Business Rhetoric: Drilling in the Marcellus Shale
and Environmental Politics
Inexpensive energy sources are a requirement if the country is going to continue to thrive the way it has for more than 200 years. The United States is trying to decrease the amount of fossil fuels that it uses in everyday applications. However, the worry is not the fuels themselves, but the costs associated with the fuels. Fossil fuels are a viable resource if they are clean and extracted from the earth in ways that can be shown to be environmentally friendly. Because of these requirements, natural gas has become one of the new class of fuels that is thought of as superior to producing products from crude oil.
Natural gas is a clean energy source that can be extracted more safely than other sources of gas. Another bonus is that the product is very plentiful in the United States. More than any other country in the world, the U.S. has vast fields from which natural gas can be extracted, and the methods of extraction have been used for many years. these methods have been proven, by any different agencies, to be very safe and reliable. Also, the initial cost of setting up a site can be somewhat costly, but when the cost is extrapolated to the life of the site, it is actually one of the least costly means of producing energy. So, natural gas can be gotten from large fields such as the Marcellus field in the eastern United States, and by using hydraulic fracturing methods it can be gleaned safely. This report will discuss natural gas, how that fuel is being extracted from previously unusable sites, the environmental issues associated with the extraction, and how the Marcellus site in particular is being used.
The important element of this report is that natural gas is a safe reliable method by which the United States can increase clean energy and reduce its reliance on foreign source of energy. The fact is, the U.S. And other western countries have been relying heavily on the oil producing countries of the Middle East for many years now and that reliance has cost in terms of both wealth and political power. Finding a source of energy that will reduce that dependence has been a significant focus for more than a decade now in the United States and around the world.
Although natural gas is not a new source of energy (it has been used for more than one hundred years (API, 2010)), it has also been seen as a limited resource. The United States sits on top of some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world (API, 2010), but they were unavailable because the gas is encased in rock that has not allowed it to be easily recovered. To efficiently extract the gas, a process had to be used that would be low cost and efficient. Hydraulic fracturing seemed to be the perfect solution to this dilemma. The process was developed more than seventy years ago (City of New York (2010), and it had been perfected over the decades. Now hydraulic fracturing (also called hydrofracking or, more simply, just fracking) has been proven effective in use on the most stubborn of shale regions.
Of course, there are issues that present with regard to environmental concerns, but these have been adequately answered by the EPA and certain environmental watchdog groups. The construction of the wells has proven to be safe over a multitude of tests. Because the fracturing occurs far below the level of ground water, there is very little danger of leakage back into clean water sources.
Which brings this discussion to the Marcellus shale field. The Marcellus field is an enormous geological region under the land area covered by at least seven eastern states. This field has been subject to exploration for more than five years now, and the yield is expected to be in the trillions of cubic feet (API, 2010). The investment potential is enormous, but environmental concerns must be taken seriously also.
Natural gas is that which does not have to be processed in a refinery for use from crude oil sources. It is an abundant resource in the United States, and could reasonably be responsible for up to 50% of the energy used in the U.S. within the next decade (Geology.com, 2010). “Of the natural gas consumed in the United States, 87% was produced domestically; thus the supply of natural gas was not dependent on producers as is the supply of crude oil, and the delivery system is less subject to interruption” (USDOE, 2010). These two factors, availability and usage, are, in part, why the U.S. Department of Energy is so excited about natural gas. Another significant reason for the excitement associated with the increased exploitation of natural gas reserves is that;
“Natural gas is cleaner burning that coal or oil. The combustion of natural gas emits significantly lower levels of key pollutants, including carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide, than does the combustion of coal or oil. When used in efficient combined-cycle power plants, natural gas combustion can emit less than half as much CO2 as coal combustion, per unit of energy released” (USDOE, 2010).
These facts show why natural gas is desired more than either coal or oil for use in power plants, and there are many programs which are promoting the use of natural gas as a fuel for automobiles also. And one of the issues that has restricted the recovery of all natural gas buried under the U.S. has been solved in the past decade.
Hydraulic Fracturing and Horizontal Drilling
As discussed briefly above, hydraulic fracturing has been used as a method of extracting material from underground sources for more than 70 years. In the United Kingdom, the process has been used to generate geothermal energy.
“Hot dry rock (HDR): in which the heat generated by radiothermal granites was to be exploited by drilling deep boreholes, between which fractures would be developed artificially (e.g. hydraulic fracturing; explosives). Cool water would be pumped down into the fractured granite, left to equilibrate thermally, and then pumped out again at much higher temperatures” (Manning, Younger, Smith & Jones, 2007).
This method is very similar to the fracturing that is being used by the U.S. To release natural gas resources from shale fields. This fracturing of the rock releases energy (in the above case from the heat contained in the granite) which could not have previously been used.
In the natural gas industry in the U.S., fracking is explained as “the creation of fractures within a reservoir that contains oil or natural gas to increase flow and maximize production. A hydraulic fracture is formed when a fluid is pumped down the well at pressures that exceed the rock strength, causing open fractures to form in the rock” (City of New York, 2010). The fluid that is used is 90% pure water, 9.5% untreated sand, and .5% chemicals (Geology.com, 2010). The chemicals used range from simple soaps and table salt to acids (such as citric acid) and industrial cleaners. This chemical product can be seen to be only a very small percentage of the total volume used to extract the gas from the shale.
Hydrofracking is accomplished by establishing a drill site and then drilling vertically through the rock until the shale play is reached. “At the desired depth, the drill bit is turned to bore a well that stretches through the reservoir horizontally, exposing the well to more of the producing shale” (USDOE, 2010). The fracking itself was begun in the 1940’s ( and has accounted for “600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 7 billion barrels of oil” (API, 2010)), but until it was combined with horizontal drilling techniques it was not possible to get natural gas from the shale plays. The actual site is constructed by the following operation:
“Typically, steel pipe known as surface casing is cemented into place at the uppermost portion of a well for the explicit purpose of protecting the groundwater. The depth of the surface casing is generally determined based on groundwater protection, among other factors. As the well is drilled deeper, additional casing is installed to isolate the formation(s) from which oil or natural gas is to be produced, which further protects groundwater from the producing formations in the well” (API, 2010).
Federal, state and local regulations determine how the drill site is set up and how disposal of the used fluid is to be dealt with, but safety of the ground water is a major concern for the companies that drill. However there has been constant resistance to this type of drilling by environmental groups because of the use of chemicals in the process.
From a report conducted by the City of New York (2010):
“There are many environmental impacts associated with hydraulic fracturing, or “hydrofracking”: among them are, water consumption, wastewater disposal, use of toxic chemicals, substantial truck traffic, air pollution, noise from the loud, twenty-four hour hydrofracking operations, potential groundwater and well water contamination, deforestation, roadbuilding and surface water runoff from these large industrial sites. The cumulative effect of these impacts may indeed transform entire communities — turning previously rural, agrarian areas into “fractured communities.”
The list is impressive in that it covers many elements of a construction site that will have an environmental impact if they are not managed properly. The building of roads, noise pollution near the site, and potential deforestation are concerns which can be realized by any enterprise. The real concern from locales and environmental groups comes from the use of water that has been contaminated by chemical elements. The groups who either oppose or are, at the very least, concerned with the use of fracking have vilified the process because of the “potential groundwater and well water contamination” (City of New York, 2010). This issue has been brought up with decreasing frequency over the past decade, but the concerns should be looked into to make sure that the impact is not dangerous to either humans or the environment.
The City of New York goes on to say that “nearly all of the fracking fluid injected returns to the surface, bringing with it materials from underground including brines, heavy metals, radionuclides, and organics,” which has not been substantiated by actual data. The fact that this claim has not been backed by reliable research is a common problem with the claims of environmental groups and municipalities. Manuel (2010) says “recent evidence suggests fracking may have contributed to groundwater contamination with methane in some instances and that proprietary chemicals used in the procedure could theoretically pose a public health threat.” He uses two qualifiers in the opening statement to show that the claim cannot be stated as undiluted fact. He uses the words “suggests” and “may have contributed.” All of the claims by such groups use similar language. Brown (2007) states;
“Both air and water quality are affected by extraction of natural gas rich in methane. Sometimes methane must be separated from fluids and other gases in processes that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Chemicals containing VOCs may also be used when a well is drilled and during a process known as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), in which chemical mixtures are injected into wells to break up rock formations and release gases. VOCs are also emitted by compressors and other equipment. “Produced water,” groundwater drawn from wells that can contain various salts as well as drilling and fracking chemicals, is usually re-injected underground or placed in evaporation ponds on the surface, from which chemicals including VOCs can be released to the atmosphere. Methane and fracking chemicals can also migrate into shallow aquifers used for drinking water wells.”
Again the language is hedged by the uses of words such as “can be released and “sometimes.” A group called Global Exchange Fund (2010) has made similar claims against the use of fracking, but all of these groups realize that they are not following the true evidence that has been gathered from the EPA and other sources responsible for ensuring that fracking is maintained as a safe process. These seem like alarmist points-of-view. The author uses sources who do not directly state that they have found anything wrong, but they “believe” that fracking is causing health issues. She also says that some of the chemicals used “may” turn up in ground water. There is no substantiation to her claims. It is all simple conjecture on the author’s part. This type of well’s construction has been verified by a multitude of tests by safety organizations.
Fracking Safety Studies
Because the outcry from environmental groups had grown, the EPA found it necessary to conduct their own study in 2004. This study was conducted using data from 10,000 wells and “the EPA concluded that the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into CBM [(coal bed methane)] wells poses little or no threat to USDW [underground sources of drinking water)] and does not justify additional study” (Inhofe & Fannon, 2005). As a matter of fact, “There are zero confirmed cases of groundwater contamination connected to the fracturing operation in one million wells hydraulically fractured over the last 60 years” (API, 2010). Despite efforts from oppositional groups, true results have shown only one case in which some seepage did occur into a groundwater source, and “a group successfully sued in Alabama” (Inhofe & Fannon, 2005). This is one case among the ten thousand wells drilled which has caused some contamination of a clean water source. Because of this one case, the state of Alabama made sure that it regulated the well operators so that no other incident would occur (Inhofe & Fannon, 2005). And, no other incident has been recorded
The fact is that fracking is a safe process that has been perfected for more than seven decades, and has been tested thoroughly by regulatory agencies at both the federal and state levels. This process is being used in more areas today than ever before because it is proven safe and effective, and one of the largest areas of recovery is the recently discovered Marcellus shale play.
It was found that though “the Barnett core in Texas, for example, is 5,000 square miles and provides 6% of U.S. natural gasâ€¦the Marcellus fairway that blankets Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia covers ten times the square miles of the Barnett” (API, 2010). This play is so vast that it was at first difficult to estimate how large and rich it was. However, “In early 2008, Terry Englander, a geoscience professor at Pennsylvania State University, and Gary Lash, a geology professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia, surprised everyone with estimates that the Marcellus might contain more than 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas” (Geology.com, 2010). Englander estimated that at least 10% of this volume could be easily recovered, which would account for enough natural gas to provide all of the energy needs in the U.S. For two years (Geology.com, 2010). This is a map of what the location looks like from the national geographic survey.
The Marcellus shale play can be seen in the upper right hand corner. Within this play there are actually three fields at different depths. The Devonian play is the shallowest (and has already been utilized), the Marcellus is mid-depth, and the Utica play is about one to two thousand feet below the Marcellus play (Geology.com, 2010). When the Marcellus has been used to its fullest extent, the same wells can be used to tap the Utica play. This will mean that the overall environmental impact for both is significantly reduced and the yield can be tripled because the Utica play is twice as thick as the Marcellus play.
This play is also significant for the states under which it resides. The natural gas will provide a multitude of jobs and revenue for the states. “West Virginia is already the largest producer of oil and gas east of the Mississippi River and has the potential to move into the top tier of energy states at some point in the future, given the known long-run potential of shale gas fields in the Appalachians” (Snead, 2009). A traditionally poor state such as West Virginia will be helped significantly by the increased natural gas production, and since the process is minimally invasive, the area will not lose any of its aesthetic appeal. And, because “The Marcellus Shale is a layer of deep sedimentary rock, deposited by an ancient river delta, with the remains of it now forming the Catskill Mountains. The Marcellus Shale extends deep underground from Ohio and West Virginia northeast into Pennsylvania and southern New York., including the Catskills and the West-of-Hudson portion of the New York City Watershed” (City of New York, 2010), it will benefit many regions which have been depressed economically.
The facts are that recovering natural gas from shale plays is one of the safest, economical and environmentally friendly ways to produce energy that has ever been developed. The EPA has proven that it is safe (even the supposed contamination in Alabama was proven not to have come from fracking operations (API, 2010), and the industry is continually working to provide less invasive means of extraction. The benefits to the United States (low cost, massive reserves, clean fuel) are secondary to the fact that the plays discovered can supply the energy needs of the U.S. For the next 110 years (API, 2010). While some groups will never be satisfied with the safety of hydraulic fracturing, most realize that this is one of the greatest energy finds in U.S. history. The extraction of the gas from these fields could produce significant benefits for the next century and beyond.
American Petroleum Institute (API). (2010). Hydraulic fracturing: Unlocking America’s natural gas resources. American Petroleum Institute.
Brown, V.J. (2007). Putting the heat on gas. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115(2), 76-77.
Chambers, A.J. (2007). Report of the international energy transactions committee. Energy Law Journal, 30(1), 207-217.
City of New York. (2010). Natural gas drilling overview. Retrieved from http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/news/natural_gas_drilling_overview.shtml
USDOE. (2010). Natural gas. Energy in Brief. Retrieved from http://www.eia.doe.gov/energy_in_brief/about_shale_gas.cfm
Geology.com. (2010). Marcellus shale — Appalachian basin natural gas play. Retrieved from http://geology.com/articles/marcellus-shale.shtml
Global Fund Exchange. (2010). The effects of hydraulic fracturing (fracking). Retrieved from http://www.globalfundexchange.com/faqs/31-general/296-what-are-the- environmental-impacts-of-hydraulic-fracturing-
Inhofe, J.M., & Fannon, F. (2005). Energy and the environment: The future of natural gas in America. Energy Law Journal, 26(2), 349-371.
Manning, D.A.C., Younger, P.L., Smith, F.W., & Jones, J.M. (2007). A deep geothermal exploration well at Eastgate, Weardale, UK: A novel Exploration concept for low-enthalpy resources. Journal of the Geological Society, 164, 13- 21.
Manuel, J. (2010). EPA tackles fracking. Environmental Health Perspectives, 118(5), 199-200.
Mitchell, A. (2005, January 4). A primer for business rhetoric. The E-Commerce Times. Retrieved from http://www.ecommercetimes.com/story/39361.html?wlc=1301418799
Sneed, M.C. (2009). Are the energy states still energy states? Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, 94(4), 43-51.
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