“I had tried to keep anger and sorrow at bay.”
So said Josh Fox as he broke down while kneeling beside the now polluted Divide Creek in Colorado, the creek which reminded him so much of his own creek at his home in Pennsylvania, in his documentary film, "Gasland." Josh had spent weeks touring natural gas drilling sites in many states, beginning in Dimock, PA, near his own home, where he had been offered $100,000 for a lease on his property of 19 acres. Josh traveled through much of the West—Colorado, Utah and Wyoming—to follow up on reports of adverse consequences to the environment and to people.
He interviewed whistle blowers and town mayors, and tried to interview, by phone and in person, industry officials. He listened to people relate their experiences, from large scale ranchers to back-to-the-landers in remote areas. He collected water samples for testing, watched tap water and creek water being set afire. Josh attended legislative hearings where members dismissed any evidence save that from industry officials; environmental agency meetings where no representative of the agency was in attendance; press conferences where no press showed up.
The film both opened and closed with scenes from an energy committee hearing in the U. S. House of Representatives, with industry leaders seeking to prove that reports of environmental damage and personal injury were not true--that hydraulic fracturing was safe--while opposing witnesses presented reports on damage and illness. Rep. Boren (D-OK) claims that one witness is “…searching for a problem that does not exist. Because looking at all these other incidents, in other states, there has not been a problem with hydraulic fracturing. And I’m proud that I’m supported by the oil and gas industry because they employ a lot of people in my state, and I’m gonna stick up for the, I’m tired of people trying to shut down an industry when they’re not educated on the facts. If you’re not able to do this hydraulic fracturing, how much more will we be dependent upon foreign oil---and---and terrorism.” The hearing closed soon after.
"Gasland" was shown at a public meeting, sponsored by the Hampshire County Independent Network, at the Romney Public Library on Monday, January 17th; or, that is, part of the film was shown, as it runs for nearly two hours, and it wasn't possible to show it in its entirety and still allow time for Q & A. I want to urge you to watch the film in its entirety—the library has a copy, you can buy it, or rent it, or borrow it. Or you can download it and watch it free at http://documentaryheaven.com/gasland/
Brent Walls, of Potomac Riverkeeper, conducted the discussion that followed the film, beginning with a brief overview of the process and its effects. The Marcellus shale, with which we are concerned, underlays much of New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, and parts of other states, and is believed to contain vast amounts of natural gas.
But the shale itself makes the gas difficult to extract, and this is where hydraulic fracturing comes in; the process breaks up the shale and causes the gas to pool and become more easily extracted.
There are problems with this largely unregulated process—Best Management Practices (BMP) are not always adhered to. There is lack of regulation, lack of information, lack of inspection, lack of enforcement at the state level, with only 17 DEP inspectors to keep track of 55,000 wells. There is no permit required for extraction of water, which is required in prodigious proportions for the process. Companies vary greatly in the implementation of BMP, such as, in the lining of pits. A probability study shows that there is a 76% chance of a major incident occurring at every single well-head. You can find more information at www.wvhighlands.org , www.westvirginia.sierraclub.org , www.freckcheckwv.net , www.wvcag.org .
Questions from the audience seemed to center on a few specific concerns: (1) mineral rights; (2) leases; (3) protecting water and health; (4) extent of wells, in number and area; (5) what can we do?
About (1) mineral rights: A property owner can check his deed to see if mineral rights conveyed with the deed, or whether a previous owner retained those rights. If in doubt, or for further information, the owner can go to the deeds office in the old courthouse in Romney. The staff there will help you learn how to locate your deed and other information, such as previous owners, whether prior owner ever signed a lease, etc. If you do not have mineral rights, you have no say in leasing or drilling. You can not keep the industry off your property. Mineral rights trump property rights.
About (2) leases: Don’t sign leases without consultation about what is fair and what provisions should be in the lease. You can get information from West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, www.wvsoro.org , email firstname.lastname@example.org.
About (3) protecting water and health: As stated above, the industry cannot be depended upon to protect water and health, nor can environmental agencies keep up with regulations and inspections. It behooves persons signing leases to have their water tested before drilling starts, so that if there is any contamination later they will be able to prove it. But the battery of tests for all of these chemicals runs a few hundred dollars.
About (4) extent of wells, in number and area: Brent said that there are 3,000 wells in Pennsylvania. There are at least 500 in West Virginia. In Hampshire County there are four permits, two of which have been drilled, and one of those has had some fracking. At the moment nothing is going on at those wells. As to area that can be covered by one well, Jim Dodgins [Ed. note: Jim has written many excellent articles on this subject here at the Independent. Check the December archives.] stated that the well can “spider out” for about a mile in either direction. In some places gas wells may be placed within 300 feet of each other. However, they may not be within 300 feet of a water well or creek. The pad on which a given well is situated covers about five acres.
About (5) What can we do? Not much, as individuals. Hydraulic fracturing was begun 50 or 60 years ago. How is it that there has been so little research and documentation in all that time about the consequences? Citizens need to work with their commissioners. The county commission can come together and establish rules, variance rules that a company would have to comply with. We as individuals can write to our congresspersons and agencies about our concerns and in order to urge them to take action to protect our health and environment. Some states have established moratoriums on drilling certain areas; some municipalities have passed ordinances preventing drilling.
Bob Lee, a local resident who has had a test well drilled on his property, discussed his experience. Although he was not aware of a concern about water contamination, he did feel that the company has done a good job so far. Apparently Bob has kept tabs on what is going on. The company put in a road that would not interfere with the family access to their home. They did a good job drilling the 7300’ well, encasing in cement, etc. If they choose to drill, they could go horizontally from there. If they do not choose to drill, they may abandon the site, cap off the well, put everything back together the way it was in the beginning.
Dan Harris and other attendees questioned whether our meeting and the film was balanced, as it covered only problems and not the benefits of shale drilling as a means of providing an energy source. But it could be said that industry has more or less “had the floor” over the last few years in promoting shale gas drilling, on tv and other media, with little attention given to consequences.
The program Monday night was meant to deal with the problems, as depicted in the video and covered in the discussion. But Brent Walls clearly stated that he was not there to speak about ending shale drilling, but about the necessity of requiring industry to find safer ways to extract the gas, to protect the environment and health. This does not preclude HCIN holding a panel discussion in the future to cover both the benefits and the problems associated with extraction of natural gas from shale.