Friday, February 11, 2011

Marcellus Shale Drilling-Friend or Foe?

Marcellus Shale is a geological formation that is found beneath approximately 60 percent of Pennsylvania’s land mass, buried at depths of up to 9,000 feet. So why is a rock formation so sought after, yet controversial at the same time?

Well, natural gas can be extracted and produced from this formation, leading to economic benefits for a region whose development is at a standstill, as well as take advantage of an abundant energy resource for the nation. Jeff Prowant of the Tiadaghton State Forest says, “The industry has created 80,000 jobs in Pennsylvania.” There is potential for even more jobs as the area, coined America’s next super giant in natural gas production, is twice the size of the Barnett Shale of Texas, whose total effects (based on year-end 2007 levels) were found to include $8.2 billion in annual output, $2.4 billion in annual retail sales, and 83,823 permanent jobs. The process begins when natural gas producers obtain gas and mineral rights from landowners in the region by leasing land for potential drilling activity. Once exploration is complete, seismic testing and geophone instruments are used to locate precise areas and drilling commences if the potential is there.

However, not everyone agrees that this is all a good thing. Opponents fear that the process of “fracking” is not safe for humans, animals or the environment. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is when millions of gallons of water, sand and proprietary chemicals are injected, under high pressure, into a well. The pressure fractures the shale and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely out of the well. The concerns associated with hydraulic fracturing include the contamination of ground water, risks to air quality, the migration of gases and bi-product chemicals to the surface, and the potential mishandling of waste which may subsequently contaminate aquifers. However, Pennsylvania law requires drillers to case and grout wells through all fresh water aquifers before drilling through deeper zones known to contain oil or gas. This casing protects groundwater from pollutants inside the well, and keeps water from the surface and other geologic strata from mixing with and contaminating groundwater. Opponents are not confident that this is effective and say that drilling should not commence until safer alternatives are explored.

You decide. Are the unknown environmental and health risks worth the potential economic benefits in a time of financial turmoil?

-Tim Nalepka, Legal Intern