By S. Tom Bond, Perspectives Section, Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail, Sunday, September 2, 2012.
The Marcellus development isn’t automatically a permanent improvement for our state.
Within half a person’s lifetime almost all of the wells will be drilled, and since Marcellus wells have a useful lifetime of less than a decade, the field will be in decline. We need to think seriously about what will come afterward. The companies will go on to some other place and like strip mines, the damage will be left here. Grass and trees will return, but we need to keep our water clean and a healthy environment people will want to live in. We need to think about the long range effect of the money passing through. Will there be enough devoted to West Virginia to improve our standard of living and our economic resources, or will it dribble off elsewhere?
There is an experimental aspect to horizontal drilling and intensive fracturing.
The previous fracturing we have seen in West Virginia has been vertical fracturing in porous rock, primarily sandstone. It affects an irregular cylinder around the well for a few hundred feet the thickness of the source rock. The type of drilling and fracturing done in gas-bearing shale has been tried elsewhere for a few years, but always there have been complaints. A Marcellus well is drilled in a different kind of rock, shale. A single well may be drilled a mile or more long horizontally. The distance effected around the well bore is not well known. It can only be estimated by the disappearance of frack solution. The kture water may be undergo as many as 20 repressuring cycles. The next well is often drilled adjacent to it, so the space between is affected. The Marcellus is known to have natural crack systems, too. There are two main differences with the old method (1) the area fractured is vast in the Marcellus wells. (2) Much more frack water enters the source rock at extreme pressure and temperature far above the surface temperature, so a lot of substances dissolve in the fluid. These are largely unknown, but do include some radioactive elements. The fact is that the Marcellus industry is conducting a vast experiment. It is sampling a complex stratum a mile below the surface while discarding the flow back fracking solution and cuttings. Simultaneously it checks for leaks back to the surface and/or inadequate well construction. Presently it is without scientific oversight or much concern for anything except production.
No one should expect great wealth from mineral extraction without expecting damage to what remains and inconvenience or worse to other people.
It takes one drilling pad for each square mile. The Marcellus is under every square mile, so you can look up the number of square miles in your county and that number will be within 20% or so of the drill pads that will be there eventually. The drillers have to have access roads and right of way for many miles of pipes to take the gas to market. They need pump stations and plants to remove the natural gas liquids from the gas. It will take a lot of land. Rural roads are frequently inadequate for hundreds of trips by heavy trucks. The industry denies it, but there are frequent complaints about damage to well water and streams.
Once the gas is leased, the value of the surface estate will decrease. The productive area will be decreased, the scenic value will be decreased. The surface owner may or may not have the kind of complaints, such as loss of ground water, buried waste, and air pollution that people complain about where ever shale drilling occurs. He or she may or may not have health complaints, such as headaches, asthma, skin rashes, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness. Those who live in rural areas shouldn’t expect any sympathy from the driller, he has “got a right,” given to him by law, to extract what he can. Your problems are the same to him as innocents killed by CIA drones on the other side of the world: “collateral damage.” Getting the gas out is worth it he thinks. His way of managing complaints is by denying anything happened. It works pretty well with governmental collusion. He moves on and you are stuck.
You aren’t alone. There are shale fields all over the U. S. and in many parts of the world. A few nations have deferred shale drilling until the methods have improved. Most though, have moved abruptly to adopt shale drilling in it’s current form. The result is almost identical complaints in over two dozen states and perhaps a dozen foreign countries.
A thirty three million dollar damage suit for shale drilling damage is in progress in Canada. Even tiny New Zealand has a protest movement.
There are over 200 Internet sites opposed to current shale drilling. One seeks to protect the wine and fine agriculture region of New York. One is by chefs of gourmet restaurants who want to protect their farm resources. Fishermen in Pennsylvania have a site. One in Ohio is set up by a man who built a certified organic farm for ginseng, which is now no more than a toxic dump. Some want to protect the water for big Eastern cities. Some want to stop “fracking,” by which they men the whole shale shale drilling process. A few hold out for stopping it until the process is improved.
The industry has huge problems. Over-exuberance is its universal curse. They have overproduced natural gas so much the price has fallen so that very few shale wells can produce gas at the current price. Many wells have been drilled that are not connected to the lines leading to customers. Many companies have to continue drilling to meet the expectation of those from whom they have received investment and loans. As prices rise these will hold prices down, because companies must meet interest.
Having ginned up too much investment, and leased up too much land, the industry is now forced to gin up other uses for the product, such as fueling transportation, export overseas, and uses for the larger molecules that come up with the gas, again requiring huge investment. At present shale drilling is obviously a bubble. Several times as much have been invested in it as in the housing bubble. The godfather of it all, Aubrey McClendon, is in disgrace, and has lost his position of chairman at Chesapeake, his Board of Directors had five resign, and stock is down by 40%. He has been the bellwether of shale drilling.
Worst of all for shale drilling investors, the efficiency of solar power is increasing rapidly. Some predict within four years the cost per kilowatt-hour of solar will be cheaper than burning hydrocarbons. Wind and wave power is also rapidly increasing in efficiency. These sources of power are intermittent, but could take a huge chunk out of the demand for hydrocarbons. Fission power keeps changing, too, becoming more safe. Aubrey’s friends have a lot of things to worry about!
>>> S. Tom Bond lives near Jane Lew in Lewis County, WV. He is a retired chemistry teacher and currently farms 500 acres. He is active in the Guardians of the West Fork and the Monongahela Area Watersheds Compact. <<<