Fracking the Marcellus Shale

Hydraulic fracturing could help turn the U.S. into the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. But is it worth the environmental cost?

“I’ve had drillers tell me they wish they had called it something else. It sounds so vaguely sexual and terrible,” says journalist Seamus McGraw of the term “fracking,” short for hydraulic fracturing, a technology that allows drillers to recover natural gas and oil from deep shale formations. Recent advances in this technology—when used in combination with directional drilling—now allow energy companies to extract natural gas from deposits that were considered inaccessible as recently as five or ten years ago. And these deposits—like those of the Marcellus Shale formation, which extends through the subsurface of much of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and southwestern New York (and reaches into many other states)—could significantly reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil and allow the U.S. to become a major exporter of natural gas.

But drilling in places like north-central Texas (the Barnett Shale), northwest Louisiana and deep east Texas (the Haynesville Shale), and Oklahoma (the Woodford Shale), may come at significant environmental cost, particularly in terms of water pollution. In his new book “The End of Country” (Random House), McGraw examines the impact gas drilling has had on the rural communities of Susquehanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania—in particular, Ellsworth Hill and Dimock Township. On the one hand, the influx of money from companies like Chesapeake Energy and Range Resources (which lease the land from locals) has provided a badly-needed jolt to the long-languishing local economy. On the other, the money has changed people, and the presence of outsiders and the environmental pollution has unnerved residents, many of them third- and fourth-generation farmers.

“One of my favorite lines from the drilling industry is: ‘We don’t use any chemicals that you don’t have under your sink,’ begins McGraw. “The problem is that you don’t have 50,000 gallons of methanol under your sink,” he continues, referring to one of the chemicals commonly used in fracking fluid, which is mixed with a million or more gallons of water and pumped under high pressure into shale formations to create fractures. In the following Failure interview, McGraw explains what it’s like to visit a drill site, why it’s so vital that the public understands the risks and benefits of slick water fracking, and how the environmental costs of drilling for natural gas could offset the benefits of moving away from coal and oil.

When were the gas deposits you write about in the book discovered?
The Marcellus Shale [named for a distinctive outcropping near the village of Marcellus, New York] was discovered in the 1840s. It was known that the shale’s were gas-bearing from around the turn of the last century. But there was no technology to retrieve it. There was no way to drill down that deep and sufficiently fracture the shale’s in order to release the gas. It wasn’t until the middle of the last decade that the technology evolved to the point it became do-able.

And that’s why there’s so much excitement about the Marcellus Shale and other gas deposits at this moment in time?
As recently as the early 2000s, there was a real concern that we were going to have to go hat in hand to Russia within a decade or so and start buying gas from them. Of course, we knew we had large shale deposits, though we didn’t know how rich they were. But beginning in the 1990s companies began to pursue some of these shale plays, particularly the Barnett. By 2005 they were starting to realize that not only did we have significant deposits, but we also had the technology. That changed the architecture of the debate. It was no longer: Are we going to run out of gas? It became: Is it worth the cost to get it? That’s the debate we’re about to have. 

What are you referring to when you pose the question: Is it worth the cost?
I’m not really referring to money. There are serious, serious environmental downsides. The problems differ from region to region. In Texas and in parts of the arid west there is a real concern about whether there is sufficient water. There has been talk about shutting down wells because of the amount of water that is used. In the east one of the main problems is methane contamination. And there are serious challenges involved with water recycling.

The other challenge is human failure, and that happens fairly often. In Dimock, a little town which is ground zero for the debate, there was a spill of eight-thousand gallons of fracking fluid. Fracking fluid is 98 percent water and two percent chemicals, but two percent of hundreds of thousands of gallons is still a hell of a lot of chemicals. As I discuss in the book, for every million gallons of water injected into a well, anywhere between 200,000 and 400,000 gallons is regurgitated back to the surface, carrying with it not only the chemicals it included in the first place, but all the other noxious stuff that was trapped down there in the rock: iron and chromium, radium and salt—lots of salt.

The other danger involves methane drifting off into the atmosphere, either from the wellhead directly, via the pipelines, the compressor stations or at the end user. Unburned methane is one of the worst greenhouse gases, and methane contamination dramatically undercuts the claim that natural gas is a significantly cleaner alternative to coal or oil. Certainly gas burns more efficiently and more cleanly—50 percent cleaner than coal and 30 percent cleaner than oil—and there is the technology necessary to capture the methane. What is lacking is incentive. The industry—to its credit—is beginning to take on that challenge, but it is not their top priority.

Who developed hydraulic fracturing?
The company that pioneered it was Halliburton. It was originally done with foam, but the process of slick water hydraulic fracturing, which is what drillers are using now, came about by accident. In the mid-1990s there was a French engineer working for one of the smaller operations who screwed up and got the mix backwards. Rather than it being 75 percent foam and 25 percent water he made it 75 percent water and 25 percent foam. He phoned his boss and said, What do I do? His boss said, Don’t tell anybody; let’s see what happens.

The engineer blasted [the water] down there and it worked—and it worked more efficiently because it used less energy. The process has evolved since then, not always for the better.

What’s it like at a drill site?
It’s loud. You can’t hear yourself think. You hear the sound of hammering like you’ve never heard before, you smell the stench of diesel, you see piles and piles of various additives, bags of cement, and pools of standing water that are used to keep the dust down. You also see the pools of water used to catch the fracking fluid when it comes back. It’s a landscape that is dramatically changed over three to five acres.

How much oversight is there in Pennsylvania?
The state has done a remarkable job of developing regulations to keep pace with water disposal and developing responsible guidelines for water usage. We’ve made tremendous improvements in terms of regulation of the cementing of wells and the drifting of methane. But it’s not enough. Quite frankly, we will never have enough cops on the beat in order to make sure drillers don’t cut corners, and that they don’t make boneheaded mistakes. And that if they do make boneheaded mistakes that they are responded to quickly, adequately, and effectively.

Help can come from the industry itself, but we have to make it in the industry’s interest. Ever since “fracking” became the catch-all for all the ills in the world of drilling, you’ve had the drillers portrayed on the pro side as rugged individualist cowboys out there riding the range of America’s energy frontier, [and on the con side] as mustache-twirling villains tying us all to the railroad tracks. But the corporations are neither good nor bad—they are amoral. They respond to the bottom line. What we need is to develop an energy policy that includes a series of taxes that generate the resources we need to help police this and develop it.

What environmental problems have been experienced by the residents of Ellsworth Hill and Dimock?
In Ellsworth Hill: noise pollution and light pollution, in an area where both are uncommon. Also, air pollution from the diesel burned. In Dimock, seven miles away, they’ve had fairly persistent and widespread methane contamination. And there have been similar problems elsewhere from methane migration. Then there have been spills of diesel fuel, and spills of chemicals. By and large these can be attributed to human error or carelessness.

I think the environmental dangers need to be balanced against continuing our dependency on the dirtiest and most deadly fuel in the world, which is coal. There’s another balance we need to keep in mind too. Drilling is loud, dirty, and risky. But the people [in places like Dimock] understand something that the people who are not from the country don’t understand, and that’s that the land is your partner and adversary, and sometimes it’s both at the same time. A lot of the people in these rural communities may believe the world is only four-thousand years old, but they have a better idea of how it works than a lot of the so-called sophisticates. You push the land as hard as you can, but you don’t push it any further.  

How has the drilling changed the communities you write about in the book?
Obviously you have people who have behaved badly. But that’s rare. The truth is that many of the old farmers—and they are older people, by and large—have experienced hard luck for a long time. So they don’t trust good fortune. There are a lot of people who have taken the (lease) money and are sitting on it because they don’t believe it’s here to stay. They have learned the hard way not to trust good luck.