Myths and Realities of Large Scale Unconventional Gas Development

by Duane Nichols on March 1, 2013

Professor Ingraffea Speaking On Gas Well Problems


From an article by Nicole Gugino, Dunkirk NY Observer, 2-27-2013.


PORTLAND NY – Dr. Anthony Ingraffea spoke to a packed house at Cornell University‘s Lake Erie Research and Extension Laboratory February 25th. People from many parts of the county gathered for the presentation from the “shale expert” to see what information he could impart.

Ingraffea gave a presentation on the myths and realities concerning large-scale development of the unconventional natural gas resource in shale deposits. “Notice the word fracking is not in the title? … We are going to hear a little bit about fracking because it is a little bit of the story … You heard the word fracking and you assumed it was the problem but I am going to try to convince you tonight that fracking is a very small part of a much larger problem,” he said.

Ingraffea addressed four myths while exposing the truth behind them. The first myth was that fracing is a 60-year-old practice and uses well proven technology. He said the implication of this statement is that nothing goes wrong.

He explained the practices of directional drilling, high volume fracing fluid, slick water, multi-well pads and cluster drilling have been used in the past – some further back than others – but the practice of using them all together has only been around for the past six or seven years.

He pointed out one of the problems with this is some states allowed this practice to be used without any scientific investigation of the process or the impacts.

The next myth he tackled was that multi-well pad and cluster drilling reduces surface impacts. He asked the audience how much impact drilling in New York has on the surface now. The audience answered, “None.” Ingraffea argued logically, you cannot have less impact than zero and went on to show pictures of what these types of well pads look like.

Each site had multiple wells which would be fracked several times as well as a dew point refinery to separate the gas from other materials like propane and butane, a compressor to pressurize the gas, pipes to ship the gas and flowback pools to hold the water, sand and chemicals which is used to release the gas.

The third myth he addressed was that fluid migration from faulty wells is rare. He asked the audience what its perception of “rare” is – one in 100, one in 1,000? He also addressed what is considered a leak.

He said most leaks at wells are from problems with the concrete around the extraction pipe which drillers use as a gasket to make sure the gas stays in the pipeline. He explained with vertical drilling, gravity works with the cement to keep the hole around the pipe sealed. However, with directional drilling, which goes vertically and then horizontally into the shale, gravity works against the process.

“There is a saying: the three biggest problems for drilling are one: concrete, two: concrete and three: concrete,” he added.

He also showed research on how many leaks occur, the most recent of which was from 2012 in the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania. This data showed the number of leaks in new wells to have increased from 6 percent in 2010, to 7.1 percent in 2011 and up to 8.9 percent in 2012.

He said these numbers are consistent with industry data and show that practices to prevent leaks are not improving over time.”Why should we expect this will be different in New York?” he asked.

The final myth Ingraffea addresses is that natural gas is a clean fossil fuel. One audience member said this statement is an oxymoron.He said when compared to coal and oil, methane is the lowest producer of carbon dioxide. However, he said only looking at carbon dioxide is not looking at the whole pollution picture.

He said methane is also a pollution problem and according to data, natural gas drilling is the worst offender. He said methane as a greenhouse gas produces 30 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide in 100 years and 100 times more heat in 20 years.

He also presented the audience with a computer simulation graph of four scenarios for global warming: the first if nothing is done about carbon dioxide, methane or black carbon (soot), if only carbon dioxide emissions are regulated, if only methane and soot are regulated or if all are regulated and controlled.

The simulation with no change brought the world into a “yellow warning zone” by 2035 and into the “red zone” in 100 years. Regulating carbon dioxide had little effect on this scenario. Ingraffea explained it is because of all the carbon dioxide still in the atmosphere. Regulating methane and soot had some effect in delaying the first scenario for a while but warming levels still ended up in the red.

The only scenario which did not enter the red was where all three emissions were regulated, although it did enter the yellow. Ingraffea said there could be some error in the simulation in either direction.

He concluded with suggestions of how New York State could be nearly fossil fuel-free by 2030. He pointed out with a limited supply of methane and a high demand, the price of energy will increase. He concluded the logical thing would be to use energy which has a free supply like wind, solar and water. He acknowledged there are production and distribution costs associated with these resources as well but described it as energy planning for the future.

“From an economic point of view, from an energy independence point of view, from an energy security point of view, the right thing to do has been obvious for a very long time. Do we have the technology to do it? Absolutely,” he said.

After the speech there was a question and answer period. One man debated some of Ingraffea’s points as a business man in the natural gas industry.  See a brief VIDEO from the talk.

Dr. Ingraffea is professor of engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. The event was sponsored by the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy, the SUNY Fredonia Academic Community Engagement Center and the Environmental Justice Ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Northern Chautauqua.

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