New Book Examines the Future of Fracking

In Review: Under the Surface, by Tom Wilber

In 2004, Range Resources, a Texas-based oil and gas company, drilled its first exploratory wells in the Marcellus Shale, a vast geologic formation that stretches from the southern tier of New York State, through much of Pennsylvania, and into West Virginia and Ohio. The results were positive and the company kept quiet about its findings as it bought up mineral rights throughout the play. By 2008, just as the significance of the Marcellus was coming into public view, Range Resources had acquired drilling rights on more than 900,000 acres. Since then, the company has drilled more than 600 wells in the Marcellus Shale. In 2011 the company directed 86 percent of its capital budget to development in the region, which also includes the Upper Devonian and Utica shale formations (the Utica shale is even deeper than the Marcellus).

Book cover courtesy Cornell Press

Range is just one of many players – from geologists and landmen to lawyers and landowners – featured in Tom Wilber’s thorough account of the early years of drilling in the Marcellus Shale, Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale (Cornell Press). Since those early years, as Wilber’s book makes clear, the gulf between advocates and opponents of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has only widened. The most striking example of a town divided over the issue, and the center of Wilber’s narrative, is Dimock, PA. Located in a remote corner of northeastern Susquehanna County, Dimock has become a cautionary tale for critics of gas drilling – a grim snapshot of what lies ahead.

For drilling advocates, though, Dimock is simply an anomaly. The series of spills, groundwater contamination, exploding water wells, and methane migration were a result of a rogue operator, Cabot Oil & Gas, which has given the industry a black name, believes Terry Engelder, a geologist at Penn State, who was one of the first scientists to promote the commercial potentiality of the Marcellus Shale. At a public forum in January 2011 Engelder said: “It takes the industry a considerable length of time to go through the process of learning how to do it right. Clearly Dimock was a case study of how not to do it. It’s presented some challenges that we learned from and… hopefully the industry will move forward from that.”

(I recently contacted Joyce Stone, a resident of Dimock who I had interviewed for a story in Earth Island Journal in 2010. “I still have my water, cross my fingers, but am expecting 4 wells only 700 feet away soon,” she wrote. “And they are chainsawing a huge swath of trees behind my house I believe to make way for one of the zillion of pipelines that will be everywhere.” But, she added, “[the] social climate hurts more than the potential threat of pollution.”)

Since January the EPA has carried out a series of tests on more than 60 water wells in Dimock and recently deemed the water safe to drink. However many of the wells tested contained high levels of methane – the primary component of natural gas – as well as smaller amounts of dangerous chemicals such as anthracene, flouranthene, pyrene and benzopyrene, which can cause cancer. If anything the news has only hardened the views of both pro- and anti-drilling forces. Cabot has taken the results as evidence that its drilling activities have not poisoned the region’s groundwater. But as Ron Bishop, a chemist at the State University of New York’s College at Oneonta, told ProPublica, “Any suggestion that water from these wells is safe for domestic use would be preliminary or inappropriate.”

Meanwhile, there’s no question that the industry will move forward as Engelder suggests. But will the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regulate fracking so that the kind of problems that occurred in Dimock don’t happen elsewhere? The question takes on even greater urgency when one considers the possibility of at least 60,000 wells throughout the Marcellus fairway (the number of wells drilled to date is about 5,400).

As Wilber points out, Pennsylvania was woefully unprepared for the surge in drilling that began in 2008. “Reviews of applications typically lasted thirty-five minutes or less,” he writes, “and they were approved 99.5 percent of the time.” Wells near sensitive waterways like the Upper Delaware River, which should have received added scrutiny, were reviewed in a similarly careless manner. Moreover the DEP was so understaffed at the time that they would have been able to perform routine inspections of completed wells only once every ten years. (The situation in West Virginia, which has gotten far less attention than Pennsylvania or New York, is very much the same.) Part of the reason things went so badly wrong in Dimock is that Cabot had no one to answer to. It was only when local residents took matters into their own hands, in some cases quite literally, that things began to change.

So has the picture improved? In his final chapter Wilber notes that the number of faulty well casings cited by the Pennsylvania DEP increased in 2011 even though new standards had been put in place. Faulty well casings are believed to be the primary cause of methane migration and contamination of drinking water supplies. Meanwhile Pennsylvania’s pro-drilling governor, Tom Corbett, has proposed steep cuts to both the DEP and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. And though the Marcellus is still a major resource (often referred to as the Saudi Arabia of natural gas) energy companies have set their sites on the next big find – the Utica Shale, which lies beneath the Marcellus and extends even further north into upstate New York and west into Ohio. Chesapeake Energy, an Oklahoma based company, has already leased 1.25 million acres in a joint venture with French energy giant Total. Chesapeake CEO Aburey McClendon recently described the Utica shale as the “biggest thing economically to hit Ohio, since maybe the plow.” Not unlike the promise of riches and prosperity made to the people of Dimock back in 2008.

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