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Because natural gas has less carbon than dirty coal, gas producers and even the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have applauded it as a cleaner alternative. Hopefully, a joint study from researchers at two universities will change that.

Purdue and Cornell universities on Monday released a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America with data on higher-than-expected methane levels found above shale gas wells.

The researchers used a "top-down" approach, flying over seven well pads of the Marcellus shale formation in southwestern Pennsylvania. They accounted for less than 1 percent of the wells in Southwestern Pennsylvania and were only in the drilling stage, which usually isn't when the emissions take place.

Purdue and Cornell researchers flew over well pads like this one in Southwestern Pennsylvania to discover higher-than-expected methane levels during the production of natural gas. Photo credit: Dana Caulton/Purdue University

"This small fraction of the total number of wells was contributing a much larger large portion of the total emissions in the area, and the emissions for this stage were not represented in the current inventories," Paul Shepson, a professor of chemistry and earth atmospheric and planetary sciences at Purdue, said in a statement.

By flying in the specially equipped Purdue Airborne Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, the researchers were able to identify methane plumes from both single and group pads. The plumes give off signals about the production state of the gas.

A look at the Purdue Airborne Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, which was used to identify methane plumes from natural gas production in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Paul Shepson/Purdue University

"It is particularly noteworthy that large emissions were measured for wells in the drilling phase, in some cases 100 to 1,000 times greater than the inventory estimates," Shepson said. "This indicates that there are processes occurring—e.g. emissions from coal seams during the drilling process—that are not captured in the inventory development process. This is another example pointing to the idea that a large fraction of the total emissions is coming from a small fraction of shale gas production components that are in an anomalous condition."

According to the White House, methane has about 20 times the global warming effect of carbon dioxide. That's why President Barack Obama announced a new layer to his Climate Action Plan in March to reduce methane emissions, though many environmental groups thought it was not aggressive enough. Before that, the Environmental Defense Fund EDF and ICF International jointly concluded that the onshore oil and gas industry could collectively reduce methane emissions by at least 40 percent below 2018 projections. Methane emissions have dropped by 11 percent since 1990.

The researchers blame the bottom-up approach for inaccuracy of previous methane emissions in the area they explored. Cornell University's David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future funded the fly-over project.

"We need to develop a way to objectively measure emissions from shale gas development that includes the full range of operator types, equipment states and engineering approaches," Shepson said. "A whole-systems approach to measurement is needed to understand exactly what is occurring."

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Environmental Working Group

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has warned New York state regulators that their plan to allow drilling and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale could endanger private water wells, municipal aquifers and New York City’s drinking water supply.

The assessment of the USGS, widely regarded as impartial and authoritative on drilling issues, intensifies pressure on Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) not to proceed with a drilling plan drafted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Cuomo has pledged to “let the science and the facts make the determination, not emotion and not politics.”1

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has separately written New York regulators arguing that they are ill-equipped to regulate a boom in shale gas drilling and have limited financial means to enforce the numerous new regulations they have proposed. The EPA has raised additional concerns, among them, that the state has understated the severity of radioactive pollution associated with drilling and doesn’t know how such contaminants would be disposed of.

Officials at the Department of Environmental Conservation are now considering whether to modify their plan to address the federal agencies’ reservations and about 60,000 letters from local governments, independent scientists, gas drillers, property owners, environmental groups and other interested citizens. Once the state agency has concluded its review, which could wind up as soon as this spring, the issue goes to Cuomo’s desk.

The stakes for New York taxpayers are enormous. The Department of Environmental Conservation has estimated that if New York City’s drinking water supply is contaminated by drilling, cleaning up the water would require a water filtration plant costing at least $8 billion, with a yearly operating expense of $200 million.2 Even then, city officials have said there is no guarantee that the water could be purified. If water supplies of other population centers are tainted, the cleanup costs would soar higher.

As now written, the state plan projects that tens of thousands of natural gas wells could spring up along the New York portion of the Marcellus Shale, a vast underground formation that stretches along the Appalachian chain as far south as Kentucky. Most of the wells are likely to deploy a relatively new shale-drilling process called high volume hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, which typically involves injecting millions of gallons of water laced with chemicals into the ground under high pressure, aiming to crack shale rock and release natural gas trapped in small pockets.

The USGS, the federal government’s expert on the geology and hydrology of oil and gas drilling, advised New York regulators that their plan is flawed in several respects. Among them:

  • The state’s proposal to prohibit drilling inside a 500-foot buffer around aquifers that supply major municipal water systems “is one-size-fits-all and may provide only partial protection to these aquifers.”3
     
  • A similar 500-foot buffer for private water wells and springs “affords limited protection” and “does not take local geohydrologic conditions and topographic setting into account.” The USGS added that “changes brought about by drilling, including water quality changes, can be felt rapidly at significant distance from a disturbance—especially if a domestic well is [downhill] of a well pad.”4
     
  • Pressurized fracturing fluids could migrate through underground faults and impact an underground aqueduct that carries drinking water to New York City. The USGS said that “the possibility of damage to the aqueduct from hydraulic-fracturing operations is an issue of concern” and deserves more study.5
     
  • A map displayed in the state’s draft plan “grossly under-represents the number and extent of [natural] faults in the Appalachian Basin of New York” where shale gas drilling would occur. Ground that is riddled with underground faults could channel pollution from drilling into underground aquifers.6
     
  • “Only scattered and incomplete information is available” on underground freshwater sources that could be polluted by shale gas drilling. The USGS said the state plan should require drilling companies to maintain detailed logs that would identify and protect these aquifers.7

 

Drilling too close to water sources

The USGS went to some lengths to dispute the state agency’s premise that drilling could be safely conducted 500 feet from water supplies. The federal agency said that in some cases, it might be necessary to prohibit drilling within five square miles of aquifers to avoid polluting them.8

The USGS position is bolstered by documented cases in Colorado, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where natural gas and related contaminants have polluted underground water supplies at distances much greater than 500 feet.

  • In 2004, Canada-based Encana Corp. improperly cemented and hydraulically fractured a well in Garfield County, Colo. The state found that the poor cementing caused natural gas and associated contaminants to travel underground more than 4,000 feet laterally. As a result, a creek became contaminated with dangerous levels of carcinogenic benzene. The state of Colorado fined Encana a then-record $371,200. Despite more than seven years of cleanup efforts, as of last September, three groundwater monitoring wells near the creek still showed unsafe levels of benzene.9
     
  • In 2007, a natural gas well fractured by Ohio Valley Energy Systems Corp. in Bainbridge, Ohio, caused natural gas to contaminate 23 nearby water wells, two of which were more than 2,300 feet from the drilling site.10
     
  • In 2009, several natural gas wells drilled by Houston-based Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. in Dimock, Penn., polluted water wells used by at least 19 families, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Cabot has disputed the finding. At least three of the water wells were farther than 1,000 feet from the gas wells. For about two years, the Pennsylvania DEP ordered the company to deliver water to the families. Last December, Cabot stopped the deliveries after the DEP ruled that the company had met its obligations under a state order. Affected families were forced to scramble for new sources of water. Filmmaker Josh Fox, actor Marc Ruffalo and others donated bottled water that met some of the families’ needs. The federal EPA recently found dangerous contaminants in well water in Dimock and ordered a resumption of water deliveries for four of the families. Pennsylvania officials have declined to extend public water lines to the affected families, estimating the cost at $12 million.11

 

New York City water aqueduct threatened

The USGS concluded that under the state plan, hydraulic fracturing fluids could reach and damage New York City’s West Delaware Aqueduct, an underground tunnel that brings drinking water to the city from reservoirs in the Catskill Mountains. Naturally occurring fractures “may potentially provide pathways for the migration of pressurized fluids over significant distances,” the USGS wrote. It suggested that the state’s proposal to require site-specific permits in a 1,000-foot zone around the aqueduct might prove inadequate.12 The USGS focused only on threats to the West Delaware Aqueduct, one of several underground aqueducts that carry water to New York City from the Marcellus Shale region.

An earlier assessment commissioned by New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) also concluded that drilling might endanger the West Delaware Aqueduct and other tunnels that carry the city’s water, for reasons similar to those cited by the USGS. The city’s DEP found that naturally occurring underground pathways near the tunnels “can extend up to seven miles laterally and up to 6,000 feet in depth.” It added:

“The vertical and lateral persistence of these features in conjunction with the potential for failed casings or other unforeseen occurrences could result in significant surface and subsurface contamination of fresh water aquifers, as illustrated by incidents in other well fields, most notably documented in Garfield County, Colorado (migration of toxic formation material through subsurface fractures) and Dimock, Pennsylvania (migration of natural gas to the surface via improperly cased wells). Similar mechanisms could permit migration of material into the fresh water aquifers that comprise the NYC West-of-Hudson watersheds and present potential risks to water quality and tunnel lining integrity.”13

Based on this assessment, the city agency recommended several preventive measures, including barring drilling within seven miles of several aqueducts and a drilling ban within two miles of other water tunnels.14

Underground faults, water supplies unmapped

The USGS raised serious questions about the state’s significant undercount of natural faults throughout the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation. If drilling and hydraulic fracturing were permitted directly underneath faults, the federal agency said, contaminants could flow upward into underground aquifers. It noted that there are generally far more natural faults in bedrock overlying the Marcellus Shale than elsewhere.15

In a study that focused on the Marcellus Shale in New York and Pennsylvania and was published last year by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Duke University reported finding levels of natural gas an average of 17 times higher in water wells close to active natural gas wells than in water wells in non-active drilling areas. The most likely cause, they said, was leaky well casings, but they also raised the possibility that some gas migrated through “extensive fracture systems” in rock above the shale formations. Another factor, they said, might be gas migration through many older, un-cased wells abandoned during 150 years of drilling in Pennsylvania and New York.16

USGS urges better reporting

The USGS said that the depths of underground drinking water sources are not well documented and must be established so that drilling companies can design casing and cementing to prevent migration of gas or saltwater into underground drinking water supplies. The agency faulted New York state regulators for failing to require drilling companies to map underground fresh water and salt water sources and, as well, shallow gas formations before they drill extensively. It called these determinations critical to the design and installation of effective casing and cementing.17

Cuomo should emulate Maryland’s O’Malley

The USGS assessment makes clear that New York is not ready for shale gas drilling on any level. Given Cuomo’s commitment to science, it is hard to see how he could come to a different conclusion. Cuomo should halt the state’s drilling plan and let scientists like those at USGS continue their work so that New Yorkers can know whether high volume hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling can be conducted safely before drilling begins.

That’s essentially the approach Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has taken. His administration has embarked on a detailed study of potential drilling impacts, to be finished by 2014. Until then, O’Malley has committed not to allow gas drilling companies to deploy this controversial technique in Maryland’s portion of the Marcellus Shale.18

Meanwhile, the EPA is conducting a nationwide study on hydraulic fracturing’s impact on water and a separate inquiry in Pavillion, Wyo., where the agency concluded in a draft report that hydraulic fracturing likely contaminated groundwater on which the community relies for its drinking water and agricultural needs.

By proceeding with drilling in the face of warnings by USGS, the EPA and other experts, “Cuomo would be betting nothing of significance will go wrong,” Albany Times-Union columnist Fred LeBrun wrote in a Jan. 15, 2012, column. “Given the enormity of the possibilities, that’s a dumb bet.”19

Will Cuomo make a multi-billion-dollar gamble with the state’s drinking water and the health of New Yorkers? The upside, in the form of jobs and revenues from gas production, is modest. The downside, if anything goes wrong, is incalculable. Why chance it?

For more information, click here.

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1. Thomas Kaplan, Millions Spent in Albany Fight to Drill for Gas, New York Times, Nov. 26, 2011.

2. See NYDEC SGEIS, supra note 9, at 6-47.

3. U.S. Geological Survey, New York Water Science Center, Comments on the Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement 6 (2012).

4. See id., at 7.

5. See id., at 20.

6. See id., at 10.

7. See id., at 1.

8. USGS, supra note 3, at 6-7.

9. URS Corp., Phase I Hydrogeologic Characterization of the Mamm Creek field Area in Garfield County (2006), http://cogcc.state.co.us/ (follow links for “Library” and then “Piceance Basin”) (prepared for Bd. of County Comm’rs, Garfield County, Colo.); Colo. Oil & Gas Conservation Comm’n, Order No. 1V-276 (Sept. 16, 2004), http://cogcc.state.co.us/ (follow link for “Orders”).

10. Ohio Dep't of Natural Res., Report on the Investigation of the Natural Gas Invasion of Aquifers in Bainbridge Township of Geauga County, Ohio 6, 46-7 (2008); Bair, E. Scott, et al., Expert Panel Technical Report, Subsurface Gas Invasion Bainbridge Township, Geauga County, Ohio 3-113 (2010), http://www.ohiodnr.com/mineral/bainbridge/tabid/20484/default.aspx (submitted to Ohio Dep't of Natural Res., Div. of Mineral Res. Mgmt.); Ohio Dep't of Natural Res., Order Number 2009-17 (Apr. 14, 2009) (see attachments A, B).

11. Consent Order & Settlement Agreement in re Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. (Dep't Envtl. Prot. Dec. 15, 2010); Consent Order & Settlement Agreement in re Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. (Dep't Envtl. Prot. Nov. 4, 2009); Laura Legere, DEP Drops Dimock Waterline Plans; Cabot Agrees to Pay $4.1M to Residents, Scranton Times-Tribune, Dec. 16, 2010, http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/gas-drilling/dep- drops-dimock-waterline-plans-cabot-agrees-to-pay-4-1m-to-residents-1.1077910. Laura Legere, Outside Groups Deliver Water as Sides Spar over Drilling, Scranton Times-Tribune, December 7, 2011.

12. See USGS, supra note 3, at 19-20. N.Y. City Dep't of Envtl. Prot., Final Impact Assessment Report, Impact Assessment of Natural Gas Production in the New York City Water Supply Watershed 39-40 (2009) [hereinafter NYCDEP]. N.Y. State Dep't. Envtl. Conservation, Supplemental Generic Envtl. Impact Statement on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program, Well Permit Issuance for Horizontal Drilling and High-Volume Hydraulic fracturing to Develop the Marcellus Shale and other Low-Permeability Gas Reservoirs ES-6 (2011) [hereinafter NYDEC SGEIS].

13. NYCDEP, supra note 9, at 39-40 (2009).

14. See id., at D-3. Paul Rush, Dep. Commissioner, Bureau of Water Supply, N.Y. City Dep't of Envtl. Prot., Before the New York City Council, Committee on Envtl. Prot., Sep. 22, 2011. N.Y. City Dep't of Envtl. Prot., Comments on the Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program 2 (2012).

15. See USGS, supra note 3, at 9.

16. Stephen G. Osborn, et al., Methane Contamination of Drinking Water Accompanying Gas-Well Drilling and Hydraulic Fracturing, 108 PNAS 8172-76, 8175 (2011), http://www.pnas.org/content/108/20/8172.

17. USGS, supra note 3, at 1.

18. Martin O'Malley, Governor of Maryland, Executive Order 01.01.2011.11, The Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative, June 6, 2011. Accessed online February 20, 2012 at http://www.governor.maryland.gov/executiveorders/01.01.2011.11.pdf.

19. Fred LeBrun. The Keys to the Kingdom, Albany Times-Union, Jan. 15, 2012, at D1.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Stefanie Penn Spear

On Jan. 10 at 1 p.m. on the west lawn of the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio, concerned citizens from all over the state will gather to ask Gov. John Kasich to impose an indefinite moratorium on Ohio's oil and gas wastewater injection well sites and the natural gas extraction process that has become well known as fracking, until further research and proper regulations are put in place to protect human health and the environment.

This protest is in response to the 11 earthquakes that have hit the Youngstown, Ohio area since March 2011. The most recent earthquake, with a 4.0 magnitude that was felt nearly 200 miles away, shook the community on New Year's Eve. Won-Young Kim, a research professor of seismology geology at Columbia University who is advising the state of Ohio on the Dec. 31 earthquake, said that circumstantial evidence suggests a link between the earthquake and high-pressure well activity. Kim said he believes that the recent earthquake did not occur naturally and may have been caused by high-pressure liquid injection related to oil and gas exploration and production.

Fracking is a method of gas extraction that involves injecting a brew of toxic, heavy metal lubricants, chemicals and sand deep underground to fracture rock formations that release oil and gas. Hydraulic fracturing uses enormous quantities of fresh water, which gas companies take from nearby streams, ponds and rivers, or truck in if there is no immediate water source. Every time a gas well is fracked, four to nine million gallons of water are injected into the ground with a secret brew of chemicals. A single well can be fracked up to 12 times, totaling more than 100 million gallons of freshwater used in the lifetime of a well.

Some of the fracking fluid used in the process of breaking apart the shale remains underground, but a large majority of it comes back to the surface mixed with hazardous chemicals, volatile organic compounds, and even radioactive material that was trapped underground and released in the process. This wastewater is then trucked to a disposal well and pumped back underground. With millions of gallons of hazardous liquid created during this process, a major challenge for the natural gas industry and regulators, has been the disposal of this toxic byproduct of fracking.

It is this toxic wastewater that is being high-pressure injected into many of Ohio's deep wells, as far down as 9,000 feet, and blamed for the recent Youngstown earthquakes. Thanks to Ohio's geology and the Kasich administration, along with other elected officials, Ohio now receives about 1,000 truckloads of frackwater everyday at disposal wells around Ohio. Ohio is home to 177 oil and gas wastewater injection well sites, 10 times more than surrounding states. More than half of the fracking wastewater coming into Ohio is from out of state, including from New York and Pennsylvania.

Concerns on how to dispose of fracking wastewater are only one of the problems associated with natural gas extraction. Fracking has been linked to more than 1,000 incidents of groundwater contamination across the U.S., including cases where people can actually ignite their tap water. There is no doubt that proper regulations on the state and federal levels are lacking.

In New York state, opponents of fracking are asking lawmakers to extend the moratorium that was put into place in 2010, due to concerns that hydraulic fracturing, without proper regulation, could pollute groundwater.

Concerns over the extraction of natural gas are experienced worldwide and impact rural, suburban and urban communities. The number of anti-fracking groups is growing every day. Frustrations are running high as the U.S. continues to lack a sustainable energy policy that puts a cap on carbon and supports investment in renewable energy generation and manufacturing instead of supporting extreme fossil fuel extraction.

On the federal level and in Ohio and many other states, incentives for renewable energy projects and manufacturing need to be put back in place. Three years ago we were making some progress in moving toward a sustainable energy supply. But over the last couple years, states and the federal government have stripped away the incentives that were a first step in leveling the playing field between renewable and nonrenewable energy. Since the fossil fuel industry is so highly subsidized and externalizes much of its costs, the renewable energy industry cannot compete without the help of incentives.

In Ohio, we passed SB 221 in July 2008. It mandates that 25 percent of Ohio's electricity generation come from advanced energy sources by 2025 with 12.5 percent from renewable sources including hydro. Half of the renewable energy generation has to come from within the state. It even contains a 0.5 percent solar carve out that has increased the value of solar renewable energy credits in the state. Coupled with this legislation was the Ohio Advanced Energy Fund grant program that provided a financial incentive to invest in renewable energy projects. However, the legislature failed to renew this grant program in 2010 and the number of projects in our state has greatly declined.

Creating jobs at the expense of human health and the environment is not sustainable. Energy generation is not a job vs. the environment issue. It's a need for a cleaner environment creating jobs—green jobs that will transition our country to relying on cleaner, renewable sources of energy. Investment in renewable energy will create jobs, revitalize our strong manufacturing base and provide long-term solutions to our energy needs without contaminating our drinking water, polluting our air, displacing communities and making people sick.

I know there's no perfect solution or silver bullet that will generate all the world's energy needs, but it is clear that supporting extreme fossil fuel extraction—like fracking, mountaintop removal coal mining, tar sands mining or building pipelines like the proposed Keystone XL that would take the most toxic and corrosive oil from Alberta, Canada and pipe it through the breadbasket of America to ship it overseas—is not the answer. Energy efficiency, investment in distributed generation and grid-feeding renewable energy projects, rebuilding the electric grid, and investment in battery storage and innovative energy technologies is the direction our country needs to take.

The next several months are going to be interesting. As of right now, according to the House Energy & Commerce Committee clock, Obama has 43 days to decide on the Keystone XL pipeline as stated in the payroll tax-cut extension bill passed at the end of last year. Gov. Anthony Cuomo will decide on the fate of New York's moratorium on fracking as early as this week. Ohioans will speak out on Tuesday concerning their fears of continued natural gas extraction and disposal of toxic wastewater in their state. Public comments are being accepted on Obama's proposal to allow drilling in the pristine Arctic Ocean and increased drilling in the Gulf of Mexico before adequate safety standards are in effect. Regulations aimed at limiting harmful power plant pollution that crosses state lines (including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which annually would prevent 34,000 premature deaths, 15,000 heart attacks and 400,000 cases of asthma) have been put on hold by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Appeals Court in Washington. Unfortunately, the list goes on.

I've been working in the grassroots environmental movement for more than 23 years.  I've never seen so many people so worried about the health of the planet and concerned for future generations as we continue to consume resources at an unprecedented rate, and allow corporations to run our government and privatize our natural resources. I've also never seen such incredible grassroots leadership and collaboration among environmental organizations as we have today. Like I said, the next several months are going to be really interesting. Be sure to stay-tuned to EcoWatch.org as we keep you up-to-date on all the issues.

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