A Fractured Relationship with Natural Gas
By Molly Moore
Drive along a winding country road in an active shale drilling area, and the oil and gas industry’s influence is unmistakable — streams of heavy truck traffic often straddle both lanes, a web of well-pad access roads and pipeline right-of-ways carve into the hillsides, erosion from fresh clearcuts spills into roadside ditches and creeks, and the occasional odor of natural gas can hover in the air for a quarter mile or more.
Despite the industry’s omnipresence, much is still unknown about the form of natural gas extraction known as fracking, and researchers are regularly adding to the existing knowledge about the long chain of processes involved in shale exploration.
Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques were first combined in the 1990s to form modern-day fracking, but the process didn’t launch a full-fledged frenzy of shale exploration until the 2000s.
According to the Wall Street Journal, at least 15.3 million people have lived within a mile of an oil and gas well drilled after 2000. Natural gas withdrawals from United States shale leapt from about 2 million cubic feet in 2007, the first year that the U.S. Energy Information Administration began collecting shale-specific data, to nearly 12 million cubic feet in 2013.
From rural roads to global economies, natural gas is big news. Over the past 15 years, the advancement of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — two steps in a method of oil and gas extraction that is commonly known as fracking — has transformed communities, national energy politics, and even international conflicts.
For all of the global and national repercussions of fracking, this form of extraction produces intensely local effects — it is experienced up-close in backyards, farms and neighborhoods, but fracking’s neighbors often have little say in the matter.
Gas travels from Point A to Point B — and points C through Z — in a process that is more than just a matter of transportation. Continued investment in an emerging pipeline network has the potential to shape the future of America’s power supply by engraining natural gas in the energy landscape.
As its grip grows stronger, this popular new fuel is bringing familiar burdens to a region long acquainted with the booms, busts and hidden costs of extractive energy industries.
This sudden abundance of natural gas positioned the fuel as a cheaper source of heat and electricity generation than coal. From 2007 to 2013, natural gas’ share of electricity generation grew by 5 percent while coal’s share dropped by 9 percent.
Natural gas has the advantage of emitting roughly half as much climate-changing carbon dioxide as coal, which also incentivized the transition to gas-fired power plants. Yet even the fuel’s climate-friendly reputation has suffered in light of new research.
Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, escapes into the atmosphere at every stage of natural gas development, from drilling and processing to transportation, storage and energy generation. Over a 100-year period methane traps heat in the atmosphere at 34 times the rate of carbon dioxide, and wells drilled with new fracking techniques are more likely to leak methane than wells drilled with older technology, according to a 2014 Cornell University study that examined Marcellus Shale drilling in Pennsylvania.
Fracking is exempt from many of the country’s bedrock environmental quality laws, including the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, and there is no federal law requiring companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking fluid. Some states require companies to post the chemicals they use, with the exception of trade secrets, on the website FracFocus.org. But a 2013 Harvard Law School study found significant flaws with the online forum, including the fact that the companies are responsible for determining what information is considered a trade secret and therefore exempt from disclosure.
Earlier this year, a Duke University study in West Virginia and Pennsylvania discovered high levels of two new contaminants — ammonium and iodide — in wastewater from both fracked and conventional drilling sites. Studies have also connected shale gas drilling with contamination of drinking water sources, and in August 2014, Pennsylvania’s environmental agency released information about 248 incidents where natural gas operations had damaged private water sources. Research published in September 2014 identified eight areas where groundwater was affected by fugitive gas from the drilling process and found that faulty well casings and well failure were to blame.
Water woes related to shale drilling also include the portion of wastewater that returns to the surface after a well is fracked. Underground injection to dispose of this “produced water,” along with fracking itself, is linked to earthquakes, and there are reports from across the country of drilling companies dumping toxic, sometimes radioactive, wastewater into surface waterways or spraying the contaminated water along roads to suppress dust.
A review of public health studies published in 2014 found evidence of health risks, but noted that a lack of baseline data makes it difficult to make comprehensive claims about the before-and-after effects of drilling.
Critics and advocates of fracking both claim to have science on their side — energy industry groups have criticized some academic studies and research supported by health and environmental advocacy organizations, while those organizations raise doubts about studies conducted or funded by the gas industry.
Earlier this year, the nonprofit research organization Public Accountability Initiative reviewed a list of 130 studies that the oil and gas organization Energy In Depth had used to help convince the Allegheny County government in Pennsylvania to lease the mineral rights beneath a public park for drilling. Of the 130 studies and reports cited by the drilling advocates, Public Accountability Initiative reported that only 14 percent were peer-reviewed, and 60 percent were funded or authored by industry sources.
Among the known airborne side-effects of fracking are dust and diesel emissions from truck traffic, and silica from the sand used to prop open the shale fissures. Shale extraction and processing also results in air emissions such as benzene, toluene, nitrogen oxides and smog-inducing volatile organic compounds. Exposure to these pollutants is linked to a host of short-term and long-term health issues ranging from blood disorders and cancer to neurological, respiratory and cardiovascular problems and even premature death.
Across the East, fracking is advancing in starts and stops — as some states embrace the practice, another bans it, and still more consider the risks and potential rewards of entering the fracking fray.
Starting this spring, North Carolina can issue permits for oil and gas drilling. After years of legislative maneuvering, new drilling rules went into effect in March and ended the state’s fracking moratorium.
Between low prices for natural gas and a reported lack of interest from major oil and gas companies in the Tar Heel State’s unproven reserves — mostly in the Piedmont — onlookers expect that land speculators and wildcat drillers will be the first to test the area’s shale gas potential.
In Kentucky, the first regulations for deep well drilling became law in March. The rules update decades-old regulations that did not reflect the challenges posed by fracking, and were crafted by regulators and several representatives of the oil and gas industry and environmental groups.
Yet there were no public health officials involved, and the rules were opposed by some grassroots organizations such as Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and Frack Free Foothills, a new network of concerned residents. In a testimony before the state Senate, Madison County resident Vicki Spurlock, who received a lease proposal from a gas drilling company, unsuccessfully requested an amendment to install a two-year fracking moratorium.
Among other provisions, the law requires companies to disclose all chemicals used in the process, though the exact mixture can remain a trade secret. The rules also mandate before-and-after water quality testing for homeowners within a 1,000-foot radius of the drill site and require companies to give surface owners advance notice of drilling.
The new regulations come as interest rises in the Rogersville Shale formation, which stretches from eastern Kentucky into West Virginia. In late February, the Kentucky Oil and Gas Conservation Commission met at a well-attended hearing to consider a drilling permit for what could be the state’s first deep horizontal natural gas well.
Until recently, the high clay content in much of the state’s shale formation had limited the kind of fracking in Kentucky to a nitrogen process that uses much less water. But the Rogersville Shale, nearly two miles deep, can be accessed through high-volume hydraulic fracturing.
But North Carolina and Kentucky’s adoption of fracking doesn’t necessarily signify a larger trend. In New York, the fracas about whether and how to allow fracking is over. Gov. Cuomo banned the practice in December, citing a state review that found significant health risks associated with the drilling technique. A large swath of the Empire State sits atop the productive Marcellus Shale, and Cuomo’s decision marked the first fracking ban in a state with proven shale gas reserves.
Maryland is also grappling with the question of whether and how to permit fracking, which could occur in the state’s western region between West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
On March 25, Maryland’s House of Delegates passed a bill that would extend the state’s current moratorium on fracking — established by former Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2011 — for three more years while a state commission further studies potential health risks. The same day, the state Senate passed a bill that calls fracking an “ultrahazardous activity” and mandates that well operators carry $10 million in liability insurance for injuries and environmental and property damage. The bills are pending approval from the rest of the legislature and Gov. Larry Hogan.
“We’ve got to get this right, because if we get this wrong, it is unfixable,” Delegate Dereck Davis, a supporter of the moratorium, said during the House debate.
During the fracking process, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is sent down a deep vertical well at high pressure, following the well as it turns to run horizontally through a layer of shale. The fracking fluid then bursts through holes in the well with enough force to penetrate the tight shale and form fissures. Particles of sand in the mixture get lodged in the tiny cracks and prop them open.
With the fractures in place, the oil and gas hydrocarbons in the shale escape. Some of the toxic fracking brew also returns to the surface, but approximately 90 percent remains underground.
The natural gas is separated from the associated oil and fracking fluid, often by equipment located at the wellhead. From here, it is transported to a nearby compressor station, which facilitates the flow of gas through the web of pipelines and can also serve as a field processing station to separate the natural gas and other components recovered from the shale.
The byproducts, such as ethane, propane and butane, may go on to feed the chemical industry, while the natural gas is transported, often via pipeline, to power plants and other consumers.
A suite of counties and towns across the nation — from the oil-rich community of Denton, Texas, to the college town of Athens, Ohio — are also pushing back against natural gas development through local bans and stronger regulations. In some Appalachian states, this means legal skirmishes between municipal and state governments about whether communities have the right to restrict or outlaw fracking in their area.
Athens was one of four localities nationwide to ban fracking on Election Day 2014. But the town’s resolution — passed with 78 percent of the vote — might not survive a legal challenge.
Elsewhere in Ohio, the state supreme court ruled against Munroe Falls, a small city that had required a municipal permit for oil and gas drilling. In February the court affirmed that, under Ohio law, only the Ohio Department of Natural Resources can regulate oil and gas production. A few weeks later, a county court also struck down an oil and gas drilling ban in the Cleveland suburb of Broadview Heights.
Nathan Johnson, an attorney with the Ohio Environmental Council, told the college radio station WKSU that the Munroe Falls ruling still left an open door for some types of local ordinances to limit fracking.
“Local governments, particularly cities across the state, should feel somewhat emboldened by this decision and feel strongly about crafting some ordinance language that would allow zoning — though, of course, they’d have to be careful about it, but I think they do have the hint there that they would succeed in court if they go about it properly,” he said.
In eastern Virginia’s King George County, the board of supervisors is using its zoning authority to stem the possibility of fracking before it starts. The decision came after more than 84,000 acres of mineral rights in the area were leased to a drilling company. The January 2015 decision to institute a strict permitting process for potential drilling instead of issuing an outright ban places the county on safer legal footing, since the amount of authority Virginia municipalities have to restrict fracking is unclear.
A North Carolina state law passed in 2014 preemptively invalidates any “local ordinance that prohibits or has the effect of prohibiting oil and gas exploration, development, and production activities,” but this hasn’t prevented more than 40 localities from passing resolutions or ordinances against fracking or the underground injection of fracking waste.
Susan Leading Fox, a Swain County, N.C. resident and registered member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, notes that the far western part of the state is conscious of the tourism dollar, which is tied to local water resources. She decries the state legislature’s decision to override local ordinances, which she says reflect widespread popular opinion against the practice. “I just think it’s a blatant disregard for county elders and the community at large to completely ignore and just disregard what your community wants,” Fox says.
When speculation about shale deposits in her area began, she helped organize grassroots community meetings that led to a resolution against fracking in Swain County. State law trumps the county resolution, but Fox also contributed to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ resolution that prohibits fracking on sovereign tribal lands and calls for a statewide ban.
It’s unlikely that fracking will come to the western part of the state anytime soon, due to the region’s geology and the lack of gas infrastructure. But if it does, locals will be watching, keeping an eye on drilling operations as well as the strategies and tactics used by other Appalachian communities that are feeling the pressure of the shale boom.