There hadn’t been a ton of oil and gas drilling in Pennsylvania for more than a century — not since the days of John D. Rockefeller — but that started to change about seven or eight years ago. That’s when companies like Halliburton had advanced the technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to remove large quantities of natural gas trapped in geologic formations like the Marcellus Shale. So when the landmen started showing up in rural northern and western Pennsylvania, fracking seemed like a really good idea. Struggling farmers could get checks for leasing the mineral rights underneath their land, and young folks could find work on the gas rigs. What could possibly go wrong?
Jump ahead to 2013, and Pennsylvania is getting sick and tired of fracking. Farmers are getting headaches or having trouble breathing. Dogs and cows are getting sick. Scientists are coming to Pennsylvania to see if fracking really pollutes. The answers are disturbing:
In Pennsylvania, the closer you live to a well used to hydraulically fracture underground shale for natural gas, the more likely it is that your drinking water is contaminated with methane. This conclusion, in a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA in July, is a first step in determining whether fracking in the Marcellus Shale underlying much of Pennsylvania is responsible for tainted drinking water in that region.
Robert Jackson, a chemical engineer at Duke University, found methane in 115 of 141 shallow, residential drinking-water wells. The methane concentration in homes less than one mile from a fracking well was six times higher than the concentration in homes farther away. Isotopes and traces of ethane in the methane indicated that the gas was not created by microorganisms living in groundwater but by heat and pressure thousands of feet down in the Marcellus Shale, which is where companies fracture rock to release gas that rises up a well shaft.
Most groundwater supplies are only a few hundred feet deep, but if the protective metal casing and concrete around a fracking well are leaky, methane can escape into them. The study does not prove that fracking has contaminated specific drinking-water wells, however. “I have no agenda to stop fracking,” Jackson says. He notes that drilling companies often construct wells properly. But by denying even the possibility that some wells may leak, the drilling companies have undermined their own credibility.
What’s interesting is that the people of Pennsylvania are fighting back. The state’s rabidly pro-fracking Republican governor, Tom Corbett, is so unpopular that the latest poll shows only 20 percent of citizens would vote to re-elect him. The leading Democratic candidate to replace him in the 2014 election, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, recently proposed a 5 percent tax on drilling that Corbett and business lobbyists have steadfastly opposed. And now the Keystone State has a new attorney general who dares to treat polluters as if they were criminals:
WE APPLAUD Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s decision to bring criminal charges against XTO, a gas driller, for a few reasons. First among them is that Kane’s move is a strike against a culture.
Not the culture of “Welcome to Pennsylvania – Drill wherever you want,” but the culture of major corporations inflicting damage – human, environmental, financial – and making the problem go away with cash or a wrist slap.
Here’s some details:
In the Kane case, XTO, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, presided over fracking wastewater tanks that released more than 50,000 gallons of wastewater from the Marquardt well site in Lycoming County onto the ground and into the waters in 2010. Tanks storing wastewater were left unguarded and unlocked, and valve caps were found to be removed from a number of tanks. A state Department of Environmental Protection inspector found a tank spilling water.
XTO had settled with the feds and the state, but a recent analysis by Clean Water Action shows the Department of Environmental Protection to be soft on penalizing, fining or issuing violations. As part of its federal settlement, XTO also agreed to a $20 million plan to recycle more wastewater and install alarms. The state has different standards than the feds, and Kane is right to keep the legal heat on.
Hopefully the tide is turning on fracking. In neighboring New York, a moratorium has been in place for six years with no sign that it will be undone soon. No want wants — or deserves — to drink tap water with so much methane that you can light it on fire. There needs to be much greater regulation of this industry, and the willingness of Pennsylvania’s Kathleen Kane to actually prosecute polluters is a step in the right direction.
To read more about groundwater contamination from fracking in Scientific American, go to: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=groundwater-contamination-may-end-the-gas-fracking-boom
Read more about the criminal charges against an ExxonMobil subsidiary at http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/20130913_DN_Editorial__Drill_seeker.html#upuwssKgzOy7JfxT.99
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