Monday, January 24, 2011

Look both ways

As a child I was taught to look both ways before crossing the street. This is a universal, common-sense lesson, taught throughout the world. It plain and simply says, "be cautious."

When it comes to Marcellus gas we only have one chance; we can't put the genie back in the bottle.

I have been watching Marcellus gas exploitation for a few years now, long before there was a well near my home. Since there is little to no real information coming out of the gas industry (other than denials), I decided to do some research.

First off, I'm not one of those "disgruntled people" who doesn't own much land, and has nothing to gain monetarily from seeking out the highest bidder for a gas lease. After all, there is a Marcellus gas well and pipeline less than a mile from my farm. The second thing is more of an obstacle: how to write about scientific research without getting bogged down in too much detail, leaving readers apathetic.

What happens when the drilling starts will affect your life. How things are handled by our politicians will determine whether the outcome will be good or bad, or possibly downright ugly.

In 2005 a report was released by Geohorizons on a study done by William Harbert, PhD, Victor T. Jones, PhD, John Izzo and Thomas H. Anderson, PhD. The study encompassed the migration of natural gas in the Lost River area, gas that was detected in soil samples.

"Large concentrations, coupled with high saturate-to-olefin ratios, further confirms that this active seepage is near macroseep levels," the study reported. These large migrations of gas are coming from the Devonian shale formation, which includes Marcellus shale. "Light hydrocarbons generated in source rocks and trapped in a deep reservoir leak in varying quantities toward the surface of the Earth. Such leakage is driven principally by pressure and permeability; thus, the amount of leakage is dependent on the number and magnitude of openings, such as faults, fractures, and bedding planes that reach the surface."

This study also discovered the presence of methane gas in shallow water wells in the town of Lost River. It seems to me that fracking would enlarge these already existing pathways that gas escapes from, and maybe even create new ones. Fracking is also done under extreme pressure.

Two exploratory wells were drilled in the early 1980s; one well was 16,075 feet, over 3 miles. This is important because of the following study. Columbia Gas Transmission Corporation, part of NiSource (see my previous posts in the Hampshire Independent) is considering further development of the fields in Hardy County, based on seismic data (proprietary) collected in the early 1990s.

Energy Earth published a scientific paper recently, "Elevated Crustal Temperatures in West Virginia: Potential for Geothermal Power," which said, "A significant area of high temperature at depth due to high heat loss from the interior of the Earth has been identified in the eastern part of West Virginia. The finding is the result of detailed mapping and interpretation of bottom-hole temperature (BHT) data from oil and gas wells. . ."

At 5.5 kilometers the geothermal temperature hovers at around 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit). That's hot enough to boil water.

If you remember from the study I mentioned above on wells in the Lost River area, one well was 16,075 feet, just shy of 5 kilometers. What would these temperatures do to fracking fluids? Would they be vaporized? Would they travel the same route that the migrating natural gas travels--into drinking water? What about the new passages created by the fracking process and the high pressure?

Hydrofracked areas have been mapped using an array of seismic sensors. These fracture mappings show that fracking can reach out over a mile from the well bore, creating new fissures and enlarging existing ones.

Richard Young, PhD, a geologist, believes a ban on fracking is necessary, because fracking is too unpredictable and is likely to cause water contamination. "Rocks are full porous pathways for fluids to move . . . especially the faults," he says. "There is just no way to control where the fluid goes."

We have a fault that runs through the center of Hampshire County, where most of the old gas wells were drilled in the 1950s and 1960s. It's also near the Little Cacapon River. Young also says, "Groundwater is more complicated than most people think." He explains that when water is above the ground it moves down, but when it's below the surface, it moves up. "The migration of fluids in the rock is going to be an issue."

There are incidents of fracking fluid showing up in groundwater in Colorado and Pennsylvania, believed to have migrated there from deep gas wells. The industry claims it is impossible for fracking fluids to migrate up. They also claim that the recovery of natural gas is safe, while at the same time having 1,614 violations recorded by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection over a 30-month period.

Referring to the "closed loop" drilling systems that have been developed as an alternative to hydrofracking, J. M. Evans, PhD, says, "It appears that a reduction in the risk of environmental pollution (both air and water) may be accomplished through implementation of fracking methods and techniques that use closed fluid systems, or eliminate the use of water as the fracking fluid. Such techniques exist and are well known to the industry, and may even save money when utilized for the fracking process. The potential for pollution of ground water supplies as a result of upward migration of fracking fluid through naturally existing fractures in the geologic structure overlying the Marcellus formation may be eliminated only through the elimination of toxic fracking chemicals currently used in the process."

This presents a lot of unanswered questions about how safely fracking can be done.

Now make sure you look both ways before you cross the street. You may be run over by a Halliburton truck.

--Jim Dodgins

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