Fracking in North East
This week's cover story takes a look at the real possibility of 'fracking' in our area.
Brian Sherman got a letter last October informing him that a proposed gas well on his neighbor's land would operate 750 feet from his water well.
Sherman, a North East resident, said he grew up around gas wells and wasn't initially that concerned, but wanted to learn what to do if his water well became contaminated. He called the number for the drilling company – Lake Erie Energy Partners, LLC –that was listed on the letter. He called again. He sent multiple emails. Two of his neighbors did the same thing.
Sherman said he heard nothing from the company for two and a half months. (Editor's note: Lake Erie Energy Partners declined Erie Reader's request to be interviewed for this story.) In the meantime, he researched natural gas drilling and its effects on his land.
"We had to dig deeper on our own because we had no access to information," he said. "And the deeper we dug, the more we found out that this is not the same drilling process that they used to use when I was a kid."
That process is called hydraulic fracturing – and Sherman is one of more than 1,000 North East residents who have signed a petition to have it banned in North East township because of its potentially harmful environmental effects, especially to the water supply.
Sherman and dozens of others from the grassroots campaign dubbed "Our Water, Our Rights" hope to add North East to the growing list of communities that have passed an ordinance to ban hydrofracking, including Pittsburgh. In 2010, the State Legislature of New York passed a temporary ban on fracking until May 15, pending further study.
Sherman said the North East township supervisors and the township solicitor already have a copy of the group's proposed ordinance, drafted with help by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. The Our Water, Our Rights group will present another copy of the ordinance and the signed petitions to the board at the May 2 township board meeting at 7 p.m. and ask them to support adoption of the ordinance.
"It's not one political party versus the other, or the environmentalists versus the ultra-conservatives," Sherman said. "It's an issue that affects everybody in North East township, and in North East borough, because they pull from the same water that this could possibly contaminate."
What is "fracking?"
Hydraulic fracturing – also called "hydrofracking" or just "fracking" – is a process used to extract natural gas from layers of the soft rock shale beneath the earth's surface. In some cases – though not in the proposed wells in North East – drilling can occur as far down as 5,000 to 8,000 feet to reach the much-talked-about Marcellus shale, a formation of underground rock with plenteous reserves of natural gas. Drilling in the North East wells will reach the Medina and Beekmantown levels of shale, said Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Freda Tarbell.
The Marcellus shale – one of the largest natural gas fields in the nation – spans 600 miles across most of Pennsylvania as well as portions of New York, West Virginia, Ohio, and Maryland. The Pennsylvania DEP estimates that the formation holds trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.
Furthermore, Gov. Tom Corbett estimated in his budget proposal released March 15 that natural gas drilling could bring 200,000 jobs and $18 billion to Pennsylvania in the next decade.
In other words: this ain't small potatoes. Thanks to the immense potential in the Marcellus shale – and other layers of shale above and beneath it – Pennsylvania has received the colloquial title of "The Saudi Arabia of Natural Gas."
"Dilution is not the solution to pollution"
To frack a well, thousands – or even millions – of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals are pumped deep into the well at pressures high enough to crack the surrounding rock – like a mini-earthquake. The grains of sand hold open the tiny fractures in the rock, and the natural gas flows from the cracks back up through the well.
Tarbell noted that well construction is one of the most important thing to protect water quality – the object is to keep gas from escaping the wellbore, so the pipe is encased in a thick layer of protective cement. She said that if a well is properly constructed and the pipe is surrounded by enough protection, it can travel through an aquifer (a water-laden layer of soil or rock where water wells pump their water from) without risk of becoming contaminated by natural gas.
"The water supplies, usually, are very shallow compared to where the target formation is where the gas is trapped," she said.
But Anna McCartney, a regional professional who does research, outreach, and education regarding water quality issues, said she isn't so sure – the sheer volume of water required in the fracking process is bound to create problems, she said.
"They use huge amounts of water, and then they have huge amounts of wastewater," she said. "And that's another issue, with the water cycle – you remove water from an area and you don't replace that water in the water cycle and you can lower their water table. And that affects the whole nine yards."
She added that although drilling companies say the chemical additives are "highly diluted," the chemicals they use are, indeed, toxic. And those toxic chemicals add up over time, McCartney said.
"What [companies] used to think was 'dilution is the solution to pollution.' That was their mantra," she said. "And I think a lot of people still think that – they think that there's so much water that it's not going to make a difference, that this stuff is just going to dissolve into the water because we have so much of it."
Since World War II, McCartney explained, human beings have started to dump so many industrial wastes into the water supply – pesticides, pharmaceuticals, other things – that don't break down. A lot of it ends up "bioaccumulating," she explained – getting into the plants, and then into the fish that eat the plants, and up into the food chain until it's in our bodies, just like DDT did years ago.
"We have a limited amount of fresh water – we're not ever going to have more," McCartney said. "And it all recycles, through the oceans, through the streams, through the ground water. It's been here as long as the earth has been here. And I think that people forget, because it seems like there's so much."
And when a company boasts that it "recycles" fracking wastewater, that just means that it becomes more highly concentrated with these chemicals, McCartney said. Disposal of used fracking wastewater is an entirely other issue – chemicals in open pits can evaporate into the air, trucks transporting wastewater could have a leak or a spill, liners to waste pits could tear and all of that chemical mess has the potential to make its way back into 20-Mile Creek or Lake Erie, she said.
"They can't say with 100 percent certainty that those aren't going to leak, that the liners aren't going to tear," she said.
Sherman said he worries about fracking's effect on North East because it is a more densely populated area than usual drilling sites.
"The hydrofracking that they're proposing is extremely dangerous," he said. "Dangerous enough when it's in a very rural area, but extremely dangerous when each of these wells is within a dozen water wells and streams that basically our township survives on – the fishing, the grapes, the wineries that are all within the location."
The drilling industry's rapid growth has caused the DEP to scramble to keep up with staffing and the permitting process itself. In 2009 and 2010, the DEP initiated the hiring of 37 and 68 oil and gas program employees, respectively – bringing the total number of state employees regulating Pennsylvania's gas industry to 202, Tarbell said.
In 2008, the DEP "substantially" raised fees to apply for a drilling permit, Tarbell added, from $100 to $5,000. For a deep Marcellus well, the fee is $10,000 or more.
"All revenue is invested to increase oversight, especially the hiring of new employees," Tarbell said.
But Sherman criticized the DEP for obtaining so much revenue from granting drilling permits.
"It's a money grab by the state," he said. "Each of these permits that they do – that's what funds the agency. The same thing would happen if you taxed it. It would just encourage the state to encourage more drilling. What they need to do is slow the process down and make sure these permits are properly approved."
Currently, Lake Erie Energy Partners has 10 permitted well sites in North East, Tarbell said. The company originally had 12, Tarbell said, but the DEP revoked four permits and re-issued two.
Two permits – for the Dohler 1 and Dohler 3 wells – were revoked and re-issued after township residents contacted the DEP after observing "water supply notification shortcomings" in the permit application, states a news release from the DEP dated April 4.
The DEP also revoked the permits for the Rahal 3 and Rahal 4 wells, the news release states. In the case of the Rahal 4 well, the proposed drilling site was too close to an occupied structure – the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act of 1984 prohibits building well sites closer than 200 feet to an occupied structure.
Sherman and his team were the ones who picked up on the error after examining the applications and performing a check of the indicated GPS coordinates.
"The DEP did not even check that," he said. "They basically just rubber-stamp every permit that comes across. There's no way they can properly check them; they don't have enough people."
Sherman said that the Rahal 4 well was initially plotted 120 feet from the WireWeld manufacturing plant. Drilling rigs can be 150 feet tall, he explained, and if an accident had knocked it over, it could have blown into the plant and endangered people's lives.
McCartney said the only reason the errors were found was because the citizens requested to examine them more closely.
"If the citizens didn't look at the permits, they would have never been found," she said. "So, how many permits are going out in the whole state that aren't accurate? Nobody's checking them. You think people are looking out for you, but I don't think there's anybody looking out for people's rights or for their water."
As for the Rahal 3 well, Tarbell said the new map – or "location plat," as they're known in the business – submitted to the DEP indicates the well is being moved 57 feet from its original location without giving proper notification as required under the Oil and Gas Act.
The Associated Press reported April 14 that of the 7,019 applications that DEP has processed since 2005, only 31 have been rejected – less than one-half of 1 percent.
Advocates say natural gas burns cleaner than coal and could be an essential "bridge fuel" to help wean America off other fossil fuels like foreign oil and coal.
But a Cornell University report released in April 2011 takes a stab at that argument, presenting that the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas is greater than that of conventional gas or oil.
The report states that the footprint of shale gas is at least 20 percent greater than that of coal, mostly due to the escape of methane gas in high-volume hydraulic fracturing operations over the lifetime of a well.
Lisa Gensheimer, a North East resident, said it's been an "eye-opening experience" for her to learn more about how hydraulic fracturing could affect her hometown.
"I just love our town, and I love our community," she said. "And when I saw that this could possibly happen here, my ears perked up a little bit. So I started educating myself and finding out what was going on locally, and I saw the neighbors were beginning to take action."
Sherman said all residents of North East should educate themselves on issues regarding natural gas drilling, since it affects everyone in the community and – potentially – their water supply.
"North East is a pretty conservative town, if you look at us," Sherman said. "The majority are not really on the 'green' side, typically. Many of us do the things that we can to conserve energy, and recycle and things like that, but we're not the ones that will be out protesting. But as we realized some of the issues that are around these water wells, we realized we're out to protect our homes and our industry."
Related: Gas Well Blows in Bradford County