Saturday, July 16, 2011

Making Peace

So if you are presenting your gift at the altar and suddenly remember that your brother has a grievance against you, leave your gift where it is before the altar. First go and make your peace with your brother; then come back and offer your gift. Matthew 5:23-24 (REB)
And I said yesterday this site might be inactive for a while . . .

This post is dedicated to one purpose. I need to apologize for my behavior yesterday. I pushed the little button on the page to show my support for the upcoming DC SlutWalk, which has a page on Facebook. In the process, I goaded a friend who has expressed a contrary view regarding the movement, which I wrote about back in June. I did that, knowing full well it would bring a response. After receiving a response, I carried on an argument on and off throughout the day, rather than just letting the matter lie.

I woke up this morning with a deep feeling of shame, about purposefully drawing someone in to an argument, then carrying on like a child. The thought of two middle-aged, well-educated, thoughtful, men acting like a couple teenagers is embarrassing enough. The fact that it all stemmed from a willful act of childish prodding on my part made it that much worse. That it occurred in a public forum, before many witnesses makes me feel deeply ashamed of myself. To first pick, then carry on, an argument over something that, in the course and run of life, is of such little importance really makes me feel like quite the idiot. That I did all this to another, a person whose views I respect, whose life story I admire, whose intelligence, thoughtfulness, and insight - even when they differ from mine - are all sources of inspiration, giving me pause and cause to reflect, makes it all the worse.

Perhaps it is of little consequence. All the same, my own sense is that I need, for the sake of my own equanimity and peace of mind and heart, to apologize. I was rude, childish, stubborn, and not at all acting in a manner I should. For that, I wish to apologize. Perhaps, in time, I can gain enough wisdom to stop behaving in such a ridiculous fashion.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Moving On . . .

I have been thinking recently of moving my recent set of writings on the Marcellus Shale gas boom to a new site. Then, yesterday, I was reading Lisa at That's Why, who had been talking about reading some old posts from an old blog she used to write and has reactivated, and I decided to go for it. It will be publicly available, with a big link here for regular visitors. This blog may - or may not - become inactive. I do know that, starting in September, I will be leading a class called Christian Believer at church. The class includes assigned daily reading and reflections, and this is as good a place as any to do that kind of reflecting. Since it is "daily", I will be posting daily on matters theological. In the interim, however, I think this site will be less active.

My reasons for doing so are complicated. First, I have discovered that there is a tremendous amount of material on all aspects of the Marcellus Shale gas boom, and it takes a whole lot of time and energy to figure out what's good and what's not, what's trustworthy and what's not, and what, exactly, are the facts of the matter. Yesterday, I had to speed-skim through a 400-plus page government report, something I would not wish on my worst enemy, as well as related material, and such is far more difficult than you might imagine.

Also, I tend to be single-minded about things. Some might call it obsessive. Others, monomaniacal. In fact, I just cannot concentrate on more than one matter that taxes my feeble mental powers at any given time. While my interests in life continue along as they always have, wading in to the deep waters of the gas boom is pushing out other things. With our politics stuck in the mire of the fantastically stupid, and my own theological musings muted until we as a class move forward this autumn, I just don't have either time, energy, or quite frankly the interest to pursue discussions or reflections on other topics at the moment. The gas boom is where my attention lies; it is only fair to me, to my readers, and to the topic that I make some kind of separation among it all.

Before I move on, though, I decided to read through some old posts, by way of introducing myself today to the person I was a few years back. Not at all randomly, I picked this same week in July, 2007 as a reference. Some of what I found was interesting. My conversation partners were different, although Art was making a regular appearance. One thing I am embarrassed about - although why I'm embarrassed I do not know - is the sheer amount of writing I did. In my defense, I can only say that I had a whole lot of energy, and a strong desire to get stuff out of my head in to some semi-rational, semi-usable shape. Of course, on the other hand, this doesn't mean I had to hit that "publish post" button at the bottom of the page. What on earth possessed me to think writing 18 posts in a week was in any way a good thing?

Ah, well. We live and learn. Some things, at least.

In any case, start looking for more on the Marcellus Shale and related stuff at my new site, When Gas Went Boom, later today. I do hope long-time readers will pay a visit.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Nagging Questions

I know I said yesterday I was working on a post on critics of drilling. And I was. I emailed one prominent individual who is named as a critic, even though his criticisms have more to do with the economic sustainability and viability of the Marcellus Shale play rather than drilling or hydraulic fracturing. I am awaiting his reply to some emailed questions before I proceed. I decided to read and report on a study the Environmental Protection Agency published on possible contamination or degradation of drinking water in and around areas where hydraulic fracturing has been used to eliminate coal-bed methane as a hazard. Over 400 pages, complete with pictures and charts and everything. Bureaucratic reports are fun reading.

Although thousands of CBM wells are fractured annually, EPA did not find confirmed evidence that drinking water wells have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing fluid injection into CBM wells.
Evaluation of Impacts to Underground Source of Drinking Water by Hydraulic Fracturing of Coalbed Methane Reserves, 2004, Final Report
Under the multiple pressures of its legislative authority to evaluate potential threats to drinking water, complaints from residents in a variety of places that hydraulic fracturing has introduced contaminants into or drained wells or other drinking water supplies, and with the additional judicial determination that investigating and evaluating the potential threat to drinking water supplies from hydraulic fracturing, the EPA in 2001 began a study that resulted, in 2004, in the report (.pdf) whose conclusion is quoted above.

On the other hand . . .
In July, a hydrologist dropped a plastic sampling pipe 300 feet down a water well in rural Sublette County, Wyo., and pulled up a load of brown oily water with a foul smell. Tests showed it contained benzene, a chemical believed to cause aplastic anemia and leukemia, in a concentration 1,500 times the level safe for people.


The contamination in Sublette County is significant because it is the first to be documented by a federal agency, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. But more than 1,000 other cases of contamination have been documented by courts and state and local governments in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In one case, a house exploded after hydraulic fracturing created underground passageways and methane seeped into the residential water supply. In other cases, the contamination occurred not from actual drilling below ground, but on the surface, where accidental spills and leaky tanks, trucks and waste pits allowed benzene and other chemicals to leach into streams, springs and water wells.
As part of its larger narrative, ProPublica takes aim at the EPA study so heralded by the industry:
[O]ne of the report’s three main authors, Jeffrey Jollie, an EPA hydrogeologist, now cautions that the research has been misconstrued by industry. The study focused solely on the effect hydraulic fracturing has on drinking water in coal bed methane deposits, typically shallow formations where gas is embedded in coal. It didn’t consider the impact of above-ground drilling or of drilling in geologic formations deep underground, where many of the large new gas reserves are being developed today.

"It was never intended to be a broad, sweeping study," Jollie says. "I don’t think we ever characterized it that way."

Nevertheless, a few months after the report’s release, the sweeping 2005 Energy Policy Act was passed. Almost no attention was paid to the three paragraphs that stripped the federal government of most of its authority to monitor and regulate hydraulic fracturing’s impact on the environment. By default, that responsibility would now fall to the states.

“That pretty much closed the door,” said Greg Oberley, an EPA groundwater specialist working in the western drilling states. “So we absolutely do not look at fracking...under the Safe Drinking Water Act. It’s not done.”


"We've kind of reached the tipping point," says Dhieux, the EPA inspector in Denver. "The impacts are there."

In December 2007, a house in Bainbridge, Ohio exploded in a fiery ball. Investigators discovered that the neighborhood’s tap water contained so much methane that the house ignited. A study released this month concluded that pressure caused by hydraulic fracturing pushed the gas, which is found naturally thousands of feet below, through a system of cracks into the groundwater aquifer.
Ian Urbina's April 16, 2011 New York Times story on a study done by Congressional Democrats, including Rep. Henry Waxman of California and Edward Markey of Massachusetts.
The inquiry over hydrofracking, which was initiated by the House Energy and Commerce Committee when Mr. Waxman led it last year, also found that 14 of the nation’s most active hydraulic fracturing companies used 866 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products — not including water. More than 650 of these products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or are listed as hazardous air pollutants, the report said.
Who is right about this? According to an extensive report at, there are, indeed, documented cases of direct links between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination.
An internal document from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection outlines over 60 instances of water contamination and fugitive methane migration from gas drilling operations, many of which were due to unexpected pockets of underground pressure, the failure to contain well pressure, faulty production casing, or the accidental drilling into other abandoned or producing gas wells.
The National Resources Defense Council, which supports federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing (rather than an outright ban, which many current fracking opponents seem to prefer), has a list of other confirmed cases where a direct link between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination exist. Among the many documented cases is the following:
Pennsylvania: A gas well near the home of the Simons family in Bradford County was drilled in 2009 and re-fracked in February, 2011. Shortly after the 2011 operation, the Simons family reports that their tap water turned gray and hazy. After the water changed, family members began getting severe rashes with oozing blisters, and one child had to be taken to the hospital for torrential nosebleeds that would not stop, nausea and severe headaches. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) tested the water and found very high levels of methane and other contaminants in the water, but said it was safe to drink. Since the Simons family stopped using any of their water, these symptoms have gone away but the water still “stinks awfully; it is a scummy, rotten, nasty smell...”
It seems obvious that more study of the possibility of contamination of drinking water supplies, whether private wells or public sources, needs to be done. A constant theme among critics of the 2004 EPA report - among many - is that there is still a great deal we do not know about the structure and possible flow activity within the areas currently being drilled. While the 2004 study seemed to indicate that hydraulic fracturing posed no risk to drinking water, as a former EPA official in the Bush Administration has made clear:
When we got the report, it was a snapshot in time. It was a thorough review describing the issues. Whether it's hydraulic fracturing or any other type of practice that can have an impact on the environment, one single report shouldn't be the basis for a perpetual, never-ending policy decision.”

It wasn't meant to be a bill of health saying 'well, this practice is fine. Exempt it in all respects from any regulation.' I'm sure that wasn't the intent of the panel of experts, and EPA never viewed it that way. That's one reason why we were urging Congress to say 'look, if you are going to issue an exemption, ensure that it is not perpetual.'
Despite a clean bill of health once upon a time, I see no reason not to ask, again, about the safety to our drinking water.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Explaining Myself

Wednesday is my music post day, and as I am gathering information on a post for tomorrow on critics of drilling, I thought it might be important to take some space to explain what I am up to, why, and what possible relevance this has to the title and subject-matter of this web log.

As someone who was born and raised and lived the first 25 years of his life in and around the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom, my interest is deeply personal. My elderly parents still live in the house in which I grew up; this September will mark the forty-first year in that house. My youngest sister and her husband live in the same town. I have deep family roots in neighboring Bradford County, PA, with an ancestor of my paternal grandmother settling just outside what is now Wysox, PA after the War for Independence.

After swinging between supporting, then opposing the development of natural gas resources in and around this gorgeous, rural landscape of my youth, I decided it was important to learn some facts. What I have found is a mountain of information, with blogging being a really poor medium for distilling all that information in to a usable shape. All the same, I am approaching the subject as someone who assumes, (a), I know absolutely nothing about the natural gas business or its practices; (b) I am not in a position to judge the actions of the actors involved; (c) the reality of an on-going need for natural gas, absent a comprehensive energy policy at a national level, necessitates using sources that require unconventional methods of extraction; (d) there are no good guys or bad guys in this on-going situation, just people and companies and institutions and interests acting in their own self-interest, to the best of their abilities.

I have no illusions about the gas companies. I also have no illusions about the local communities, their residents or local elected representatives. I am not, as a recent commenter claimed, under the sway of dishonest critics. My only concern is to find out, as best I can - and present as clearly as I am able - what is actually happening. These posts will continue until I have satisfied myself that I have some kind of grip on the matter. My guess is, then, it may last a while.

As to the relationship between these posts and this web log and its purpose, I can only wonder why some might think they bore no relationship to one another. Being a Christian includes finding out for oneself as much as possible about what is happening in the world, in order to live in it faithfully. Jesus Christ didn't die on the cross then rise on the third day so we could escape from the messiness around us. We have to immerse ourselves in it in order to get the message of Divine love and acceptance out to as many people as possible. I am writing all this, in short, precisely because my faith calls me to do so. How can anyone minister to people without understanding what is happening in their world?

As I say, this series of posts will continue for as long as it takes. I am writing them for myself as much as anything, as a way of figuring out what is happening, why, and what it might mean for all of us. The gas boom in PA, and a possible one in New York once the drilling moratorium is lifted, is, to me, the biggest story not too many people know about. I am doing my own tiny part to spread the word that something is going on.

A Musical Interlude

When I discovered that A Perfect Circle had covered my all-time favorite song, I had to listen to it. We'll get to the song itself in a moment. It comes from an album APC put out in 2004, Emotive, the bulk of which are covers. I am not now nor ever have been a huge fan of covers, but APC does justice to the songs by setting aside any attempt at idolatry, the links to the originals being merely title and lyrics. Musically and affectively, the songs are APC.

For example, would anyone believe this is Led Zeppelin's drum-heavy "When The Levee Breaks" if they didn't know the lyrics?

What relationship does the following have to Elvis Costello's frenetic sneer at cynicism, "(What's So Funny About) Peace Love And Understanding?"

Having listened several times to Billy and Maynard's rearrangement of Marvin Gaye, I think that, while it may be true as one commenter at YouTube said, APC has removed every bit of soul from the original, that may well be more than merely a demonstration of the musical limits of the band. The original was a crie de coeur, stemming from a series of letters Gaye had received from his younger brother serving in combat in Vietnam. Our times, on the other hand, cannot hear yet another voice screaming out their righteous anger. When someone known for their screaming, however, whispers what we all know to be the truth, doesn't that make us want to stop, turn the volume on everything else down, and hear what they have to say? Maynard's delivery on this song, so different from anything one could hear on a Tool record, the band's muted, musical delivery of the melody does the song justice by understanding not only what the song is, but how to deliver the message in a way that fits the times. Rather than a slavish devotion to the original arrangement, Billy Howerdel and the rest of the band have shown reverence for the spirit behind it by arranging it to suit our over-loud times. Since APC in thought to be yet another experimental heavy metal band, that so many of the arrangements are gentle, lilting, the lyrics delivered in that same suggestive (seductive?) manner, the surprise is compounded.

In short, A Perfect Circle have created a wonderful song. The original is what it is. Their version, however, is what it is, and both can be enjoyed and passed on because they both do what they are supposed to do, provide a musical platform for two very different prophetic voices to deliver their message to a world hungering for a word of truth.

And now, for some random fun . . .

Afraid of Everyone - The National
Face of Yesterday - Renaissance
When She Cries - Andy McKee
Tremolando - Steve Howe's Remedy
High Ideals - Elbow
Find the Time - Wakeman With Wakeman
Brandenburg Concerto #3, Movement 1 - Johann Sebastian Bach
Sex Sleep Eat Drink Dream - King Crimson
Mystery - Indigo Girls
Car Hiss By My Window - The Doors

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

What Texas Can Teach Pennsylvania . . . And New York

[PA] Gov. Tom Corbett, whose successful campaign last year received sizable donations from members of the natural gas industry, has said he wants to make Pennsylvania the Texas of the natural gas boom.
Wilkes-Barre, PA Times Leader, March 31, 2011

While Pennsylvania continues to wrestle with the many issues and concerns over development of the Marcellus Shale natural gas reserves, there is a laboratory of sorts to which it can refer to understand how best to cope with the push and pull of different interests, constituencies, and pressures. While the Marcellus has, by far, a great potential, right now the biggest producing natural gas play in the country is in the Barnett Shale in central Texas.

According to this fact sheet (.pdf) the first test wells in the Barnett date back to 1981. It wasn't until the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques improved, however, that large scale drilling became feasible. By 2003, the Barnett gas boom was ready to take off. By 2007-2008, residents in counties overriding the Barnett were signing leases worth as much as $28,000 an acre, with royalties ranging from 15% to 25%. According to Ian Urbina of the New York Times, some of the leases are made by black churches as a way of generating much needed revenue.

In the fall of 2008, as the effects of the burst housing bubble began to reverberate through the finance industry, then the larger economy, the trading price for natural gas sank. Production was curtailed, and the value of the leases disappeared. According to a report in the Albany, NY Times-Union, the price has yet to recover.
In May 2008, well owners could sell natural gas for more than $10 per 1,000 cubic feet, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In April 2010, that price had dropped to less than $4.
In an October, 2009 article in the independent Fort Worth Weekly entitled "Leasing Our Lives Away", reporter Jerry Lodbill began his discussion of leases for gas extraction on what one would hardly call an upbeat note:
So you've signed a gas lease. Congratulations: You've been taken for a fool. Certain material facts were kept from you that, had you known them, likely would have made you throw the contract in the trash where it belongs. Since you didn't, let's take a virtual tour of your new reality.
As with all legal documents, the devil exists in the fine print. No less for these mineral-right leases than anything else.
If a lot of your neighbors also signed, the gas company now has powers you were never told about. The lessee can essentially do whatever he wishes on the surface to produce the gas under your property. He can hold your property hostage for decades by performing inexpensive, nonproductive tasks. He can, and from all historical evidence will, pollute any surface location where he installs mineral extraction equipment. He does not care what you think about it.

Perhaps more ominous is the fact that he is not limited to extraction of minerals from a specific formation (such as the Barnett Shale) but may explore for deeper deposits that are said to exist under the Barnett Shale. In South Texas his brethren are still holding leases executed in the 1930s, leases that have so polluted the surface as to make the land unusable for its earlier purpose of cattle ranching. With the original target minerals now played out, these lessees today are exploring for and producing gas there. Equipment that is no longer functional still leaks carcinogens into the ground. The surface rights owners have been denied access to areas on their property. So, while you've been told verbally that there'll be no effects on your surface usage, that is not an enforceable contract provision, and the lessee, and his landman representative, knew it when he or she asked you to sign.


And what will you get? Maybe the lease offer on your quarter-acre lot included a bonus of $25,000 per acre plus 25 percent royalties. If gas prices stay high that might get you about $208 per year in royalties, or about $12,450 total (including your bonus) over a 30-year payout lifetime.

Oh, and remember, that's the gross amount. It doesn't consider income tax and an ad valorem property tax increase due to all that gas you own. Of course, gas prices are in the toilet right now, and they're selling less gas than they'd expected.
In a story from March, 2010, we hear the drilling companies are being . . . pokey . . . about ponying up their payments on leases.
In August 2008, the Southwest Fort Worth Alliance, a collection of homeowners associations representing about 25,000 property owners, approved a natural gas leasing deal with Vantage Energy that provided for bonuses of $27,500 per acre and a royalty rate of 23 percent. For residents, it read like the sweetest deal ever in the Barnett Shale.

Homeowners were told that they’d get their money after a fairly simple process: Property titles would be verified by Vantage’s leasing agent, The Caffey Group; homeowners would fill out a tax form and sent it in to Caffey; they would go to a signing party and sign the leases; and bonus checks would be sent to their banks in a draft form that would be converted to cash within 30 business days.

David and Joyce Richey did all those things. They signed their lease on Sept. 13 of that year. Their bonus was calculated at $8,800 for their quarter-acre property, and a draft for that amount was sent to their bank on Sept. 16. They then waited for the check to clear.

On Nov. 6, however, the draft was returned unpaid. And now the Richeys are part of a lawsuit against Vantage and Caffey alleging breach of contract, fraud, antitrust violations, and deceptive trade practices toward themselves and other property owners.


The suits thus far center on deals that were negotiated by SFWA with Vantage and by South East Arlington Communities of Texas in April 2008 with XTO Energy. In mid-October of that year, the drilling companies — XTO, Vantage, Chesapeake, and others — pulled their offers off the table for property owners who hadn’t signed. By March 2009, they were back in those neighborhoods, but by then offering deals with zero bonuses.

Petroff contends that the drillers didn’t like the record levels that bonus offers had reached and, in violation of antitrust law, teamed up to drive prices down. A hearing on May 6 in a Tarrant County district court will determine if the plaintiffs have legal grounds to sue over antitrust issues.

“The companies acted together at the same time, and we have some interesting evidence that we can’t share at this time saying they did,” Petroff said. “The competition was fierce in 2008, and the prices went sky-high. But then [the drilling companies] looked at each other and said it doesn’t make sense to pay that kind of money.

“But they had binding contracts in place, and you can’t nullify a contract just because gas prices went down,” he said.
The state of Texas, and its various agencies, seem to be piling on landowners who may not want to lease their land.
The Texas Railroad Commission has issued a ruling allowing more than two dozen east Fort Worth landowners who didn’t sign a mineral rights lease to be forcibly included in a drilling plan, a move that gives producers added leverage against leasing holdouts. It is the first time the commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in the state, has used a 1965 law to take such action, called a force pooling, against small land owners. Experts said the ruling is particularly applicable in urban areas, where hundreds of small tracts often must be assembled, or pooled, into a drilling unit. Jacqueline Weaver, a University of Houston law professor who has written extensively on Texas oil and gas law, said the issues involved are important enough that they likely will have to be resolved by state courts. Historically, she said, the Mineral Interest Pooling Act has been used to protect small land owners from getting squeezed out of drilling units, rather than forced into one.
The collapse of gas prices and the drillers no longer exploiting leases in some areas, including land leased by those churches, have had other, complicating factors, according to the Urbina story linked above:
The impact of the downturn was immediate for many.

“Ruinous, that’s how I’d describe it,” said the Rev. Kyev Tatum, president of the Fort Worth chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Mr. Tatum explained that dozens of black churches in Fort Worth signed leases on the promise of big money. Instead, some churches were told that their land may no longer be tax exempt even though they had yet to make any royalties on the wells, he said.
It isn't just about a boom going bust.
The federal Environmental Protection Agency plans to rewrite its rules for air pollution from gas and oil drilling in response to a lawsuit from the San Juan Citizens Alliance. EPA officials held a public meeting Tuesday in Denver to solicit input on updated rules. They held a similar meeting Monday in Arlington, Texas. The effort marks the first major update to several air-quality rules for the industry in 10 to 25 years, in some cases. Environmental groups hailed the development. "Those of us who live in the Four Corners region are getting slaughtered by the air-quality impacts. It's not acceptable," said Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, who testified at Tuesday's meeting. A gas industry advocate urged the EPA officials to be careful with the rules. "How many lives would be lost or quality of life degraded if we didn't have affordable energy to heat our homes in the winter; generate electricity to power dialysis machines, life-support and medical diagnostic equipment; and fuel to safely transport our loved ones?" said Kathleen Sgamma, director of government affairs for the Western Energy Alliance. Regulations that are too onerous will push gas exploration overseas, where the rules are more lax, Sgamma said. The EPA should focus on vehicles and power plants, which pollute more than gas and oil equipment, Sgamma said. The EPA is looking at four air-quality rules governing the emissions of volatile organic compounds and sulfur dioxide from new gas-processing plants, plus toxic-emissions from glycol dehydrators and other gas and oil equipment. The two toxic emission rules would apply to both new and existing equipment. The EPA had not updated its rules, as required by law, for many years. WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance sued the agency, and the EPA came to terms on a settlement with the environmental groups in January. "That's kind of a slam dunk. It's kind of hard to win a case like that," said Bruce Moore, an EPA official from North Carolina who led Monday's meeting. The settlement calls for new air-pollution rules to be in place by Nov. 30, 2011. Volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides form ozone when they interact with sunlight. Ozone causes lung problems in humans and makes it hard for plants to grow. The toxic chemicals at issue are familiar to residents of the gas patch: benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, as well as hexane, Moore said.
Along with the risk of air pollution, there is the reality of damage to ground water.
A North Texas oil and gas company that recently came under scrutiny from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is also the subject of an environmental lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

The EPA recently announced that it is including two counties in North Texas’ Barnett Shale in its study of hydraulic fracturing’s impact on groundwater.

At least in part, the EPA is looking at operations of Plano-based Aruba Petroleum Inc., said Wise County landowner Tim Ruggiero. He says he documented water well contamination when Aruba drilled on his 10-acre plot of land and that an EPA official visited his home on Thursday.
Even as Pennsylvania deals with the on-going development of its natural gas resources, and its new Governor desires the Commonwealth be industry-friendly, the lessons from north-central Texas should be a guide for developing a comprehensive resource-extraction policy in light of the reality of the potential from the Marcellus Shale. New York, where there currently exists a ban on hydraulic fracturing (although Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signaled his intent to lift it after careful study from the state Department of Environmental Conservation), should also take both Texas' and Pennsylvania's experiences as object lessons for developing the same kind of policy prior to any lifting of the ban on drilling. While the allure of dollar signs can be blinding, it is incumbent upon elected leaders to lead, which includes balancing the preferences of all actors. This is not a call for banning gas drilling or hydraulic fracturing. Rather, it is a call for elected leaders to take information available from the experience of the Barnett Shale boom in Texas and apply it to their approach so that everyone - landowners, gas companies, potential employees, and the state - can benefit all the while keeping an eye on minimizing environmental damage and limiting the amount of litigation that might come from the activity.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Gas Boom Or Gas Bubble?

In 2003, Range Resources showed that a productive natural gas well could operate in the Marcellus Shale "play", using hydraulic fracturing - called "unconventional techniques" in the literature - to operate a well with a (.pdf) "cumulative initial flow rate of 22 million cubic feet a day" in Washington County, PA. In 2008, Penn State geologist Terry Engelder and his colleague Gary Lash of SUNY Fredonia published a paper (the last link above) that used survey data, as well as the production capacity of active wells in the region, to estimate 500 trillion cubic feet (TcF) of gas within the entire Marcellus formation. With an estimate of ten percent of that gas recoverable, that is 50 million TcF. Engelder and Nash admit their estimate far exceeds that of the recent USGS surveys. They caution, however, that these estimates are rooted in limited information, not the least of them being the limited amount of productive wells within the total Marcellus Shale "play" at the time those estimates were made, as well as limiting their estimates to information within only one-quarter the entire region, and at shallower depths than are reached at the heart of the play. Extrapolating from the USGS's own information, they revise their figure upward from 6.3 TcF using a factor of eight to reach their figure of 50 TcF of recoverable natural gas within the total formation.

After this data was published, and with Range Resources experience in Washington County, other gas companies entered the region, snapping up leases and applying for permits for drilling. The gas boom was on.

It is almost impossible to know exactly what the size and extent of the Marcellus Shale gas deposits are. The best determinant is using data from active wells, and extrapolating data from the actual production, taking a cue from other long-term unconventional gas wells. The principal control are wells in the Barnett Shale in central Texas. In 2009 Range Resources revised their initial estimates for the estimated ultimate recoverable (EUR) from wells within the southwest play of the Marcellus from 3 to 4 Bcfe (billion cubic feet estimated) per well to 4 to 5 Bcfe per well across the 430,000 net acres. These estimates are rooted in data from the first 145 days of active production, including the decline over time of productivity. According to Dave Cohen, the author of the article linked here, these estimates assume an active production life for Marcellus wells of 40 years. He notes, however, that the Barnett Shale wells only had an average active life of 7.5 years. What would the recovery rate be if the wells had, rather than a 40 year productive life, only 20 years? Certainly less than half, because the curve in the production decline is neither uniform nor proportional.

In other words, while initial production has been highly promising, only three years in to extensive drilling across much of the region, and more and more new wells skewing any attempt to estimate the productive capacity of the Marcellus Shale play make it impossible to come up with solid figures on how much gas is recoverable. This is not to say Engleelder and Lash's initial estimate is wrong, or that the gas companies assumption of a 40-year production life for Marcellus wells is wrong. It is, rather, to note that, by and large, the boom in Marcellus Shale gas production is rooted in a combination of unknowns and promising but as-yet not definitive initial well production figures.

In his Drilling Down series at the New York Times, Ian Urbina published a story on June 26, 2011 whose headline sums up the content:
Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush
The story, and over 400 pages of accompanying source documents, highlights gas industry and investment advisers caution in the face of public hype. Of all the stories in the series, this one has received the most criticism from the industry, some of it fair. While there are, indeed, hundreds of pages of email exchanges, internal documents and memoranda, there are many honest questions that need to be asked concerning these documents and other information that formed the basis for Urbina's story.

Reading through those hundreds of pages yesterday, I, for one, got the sense that, far from "sounding an alarm", the emails reflected the quite natural give-and-take concerning everything from caution in regards to the investment potential to downplaying the public hype over Marcellus Shale production numbers. While I find the claim the Times "outsourced" the article to a critic of shale gas the kind of scurrilous, semi-ad hominem attack that does not address the facts in question, the insistence that the documents were "cherry picked" does, to me at least, seem well-founded. In any large organization/industry, there are going to be a variety of points-of-view. In light of two recent financial bubbles - the dot-com bubble of the late 1990's and the housing bubble of the middle years of the previous decade - many investment advisers are likely skittish about claims of piles of money to be made in an untested area, full of wild-catters, new companies looking to make a quick buck, and serious concerns over environmental quality and state oversight of everything from leasing permits and land use to where hydraulic fracturing can and cannot be used.

A further problem with Urbina's story is simple enough - he does not use any actual data to bolster his claims that the doubting Thomas's within the industry have facts on their side. In essence, his story places without context the discussions among some within a large and diverse set of industries that, perhaps, the public relations campaign regarding natural gas recovery in the Marcellus Shale may not be all its cracked up to be.

The responsibility for a lack of data, however, rests squarely on the shoulders of the natural gas industry. They are reluctant to reveal large quantities of externally audited data concerning the production at wells, a complaint many researchers have repeated. It would be helpful if the industry allowed outside production audits, independent researchers, and others investigate their data in order to understand and give some kind of support to their various claims.

On the other hand, the idea that all may not be coming up rainbows and kittens within the Marcellus Shale gas boom does have some actual evidence.
The environmental impact of natural gas drilling is subject to debate, but nobody disputed that driller Encana Oil & Gas USA Inc.’s continued presence in Luzerne County would have created jobs and work opportunities.


Encana’s decision to scrap drilling in Luzerne County means that major development probably won’t happen here, Kelsey said.

The company announced Thursday that the two exploratory wells it has drilled in the county are unlikely to produce natural gas in commercial quantities, prompting the company to immediately cease operations in Luzerne and Colombia counties.

Kelsey characterizes the company’s departure as a “missed opportunity.”

“It’s different than a situation where you have a major employer who quits and leaves, suddenly leaving many people unemployed,” Kelsey said. “It was more an opportunity that looked like it was coming to Luzerne County but won’t happen.”
Another article that same day explained Encana's decision, and some of the underlying geology:
“Over time, we’ve seen the industry trying to define where the limits of where the Marcellus play are,” said Dave Messersmith, an educator with Penn State University Cooperative Extension and a member of Penn State’s Marcellus Education Team.

“So we have a basic understanding of the geology, but in many cases, it really takes some exploratory wells to really understand what the potential is,” he said.

Messersmith said he expects to see companies drill more exploratory wells to define the edges of the economically viable shale play in Northeastern Pennsylvania generally.

“It’s a highly speculative business, especially in the early stages of a play’s development,” Messersmith said, adding that cases like Encana’s are “pretty common within the industry. We haven’t seen a lot of that happen in Pennsylvania, but obviously, as the years pass, we will see industry continue to look at the edges of the play.”
That same day, the same newspaper, The News Leader of Wilkes-Barre, PA, had the following editorial:
As it rapidly withdraws from the county’s Back Mountain region and the commonwealth, Encana carries in its draft a flurry of emotions, not the least of which are certain residents’ dashed hopes. The natural gas firm and its partner company, Whitmar Exploration Co., had drilled two exploratory wells in this territory and recently deemed it unlikely to produce sufficient amounts of natural gas to be profitable.

So long, land leases. (The companies had signed renewable deals for the rights to more than 25,000 acres in the county).

See ya, royalty checks. (They remain but a fantasy, for now.)


[L]et’s use this reprieve in the Marcellus Shale melodrama as an opportunity for personal introspection and public action. Did our state, county and local governments respond appropriately to the industry’s potential threats, or its possible economic upside? If not, why not? What weaknesses have been exposed that can be addressed? Was cooperation evident among governing bodies?

Are adequate safeguards in place for our water supplies today? What about tomorrow?

Were our decisions related to the natural gas industry motivated mostly by self-interest, civic good or something else entirely?

The next time drilling companies, or another outside force, begin to influence our communities, how can we be better prepared to handle the situation smoothly, swiftly and collaboratively?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Beyond Global Warming (UPDATE)

On Friday, I discussed Cornell University professor Robert Howarth's study of the greenhouse gas footprint of the entire process of extraction and use of natural gas. I also discussed the criticisms of Howarth's study, its admitted limitations, and my own sense that a narrow focus on the greenhouse gas emissions misses other, more immediate threats to the environment.

Yesterday, I discovered a treasure trove of primary material, thanks to Ian Urbina's Drilling Down series in the New York Times. Appearing since February, the five articles in the series so far cover issues ranging from the impact of the waste water produced by hydraulic fracturing to questions regarding the reliability of claims on the extent of gas within the Marcellus Shale. Each article also has a link to an indexed, highlighted group of documents, sometimes numbering in the thousands (over eleven hundred for the first article alone) that consist of internal studies and memoranda, press releases and court filings, even (in the case of the first article) a couple hundred pages of hand-written EPA tip sheets. My favorite of these last was the call from a woman claiming to be the wife of Jesus Christ, who was disguised as rock singer Billy Idol. She also claimed to be the Queen of the Earth. How does a government bureaucrat follow up a call like that?

The first article in Urbina's series details the hazards posed by waste water from hydraulic fracturing. These are many, and various. First, the water used is gathered locally, which poses a potential risk to local water tables. Each well can use from 2 million to ten million gallons of water.

Only about twenty percent of the water put in to the well is pumped out and considered waste. That waste water not only contains sand and various salts, but various chemicals - the identity and proportions of which are still unknown - as well as waste products from underground. In the Marcellus Shale, this includes, among other naturally occurring toxins, radioactive isotopes of radon. Along with the shale, some regions of the Marcellus basin have abundant uranium. The radioactive decay has created pockets of radon gas, which can become dissolved in the waste water (as well as create a residential hazard; Utica, NY, in particular, has a high concentration of homes that have possible radon contamination).

Some of this water is collected in to pools. Most, however, is transported and dumped in to public sewage treatment plants. While this seems like a solution, there are several reasons why it is not. First, the sheer volume of water puts pressure on the treatment plants' ability to operate. Second, many of the materials in question cannot be properly filtered through conventional sewage treatment processes. Finally, there are no regulations regarding testing for radiation in drinking water, so there is no reliable way of ensuring the safety of the water.

Tucked away in the middle of the 1,113 pages of accompanying source documents with this article are two different sets of documents that highlight, each in its own way, the real environmental hazards that accompany natural gas drilling using horizontal drill hydraulic fracturing techniques. On page 293 is a news release from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regarding a $75,000 fine levied against Jersey Shore, PA. Along with discharging fecal matter, the plant also was in violation of an approved plan for accepting gas well waste water on ten occasions, including exceeding the 50,000 gallon limit in the approved plan. The plant also did not keep records of what was in that waste water.

Starting on page 317 is a fifty-five page study DEP conducted on the South Fork Tenmile Creek, which took treated water discharged from a facility that accepted well waste water. Tenmile Creek is in southwestern Pennsylvania, not too far from Pittsburgh. The study was conducted as a Cause and Effect Survey, using, according to the report, standard methodologies and bioassays to determine the effect on aquatic flora and fauna from three sites located downstream from the discharge site. A control site was located upstream.

The fauna used as a measure of the health of the stream are identified in the report as macroinvertebrates, which we non-technical folk usually call bugs, but refers to aquatic insects. The first test results were from Station 1, furthest from the discharge site. They randomly selected samples, then used a metrics called the Index of Biological Integrity (IBI), which covers a wide array of indicators, among which include Taxa Richness (the macroinvertebrates were not identified at the species level, just the genus; the plankton and other microfauna were identified to the species level), Total Taxa Richness, and something called EPT, which specifically refer to mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies. They had rated the various taxa on an existing standard scale of tolerance to pollutants, finding that while the range, on a 0-10 scale was 2-9, with a higher number meaning higher tolerance, the majority of the sample bugs were at the higher end of the scale.

If the IBI score was greater that 63.0, then the stream was healthy, the aquatic life "attaining", as written in the report. In fact, ten miles downstream from a site dumping treated waste water into a creek, the score was 28.

The survey of plankton indicated a higher concentration of salt-tolerant taxa, including rotifers and diatoms that prefer a higher salt content. In fact, the report states explicitly that tests showed "very high total dissolved solids (TDS) (over on thousand) with correspondingly high levels of chlorides, typically found in oil and gas wastewater downstream from the STP [Sewage Treatment Plant] discharges."

Long story short - even treated water is hazardous to the ecosystems in streams receiving effluvia from sewage and waste water treatment facilities that include drilling waste water.

Now, one could argue, I suppose, that the death of some bugs hardly matters. First of all, in response, it isn't about the bugs themselves (although that, too, is an issue). It is about what we are putting in the environment that is killing those bugs. One of the assumptions most people have is that, after being treated, water released from such plants is both safe and clean. It shouldn't contain fecal matter, as did the water from the Jersey Shore plant. It shouldn't be high in salt, threatening the sustainability of life in the stream, as in South Fork Tenmile Creek.

Yet, it is.

If it were only South Fork Tenmile Creek that was effected, it wouldn't be an issue. If only Jersey Shore were dumping (literally) crap out of its treatment plants, as well as well waste water after already exceeding its legal capacity and not keeping track of what was in that water, well, I might be frustrated but hardly concerned.

It is repeating these stories over and over and over and over again. There are thousands of communities in Pennsylvania, hundred of waste water treatment facilities accepting well waste water, tens of thousands of miles of small streams like Tenmile Creek taking in higher levels of chlorides and other salts (as well as other solids that were not tested for) than the indigenous fauna can tolerate and remain healthy. These creeks feed rivers, from the Monongahela and Ohio to the Susquehanna and Delaware, which are each and all part of irrigation systems, watersheds, and even sources of drinking water for small towns and even cities.

These studies were conducted in 2009, about a year or so in to the expansion of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. Current projections see sustained drilling for decades. That is years and years of pouring filth and poisons in to our water ways, killing the fragile life that exists there, threatening the soil, irrigation, and drinking water. We do not yet know the total cost - environmental, economic - of hydraulic fracturing on the environment, but it seems it is already being paid, in part, by the ecosystem of South Fork Tenmile Creek.

UPDATE: On the main page for the Drilling Down Series, to which I linked above, there is a downloadable Excel Spreadsheet listing the contaminants found in over 200 tested wells across Pennsylvania. The sheet lists two different isotopes of radium in water, those same two in solids, two isotopes of uranium in water, one isotope of uranium in solids, something referred to as "Gross Alpha", a reference to alpha-particle radiation, and benzene. The radiation levels are listed at picoCuries per Liter, or pCi/L. The international standard is the Bequerel, one decay per second. The relationship between the two standards of measure per volume is 1 pCi/L = 37 Bq/m3. The EPA safety threshold is 1.91 pCi/L. The volume of radioactive radium in a tested well in Bradford County, PA, is 506.

As so many fret about possible radioactive contamination from fallout from the Fukushima meltdown in Japan, we already have extremely high levels of radiation in wells from domestic gas production.

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