All-American Natural Gas: A Preview of the Downside

Last Updated Jun 8, 2010 10:31 AM EDT

When world oil prices shot up over $100 a barrel a few years back, it started a fever for natural gas. Why buy dirty old oil from our enemies overseas, when we have lots of natural gas, or "clean-burning natural gas" as the energy industry likes to call it, right here at home? Indeed there is plenty of natural gas, and it's not just in Texas or Oklahoma, but all over the place, including massive deposits under New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

While it may burn clean, whatever that means, it's still dangerous and dirty to produce, as an accident in Pennsylvania the other day shows -- another warning of how relying on fossil fuels destroys the world we live in. But it also highlights an opportunity for the U.S. economy -- a concerted research and investment program to develop alternative energy sources would create many jobs and rebuild our country's export base, while saving the world at the same time.

We've known for a long time that the future of fossil fuels is finite, and the more we rely on them the more expensive they become, as it gets more and more expensive to get the stuff out of the ground. And it spoils our environment -- the damage from the current Gulf of Mexico accident will be with us for many years.

Yes, it's hard to switch to other energy sources, and it's hard to conserve, although I don't think as a nation the U.S. has tried very hard. No surprise then, that recent advances in drilling for gas are giving us an easy way out.

There is a huge gas deposit under New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Ohio, called the Marcellus Shale formation. From the New York Department of Environmental Conservation:

Geologists estimate that the entire Marcellus Shale formation contains between 168 trillion to 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas throughout its entire extent. It is not yet known how much gas will be commercially recoverable from the Marcellus in New York. To put this into context, New York State uses about 1.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year.

OK, that's a lot of fuel. It was thought to be irretrievable, locked up in the shale, but new technologies -- horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing -- all of sudden give us a way to get at it.

Read the details for yourself, but as you might imagine it is a dirty and expensive process. Each well may need more than one million gallons of water to break up the shale rock and release the gas, reports the NY DEC. Moreover, there are all sorts of chemicals involved, to make the process work: "Fluid removed from the well is required by law to be handled, transported and disposed of properly." Great -- we know how good the oil industry is at cleaning up after itself.

I'm keenly interested in this because I live in New York City, and our water supply, which is one of the best in the world, comes from the areas where this drilling might be done. Here's a map of the gas wells in the southwestern part of New York. The chicken-pox looking things are the wells:

So here's what happened a few days ago in Pennsylvania, from the Wall Street Journal:

A well owned by [gas company] EOG in the western half of Pennsylvania blew out around 8 p.m. EDT Thursday, releasing at least 35,000 gallons of drilling wastewater, before being contained shortly after noon Friday. No injuries were reported from the blowout, which took place at a well in a rural area of Clearfield County, about 100 miles from Pittsburgh.
The accident comes at an extremely sensitive time for the energy industry, as thousands of barrels of oil a day continue to pump into the Gulf of Mexico from a mile-deep leak. The incident could also heighten tension between proponents of drilling for gas from deeply buried shale-rock formations and groups that fear the drilling fluids used could contaminate drinking water.
"The Clearfield County incident presented a serious threat to life and property," DEP Secretary John Hanger said in the statement. "We are working with the company to review its Pennsylvania drilling operations fully from beginning to end to ensure an incident of this nature does not happen again."
These are the risks we face to get clean-burning, All-American natural gas: fouling our drinking water, either by standard operating procedures of dumping lots of chemicals in it, or accidents such as this. Gas companies have been buying up rights for new drilling all over the place.

Here's a report from on the ground, from the Clearfield (PA) Progress:

The Thursday blowout is the latest in a string of accidents connected by regulators to the rapidly growing pursuit of the rich Marcellus shale gas reserve that lies beneath much of Pennsylvania.
It seems likely the Pennsylvania blowout will enter the debate in the [state] Capitol, where legislators are battling over the merits of approving a severance tax and tighter regulations on an industry that has spent several billion dollars and drilled more than 1,000 wells in Pennsylvania in just a couple years.
The crew of about eight workers evacuated the Clearfield County site Thursday night and accident specialists didn't regain control over it until just past noon Friday. No one was injured, the gas didn't explode and polluted water didn't reach a nearby waterway, officials said.
The blowout sent highly pressurized gas and polluted water 75 feet into the air. Huge tanks were required to cart off chemical- and mineral-laced water collected on the grounds of the private hunting club where the well had just been drilled. There are no homes within a mile of the heavily forested site, officials say. However, some Marcellus shale wells are within view of homes, farmhouses and public roads.
Don't be fooled by the industry's ads for clean natural gas. How many warning bells do we need? The U.S. needs to find ways to stop using so much energy, and come up with better ways of making it in a hurry. It's an opportunity for our innovation to lead the world.