June 01, 2013

Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale

JoAnne L. Dunec

Tom Wilber, Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fat of the Marcellus Shale, Cornell University Press, 2012.

Nowhere is the promise of innovation greater than in American-made energy.
—President Obama, 2012 State of the Union

A remarkable “land rush” has occurred in parts of Pennsylvania and New York as a result of innovations in hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) and vast natural gas bearing shale deposits. Extraction of natural gas from shale was generally not economically feasible until two key technological breakthroughs occurred. As described by Wilber,

In the early 2000s, as the price of gas rose, prospectors began experimenting with unconventional methods in the Barnett Shale of northern Texas. Breakthroughs came when they began using two different techniques in tandem. The first was horizontal drilling, a process developed in the early 2000s using computer-generated models and steerable drilling mechanics to bore first vertical, then long horizontal wells through pancake-like strata. The second was hydraulic fracturing, developed in the late 1940s for vertical wells. Commonly known in the industry as “fracking,” the process involves injecting the bore with a mix of water, sand, and chemicals under pressure great enough to split the rock and free gas embedded within. Applying the process to a horizontal well requires handling a much larger volume of solution under greater pressure compared to a vertical well and poses logistical and engineering challenges that weren’t seriously pursued until the Barnett was developed.

The Marcellus Shale deposit, a vast expanse extending over southern New York, central and northeast Pennsylvania, and across West Virginia, is well-situated for economic development. “It sits over other gas-rich geological formations and under the infrastructure of a burgeoning natural gas distribution system to major metropolitan markets in the northeast,” notes Wilber. “In short, the rock holds one of the largest gas fields in the world in the middle of the largest energy markets, including the metropolitan areas of New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Boston.” The area is also sparsely populated with “striking landscapes, critical watersheds, and a struggling economic base.”

The “rush” began in 2006. At the time, and generally still today, fracking was exempt from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, the Clean Air Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. State and local law were virtually nonexistent, and only a few states had a severance tax, a source of funds for governmental administration and enforcement.

The author, a journalist, describes the economic benefits and the environmental risks of fracking the Marcellus Shale through the perspectives of rural residents, farmers, and other business owners, gas industry representatives, scholars, lawyers, politicians, and environmentalists. Fracking is an economic boon for certain localities with landowners forming “cooperatives” to jointly negotiate lucrative leases with companies vying for a market share. Employment opportunities also increase in previously depressed rural areas.

Under the Surface also illuminates the potential hazards and uncertainties. Risks related to fracking arise from the transportation, storage, and use of the significant quantities of water necessary for such operations, which may impact other groundwater users. Storage of frack water, which contains fracking additives in ponds or “frack tanks,” can cause environmental damage through leaks or spills. By far, the two greatest concerns arise from contamination of drinking water supplies caused by defective vertical well casings or otherwise, and release of methane, which can cause contamination or explosive hazards. Many landowners became “accidental activists” and eventually, litigants, because of such problems.

Overall, Wilber provides an evenhanded treatment of the many facets of hydraulic fracturing, from the economic benefits of substantial domestic natural gas production to the environmental concerns and related legal and political framework and response.

JoAnne L. Dunec