US looks at gas drilling

2010-07-21 18:04

Harrisburg - So vast is the wealth of natural gas locked into dense rock deep beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio that some geologists estimate it's enough to supply the entire East Coast for 50 years.

But freeing it requires a powerful drilling process called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking", using millions of litres of water brewed with toxic chemicals, that some fear could pollute water above and below ground and deplete aquifers.

As gas drillers swarm to this lucrative Marcellus Shale region and blast into other shale reserves around the country, the US Environmental Protection Agency is taking a new look at the controversial fracking technique, currently exempt from federal regulation.

The $1.9m study comes as the nation reels from the Deepwater Horizon environmental and economic disaster playing out in the Gulf of Mexico.

The oil and gas industry steadfastly defends the process as been proved safe over many years as well as necessary to keep the nation on a path to energy independence.


Studies have "consistently shown that the risks are managed, it's safe, it's a technology that's essential... it's also a technology that's well-regulated," said Lee Fuller, director of the industry coalition Energy In Depth.

"A fair study will show that the procedures that are there now are highly effective and do not need to be altered - the federal government does not need to be there," Fuller added.

But because of the oil disaster, conservation groups say the drilling industry has lost it credibility and the rapid expansion of shale drilling needs to be scrutinised.

"People no longer trust the oil and gas industry to say, 'Trust us, we're not cutting corners,'" said Cathy Carlson, a policy adviser for Earthworks, which supports federal regulation and a moratorium on fracking in the Marcellus Shale.

Just six years ago, an EPA study declared the fracking process posed "little or no threat to underground sources of drinking water" and with that blessing, Congress a year later exempted hydraulic fracturing from federal regulation.

Now the agency, prodded by Congress even before the Gulf disaster and stung by criticism that its 2004 study was scientifically flawed and maybe politically tainted, will bring the issues to the heart of the land lease rush in the Marcellus Shale: Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, on Thursday and Binghamton, New York, on August 12.

EPA hearings earlier this month in Fort Worth, Texas and Denver focused on issues including drilling in the Barnett Shale of Texas, and in Colorado and Wyoming, which have experienced similar natural gas booms.


Natural gas is also being recovered from the Haynesville Shale in north Louisiana, the Fayetteville Shale in northern Arkansas and Woodford Shale in southern Oklahoma.

In Texas, where drillers have sunk more than 13 000 wells into the Barnett Shale in the past decade, fear of the cancer-causing chemical benzene in the air above gas fields from processing plants and equipment has spurred tests by environmental regulators and criticism of the state's safeguards. In Colorado, numerous residents contend gas drilling has spoiled their water wells.

Advancements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology in the late 1990s significantly increased the yield and economic viability of tapping shale gas wells and led to the current natural gas boom, starting in Texas with the Barnett Shale.

Fracking is now considered the key to unlocking huge, untapped natural gas reserves across the US at a time when natural gas is emerging as a greener energy alternative to coal or oil.

The Marcellus Shale is 10 times the size of the Barnett, spanning 129 500km² compared with the 12 950km² Barnett. It is also three times thicker than the Barnett at up to 274 metres, and is estimated to have a potential yield of 10 times as much gas, 14 trillion cubic metres versus 1.41 trillion cubic metres.

At stake in the debate over how best to manage and regulate this enormous new natural resource is not just the safety of water supplies but also thousands of jobs, profits for the gas drilling and delivery industry and a bonanza of royalties for landowners.

"We've got to get it right," said Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who is sponsor of the so-called Frac Act, which would repeal the 2005 exemption and require regulation of fracking by the EPA under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

"We allowed coal over many, many decades to be an industry that was so unregulated that it was allowed to do virtually whatever it wanted, and now we have numerous environmentally adverse impacts," he said.