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Magazine features

Between a frack and a hard place

A gas well in Dimock

A gas well in Dimock

Published in the Sunday Herald on September 4, 2011.

The Endless Mountains, in North-Eastern Pennsylvania, are, geologically speaking, not mountains at all. In summer, the dissected shale and sandstone plateau, eroded by rivers and rain, can resemble the English countryside, veined with winding roads, lined with trees: oak, ash, maple, beech, hemlock and pine. There are hay bales in the fields, below shingle built farmhouses, some with American flags draped over the porch.

The region’s economy has been based on agriculture, lumber, quarrying and tourism, but there are signs of a new primary industry everywhere, in forest clearings, blocked by yellow gates: “Gas well drilling ahead. No open flames or lights beyond this point.” Depending on who you listen to, this is the scene of an energy revolution that can dramatically reduce the USA’s dependence on foreign oil, or an unfolding environmental catastrophe.

Professor Terry Engelder, whose department at Pennsylvania State University is substantially funded by energy companies, has estimated that the Marcellus shale, which stretches under New York state, through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maryland, to West Virginia, contains at least 363 Trillion Cubic Feet (TCF) of recoverable gas: enough to meet US electricity needs for fourteen years. Industry executives refer to the formation as “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas”.

To unlock this resource, wells in the Marcellus are completed using a technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves pumping huge volumes of fluid into wells to break up rock formations more than a mile deep, releasing the gas held inside. This practice was pioneered by Halliburton in 1949, but has become widespread in the last two decades, since engineers exploring the Barnett shale, in Texas, combined it with horizontal drilling.

In the spring of 2008, shortly after moving to Dimock, in the Susquehanna County corner of the Endless Mountains, Craig and Julie Sautner signed a lease with Cabot Oil & Gas, granting the company mineral rights to their three-and-a-half acres of land, for a one-off payment of a little under $10,000 plus royalties on any gas produced by wells under their property. Drilling began in the autumn, a quarter of a mile from their front door.

Within weeks, the water that came out of their taps was grey-brown. Cabot installed a filtration system, but tests commissioned by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) showed dangerously high levels of methane, iron and aluminium. For a year, the family drank bottled water, but washed, cooked and cleaned in the filtered water from their well. Julie suffered from constant headaches, their son Cody got sores and daughter Kelly often had to lie down after having a shower, to avoid passing out. When their Pomeranians and German Shepherd drank tap water, all three dogs threw up straight away.

“I don’t even hunt deer around here anymore, because I don’t want to shoot one and eat it,” Craig says. “I love my bow-hunting, and when this is done, I’ll get back to it. I can’t spend the rest of my life doing this.”

Craig Sautner with water from his well

Craig Sautner with water from his well

The Sautners are lifelong Republicans and born-again Christians. In their living room, every other item is starred and striped. They make unlikely environmental activists, but this is what they have become, in three years spent fighting, unsuccessfully, to get Cabot to accept liability for their ruined water supply. A DEP handout stuck to their fridge offers some ironic reassurance: “This water is most likely safe. If you have any questions or concerns about contamination due to hydraulic fracturing, expose water to flame.”

This is the anti-fracking movement’s defining image: water from the tap, lit with a match. In the Oscar-nominated documentary, Gasland, director Josh Fox travelled from Pennsylvania to Wyoming, Ohio, Colorado and Texas, to meet people living near drill sites, some with enough methane in their water to set the kitchen sink on fire. On the Sautner’s street, in Dimock, a well belonging to a retired nurse, Norma Fiorentino, blew up on New Year’s Day, 2009, blasting chunks of concrete onto her lawn.

All summer, Craig Sautner is working seven days a week, fixing telephone lines, to build up his final year’s salary, so that he can retire. Julie runs the home and the campaign, setting up speaking engagements and interviews. In April 2010, the DEP called a halt to drilling in a nine square mile area around Carter Road.

The New York law firm Napoli, Bern & Ripka is representing 63 Dimock residents in a ‘no win, no fee’ lawsuit, seeking damages from Cabot for breach of contract. On August 3, a group of the plaintiffs unveiled a billboard in the nearby town of South Montrose, listing chemicals in the Sautner’s water supply, including Uranium, Arsenic and Butylbenzyl Phthalate, a toxic precursor to plastic. Cabot’s press agent was on hand to call it a distortion, with supporters backing him up. The advert was pulled the next day.interior-fracking3

In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, gas companies are granted exemptions from the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and other legislation designed to protect the environment. These provisions, written at the decree of then Vice President Dick Cheney, are known as the ‘Halliburton Loophole’ – after the energy services company that he used to run. There is no legal requirement to disclose the ingredients of fracking fluid, which generally contains solvents, surfactants, biocides and acids, plus tonnes of sand, to prop open the fissures.

It takes around five million gallons of fluid to frack a well in the Marcellus, at pressures of up to 15,000 pounds per square inch. Roughly half this liquid is driven back up the well by escaping gas, together with benzene, toluene and other contaminants, and must be disposed of above ground. The other half remains in the earth.

There have been comparatively few studies of hydraulic fracturing’s environmental impact. When the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) lead regulator, Lisa Jackson, told Congress that she is “not aware of any proven case where the fracking process has affected water,” she was paraphrasing a standard industry line which notes that there have been more than a million wells fracked without a single documented instance of groundwater contamination.

When chemicals do show up in aquifers close to drill sites (officials in New Mexico released a report detailing 700 such incidents) the industry blames human error, such as faulty well casings or a poorly finished cement job – the most likely cause of contamination near Carter Road. In addition, compensation payouts come with a non-disclosure clause, ensuring that in the few cases where gas companies admit liability, how the pollution occurred remains a secret.

A recent study by scientists at Duke University found that water wells within a kilometre of natural gas drilling in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations contained vastly increased quantities of methane, suggesting that the gas may be reaching the surface through cracks and abandoned wells. They did not, however, find that frack fluid had made the same journey, giving credence to the industry approved consensus that it is physically impossible for it to migrate through a mile of solid rock to the aquifers above.

Cornell University Engineering Professor Anthony Ingraffea is the most prominent dissenter. He argues that fracking opens up new fissures and widens existing faults, meaning that on rare occasions, the pressure will drive frack fluid up into the water supply.

“The probability of this happening is very low, but I’m not prepared to accept the industry’s statement that it has never happened and can never happen,” he says. “A number of things have to line up at just the right space and just the right time, but when you try it a couple of hundred thousand times, it’s a certainty. When such incidents do occur, the industry locks them up from public view.

“But of all the things that can go wrong, hydraulic fracturing is the least of my worries. Every day in Pennsylvania there is a spill. Every day in Pennsylvania there is a leak. Every day there is a valve that wasn’t closed properly or a connection that failed. Some of that methane will get into the ground water. That which does not get into the ground water gets into the atmosphere, where it becomes a very potent greenhouse gas.”

Signs posted by Cabot at a well off Carter Road announce “peak day consumptive use 3.575 million gallons [of water] per day.” Trucks rumbled past the Sautner’s house at all hours: more than 1,200 loads of water per frack, plus half as many again to dispose of waste. Nationally, the EPA estimates that fracking consumed somewhere between 70 and 140 billion gallons of water last year. Because of high levels of salts, heavy metals and the carcinogen benzene, the waste water cannot be filtered at standard treatment plants.

At first glance, this might seem to be something that communities would unite to oppose, but the reality in Dimock is very different. Even on Carter Road, half the residents are happy to trade a usable water supply for gas royalties. “Most people in Dimock are against us,” Craig Sautner says. “They want the money. I’ve heard people say ‘put a well right through my living room and I’ll move out.’” Some have signed agreements with Cabot, absolving the company of responsibility and agreeing to keep quiet, in return for twice the taxable value of their house, plus a water filtration system in the basement.

“When we first moved here, it was a very poor community, but now you see barns going up, new roofs, Cadillacs,” Julie adds. “Her over there, Debbie Maye, she’s getting something like $10,000 a month, because they’re on a really good well. She just loves the industry.” The Sautners are convinced that their phone line is tapped and claim that when their computer was infected with a virus, it only wiped out the files relevant to their lawsuit. “We’ve got everything documented,” says Craig. “You have to, because they don’t believe a word you say.”

They don’t fill up at their local petrol station, because of the owner’s understandable support for the gas industry that sends thousands of trucks a week past his forecourt. A group of hotel and shop owners formed a pro-drilling pressure group, to protest against proposals to plumb Carter Road into the municipal water supply, at a cost of $11.8 million.

Dan Whitten, Vice-President for Strategic Communications at America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), says that when shale gas reserves are tapped, whole regions benefit. “Numerous states generated tens of thousands of jobs as a result of this industry last year, so the appeal for jobs in rural parts of the country where the country has been staggering is great,” he says. “We create jobs, not just in our own operations: hotels, truck drivers, engineers, steel-makers, all of that. So there is a lot of appeal in local communities when they see people spending money, bringing in tax revenues and offering jobs.”

Investment analysts question whether the gas boom is sustainable. Art Berman, a contributing editor at World Oil magazine, was forced out after writing that natural gas companies are over-estimating the recoverable reserves in shale formations. When the editor stood by him, he was sacked. Berman’s thesis is that the companies are using an optimistic theoretical model to predict the long term performance of wells, when actual data from the Barnett and Fayetteville shales shows that production falls off inexorably.

In a stockholders report filed by Chesapeake Energy in the first quarter of 2010, the company admits that in its wells, production drops by an average of 70% after the first year and a further 30% in the second, but projects that this decline will stabilise and that the wells will remain commercially viable for decades.

“Everyone agrees that the initial decline, over the first two years, is extremely steep,” says Berman. “But fully one third of the wells that were drilled seven or eight years ago are no longer producing sufficient volumes of gas to pay for operating expenses.”

The industry estimates that for a Barnett well to recoup its costs, it must produce roughly 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas. So far only one in twenty of the Barnett shale’s 10,000 gas wells has reached that break even point. “I earn my living in the natural gas business,” says Berman. “And I wish I had a more optimistic conclusion, but those economics don’t make sense at all.”

The boom shows little sign of slowing down. Last year, more than 14,000 new wells were drilled in the United States, and the ANGA is bullish about the extent of recoverable reserves. “We have advanced the technology, even in the last two years, to reach further down and further over horizontally, so that we can reach more supplies,” says Whitten. “The potential to extend the lives of these wells is growing substantially.”

In May, the Herald reported that an Australian company, Dart Energy, was planning to sink a test bore at Airth, near Falkirk, to explore whether there is potential for shale gas extraction. A spokesman for the firm, Peter Reilly, called that story “alarmist,” but confirmed that it is looking into the possibility of expanding activities at the site beyond coal-bed methane extraction. A British company, Cuadrilla Resources, recently suspended its fracking operations in Lancashire, after two small earthquakes occurred shortly after it drilled a well.

The EPA has commissioned a major national study into the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing. New York’s Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, has demanded a federal review of the consequences of drilling for natural gas near the Delaware River basin, which supplies much of the city’s drinking water. Although there is a moratorium on fracking in the state, there is enormous energy lobby pressure for it to be lifted. A Wall Street Journal editorial concluded that “if we let the fear of undocumented pollution kill this boom, we will deserve our fate as a second-class industrial power.”

Unable to sell their home, with its contaminated well, the Sautners are stuck in Dimock, showering in water that Cabot trucks in each week, at the Pennsylvania DEP’s behest. Their fridge is full of Endless Mountain Water Company bottles, filled by the banks of the Susquehanna River in Tunkhannock, a few miles South, promising “natural artesian water from a deep vein far below the contaminants of air and surface pollution.”

Craig Sautner worries that drilling will expand across the Marcellus, until whole swathes of the Pennsylvania and New York countryside resemble the gas fields of Wyoming or Texas, pockmarked with thousands of wells, pipelines and service roads. “The problem here is they ruined some water wells, but what happens if you get into the Delaware watershed and contaminate that,” he says. “We’re talking millions and millions of people. How do you correct that? It’s way too high risk.”