The View from Marcellus
by James Panero
Fracking brings breathtaking economic and environmental benefits—at least to places that welcome it.
Few people understand the ground better than Larry Fulmer, a soft-spoken man with flowing white hair pulled back into a ponytail. Fulmer, the hydrofracturing superintendent for Cabot Oil & Gas in Pennsylvania, knows just how much pressurized water and sand will liberate the natural gas trapped in the shale rock a mile beneath our feet. Here, in a small square field carved out of hill country in Dimock, Pennsylvania, his crew is mixing water and sand day and night. “They pull [the mixture] in at 35 to 40 pounds per square inch,” he explains, “and boost it to whatever our treating pressure is, anywhere from 4,000 to 9,000 pounds per square inch, and they send it back to the missile”—the final hose to the well. Like a traveling show, Fulmer’s people will be here for just four days before packing up and moving on to the next venue.
Over the last half-decade, workers like Fulmer have tapped immense quantities of previously unreachable energy from pockets deep underground. The economic and political benefits of this Shale Revolution, as it’s sometimes called, are enormous. Shale gas is locally abundant and easily transported to serve the heating and electricity needs of the East Coast. It diminishes our dependence on foreign oil and gas, generates domestic jobs, and pours money into poor rural areas. The hydrofracturing technology to extract, transport, and use it already exists, so there’s no need for decades of research and development before we can take advantage of it.
Shale gas is also far cleaner than oil and coal; indeed, environmentalists should be crusading for it. Instead, they have sought to smother the Shale Revolution, claiming that it’s harmful to the environment and promoting their cause through complaisant media. Their relentless work has begun to turn public opinion and has even influenced New York’s governor to delay the approval of fracking in his state. That’s why I’ve come to visit an active drilling community in rural Pennsylvania, atop the vast rock formation called the Marcellus Shale. I want to observe gas exploration in person. When you’re on the ground, it’s hard not to be awed by its promise—and worried that so many have become convinced otherwise.
The Marcellus Shale is a layer of gas-rich rock that runs northeast to southwest across several mid-Atlantic states. It extends from New York’s Finger Lakes district and Southern Tier through the western half of Pennsylvania and into eastern Ohio and much of West Virginia, covering nearly 100,000 square miles. The layer gets its name from a surface outcropping near Marcellus, New York.
Geologists became aware of the natural gas trapped in the Marcellus Shale decades ago. The problem was how to extract it. Some liken shale to the filling of an Oreo cookie: it’s a “pay zone” sandwiched horizontally between layers of limestone far beneath the earth’s surface. The shale is composed of thin sheets of rock packed too closely together to allow gas to move through. And even if you could free the gas somehow after digging a traditional vertical well, you would reach only what was directly beneath your drilling site—just as a straw punched through the outside of an Oreo might reach the filling at the straw end but would have little luck pulling in the cream around it.
The problem was solved by Texas oilman George P. Mitchell, who spent millions of dollars and nearly two decades trying to extract the natural gas trapped in the Barnett Shale formation in his native state. What did the job, Mitchell eventually discovered, was a combination of two technologies: hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Hydraulic fracturing—otherwise known as hydrofracturing, fracing, or (most popularly, though it was originally pejorative) fracking—is the fracturing of rock with pressurized fluid. The technology has been around since the late 1940s, when companies used it to release additional oil from spent wells. Horizontal drilling has existed even longer but became prevalent in the 1970s, with the development of advanced surveying tools and the directional “mud-motor” drill head, impelled by pressurized mud that is pumped down a well and passes over a screw-shaped rotor.
Mitchell’s horizontal fracking came online about 15 years ago and launched the Shale Revolution. Once drillers reach the right depth, they bend their well hole horizontally, so that it runs through the middle of a shale formation. Then, after punching additional holes through the sides of the horizontal well, they pump in pressurized fluid, which pushes through the holes, forces the layers of shale slightly apart, and releases the gas trapped inside, which can then flow up the well. Water and sand make up 99 percent of the fluid; the rest consists of biocides and softeners to reduce friction and contaminants. The sand’s job is to keep the fissures about a millimeter open after the water is removed so that the gas can continue to flow. The drilling stage of this process can take several weeks, with the pressurized-fluid treatment lasting four days.
On the northern Pennsylvanian Marcellus, the wells link up with the underground infrastructure of gas pipelines that crisscrosses the eastern United States, making on-site gas storage unnecessary. The gas flows to power plants and urban distribution lines. Once the drilling and fracking are completed, the energy firm removes all the equipment from the site and restores the topsoil. All that’s visible is a tiny wellhead and storage tanks to collect the small amount of fracturing fluid that returns to the surface, which the company will reuse in future jobs.
Since the first modern hydrofracturing wells pushed down into the Marcellus in 2007 and 2008, the estimates for the recoverable gas content of American shale have kept rising. In 2000, shale produced only 2 percent of our domestic gas supply. According to the federal government’s Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, 50 percent now comes from shale and other unconventional sources, a share expected to rise to 80 percent by 2035. Pennsylvania may sit on the second-largest natural-gas field in the world; significant deposits also lie beneath Arkansas, Louisiana, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. In 2012, the International Energy Agency predicted that the United States would surpass Russia to become the world’s largest natural-gas producer by 2015. A 2011 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) estimates that America’s supply of gas will last more than 90 years.
The Shale Revolution has brought enormous economic benefits to American producers and consumers. According to a 2012 study by the consulting and forecasting firm IHS Global Insight, shale oil and gas combined generated $87 billion in domestic capital investments in 2012. These investments will rise to $172.5 billion annually by the end of the decade, IHS says, and could total $5.1 trillion by 2035. Much of the investment has taken place in struggling rural economies. Shale developers not only lease drilling sites from their owners; they also pay the owners of the distant plots whose gas is being tapped. Gas distributors pay people to run underground pipelines through their properties. Drilling firms share the returns of each well with the landowner.
The advantages aren’t confined to the gas industry and its direct beneficiaries; savings on energy ripple through the broader American economy. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that the shale-gas boom has pushed down the price of natural gas in America to one-third of its 2008 level. The lower costs of shale gas, PricewaterhouseCoopers reports, will yield 1 million domestic manufacturing jobs by 2025 and add 0.5 percent growth to the nation’s gross domestic product. From 2012 through 2015, American households will save an average of $900 per year—2 percent of median household income—on their heat and electricity bills thanks to shale gas, IHS estimates.
The development of a ready source of domestic energy directly improves America’s geopolitical position, too, given that unsavory states currently govern much of the world’s energy supply. Shale gas even helps protect the environment by replacing coal in power plants, since gas produces far less carbon dioxide, sulfur, carbon monoxide, and ash than coal does. For years, coal drove more than half of all American energy production, but its share dropped to 42 percent in 2011, the lowest figure since analysts began keeping track in 1949. The ongoing shift from coal to natural gas is the main reason that American greenhouse-gas emissions have declined by 450 million tons in five years—a 5.3 percent drop from 2011 to 2012 alone. By contrast, greenhouse-gas emissions have risen in Europe, which lacks a ready source of gas and has been replacing oil and aging nuclear power with coal. “Displacement of coal-fired power by gas-fired power . . . is the most cost-effective way of reducing CO2 emissions in the power sector,” the MIT study concludes.
New York City in particular could benefit greatly from the Shale Revolution. A network of pipelines already delivers gas to nearly every home stove in the five boroughs. The heating boilers in the basements of most residential and commercial buildings, which now run mostly on dirty Number 4 and Number 6 heating oil, could be converted to cheaper, cleaner natural gas over time. My own Upper West Side apartment building has just replaced an obsolete boiler that burned Number 6 oil with one that burns cleaner Number 2 but can shift to gas power with the flick of a switch—once enough gas is available. Utilities are already working to upgrade the underground pipelines to make the changeover possible. Con Edison is installing a gas line an avenue away from my building, and a new city initiative called NYC Clean Heat is helping us persuade the utility to bring the supply to our building. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has embraced shale development, envisioning a city in which buses and trucks run on natural gas and electric vehicles are charged through gas-fired power plants. “Remember that 13,000 Americans will die from the effects of coal-fired power plant pollution every year,” Bloomberg said this April. “I don’t know of anybody yet that’s been killed by fracking.”
Shale gas’s benefits won’t be realized, though, if environmentalists have their way. Convinced of the evils of fossil fuels and the promise of renewable energy, they have successfully portrayed fracking as a destructive and dangerous practice, rather than a safe, tested means of extracting a clean, local, and naturally abundant resource. They often cite a 2011 article in Climatic Change, written by Robert Howarth, Renee Santoro, and Anthony Ingraffea, that contends that “3.6 percent to 7.9 percent of the methane from shale-gas production escapes to the atmosphere in venting and leaks over the lifetime of a well.” Therefore, the piece continues, “the [greenhouse-gas] footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon.” This much-publicized article, however, has been debunked by many other researchers, including Cornell University’s Lawrence Cathles, who argues that Howarth and his colleagues “significantly overestimate the fugitive emissions associated with unconventional gas extraction.”
An equally unpersuasive environmentalist claim is that fracking contaminates groundwater. As Columbia Law School’s Thomas Merrill and David Schizer conclude in a study of shale regulations, “there is little evidence so far that subterranean fracturing activity can directly contaminate groundwater, and this risk may never materialize. The layer of shale that is fractured is usually thousands of feet below the water table, with a buffer of dense rock or clay in between.” Of the 35,000 gas wells fractured in the United States in 2006, they write, “the paucity of confirmed incidents of water contamination from the underground migration of fracturing fluid provides powerful evidence that the risk is small.”
At one point, a handful of Pennsylvania residents complained to the media that fracking had contaminated their drinking water, but the Environmental Protection Agency surveyed their groundwater and found it safe. The recently released anti-fracking documentary Gasland (not to be confused with the recently released anti-fracking movie Promised Land, starring Matt Damon) shows a Colorado man holding a match near his faucet water and watching the flame flare up dramatically—because of gas released by fracking, the documentary says. But Colorado’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission discovered that the cause was naturally occurring methane in the resident’s water. (Merrill and Schizer recommend that gas companies, before drilling, survey water for existing levels of methane to mitigate false claims and shakedowns.) The Center for Rural Pennsylvania, an agency of the state legislature, has found “no statistically significant increases in methane levels after drilling.”
Nevertheless, celebrities have embraced the anti-fracking cause with gusto. In 2012, Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, the widow and son of slain Beatles front man John Lennon, formed the advocacy group Artists Against Fracking, which soon had more than 200 prominent signatories, including Alec Baldwin, Anne Hathaway, David Geffen, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Lady Gaga. Artists Against Fracking has erected billboards, organized a letter-writing campaign to New York governor Andrew Cuomo, and chartered a luxury tour bus to drive to Dimock, where Ono and Lennon, along with actress Susan Sarandon, brought drinking water to residents. “I can’t believe that here in the United States people don’t even have water to drink,” says Ono in a video about the trip posted on YouTube. “It’s more horrible than I could imagine,” Lennon adds.
Seven months after Artists Against Fracking formed, a March Quinnipiac University poll found that, for the first time, New Yorkers opposed fracking, 45 to 39 percent—an unsurprising outcome, given the unremitting campaign against shale gas. One of the opponents is apparently Governor Cuomo, once a supporter of shale-gas development, who has cited environmental risks in delaying approval of drilling in the state’s economically depressed Southern Tier. As the New York Post’s Fredric Dicker reported in April, “After telling associates for nearly two years he believed natural-gas drilling could be conducted safely, Cuomo developed cold feet late last year in the wake of an increasingly aggressive ‘anti’ movement led by environmental activists, including his former brother-in-law and uncle to his three daughters, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.” Further, proposed legislation in Albany would require all shale gas to undergo tests for radon before it could enter city limits, probably raising the ultimate price of gas and encouraging people to stick with coal and heating oil.
It’s worth noting that Artists Against Fracking was born after gas-development companies, looking to serve New York City’s cleaner energy demands, announced plans to run an underground distribution line near the Lennon family’s second home in Delaware County. The not-in-my-backyard possessiveness of wealthy Catskills second-homeowners is effectively preventing poorer, less politically connected, communities from profiting from the energy wealth beneath their feet.
Soon after Lennon and Ono traveled to Dimock, I made my own trip and found a very different scene. Most of the protest signs are pro-gas. One pro-fracking organization, Dimock Proud, was founded by two landowners to serve, they say, as the “voice of the silent majority” in their town. Residents here took part in a new documentary, FrackNation, an effort by journalists Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney to document the distortions of the anti-fracking lobby.
For an area with extensive gas development, Dimock seems almost bereft of heavy industry to the naked eye; its wells are tucked into the region’s endless folding hills. After many twists and turns, I finally come to a Cabot derrick, one of five that the company runs in the area. Here I ask Steve McDonald, Cabot’s colorful drilling consultant—a dead ringer for Hank Williams, Jr.—if the owner of the house next door to the site had to move out. “No, sir,” McDonald tells me. “The gentleman right up there, Mr. Gray, he come down when we first rigged up down here and he visited with me a little bit, and he says, ‘Steve, if you don’t mind, try not to point the lights towards my house, because that’s my bedroom side.’ Well, we done everything we could do to keep them from pointing lights at his house. So he comes down three or four days later and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, devil, we done pointed light at his house up there.’ And he comes, and he brings three dozen of those Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and I’m all about them things. And I asked him, just to see, ‘Is everything okay up there?’ And he said, ‘I hardly know y’all here.’ ”
The Marcellus story is a positive one. The gas industry has newly paved the roads around Dimock. Farmers now have income to pay down debts and fix up their properties. Jobs are growing. McDonald tells me about a conversation that he had with a local contractor hired by Cabot to do odd jobs around the drilling site. “ ‘I’m living the dream,’ the contractor says. And I said, ‘What do you mean by that?’ He said, ‘Man, I couldn’t be any happier. I’ve got a good job. I do what I need to do, and before I got this job here, I was personally almost eating out of garbage cans, trying to feed my family.’ Best thing that’s ever happened to him and his family is the oil company.” As that story suggests, Pennsylvania has been wise enough to let the Shale Revolution improve its residents’ lives. New York should follow suit.