It's time someone let the cat out of the bag. Natural gas is not the clean energy source it has been successfully marketed to be. It may burn more cleanly than other fossil fuels. But the process to create the wells and then to transport the gas — even before and after the actual hydrofracking process — is so destructive of the natural and built environment that it is a wonder anyone can call it clean.
Just visit Pennsylvania, relatively new to the gas exploration industry, which really started ramping up operations two years ago. In this one state, 3,000 wells have been drilled. Thousands more are planned. And already, enormous change has occurred.
Pennsylvania is not the only state to experience intense gas exploration. But it is a popular target because of its location on top of the Marcellus Shale rock formation that also fans out under New York, West Virginia, and Ohio. A map of existing and proposed drill sites makes Pennsylvania look like the victim of chicken pox. Add to that the requisite pipelines either in construction or yet to be and it is difficult to imagine any community large or small escaping the impact.
A recent visit to Bradford and Susquehanna Counties in northeastern Pennsylvania, currently a prime drilling target, revealed very troubling impacts that have received little attention. On scenic farm roads that never before bordered anything but farms — not even a gas station — industrial sites are sprouting left and right, representing the different segments of the gas production process — compressors, storage tanks, staging sites, maintenance operations, and more.
Consider for example the situation in and near the towns of Wyalusing and Montrose. Both are small, historic towns, not quite fitting the description of "sleepy" but, then again, not home to intense activity either. The library in Montrose is packed daily with gas company researchers poring over land deeds. The small hotel in Wyalusing is mostly filled with gas workers or deal makers. The coffee shop conversation on this short, storybook Main Street is filled with complaints about endless midnight truck traffic and news of residents trying to sell or move.
The road between these towns is a bucolic, windy, two-lane farm road. About midway is a staging area for trucks, each carrying 50,000 lbs of sand. I observed roughly 30 trucks waiting to deliver to a nearby drill site under construction. The truckers report that each load had been trucked 80 miles from Wellesville, N.Y.
One driver noted that this typical site — a drill pad with six well holes — takes 480 million pounds of sand. At 50,000 pounds per truck driven 80 miles one-way — you do the math. Then calculate diesel fuel burned, exhaust released, the road wear caused by that 80-mile trip for one pad of six wells. How could this be defined as clean energy? That doesn’t even begin to touch the controversy of the impact on global warming of the leaked methane during the drilling.
The enormous consumption of water for both site creation and the drilling process is alarming environmentalists. Construction of a single gas well requires upward of one million gallons; the fracking procedure requires upward of 5 million gallons of water.
Hydrofracking involves injecting clean water, sand, and an undisclosed combination of chemicals into the shale to free the gas from vast lateral reserves. Each well site — known as a pad — contains multiple wells on three to four acres of compacted gravel. The sites are spaced maybe 40 acres apart and connected by pipelines crisscrossing the land.
The Susquehanna River Basin Commission oversees the industry’s water usage, limiting consumption according to availability and suspending withdrawals when necessary. Some 40 withdrawals were suspended last summer due to low water levels, Andrew Maykuth reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The SRBC,” he reported, estimates “that the industry [natural gas] will need about 30 million gallons a day.”
That is a demand equivalent to that of a nuclear reactor.
In recent years, local fights have occurred in many farm areas when windmills started to fill the landscape, kill birds, and emit noise. People worried about the impact on the land of the pipeline grid required to distribute the generated energy.
Let's compare this to the case of gas, with it's complex grid of piping systems. Indeed, the grid is so vast that it is still difficult to fully comprehend how many pipelines and multiple compressors will be required as wells proliferate, or how many farms, wetlands, woodlands, and mountain tops they will cross. Compared to gas, windmills look benign in terms of their impact on the land.
“To connect to the larger, interstate pipelines” companies are moving forward “on what is expected to be thousands of miles of smaller pipelines,” Marc Levy of the Associated Press wrote in August. And that doesn’t include a possible network of water pipelines to avoid the current endless truck trips required to deliver water.
Pipelines require wide cleared swaths through forests, mountain tops, farm fields, and wetlands. The sediment run-off into streams and rivers understandably concerns environmentalists, who warn that increased sediment accumulation will raise the height of riverbeds and increase the likelihood of flooding.
Gas also needs to be compressed at multiple points along a route to flow through a pipeline. Compressor stations, where gas is cleaned of impurities before being piped into peoples' homes, are required at close intervals. The noise from these compressors can be deafening.
Levy also reported that the EPA raised environmental concerns about a new interstate pipeline project, the MARC-I, which has been proposed by a Kansas City company to be constructed in northern Pennsylvania’s rural Endless Mountains region. The EPA noted that the line, which would travel into New York, would pose the threat of pollution to 111 sensitive streams and water bodies and split 39 miles of undeveloped forest and farm land in an area that supports a robust ecosystem, high quality of life, and recreation.
Nevertheless, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission found “no significant impact” and approved the project, giving the company the power to confiscate private property for the pipeline.
Mountain and hilltops seem to be the preferred sites for drill pads and holding areas. They are out of sight, for one thing, and avoid the run-off into creeks and streams that has been a problem. No one sees them until the burning off of the methane (mostly at night), although some companies claim to be recapturing the methane that should be required. If methane were to be recaptured, a separate pipeline would be needed — or yet more truck trips would be required.
And that's not the least of it. The popular belief is that once the well is functioning, all the rigs and other equipment goes away. But gas wells often need refracking as the volume of captured gas diminishes from a well. Then of course, the drill rigs return with all that comes with them. At this point, no one can honestly say how many wells will cover Pennsylvania or New York. When asked what the impacts are on the area, one local resident laughed. “It is still new for us,” he said. “We’re still learning.”
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