Thursday, August 12, 2010

GasBurgh: Where Best to Focus?

To my way of thinking, here is the scariest scene in the movie Gasland:

A map of the Dallas / Fort Worth / Arlington metroplex. Red dots indicate gas drilling / frac sites within that region's Bartlett Shale -- not individual natural gas wells mind you, but "pads," or sites which may contain up to ten wells.

So there's no drilling whatsoever "in" Dallas, or in Arlington, or seemingly little to none in Fort Worth. There's just a massive carbon goiter attached immediately to the north and east of these municipal boundaries. We could debate the demonstrable or assumable hazards of drilling whatever these might be -- to water supplies, to the air, to the landscape, to humans -- but it seems we can infer that the cities will be impacted almost the same as if the wells were in the cities proper. Water and air are like that.

Now, here is the scariest thing I've read recently in a newspaper:

Cranberry supervisors Thursday night postponed their upcoming vote on a Marcellus Shale gas drilling ordinance to allow more time for input from the public.

The ordinance will allow drilling in commercial or industrial zones in the township but not others. Most of the areas are located around Route 19 and not residential areas.

But some people who attended the meeting said the ordinance should include more rural areas of Cranberry to allow landowners the opportunity to profit from drilling. (P-G, Lindsay Carroll)

Ooh, boy!

There has been some excitement over new proposed drilling regulations in the City of Pittsburgh and whether these are "the right ones" or "good enough" -- as well there ought to be. Yet in a sense, in isolation, that hardly really matters.

It doesn't sound as though Allegheny County will be inclined to be nearly as restrictive as Pittsburgh on even its best day. And we can be certain that the Commonwealth, despite the noblest intentions of Sen. Jim Ferlo -- which actually possesses legitimate straightforward legal authority to regulate drilling, unlike local governments -- will be even less inclined to act protectively, seeing as how it is populated with honest-to-goodness, sometimes reflexively pro-business, environmentally skeptic Republicans, frequently comprising a majority. And the nation as a whole, despite the noblest intentions of Sen. Bob Casey, seems out-to-lunch on this one.

So here we are. We are the City, we only have any real influence right here, but it doesn't matter because we cannot -- either legally or practically -- effectively regulate.



Unless Pittsburgh somehow gets it together to demonstrate, beyond reasonable doubt, that certain fracking practices are detrimental to the public's health and welfare -- in which case we should be able to legislatively disallow those exact uses. Not to disallow "drilling" mind you, only the certain uses of X's, Y's and Z's on our turf.

If we can accomplish that successfully -- and it might take some time -- word should spread fast. Fast enough not only to inspire other local governments, but also to make statewide or national actions more likely, and garner a significant amount of the kind of attention we love.

That's the kind of thing Pittsburgh might actually be good at. We are a nexus not only of land use attorneys, but don't forget also of universities, of science and research, of nimble communicators and civic activism. To an extent we're an outpost of global civilization in this Marcellus Shale area, the "Paris of Appalachia" as some might put it.

We can't do the deed alone, but we might if we harness the efforts of absolutely everybody in the country who is also working on aspects of this, arranging these efforts in concert -- including folks presently studying the aftereffects of gas drilling on communities surrounding the very first shale fracking sites out west.

We are known to talk at random intervals about "reaching out" and "starting movements" and "leading" and "cooperation", but the fact is that's really difficult, and time- and resource-consuming; far easier to talk about than do. But theoretically, it's possible.

We're already getting started.

Alright. We're getting way ahead of ourselves. First we start looking at the kinds of things claimed in Gasland and what the natural gas industry and others say in response, and how that all comports with our common sense. I'm sure a lot of you have been thinking, "This is crap, there is no problem here, let me make money off my own land and create energy and jobs."


  1. As a Cranberry resident, I wish there was some way to make folks sit down and watch Gasland. Just to get a viewpoint in front of them that isn't a fat land rights use check.

  2. Why start with Gasland? That just leads to sniping back and forth about its credibility, agenda, and so forth. Similarly, appeals to "common sense" when the subject in question is well outside common experience are just likely to bog down in people talking past each other.

    You actually linked a much better starting place: the Center for Healthy Environments & Communities. CHEC's mission is specifically to help communities deal with environmental health issues, and they have been specifically focusing on water issues. If you were looking for someone to define a research agenda and identify useful participants, they would seem like the logical choice.

  3. 1) First of all, people need to stop going to the community meetings and yelling and screaming and acting like infants. If there is an industry rep or a pro-drilling speaker at a meeting, IT MAKES NO SENSE to shout them down. People need to learn as much as possible about the issue, including what their perceived opposition is interested in communicating to them. Remember, when you behave in this way, you're taking time away from all speakers, even ones that you might agree with. Well-considered facts and a patient, evolving understanding of the issues will always be far more effective than t-shirts and chanting and off-topic rants.

    2) Excellent point about the City in regard to surrounding areas. If the City could magically get its own moratorium, drilling sites would surround the city limits like so many fence poles, and any attending environmental woes would be visited upon us anyway. If your issue is a moratorium, then it needs to be a state-wide moratorium. That's where a moratorium would be most possible and most sensible, and where efforts should be directed.

    3) Folks who are pressing for a moratorium should think about this in two phases. IF you get one, fine. IF NOT, then where are you going to be? You need to be among the voices pressing for an extraction tax. Right now, industry is hurrying to drill, because up to %40 of all of the gas from a well is harvested in the first they want to get as much as they can while the state dicks around with the extraction tax. WE NEED that tax, and thereafter we need to try and ensure that it goes to bolster our regulatory agencies and ENFORCEMENT of said regulations.

    4) I am very worried that folks are missing the boat as they hysterically oppose city drilling - that ship probably has already sailed. ALSO, the Marcellus Shale Coalition is saying quite clearly that they currently have no intentions of drilling in the city. Geologically speaking, conditions are not optimal...and more to the point, most big companies have thousands of rural acres of holdings where conditions ARE optimal, where the municipalities are begging them to drill, and where they can get the water in and out of the sites without any trouble. I am not sure if it's legal to drive 100 semis with frac water to a site in the city currently...but they can do it without too much fuss out in the country. Why would industry choose to drill in the city at this time? I can't think of a single reason. People are worried about the leases that have been signed...they are a drop in the bucket when you think about the budgets industry is working with. Leases were signed, but payouts on most of them don't take place until well into production. They might sign a thousand more leases yet, and still have no intention of drilling in the drill, no pay.

    5) Again, folks need to always be learning. Methane and Radon are huge problems in PA even without Marcellus exploitation. Lots of pollution has already taken place amidst longwall mining and other coal operations, and lots of methane stores pollute drinking water wells. Methane is in the ground along with the limestone, it's not something uniquely associated with Marcellus Shale drilling. That needs to be more generally understood. Also - fracturing at the Marcellus layer is well below the water aquifer layer...thousands of feet. It is physically impossible for fractures to press up through thousands of feet of rock and enter that layer...too much downward pressure from the rock overhead. Therefore, we need to be looking at the casing materials and ensuring that the best possible drilling lines are in use every time.

  4. It is physically impossible for fractures to press up through thousands of feet of rock and enter that layer...too much downward pressure from the rock overhead.

    If so, how is it physically possible for fractures to press down to the layers with the gas? There is even more rock overhead of that layer.

  5. They drill down directly to that layer and insert the frac mix. The mix causes the rock to fracture. There are thousands of feet of solid rock pressing down between the aquifer layer and the layer that contains the fractures.

  6. The fractures aren't moving vertically to any significant extent either up or down. The vertical drilling is how they get down to the relevant layer.

    In general, I certainly think the City has a stake in the nature of regional drilling, both for economic reasons and for possible health and environmental concerns. But I think attacking the fracking process itself is a dead end: the real action is in rules for casing the vertical shaft, proper handling and recycling of waste water, emissions controls, land use policy, and road issues.

    If you want a moratorium, you'll probably need to win on the argument that there hasn't been enough time to put in place needed regulations on all these issues. But as a fall back position, you can be proposing better regulations.

    And these are complementary strategies, because you can use your proposed regulations as examples of what there hasn't been time to establish. And if they argue the regulations are too onerous, you can point out their disputing the need for specific regulations supports your argument we need more time to deal with these issues.

    By the way, in the interests of full disclosure: my preferred outcome would not be a statewide moratorium, but rather the rapid passage of an excise tax combined with best-practices regulations.

  7. That is my preferred outcome as well. I think a moratorium will be almost impossible to achieve; drilling in already taking place. Even though most PA residents are only now beginning to learn about Marcellus Shale, the issue has been before us for at least 5 years.

  8. I would also agree with that as long as best practices keeps drilling out of dense, residential neighborhoods.

  9. BrianTH of 11:03 - I'm starting with Gasland because most of the cautionary arguments will be approximately the same, and because I see no need to reinvent the wheel when that fellow provided us with a perfectly good one to set off on. If we started from scratch, why, then the credibility of that new source would be placed just as quickly in jeopardy. So why not use what more folks are familiar with and talking about as a jumping-off point? Plus I think it will be useful to examine how the industry is choosing to react to it. I reference common sense because when people have something at stake, they can always proffer some argument that makes it *sound like* there can still be some doubt, but we cannot become paralyzed by the complexity of the particulars.

    Elsewhere/wise - A moratorium was not only possible but became a reality in New York State, with the nearly-expressed purpose of seeing whether we all die down here in Pennsylvania first. However I agree that's not looking like a possibility here.

    I think an excise tax ought to be a no-brainer -- it's economic activity, after all -- however a tax really doesn't do anything for persons who develop health problems. I guess you could say I'm skeptical (using what I consider to be common sense) that we can pump hundreds of thousands of gallons of chemical fluid into the earth and somehow just not worry about it, because it'll go ... nowhere, and do ... nothing, even if we are aiming below the water aquifer layer for example.

  10. I guess I would dispute the claim that Gasland is a perfectly good starting point. I think on the substance it does undermine its credibility in several instances, and perhaps more importantly, it was clearly written, shot, and edited with a specific emotional, activist agenda in mind.

    Consequently, I think it serves as a very poor starting point if your goal, as stated, is for Pittsburgh "to demonstrate, beyond reasonable doubt, that certain fracking practices are detrimental to the public's health and welfare." I understand the point that maybe the EPA and DEP can't be trusted to really look out for the interests of cities like Pittsburgh. On the other hand, I think you will find lots of people instinctively don't trust emotional/activist pieces like Gasland either.

    So I would suggest the ideal would be an entity that could be trusted to focus on Pittsburgh's legitimate interests, but that would also have more institutional credibility, and a communications approach to match. Something like the CHEC, in other words.

    Of course the industry will fight back anyway, and some people will lump all people making environmental arguments together anyway, and so forth. But I think you are unnecessarily putting yourself in a hole by starting with Gasland (again, this is assuming your purpose is still "to demonstrate, beyond reasonable doubt, that certain fracking practices are detrimental to the public's health and welfare.").

  11. BrianTH - Well, that's not really my goal here. As I say I think it will take many people above my pay grade a long time to get there. My goal here is to just to motivate interest in that project and discussion.

    I'd guess I'd like to know where you think Gasland "undermines its credibility". If that means it got facts or conclusions wrong, especially. If that means it is too emotional or whatever, then I suppose I'm here to defend Gasland despite the fact that it is somewhat "emotional/activist". I mean, one thing the guy gets across pretty clearly is that he tried really hard to let the industry have its say.

  12. Yes, Gasland misrepresented some factual matters, and there was some pretty slippery reasoning as well. But for me the deeper problem is that it was quite deliberately shot and edited in a way designed to create fear/anxiety in the viewer, and such that the viewer would associate those feelings with the gas industry. I don't mean the informational content of the visuals, I mean pretty standard cinematic techniques that I am quite sure this filmmaker understood and employed for that purpose.

    And that in turn colors the "industry having its say" notion. If you know what to look for, it is quite clear the filmmaker was trying to provoke a negative response in the viewer to industry figures and industry claims using cinematic techniques.

    Now if you are just interested in rallying the troops, OK, maybe that sort of movie will work for that purpose. But I think you will find that for those who are not already inclined to endorse Gasland's agenda, many of them will on some level sense that the movie is trying to manipulate them, and there will be a backlash as a result.

  13. First, there seems to be some confusion as to exactly how the drilling is accomplished:

    DaveP said: "They drill down directly to that layer and insert the frac mix. The mix causes the rock to fracture."
    BrianTH said: "...the real action is in rules for casing the vertical shaft,"

    Yes, the drilling is vertical at first, but it is not simply vertical drilling, it is directional drilling.

    That means they drill down vertically to the shale layer and then drill horizontally (see image on right).

    This becomes important because of the issue of pooling.

    While all other states excluding PA have an extraction tax, those states also allow for the practice of pooling as part of the extraction tax.

    Pooling means that if you don't want drilling (horizontally) under your land, but 65 - 75% of your neighbors want it under their land, you have no choice but to accept drilling under your land. I've heard pooling called "eminent domain for private profit" and that seems a pretty apt description. It also seems to me to be eminently un American (no pun intended). Any extraction tax enacted should not include pooling.

    Second, as far as the pollution of water goes, surface fracking pools of water seem to be a nasty side effect of the drilling.

    Additionally, thousands of truckloads of fracking water occur with this drilling and in just a recent three-day blitz of enforcement of drilling wastewater haulers, 669 traffic violations and 818 warnings were racked up -- again, that's in just three days.

    Moreover, while industry spokespeople will claim that any methane in local water supplies, wells and kitchen sinks have nothing to do with their drilling -- and while this can certainly occur naturally -- environmentalists and scientists do say that the act of fracking can cause movement of the methane. After all, fracking is basically the act of making manmade mini earthquakes.

    By the way, though I mean to -- and I've urged others to watch it -- I've yet to view Gasland myself.

  14. Speaking just for myself, I didn't intend to mislead about the horizontal drilling component--I was only addressing how they got down to the relevant layer without fracking vertically.

    As another aside, I'm not aware of any scientist who has claimed fracking itself has caused methane migration into surface water. Again, for something like that to happen it would have to be where the vertical shaft passed through the groundwater layer (note that this is in regards to gas wells--with oil wells I gather you can get subsidence which might change the possibilities).

    Anyway, pooling is a complex topic. If you have a lot of property owners signing leases and only a few holdouts, without pooling what you get is more--potentially a lot more--drilling sites. And for the reasons we have been discussing, minimizing the number of drilling sites should be a high priority for those with environmental concerns.

    So one possible deal--I believe already enacted in some pooling states--is to allow pooling, but only in exchange for mandatory minimum spacing between drilling sites. This may seem like less of an anti-drilling result than some might prefer, but this is a situation where being a little less anti-drilling may be required to be a lot more pro-environment.

  15. The environmental effects from activity around the natty gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale have no understanding of political or municipal boundaries. Local municipalities will not effectively legislate themselves out of the equation.

    All the permits associated with the Marcellus Shale activity - except for the drilling permit, itself - are common DEP permits. These permits need enforced by the DEP. By far the majority of the violations relate to the handling, storage, transport, disposal and treatment of wastewater from the sites.

    This is an issue very similar to lax stormwater control during suburban development of the 1960s and 1970s. Took quite a while for the federal government to enact legislation, and even longer for states to implement and enforce the regulations. Every low lying hamlet near a run or creek feels the effects of such unbridled development during every moderate rainfall event.

    So after 150 years of Oil and Gas development in the Commonwealth we still can't protect ourselves, and we need new rules? Embarrassing.

  16. In my opinion, politicians need to understand that solid regulations and effective enforcement of them are very important to their constituents. That is the message that we need to consistently convey to them. As a result, support for the extraction tax is critical. As things stand, most of that will be put towards the general fund...again, we need to convey our desire that it go to primarily bolster the regulatory/enforcement structure.

    None of this is a given, though...Corbett is not in favor of the tax, and he is currently leading in the polls. If there is any further delay in enacting that tax, we're going to be in big trouble.