Is Frack, Indeed, Wack? Reflections on Viewpoints and a Call to Discourse.

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The other day, I posted about how you should all watch Gasland, and about how I’m getting out of here ASAP.

I live in an area that’s been getting slowly invaded–probably since before I lived here–by Anadarko, Haliburton, etc., and all the requisite dirt and trucks and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) land leases.  These companies and their employees are extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.

The debate over whether they should be allowed or not presently splits many a room in North Central PA.

After the other day, when I linked to Gasland,

an acquaintance of mine sent me the following text:

Just wanted to share with you a few thoughts on gasland.  The filmmakers present a decingly one-sided view; here are a few facts you need to have in your back pocket if you want to properly evaluate the film.

First, the filmmakers present this shocking image of people being able to light the water that comes out of their faucets and they present this image as proof that fracking is dangerous to the environment because it causes gas to leach into our water supply.

First fact; in Pennsylvania, the geology is folded (mountains), which means that you have many pockets of natural gas, both shallow gas and deep gas.  You can find shallow gas pockets close to the water table.  Deep gas pockets are well below the water table.  You find deep gas pockets (the Marcellsu Shale) below 6,000 feet.

Shallow gas pockets are responsible for gas leaching into the water supply.  But it is not clear who causes what.  There was a lot of shallow gas drilling in Pennsylvania 80 years ago and it is certain that this caused some leachign of natural gas into the water supply.  But two things:

1) in mountainous areas where there are mountain streams and shallow gas pockets, people have been able to light the gas bubbles in the streams for over 100 hundred years, well before any drilling began.

2) people who drill their own wells for water (which is many of the people in the movie) can and do coem close enough to shallow gas desposits that the gas bubbles up into their water supply.

There are no instances of the gas from deep pocket deposits migrating into the water supply.  Geologists conducting half a dozen studies have determined that 1) even if there were cracks in the deposit (which by the way occur naturally because of shifting tectonic plates) the gas simply does not migrate upwards through various rock formations for 5,500 plus feet to enter the water supply; and 2) the gas drillers encase their wells with lined concrete which means the gas is pumped directly into the pipeline – the companies test the well lines to make sure there are no cracks in order to maximize profit – to date there has been no migration of gas from these wells.

This does not mean that such migration could not occur, but the current estimats that this would happen is on the order of 0.00000001 percent.

Gasland films only areas where shallow gas drilling has occured and yet they present their information as if it includes all drilling, deep gas drilling as well as shallow gas drilling.

Makes for snesational film, but it is misleading and therefore irresponsible.

There are risks associated with gas drilling; there were a number of smaller companies that sought to maximize profits by takign short cuts, which led to safety issues.  The state of PA cracked down hard on these companies.  At the moment, the small comapnies are no longer involved; the big companies bought them out and are now the major players.  Here is an explnation fo the difference in terms of maximizing profit.  small companies might only have the resources to develop 5 wells and they can only drill to about the quarter of the depth that the larger companies can drill; thus they are always seeking shortcuts.  When a well comes in for a small comapny, they get a return of about 100 to 1 on their investment.  But they may get nothing b’c they could go 0/5.  Large companies however have more resources so they can drill down 6.000 tp 9,000 as necessary adn they can drill more wells.  When a well comes in for a large company, they get a return of 1000 to 1.

The other factor to consider is this: because Pennsylvania as a state was very consdiered about how to regulate the gas adn oil industry with the exporation of the Marcellsu shale, they put a lot of energy into examining the ipact and the benefits from all possible angles.  As a result, Pennsylva is now the world standard for the most comprehensive set of regualtions and policies concerning the gas and oil industry in the world.  the industry would tell you there is too much regulation in PA.  But the real winner is the citizens of PA.

Just a few thoughts.

PDB <—Peter Damian Bellis, Author.  Have his book for free.

I asked Peter to cite his sources, because I like to have a balanced view of all things, especially inflammatory things, and I’m going to share the next bits of response from him (except for the parts about Peter’s spouse and her job) with you now.  I’m hoping to inspire some discourse here.  The comments section is for you, my friends.

Here is a summary fact sheet that also contains links:
http://cce.cornell.edu/EnergyClimateChange/NaturalGasDev/Documents/PDFs/marcellus_regulations_fact_sheet[1].pdf

PCT{PA College of Technology} has been on the ground floor of this stuff, they are hosts of the Marcellus Shale Education and Training Center.  They have received nuymerous Penn State studies concerning the Marcellus Shale play and the drilling that is going on, though from a workforce perspective, they still contain significant info on environmental impact.

The discourse needs to acknolwedge that there are two sides to the issue but to be frank, the anti-gas movement is responding to a mix of isolated negative incidents and generalized propganda.  There is a great deal of science which by accessing the links in the fact sheet can take you to further links to get the science side.  The location of current drilling is so precise b/c of GPS (the same technology we use for directions and cell phones), that they know exactly how far away they are drilling from ground water and every other geologic formation of interest.

Go to:
http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/office_of_oil_and_gas_management/20291

The amount of regulation in PA far eclipses that in Texas, Colorado, Alaska, or any other state, adnin fact it eclipses the regulations found in any other country.  To say the amount is inadequate, which may be true, is a qualtiatve judgment, but that does not negate the fact that PA is the most regulated region in the world when it comes to oil and gas.

It is extremely important that people have all of the facts before they make judgments and choices; otherwise we run the risk of making very poor choices, of course this is the history of the world, but exacerbated in a sound-byte world wehre stock phrases andimages push our emotions and thereby eliminate the value of reasoned inquiry and intelligent discourse

also a word about the quantity of water used.  according to the state, the gas industry is 7th on the list in terms of water usage by industry.  the golf courses in the state use far more water than the gas industry, and the chemicals they use to maintain their fairways and greens, all of which are toxic, run off directly  into the sewer systems and creeks and immediately impact the water supply. But fewpeople voice concern about this.

Italics are mine, typos are Peter’s.

What I think

Frankly, I do not know where Peter finds time to engage my email inbox in this manner.  I am also interested in hearing what you, my blog readers and your friends, have to say about this.  Please, do your own web searches or present your own anecdotes in the comments.

I’ve whined before about how documentaries do inadequate homework and present a skewed version of the story in a lot of cases.  And there were a few questions I had for Josh Fox after his documentary, but I do not think it’s fair to call his movie “sound bytes and stock images.”

1.  Is the industry still paying the affected people (those who are sick themselves and/or who have contaminated water and/or who have sick animals/poisoned farms) land lease money?  Does that money stop once the gas company is gone, and if it does, does the site stay put?

2.  Did all of the folks in the documentary lease their land, or did some of them just have neighbors who leased their land?  Why didn’t you talk about that in the film?

3.  What, exactly, did the land lease offering you 100,000 dollars say?

4.  How did you afford to drive all over the country making a film?

Here are my observations about what’s happening here, where I live, and about Peter’s notes.

  • It is in Penn College’s interest to believe that there are statistically negligible health/environmental risks involved with natural gas drilling.  The Natural Gas folks have given them piles of cash.  They’ve dumped a lot of money into the community, too, which is how they’re able to stick around, I reckon. I ask, why would they invest so much of their profits back into the community if they’re blameless and not worried about PR backlash?
  • My kid was invited to “Science Night” which would’ve been more accurately named Natural Gas Indoctrination Night.  Fella took her and  she came home with a bagful of swag from the Natural Gas folks.  A big story book (The Adventures of Energenie, who has a gas well logo on his hard hat, and whose adventures are sponsored, loudly, by Anadarko) about how amazing natural gas drilling is, a beach ball, one of those wrist bands kids love…
  • One of my clients is an organization dedicated to helping to rehab flood victims’ lives (yes, they do still need help.  A surprising number of them need a surprising amount of it), and yesterday, I did a courier run all around a chunk of North Central PA.  I was shocked, though not surprised, to see that one of these well beds was neatly and openly positioned on the bank of the Susquehanna River, along route 11.  The giant pit of mire into which fracking water is dumped & mixed with soil and sand over a porous plastic tarp was even bigger and uglier than it looked in Gasland. There is no sensible way to interpret that very real installation other than irresponsible and dangerous.
  • Being able to light a bubble of water in a stream is a ton different than being able to light tap water that was previously drinkable, whether or not a person drilled his or her own well.  How does PDB know that the folks in the movie drilled their own water wells?  And I imagine they would’ve hired professionals to help, since water-well drilling requires equipment that most of folks don’t have on hand, and that these professionals would be aware of the geography such that they could avoid tapping a shallow gas deposit when tapping the water table.
  •  So we’ve made the regulations, but who’s enforcing them?  The state’s budget is in shambles.  Having enough inspectors to be driving around the state and overseeing a number of gas wells that the state recently oopsied over even knowing the correct number of is a proposition that would be costly and require time to develop the infrastructure to support.  Unlike Anadarko and Halliburton, Pennsylvania does not have that kind of bread…or time.

The trouble is that all the research I’m finding–and this is universally true of all kinds of research, except for pure university research, and even that is tainted by the researcher or researching body’s views/biases, etc–may be in support of a behind-the-scenes agenda that I don’t have the time to suss out.

I find this whole thing puzzling and worrisome, but maybe if we all work together, we can scare up the right information & we can all either rest easy or get the heck out of here (or wherever there’s a shale)!

My personal suspicion?  If we follow the money, we’ll get some ugly answers to some real questions.

Some Additional Reading (not even a light score in the surface, really):

Articles from Wilkes Barre’s Times Leader

Rural PA Drinking Water Study, not by Gasland

Interesting public discussion

Other interesting “public” forum

If you are concerned, find a local chapter of The Responsible Drilling Alliance (RDA)

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Author: April Line Writing

Writing about whatever the f*ck I want.

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