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Marcellus Shale Drilling Leaves Unanswered Questions
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by Beth Little | 2009

Lots of unanswered questions and very little regulations on gas drilling make West Virginians ask some pertinent questions

There has been much discussion of late of drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus shale It is touted as clean, locally available, etc.

While the actual production of energy from gas may be clean, or at least cleaner than coal (it still puts lots of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere), extracting it from the ground is anything but clean. People in the gas drilling industry seem to exclude the disturbances created by such things as leveling several acres of ground, building miles of new road and pipeline, exhaust from hundreds of trips of 14-wheelers and running generators and drilling rigs 24/7.

This disturbance exists for every well, but then there are the mishaps. Many wells may be drilled without problems, but when it comes to exploding houses, polluted wells, sterile farm animals and organ failure, most people want zero odds, or close to it. These things have all happened. Read the November 2008 article in Scientific American for hair-raising examples. Or visit the Fernow Experimental Forest right here in West Virginia where drilling waste was spread on several acres and killed all vegetation within days.

Many of the problems are a result of the nearly universal practice of “fracking” wells. The gas that the wells are designed to extract is found in pores in the rock. In order to make it flow freely to the surface, it is necessary to fracture the rock and release it. Companies do this be injecting fluids (the “fracking fluids”) under enough pressure to break the rock.

Then there are the consequences 10, 15 or 25 years from now of unknown chemicals buried in the ground. Because the content of the fracking fluids is secret and excluded from regulation by the Safe Drinking Water Act (as a result of Vice President Dick Cheney’s oversight during preparation of the 2005 Energy Policy Act), no amount of assurances by the gas industry is going to reassure people who are familiar with history.

During major pollution horrors such as Love Canal, 3 Mile Island and Bhopal, government and industry spokespeople were claiming that there was no danger until it became impossible to continue their denials.

The general practice is to collect (or at least try to collect) whatever water or other fluids that come out of the well or are used in the drilling in plastic lined pits. When the drilling is over, the pits are covered over.

The idea of folding up toxic waste in a plastic liner and burying it a few feet in the ground is not my idea of a safe practice. Out here in the West Virginia mountains, where there is talk of drilling hundreds, or even thousands, of Marcellus shale wells, I can think of 

a number of things that could eventually cause holes in the plastic, assuming there were no holes or tears created during the practice of folding it up and burying it. Then what happens to that spot where it is buried? Is it marked and fenced? Will nothing ever grow there – sending down roots? Will groundhogs never dig there? Will fences never be built there? Or a house or barn? Forever?

And what is in these fracking fluids anyway? Why is it such a secret?

Then there is the matter of how much water it takes to drill in the Marcellus shale. It rains a lot in West Virginia, but most of it runs off in small streams; and there are two or three months when things get pretty dry. In fact, there are three towns in Pocahontas County, where I live, that are out of water this year; and the Tygart and Stonewall Jackson Lakes are lower than they have ever been. Streams in Pennsylvania were pumped dry for gas drilling.

Optimists describe the Marcellus shale as containing enough gas to supply our needs for ten years. Ten years supply of gas doesn’t sound like much to me. It just postpones the day when we are going to have to learn to live without getting energy out of the ground. If we could tap into an unlimited supply of gas, there might be an argument for sacrificing more of West Virginia to heat the hottubs in DC. But for only 10 years of gas, we would be wiser to protect the best source of clean drinking water for the eastern seaboard.

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