Monday, December 20, 2010

Marcellus: the good, the bad and the ugly


Natural gas can help us loosen the grip of foreign oil, eliminating the need to prop up and create oppressive governments throughout the world. It can be the transition fuel to help us bridge the gap between more polluting fossil fuels and renewable energy; i.e., wind, solar, geothermal. Natural gas generates only half the greenhouse gases emitted by coal and one-third of what is produced by oil. Natural gas also emits less nitrogen oxide, fewer particulates, and virtually none of the sulfur dioxide or mercury emitted by coal.

Marcellus shale gas can supply all of the United States with its natural gas needs for over twenty years. The exploitation of marcellus shale gas is creating new jobs (an estimated 23,000 in West Virginia alone next year). It offers new opportunities in manufacturing throughout the rust belt. It is funneling money into rural areas, creating offshoot businesses. It is reinvigorating existing businesses: restaurants, motels, mom and pop stores. It can help jumpstart the economy and offer hope to millions. King Coal is slowly being replaced by natural gas as the leader in producing electricity (more on gas powered electricity plants in the next article) and lastly, it will expand the tax base, putting more money in the state and local coffers.


According to the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization ( most surface owners don’t own the minerals under their land, including natural gas, and have little recourse when companies exploiting Marcellus gas move in to extract the natural gas trapped under their land. Their excavations can leave huge industrial footprints on once pristine land. Existing laws do little or nothing to protect the surface owners’ rights. Existing laws were enacted to accommodate big business. We can see the repercussions of lax laws and the lack of enforcement of existing regulations in the coal industry. The laws on the books pertaining to coal give King Coal protection from Mega Gas that the average West Virginian could only hope for. These laws have also allowed King Coal to turn mountains into plateaus with little repercussions for the environmental damage literally heaped on the countryside. Of course, we can't see this onslaught from our homes here in Hampshire County, so it's not in the forefront of our minds. But this could all change with Marcellus gas.

It's imperative that land owners check their deeds to determine if mineral rights conveyed with land transfers. If they did, the owners have more protection under existing laws. Do not sign any lease without lawyering up. The lease offered by a gas company highly favors the gas company, and offers little to no protection to the environment or the owner’s health. With the help of an experienced lawyer any lease offered can be modified to accommodate the owner. Once a lease is signed, the owner of the mineral rights is legally bound to it, absent any fraud on the gas company’s part. Before any work starts, the owner should have his well water tested so the drilling company can be held liable for any contamination to the drinking water.


With a lack of regulations, great powers are imbued in the natural gas industry. Through influence peddling by lobbyists they invest great sums of money in Washington and Charleston. We are left with a steep hill to climb seeking protection for ourselves and the environment. On December 15, 2010 the State Joint Interim Judiciary Subcommittee was scheduled to meet and vote on a bill that would help tighten regulations involving the gas and coal industry. Not perfect, but a start. This bill would have gone to the full legislature in January for consideration, but not enough Senators showed up to create a quorum. Sen. Herb Snyder (D-Jefferson) threatened to send the Sergeant-at-Arms after Senators with handcuffs if more senators didn’t soon show up. The lax attitudes displayed in Charleston toward legislation that could offer some reasonable constraints on an industry that now has little and limited regulation are just downright ugly.

The witch’s brew that is injected into gas wells during the hydraulic fracking process ( ) consists of up to 560 chemicals, some known carcinogens. From 30% to 60% of the toxic mix that is injected into wells returns to the surface, including heavy metals, radioactive materials, and briny water with a very high salt content. This is all stored in containment ponds. Some of these ponds are not required to have plastic liners – one of those backroom deals made with the gas industry by our Legislators in Charleston. These ponds have been known to leak or overflow in heavy rains, endangering our rivers, streams, and aquifers. Two to three million gallons of water are used in the hydrafracking process. That leaves a highly toxic slurry to be disposed of. When not done properly, it creates a monumental environmental problem that may be irreversible.

The Marcellus gas wells in Hampshire County were hydrafracked this summer. These two wells are vertical wells, which require less water than horizontal wells. Hampshire county and most of West Virginia suffered a severe drought this past summer. Where did the water come from, one of our already overstressed rivers or streams? An option would have been to wait until our waterways recovered. New regulations should require the gas industry to disclose where they acquire water for fracking and have restrictions during times of drought or low water situations. This all should be done through the issuing of permits. Also, the disposal of all fracking fluids should be very tightly regulated. The potential to contaminate ground water is high if well casings are not properly sealed in concrete to protect our aquifers. In some cases the pipe itself has had poorly welded seams (imported from China), causing leaks in gas wells in Pennsylvania.

The stress on our infrastructure, especially roads and bridges, is a major concern. The West Virginia Department of Highways is pursuing legislation that would require gas companies to post bonds of $5,000 to $10,000 per mile on roads utilized by the gas industry to defray the cost of repairs. There is also concern about congestion on narrow rural roads; the constant drone of compressor stations 24/7; air pollution created at or near drilling sites; erosion of access roads, drilling pads, and pipeline excavation areas adding silt and possibly toxins into our rivers and streams. This industry operates in secrecy in its effort to maintain a competitive edge over other companies. This is evident in a statement by Stacy Brodak of Chesapeake Appalachia LLC, "We continue to formulate our development plans for all acreage throughout West Virginia, but generally do not comment publicly regarding our leasing efforts."

It is paramount that the gas industry be regulated and monitored, then be held accountable for any and all damages. We, as citizens of Hampshire County and West Virginia, have a responsibility to be part of the oversight. If we notice anything at a well site that looks environmentally harmful, it probably is. Observe, document, and report to the appropriate agencies whether it's the EPA or a guardian organization like Riverkeepers.

This is not a Liberal "tree hugger" issue. None of us can or wants to live in a toxic environment. Natural gas exploitation is only good if it is done right. And that’s why we all have the responsibility to be vigilant and not trust, but confirm, that the gas industry is acting in good faith and responsibility.

Next: The Gas Under Our Feet

--Jim Dodgins

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