."
Washington County farmers complain of stillborn and deformed calves near fracking operations. Residential well water has turned murky and undrinkable. Homeowners near massive gas compressor stations complain of respiratory ailments, chronically sick children, and the sudden deaths of pets. While cause and effect is often hotly disputed--particularly when it comes to sources of water-well contamination--similar complaints are echoed in communities throughout the state and nation wherever shale gas is being drilled.
Among those speaking out is 53-year-old Jeannie Moten of the tiny Washington County village of Rea, where 22 residents have been beset by eye-watering fumes and noxious drinking water they attribute to a fracked gas well on a hillside above their homes. Residents complain of "frack rash," asthma, diarrhea, incontinence, sore throats, and joint pain. Moten claims that the water from her mother's faucets stinks so horribly that visitors flee, and that the fumes have set off the household smoke alarm. Tests have revealed the presence of strontium, benzene, and other toxics--some of them matching the proprietary fracking compounds used to break open the shale. Moten says her tap water has even spewed live brine shrimp into her glass on several occasions. So far, her complaints to township officials have led nowhere. Doctors have told her to move, but it's the only home she's known, and her elderly mother depends on her.
"My 90-year-old mother ought to be able to drink her tap water without getting sick," says Moten, her voice shaking, the once smooth, freckled skin of her face marked by angry rashes. "She always could. Now her well is unusable. But they say nothing's wrong, that fracking is safe. How far will this go before people wake up?"
Jeannie Moten and her 90-year-old mother, Edna Moten, both have skin lesions they believe to be caused by nearby fracking operations. | Martha Rial
Gas developers say they can extract shale gas safely and responsibly. Range Resources leads the industry in recycling the water used to frack wells, rather than disposing of it, and has had fewer violations per well than any other drilling company in Pennsylvania. Even so, a 2010 Pennsylvania Land Trust study found that the company had caused a "serious environmental incident" in one out of eight wells. The industry average in Pennsylvania is six out of eight.
Most national environmental groups, the Sierra Club among them, argue that the boom has proceeded too quickly and with insufficient scientific study and testing. (For more on the Club's position on fracking, see "Clearing the Air on Natural Gas.")
Some groups and community organizations—such as actor Mark Ruffalo's Water Defense—take a harder line. They assert that fracking ought to be banned outright as an unfixable threat to water, air, and climate.
New York State, sitting atop its own impressive Marcellus Shale reserves, has had a de facto ban on fracking in place for the past four years as the state's Department of Environmental Conservation completes a review of whether it can be done safely and, if so, with what sort of regulatory oversight. Governor Andrew Cuomo has said a decision on whether to permit fracking in New York is likely to be announced by summer.
Aubrey McClendon, the colorful head of natural gas giant Chesapeake Energy (which donated $26 million to the Sierra Club from 2007 to 2010), calls this debate "tiresome" and derides safety concerns as the invention of renewable-energy zealots. He suggested in an October 2011 interview with Forbes that no industry, "whether it's flipping hamburgers, driving a car, growing corn or manufacturing any product, could possibly compete with [fracking's] virtually flawless record," which he dated back to 1948. McClendon has since come under fire for his financial dealings and has left his post as company chairman, though he remains Chesapeake's chief executive officer; his views on fracking remain representative of the gas industry's.
But linking today's fracking practices with those from 60 years ago is akin to comparing the Wright brothers' plane to the space shuttle, says Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University researcher who has analyzed both the geological and the climate impacts of fracking. Yes, some old vertical oil wells were fracked in the 1940s. But the technology for drilling very long horizontal wells through deep, thin layers of shale is new, and combining it with fracking is even newer. And the long horizontal shafts necessary for today's shale gas extraction require up to 100 times as much fracking fluid as old-school vertical wells did.
"This is a very new process, despite what the industry asserts," Ingraffea says. "It is an extreme form of energy development, full of unknowns. It's been embraced not because of science, but in the absence of good science."
A large part of the gas industry's argument is based on its uniquely narrow interpretation of "fracking." In common parlance, the term encompasses the entire process of shale gas extraction, including these steps:
- leasing and clearing a prospective well site;
- building a well pad that can accommodate eight or more individual wells;
- digging containment pits and ponds for drilling and frack fluids;
- drilling the vertical portion of each well, which in southwestern Pennsylvania can be 6,000 to 7,000 feet deep;
- drilling the well's horizontal leg, up to a mile long;
- installing casing and cement in the well shaft to inhibit gas and chemicals from flowing freely into soil, streams, and aquifers; trucking or piping in millions of gallons of water for each well;
- ringing the well with 12 to 18 high-pressure diesel pumps on flatbed trucks;
- fracturing the shale to release the methane by using explosives and then injecting fracking fluids at pressures of up to 9,000 pounds per square inch (about nine times the pressure needed to crush the U.S. Navy's best submarine on its deepest dive), along with sand and ceramic "proppants" to keep the fractures open;
- capturing and removing or recycling the "flowback" of brine, hydrocarbons, sand, and toxic fracking chemicals; and
- controlling, processing, measuring, pressurizing, and piping the gas away from the completed wellheads.
When industry spokespeople talk about "fracking," however, they insist it means only the high-pressure injection of fluid and none of the other steps in the gas-extraction process. This is how, for example, Rex Tillerson, chief executive of ExxonMobil, could tell Congress, "There have been over a million wells hydraulically fractured in the history of the industry, and there is not one, not one, reported case of a freshwater aquifer having ever been contaminated from hydraulic fracturing."
This linguistic two-step also explains why a recent University of Texas study was celebrated by the industry and reported in the national media as exonerating fracking as a source of water pollution, even though it reported that every step of shale gas extraction except for the injection of fracking fluid has been linked to incidents of environmental contamination.
The promised economic benefits of the shale boom are no less murky. Overproduction of shale gas, which now accounts for more than 30 percent of domestic natural gas production, has pushed the price of a million BTUs down to $2.50 as of spring 2012; in July 2008, before the boom drove down prices, they spiked as high as $13.68. This is great for consumers, but it's breaking the drillers' backs; prices that low can't cover the $7.6 million average cost of fracking a single well. The result is that some drillers in Pennsylvania's "dry gas" (i.e., methane-only) areas—notably giant Chesapeake Energy—are pulling out and heading for honeypot wet-gas leases in Ohio. The industry is also pushing to expand export facilities for sending liquefied natural gas to more-lucrative foreign markets. Doing so is good for the corporate bottom line but punctures the argument that rapid and lightly regulated shale gas drilling will lead to energy independence.
That argument took another hit when the initial sky-high estimates of the amount of gas in the Marcellus Shale were cut by two-thirds in the U.S. Department of Energy's January 2012 analysis. And the industry's claim of a 100-year supply—touted by President Obama in this year's State of the Union address—is based on counting not just known and technically recoverable reserves but also estimates of gas reserves that are variously termed "probable," "possible," and "speculative"—which means they are neither proven to exist nor known to be recoverable. What the U.S. Energy Information Administration calls "proven reserves" will yield a supply that will last only 11 years at current rates of consumption; add in "probable" reserves and the supply could last an additional 10.
The gas industry's final argument in favor of extracting as much gas as possible as fast as possible is that methane is the cleanest fossil fuel. This appears to be true enough at the point of burning, and it's what initially persuaded many environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, to hop on the natural gas bandwagon. But it ignores all that happens before a fuel is burned: It ignores the added energy needed for fracking, as well as the large amount of raw methane that during drilling leaks into the atmosphere, where it is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Models of emissions from fracked wells by Ingraffea and his Cornell colleagues Robert Howarth and Renee Santoro demonstrate that nearly 8 percent of fracked methane can leak into the atmosphere, making fracked natural gas the dirtiest fossil fuel of all in terms of climate change.
These findings were derided by the industry and contradicted by more optimistic research models, but recent data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado, derived from real-world measurements of actual methane emissions around fracking operations, confirm the Cornell researchers' results. Fracked natural gas, it appears, is a prescription for more climate change, not less.
Meanwhile, it's ruining Ron Gulla's life. "They destroyed my farm," the 56-year-old Washington County heavy construction equipment salesman says. "They destroyed my dreams."
Gulla is a rugged, intense farmer whose once-easy smile has been replaced by permanent frown lines. He leased his 140-acre farm's gas rights in 2002 to Great Lakes Energy (acquired by Range Resources in 2004). At the time, there was no talk of fracking or honeypots; Gulla was told to expect a simple vertical dry gas well, the main payoff for which would be free gas for his home and farm in the small town of Hickory.
Instead, Gulla's pastoral property—with its broad, fertile pastures and well-stocked pond—ended up launching the Marcellus boom. What was only the second horizontal shale well in Washington County turned out to be wildly successful. Range Resources had stumbled on a fortune.
But the process, Gulla says, contaminated his 2.5-acre cattle pond, killing its fish and plant life. His fields were torn up by construction crews. Murky fluid boiled up near one of the four wellheads on his property, eroded his driveway, and poisoned his soil.
Range Resources denied doing anything worse than making a muddy mess on the farm, pointing to state inspections that revealed no fracking contamination of the pond. Nevertheless, the company eventually paid Gulla $1.5 million for the farm, then sued to get him off the property after he accused the company of reneging on a land swap that would have provided him with a comparable property elsewhere in Washington County. He became a local activist, bitter and angry over his experience.
"I had a dream here, something I worked seven days a week to build," Gulla says. "I never would have leased my farm if they had told me what was coming. I was lied to and used, but the gas companies have been elevated above the law. Their wells and their profits have been deemed more important than good food and clean water. And where does that leave me? I had to move in with my mother because my own place was unlivable."
In the Washington County hamlet of Daisytown, cattle rancher Terry Greenwood never wanted drilling on his land, but found to his dismay that Dominion Gas crews could force their way onto his 59 acres and start drilling under a "never ending" lease that a previous landowner had signed in 1921. After new wells went in four years ago, his drinking water turned brown and unpotable. "It looked like iced tea," Greenwood says.
On top of that, he says, the spring-fed water supply for his cattle, which had run clear for 18 years, also became contaminated in 2008. That same year, 10 out of 19 calves born to his herd were stillborn or had severe birth defects. He had to get a new bull, and the gas company brought in a water trailer for his cattle. To keep his farm afloat, the 64-year-old has had to dip into his retirement savings, and his wife, a town postmaster, has had to postpone retirement. He says his royalty payments, which total about $38,000 thus far, do not cover his losses.
The most infamous case of water contamination near fracking operations occurred in Dimock Township in Central Pennsylvania's Bradford County, a heavily drilled dry gas region with more wells than anywhere else in the state. Fifteen families there have been relying on bottled water for more than two years, claiming that methane and other chemicals poisoned their water after fracking began. The homeowners have sued Cabot Oil and Gas in federal court.
Air quality is a major concern for Chris and Stephanie Hallowich and their two young children. The couple watched the dream home they built in 2007 on 10 acres in Mount Pleasant Township become surrounded by an industrial compound consisting of four fracked wells, a cryogenic gas processing plant, a compressor station, pipelines, a three-acre holding pond, and a gravel road frequented by heavy trucks. Like Greenwood, they had inherited a lease they knew little about until the drilling rigs arrived.
Range Resources spokesman Pitzarella called this incursion a "nuisance" that would be cleaned up when the drilling was done. The Hallowich children, meanwhile, coughed and complained of headaches and burning eyes from the constant fumes. When carcinogenic volatile organic compounds were found in both the Hallowiches' water well and the air around their house, the family sued. The water was contaminated with acrylonitrile, toluene, ethyl benzene, and styrene—"things that should never be in water," Stephanie Hallowich said in a 2010 video statement to PennEnvironment.
She had no interest in becoming an environmental activist, but once her kids started drawing pictures of ponds with dead fish and of frowning suns and skies that hate the smell of "the yucky stuff," Stephanie became an outspoken critic of fracking and the gas industry. The Hallowiches and Range Resources eventually settled their lawsuit, and the company bought the 10-acre property—on the condition that the Hallowiches submit to a gag order and stop talking about the case and their experiences. Media attempts to unseal the court records so far have failed.
When Mount Pleasant Township attempted to regulate the gas industry through zoning, hoping to spare others the Hallowiches' experience, Range Resources threatened to pull out of the area. As increasing numbers of communities considered protecting homes and families through zoning, the industry lobbied for and shepherded through a 2012 state law that strips local authority over where oil and gas drilling can occur in exchange for municipalities continuing to receive money through state severance taxes. This was in addition to the now-famous "Halliburton loophole," orchestrated by former vice president Dick Cheney, which relieved the oil and gas industries from having to comply with aspects of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Since then, gas drilling has been governed by a patchwork of state regulations.
Keith McDonough, a senior vice president and the CFO of apparel retailer rue21 and a resident of South Fayette Township, just over the Allegheny County line from Mount Pleasant, was outraged by Pennsylvania's new law. McDonough was especially galled by the fact that the law had been championed by Republican governor Tom Corbett and the Republican-controlled state legislature. "I'm a lifelong Republican," he says, "and this was a dark day for my party."
To his own surprise, McDonough became a community activist and supported an anti-fracking slate of two Democrats and two Republicans for the town commission. Fracking, it seems, can bridge the political divide, at least at the local level. South Fayette has now joined a growing number of other Pennsylvania communities challenging the constitutionality of the new state law.
"This isn't political to us," McDonough says. "We're protecting our homes and our families from a very dangerous process that should never be near a playground or a school. They are trading away our rights, our future, and the health of our children for a quick buck."
In May, the Obama administration proposed a new federal regulation to require disclosure of the secret formulas for the potentially toxic fracking fluids used for drilling on public lands. The measure would not affect drilling on private land, where more than three-quarters of fracking takes place. And it is a watered-down version of the original proposal, which would have required the disclosure of fracking chemicals 30 days before drilling started. When gas industry leaders objected, the Bureau of Land Management rewrote the proposed regulation to require disclosure only after fracking operations were complete.
Sixty-five miles away, the residents of Carroll County, Ohio, are watching events in Pennsylvania closely, because the shale gas express is headed their way.
Fracked gas wells still number only 69 in Ohio, but the gas industry is already uprooting rigs from less profitable "dry gas" regions of north and central Pennsylvania in favor of eastern Ohio's wet gas shale. Thousands of planned wells are being licensed by a state government eager to join the shale gas club. Washington County may be the honeypot, but Carroll County represents what gas companies call the "triple play," where three separate shale regions—the Marcellus, Utica, and Upper Devonian—are stacked one on top of another, just waiting to be fracked.
So fevered is industry interest there that 95 percent of Carroll County has been leased by gas companies in the past two years, the lion's share by Chesapeake Energy. At the epicenter sits Paul Feezel, with his organic blueberry farm and the retirement home he and his wife built in 1999, when the biggest environmental problem was an overabundance of deer. The gas company "land men" have been at his door continually, seeking to lease the mineral rights beneath his 80-acre spread. Their offers began at $50 an acre two years ago; the going rate is now $5,800 an acre.
Feezel has so far resisted. He's worried, though, because if everyone else around him signs leases, Ohio state law could allow a "forced taking"—a kind of power of eminent domain designed to deal with recalcitrant property owners deemed to be impeding "progress."
"We don't want to be the next Washington County. We moved here to get away from exactly that sort of development," Feezel laments. "We don't want to lose our water. This is farm country, and farmers need water.
And 20 years from now, when the drilling is done and the gas companies have moved on, we will be a farming community again. Farmers need three things: dirt, air, and water. If the water's polluted, what then?"
Edward Humes is a frequent contributor to Sierra and the author, most recently, of Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash (Penguin, 2012).
This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Climate Recovery Partnership and Beyond Natural Gas campaign.
Clearing the Air on Natural Gas
"The Sierra Club's position could've been tougher and should've been tougher."
From 2007 to 2010, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign accepted more than $26 million from Chesapeake Energy, one of the country's largest natural gas producers. When new executive director Michael Brune learned of the donation in 2010, he turned away an additional $30 million that Chesapeake had promised and ended the Club's relationship with the company. Sierra editors spoke with Brune to clarify the Club's position on natural gas.
Why did the Club accept money from Chesapeake?
The idea was to use it to prevent more than 100 new coal-fired power plants from being built, which would have locked in coal as the dominant source of power in this country for the next half century.
Did the donation influence our position on natural gas?
No. The Club has strong firewalls between the funding we accept and the campaign policies that are set by our members and our volunteers. However, it has to be noted that the Club's position on gas could've been tougher and should've been tougher, and that's why we've taken steps over the past few years to make it that way.
What's the official position now?
We view natural gas as a significant source of air and water pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. In addition to its large climate footprint, the extraction of natural gas is having a big impact on rural communities, state forests, and the landscapes that we've worked hard to protect. Our primary goal is still to retire coal plants as quickly as possible and replace them with genuinely clean energy like solar and wind. Investing in gas actually hinders deployment of wind and solar, so we want to leapfrog gas as we move to a clean-energy future.
What about recent studies that suggest that the extraction and burning of natural gas has a bigger impact on climate change than coal does?
They're alarming. Studies in places like the Marcellus Shale and Colorado have shown that the greenhouse emissions from natural gas are much, much worse than originally thought. Unfortunately, there isn't yet a comprehensive empirical analysis of the full carbon footprint of gas. So the Sierra Club—along with almost every other environmental group—is calling for a full study that documents those emissions and the extent to which they can be controlled or avoided altogether.
So we no longer view gas as a "bridge fuel"?
No. We don't need a bridge. The recent and dramatic decline in wind and solar prices means these energy sources are ready for prime time now. Wind energy is coming in at prices that compete very well with gas across the country. South Dakota and Iowa already get around 20 percent of their power from wind. Five states get more than 10 percent of their power from wind. And prices for solar panels have dropped to the point where solar can now compete with gas peaker plants in places where demand spikes during the daytime, which is most of the country.
What about the natural gas industry's plan to build 250-plus gas-fired power plants in the United States?
That's a huge problem. Over the past 10 years, the Sierra Club and our grassroots partners have done some of the best work in the history of the environmental movement in stopping a rapid expansion of new coal-fired power plants across the country. In the wake of that, it would be tragic if we then invested in 250 new gas plants. We are determined to stop the expansion of fossil-fuel production, and we're going to be a leading force to make sure that those plants aren't built.
Given all the problems associated with fracking, why doesn't the Club support a blanket ban on the practice?
We want to make sure that a strong policy on gas doesn't inadvertently cause a switch back to coal or a renaissance of nuclear power. We need to move beyond all dirty energy sources. In the meantime, though, we've called for a moratorium on all fracking in many states, including Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Maryland, and Michigan, until better safeguards are put in place.
What kind of safeguards?
For starters, we're calling for full disclosure of all the chemicals used in fracking and then an elimination of the toxic ones. We're calling for much more stringent standards for the water and chemicals that flow out of the wells, so that radioactive waste and carcinogens are handled responsibly. More broadly, we're looking to restrict fracking from taking place near drinking water supplies or around schools, state forests, national forests, and national parks. We're also trying to prevent the export of natural gas by leading the opposition against the building of liquefied natural gas export terminals. The fracking problems will only get worse if the gas industry increases demand by exporting it.
Some of the Club's anti-coal activists say we're coming down too hard on natural gas and fracking, and others say we're not doing enough. How do you walk that tightrope?
Changing how our economy is powered is not easy. It's challenging to get the mix exactly right and the pace right. Here's how I see the Sierra Club's role: First, if your water or your air is being threatened, regardless of the source, the Sierra Club will have your back. Second, we need to advocate for the rapid deployment of clean energy. And third, we need to think through the transition to clean energy, state by state and city by city. In developing that detailed strategy, we have to listen to and follow the people who are active on the ground. They'll help us find a way to avoid replacing one dirty fuel source with another and help us move beyond all fossil fuels to clean-energy sources that don't pollute and put more people to work.