September 19, 2017

The Environmental Dangers of Hydro-Fracturing the Marcellus Shale

Robert Myers, Ph.D. Lock Haven University

Over the past four years, I have watched the hydro-fracturing industry rapidly expand into central Pennsylvania, and I have been disturbed by the consequences.  The state forests, where generations of Pennsylvanians have hunted, fished, and hiked, have been defaced by a growing network of well pads.  But even more disturbing are the effects that we can’t see.  Unknown chemicals are being pumped thousands of feet underground.  The extreme pressures involved in the hydro-fracturing process are forcing methane gas into people’s homes and into their water supplies.  Thousands of gallons of chemicals have been spilled in our forests and streams.  It’s clear to me that hydro-fracturing is the single biggest environmental threat to Pennsylvania that this generation faces.

This site attempts to sort through conflicting claims in order to present objectively the facts on the effects of hydro-fracturing and to provide thorough documentation for every claim.  I welcome any corrections or comments on this page (email me at rmyers3@lhup.edu).  I have spoken on this issue to the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioner’s National Conference, the Penn State Marcellus Shale Law Symposium, the Sustainable Energy Fund Green Bag Lunch Series, the EPIC Frac Event, and the Grey to Green Festival, and would be glad to speak to other groups.

 Just Water and Sand
The natural gas industry would like us to believe that the fluid used in hydro-fracturing is harmless.  Energy in Depth (a public relations shill for the oil and natural gas industry) has prepared “A Fluid Situation” that shows a “typical solution” used in fracking.  According to this document, fracking solution is 95.51% water and sand, with only a few harmless chemicals thrown in (for example, citric acid and table salt).  This statement obscures the fact that this percentage is by weight: the reality is that there are approximately 20 tons of chemicals added to each million gallons of water, and the typical frack job involves 4-7 million gallons of water (Damascus Citizens, “Affirming Gasland” p. 14).

Furthermore, the list of 15 chemicals in “A Fluid Situation” is far from complete.  In June 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection released a list that allegedly contains every chemical that is used in hydro-fracturing operations (DEP, “Chemicals Used by Hydraulic Fracturing Companies”).  But even if this list is comprehensive (which some question), the chemicals they do include are alarming.  A few worth mentioning are ethylbenzene, ethylene glycol, glutaraldehyde, isopropanol, and methanol.  According to the Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), many of the chemicals on Pennsylvania’s list have been linked to cancer or other health problems (respiratory, reproductive, brain and nervous system, kidneys, immune system, gastrointestinal and liver, endocrine, developmental, cardiovascular, and blood).

 Contaminated Water and Exploding Houses
The natural gas industry would insist that none of this is relevant because the fracking fluid is thousands of feet underground, safely barricaded from aquifers by cement casings.  Energy in Depth’s “Frac versus Fiction” claims that opponents of hydro-fracturing have been trying to establish “a credible (and growing) track record of danger.  Unfortunately for them, in hydraulic fracturing they’re running up against a technology that in 60 years of service has yet to be credibly tied to the contamination of drinking water.”

Unfortunately, this just isn’t true.  There have been many incidents of water contamination and even buildings exploding because of natural gas hydro-fracturing operations.  The most common problem is methane migration due to defective casing.  According to the Pittsburgh Geological Society’s article “Natural Gas Migration Problems in Western Pennsylvania” methane migration occurs when natural gas escapes “from the reservoir rock, coal seam, pipeline, gas well, or landfill.  If the gas migrates through the bedrock and soil, it can result in an explosion capable of damaging property and causing loss of life.”

  • In April 2004 the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) fined Encana Oil and Gas a record $371,200 for contaminating water supplies in West Divide Creek, Colorado.  COGCC found methane, benzene, toluene, and m,p xylenes in wells, and  blamed Encana  for “inadequate cementing of the well,” which “resulted in a loss of well control” (COGGC, “West Divide Creek Gas Seep” (4/14/04), COGCC, “Notice of Hearing” [8/04]).
  • In December 2007 the basement of a home in Bainbridge Township, Ohio exploded.  Fortunately, the owners, Richard and Thelma Payne, who were asleep upstairs, were not injured.  Subsequently, 19 area homes were evacuated because of natural gas.  The Report by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources(9/1/08) concluded that the explosion and contamination was caused by “inadequate cementing of the production casing” by the drilling company, Ohio Valley Energy Systems, which led to migration of natural gas into natural fractures in the bedrock below the drilling casing.
  • In February 2009 Cabot Oil & Gas was responsible for methane contamination of nine water wells in Dimock, Pennsylvania.  Methane built up in the well of Norma Fiorentio and when the pump switched on, it blew up the concrete foundation of the well house  (PA DEP “Notice of Violation” [2/27/09]).  The Pennsylvania DEP has blamed the problems on “defective casing and cementing” (DEP, “DEP Reaches Agreement” [11/04/09]).  On April 15, 2010 the DEP fined Cabot $240,000 for violating the November agreement and suspended their drilling operations in PA until they resolve the Dimock contamination (DEP, “DEP Takes Aggressive Action” [4/15/10]).  Recently, the DEP and Cabot came to a settlement, whereby Cabot will pay $4.1 million to the residents of Dimock and $500,000 to the state to offset the costs associated with investigating this incident.  This settlement does not affect the federal lawsuits that the residents of Dimock have filed, but some residents believe that Cabot is trying to use it to scuttle the lawsuit  (DEP, “Dimock Residents” [12/16/10], dailyreview.com “Dimock Residents” [12/18/10]).
  • In April 2011, the DEP ordered Catalyst Energy to cease all drilling and hydro-fracturing operations in 36 of its non-Marcellus wells in Forest County, PA.  The DEP confirmed that two private water supplies had been contaminated by natural gas migration and elevated levels of iron and manganese (DEP, “DEP Orders Catalyst” [4/4/11]).
  • In May 2011, the DEP fined Chesapeake Energy $900,000 for contaminating wells in Bradford County.  DEP determined that because of improper well casing and cementing in shallow zones, natural gas from non-shale shallow gas formations had experienced localized migration into groundwater and contaminated 16 families’ drinking water supplies (DEP, “DEP Fines Chesapeake” [5/17/11]).
  • The Scranton Times-Tribune has reported that DEP records suggest ongoing problems with the cement casings that are the best protection against methane migration (Times-Tribune, “DEP Inspections” [9/18/11]).

Despite these incidents, industry representatives continue to insist that hydro-fracturing has never been linked to water contamination.  Energy in Depth’s “Frac versus Fiction” concludes about the Bainbridge incident, “Allegations suggesting the Bainbridge incident was caused by hydraulic fracturing are simply not supported by either the facts on the ground or DMRM’s report.  Instead, this incident was the direct result of several poor decisions made by the operator.”  The industry’s attempt to blame “operator error” rather than hydro-fracturing, is like arguing that drunk driving itself isn’t dangerous–the accidents associated with drunk driving are due to operator error.  As the record above indicates, operator failure in hydro-fracturing operations is an increasingly common occurrence.

Another obfuscation by the industry is to separate “hydro-fracturing” from the drilling process.  Since the demonstrated cases of contamination have been from faulty casings, rather than the stage when high pressure is used to fracture the rock, they can claim that “hydro-fracturing” is not to blame.  But of course this distinction is absurd unless there is a way to get the pipes underground without drilling.

The industry also claims that tests have shown that the methane in the water in places like Dimock was biogenic methane, produced near the surface by decaying organic matter, not thermogenic methane from deep layers such as the Marcellus.  They point out that there have been incidents of burning faucets in Dimock even before the gas industry began drilling.  But once again, this is a distortion of the truth.  The initial tests at Dimock “fingerprinted” the problem as biogenic methane.  And there’s no question that biogenic methane has been a problem in that area for years.  But the issue isn’t what kind of methane–the real question is how did it get in people’s water supplies?  A report prepared for the natural gas industry by Reservoir Research, points out that methane migration can occur from either gas or water well drilling.  That report notes, “occasionally, a cement job has an incomplete bond with the walls of the well, and that can be big trouble, because contaminants can then leak into water supplies” (Reservoir Research “Frac Attack,” p. 11).  At Dimock, the DEP concluded that the faulty casings allowed the well pressure to push existing biogenic methane into aquifers.  Furthermore, subsequent tests at Dimock have fingerprinted the gas as thermogenic, from the Devonian formation, where the hydro-fracturing is taking place (Damascus Citizens, “Affirming Gasland,” p. 8-11).

And methane migration isn’t the only problem caused by hydro-fracturing.  To me, the most serious problem–and the one that is impossible to regulate–has been the series of spills and accidents that have spewed chemicals into our streams and forests.

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