15 June 2013

Fracking Is Already Straining U.S. Water Supplies & Fracking the Amish & In Space, Everyone Can See You Frack & Pennsylvania's Frack-tured Landscape 15JUN&10&18JAN &4MAR13

FRACKING is a dangerous and destructive process, not only exposing millions to toxic chemicals through contaminated ground water and increased air pollution but also waste tens of billions of gallons of water, especially in areas with no water to spare. The fossil fuel industry will reap the profits of fracking, and the people will be left with the tab for the cleanup. From Think Progress followed by an article in the NRDC's publication OnEarth on fracking in Pennsylvania and North Dakota. There is also a link for communities in PA, NY, OH, IL & NC interested in preventing or regulating fracking at NRDC's Community Fracking Defense Project

An Encana fracking operation in Colorado (AP photo).
As the level of hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells in the United States has intensified in recent years, much of the mounting public concern has centered on fears that underground water supplies could be contaminated with the toxic chemicals used in the well-stimulation technique that cracks rock formations and releases trapped oil and gas. But in some parts of the country, worries are also growing about fracking’s effect on water supply, as the water-intensive process stirs competition for the resources already stretched thin by drought or other factors.
Every fracking job requires 2 million to 4 million gallons of water, according to the Groundwater Protection Council. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, has estimated that the 35,000 oil and gas wells used for fracking consume between 70 billion and 140 billion gallons of water each year. That’s about equal, EPA says, to the water use in 40 to 80 cities with populations of 50,000 people, or one to two cities with a population of 2.5 million each.
Some of the most intensive oil and gas development in the nation is occurring in regions where water is already at a premium. A paper published last month by Ceres, a nonprofit that works on sustainability issues, looked at 25,000 shale oil and shale gas wells in operation and monitored by an industry-tied reporting website called FracFocus.
Ceres found that 47 percent of these wells were in areas “with high or extremely high water stress” because of large withdrawals for use by industry, agriculture, and municipalities. In Colorado, for example, 92 percent of the wells were in extremely high water-stress areas, and in Texas more than half were in high or extremely high water-stress areas.
“Given projected sharp increases in production in the coming years and the potentially intense nature of local water demands, competition and conflicts over water should be a growing concern for companies, policymakers and investors,” the Ceres report concluded. It goes on to say that:
Prolonged drought conditions in many parts of Texas and Colorado last summer created increased competition and conflict between farmers, communities and energy developers, which is only likely to continue. … Even in wetter regions of the northeast United States, dozens of water permits granted to operators had to be withdrawn last summer due to low levels in environmentally vulnerable headwater streams.
Another recent study by the University of Texas looked at past and projected water use for fracking in the Barnett, Eagle Ford, and Haynesville shale plays in Texas, and found that fracking in 2011 was using more than twice as much water in the state as it was three years earlier. In Dimmit County, home to the Eagle Ford shale development in South Texas, fracking accounted for nearly a quarter of overall water consumption in 2011 and is expected to grow to a third in a few years, according to the study.
Moreover, an April report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils found that fracking is using 7 billion gallons of water a year in four western states: Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, and North Dakota. “Fracking’s growing demand for water can threaten availability of water for agriculture and western rural communities,” said Bob Leresche, a Wyoming resident and board member of the group.
The national oil and gas trade association, American Petroleum Institute, correctly notes that the “industry’s water use is small when compared to other industrial and recreational activities.” But even though hydraulic fracturing usually accounts for just 1 percent or 2 percent of states’ overall water use, the Ceres study notes that “it can be much higher at the local level, increasing competition for scarce supplies.”

New ways to frack

Not surprisingly, the oil and gas industry, along with companies drawn by the opportunity to profit from a better way to frack, are all seeking ways to reduce and even eliminate fracking’s thirst.
A new company in Texas, Alpha Reclaim Technology, sees using treated wastewater from municipal sewage-treatment plants as part of the answer. Founded in 2011, the company has signed up cities to provide about 21 million gallons of treated wastewater a day and is negotiating with oil and gas exploration and production companies to make the switch in the Eagle Ford shale play.
With regard to water use and fracking, Jeremy Osborne, the company’s vice president and general counsel, says, “We are really in a collision course here in Texas”—a course he says is accelerated by drought and population growth.
But Jillian Ryan, Alpha Reclaim Technology’s vice president for government affairs, said changing longstanding practices in the oil and gas industry can be a challenge. While the industry talks a good game about conserving water, Ryan says, “We can have a hard time getting oil and gas companies to live up to what they are talking about. Nobody wants to change. It’s easier to drill a water well where they are drilling [for oil and gas].”
Another player in this oil and gas niche is GASFRAC Energy Services, a Canadian company thatsays it has successfully fracked about 2,000 wells using liquid propane gas in place of water. Most of these wells are in Canada, but about 100 of them are in Texas.
Environmentalists and fracking critics, however, are alarmed at the thought of fracking with propane. Prompted by the possibility that GASFRAC would be employed in New York state and could evade a state moratorium on fracking by using propane instead of water, environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, protested to the commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Similar to water-based fracking, the groups said, fracking with propane also requires “the addition of toxic chemicals.” Because GASFRAC’s method is proprietary, the groups said in their letter that “there is little publicly-available information on the process” and the exact chemicals it uses.
Propane is also very flammable, and in two cases in Alberta in 2011, fires broke out during GASFRAC fracking operations, injuring a total of 15 workers.
Cornell University engineering professor Anthony Ingraffea is among those who are very skeptical of fracking in shale formations with propane and other alternatives to water. Ingraffea has been studying fracturing since doing research for his doctorate in the 1970s. He finds that even modern fracking practices, using millions of gallons of water per well to yield what he says is just 10 percent to 15 percent of oil and gas out, are “very inefficient and inelegant.”
Using propane or a propane-butane combination, Ingraffea says, has a positive side in that it eliminates a key problem with water-based fracking: the disposal of vast quantities of flowback water that returns to the surface after fracking is completed and is often contaminated with things such as salts and radioactivity.
But, he added, no one has yet clearly demonstrated that fracking with propane or some of the other alternatives—such as using a nitrogen or carbon dioxide gel—can compete on economics with water. Propane, he said, “is expensive and nobody really knows how much it takes to develop a typical shale gas well with a lateral that is a mile or two long.”
Oil and gas service companies such as Halliburton and Schlumberger have thrown a lot of money and bright minds at seeking efficiencies over many years, said Ingraffea, and if there was a “silver bullet you would think those companies would have hit it very hard.”
As the Ceres report concludes:
Shale energy development highlights the fact that our water resources were already vulnerable before additional demands were introduced. Regulators, water managers and ultimately all significant economic players who rely on abundant supplies of water must double-down their efforts to better manage this limited and most precious resource.
Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Fracking the Amish

image of Elizabeth Royte
Activist Carrie Hahn explains the potential risks of the natural gas drilling technique known as fracking to one of her Amish neighbors. Some 400 Amish families around New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, face the prospect of hundreds of tall drilling rigs near their fields and farmhouses, though they use no electricity from the grid themselves. 
In a community that shuns technology and conflict, the intrusion of gas wells shatters tranquility and brings unexpected schisms
A bleak December sky hangs low over rural Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. Here, in areas populated by large Amish families, open fields roll toward the horizon uninterrupted by electrical wires and telephone poles. Stepping from a car that seems grossly out of place in this 19th century landscape, Carrie Hahn, a newcomer to the area, takes a deep breath of mud and cow outside an Amish farmhouse. Suddenly, like an apparition, Andy Miller appears on a flagstone path, his face hidden beneath beard and broad-brimmed hat. He quickly ushers us inside a large, unfurnished mudroom to escape the wind.
Miller, who is in his late 40s and has nine children, is a leading member of the Old Order Amish, who eschew all modern conveniences. (Like all the Amish names in this story, Miller’s has been changed at his request, to respect Amish traditions and preserve his anonymity.) Standing against a western window, a silhouette of felt hat, bushy sideburns, and stiff cotton work clothes, he explains how he came to be in the uncomfortable position in which he finds himself today: dealing with multibillion-dollar energy companies that use high-tech methods to shatter the earth and release mile-deep pockets of natural gas.
Decades ago, Miller says, oil and gas companies began prowling around western Pennsylvania, locking residents into leases for conventional gas wells, which are relatively shallow and unobtrusive. Many landowners, Millerincluded, had no idea that once they had assigned their mineral rights, often for a thousand times less than the going rate, the leaseholders could return and burrow deeper into the same piece of property.
This time around the gas companies intend to drill into the Marcellus Shale -- a 400-million-year-old, mile-deep formation that sweeps from West Virginia, across Pennsylvania, and into New York -- then turn their bits horizontally and continue boring for another couple thousand feet. Wells are then injected with millions of gallons of highly pressurized water laced with sand and chemicals; the solution fractures the shale and releases pockets of natural gas. This is fracking.
Miller sold his mineral rights to a company called Atlas, which was bought by Chevron in 2011. “The money helped,” he says, “but I wished I knew more of what to expect.” Now, thanks to people like Carrie Hahn, Miller understands that producing gas in this manner is no simple matter. Over a period of months, workers carve a multi-acre drilling platform out of forest or field, then cram it with mixing tanks, storage tanks, compressors, gas pipes, flaring towers, diesel generators, office trailers, and porta-potties. Nearby, they dig plastic-lined ponds of several acres to hold either freshwater or “produced” water that flows up and out of the wells. During development of the site, trucks carrying water, chemicals, sand, and other equipment come and go -- up to 1,000 of them a day.
“We don’t want huge gas companies coming here because of the heavy pollution, the traffic, and so much money,” Miller says. “When money rules, a lot of bad things happen to a community.” But good things have happened, too. With his payout from Atlas, Miller installed new drainage tiles to reduce excess waterin his fields (yes, using only horse power). Other Amish families in the area have used gas royalties to build greenhouses or sawmills. “Buildings have to be kept up,” Miller says, shrugging. “But we would have survived without the money, somehow.”
Since the shallow well went in, Miller has managed to keep energy companies off his property, despite his lease. He gave an earful to a representative who tried to get near his well on a Sunday, and he continues to refuse access to a Texan seeking to seismically map his land (Miller has no obligation to permit this testing). I press Miller, who is now invisible to us in the darkness, to explain how he can legally stop a company from fracking if it owns the mineral rights on his property, but he deflects my inquiries. “It’s time for the community to take a stand,” he mutters enigmatically. When his wife, in a long skirt and a bonnet, lights a kerosene lantern and places dinner on the kitchen table, Hahn and I know it’s time to leave.
* * *
Four hundred Old Order Amish families live in and around Lawrence County’s borough of New Wilmington. Extended families live in plain white houses -- no shrubs, no shutters -- surrounded by gardens, barns, farm fields, and long stringers of ever-flapping laundry. Horses, cows, and sheep graze on rolling pastures; horses and buggies deliver children to one- or two-room schoolhouses served by an outhouse and an outdoor water pump. Old Order Amish don’t use cars or phones, electricity from the grid, indoor toilets, or upholstered furniture. Many live off their land; some run small businesses. Wooden signs at the ends of driveways advertise their wares: rocking chairs, maple syrup, eggs, fudge, donuts, firewood, sawdust, and fresh produce.
Soon, however, customers -- including the thousands of international tourists who visit the Amish countryside each year -- may be chased away from this homegrown bounty as New Wilmington, like other communities before it, is transformed by the industrial frenzy of shale-gas extraction.
Kate Sinding
Kate Sinding
Q&A with the NRDC senior attorney and New York urban program deputy director.
How can people in places like New Wilmington defend themselves if they don’t want oil and gas companies to undertake massive fracking operations in their communities?
If a city or town decides it doesn’t want fracking, that community’s voice should be heard and respected. But it can be very difficult for elected officials and community leaders to challenge large corporations and get up to date quickly about the many legal and environmental issues involved with oil and gas drilling. Plus, the rules and regulations are different in each state where fracking wells are being drilled -- and in a lot of states, communities have little or no power to “just say no” to the industry. That’s why NRDC launched theCommunity Fracking Defense Project last year. We’re offering our legal and policy assistance to local governments in five states -- New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and North Carolina -- that want added control over the siting of drilling in their communities, or ways to ensure their residents are protected against the harms of fracking.
Read the rest here
As work crews have moved into the area, gas stations, lunch counters, coffee shops, the local hotel, and a tanning salon (favored by the wives of imported workers) have profited. Large landholders have done well, too, receiving up to $3,500 an acre for their mineral rights. “We’ve got some wealthy people now,” says New Wilmington Mayor Wendell Wagner. “Investment advisers and lawyers are advertising their services.”
But the town is seeing more friction, too, between landowners who trust energy companies to do the right thing and neighbors -- sometimes even family members -- convinced industry will cut corners and ravage the countryside. (Atlas Energy, which has leased mineral rights on several Lawrence County properties, including Miller's farm, would not comment for this story.) “I’ve been to town meetings and seen pictures of what’s going on,” says Ivan Dubransky, 64, who grew up in the area and worked for Pennsylvania Power and Light. “We’re in the same situation now that Washington County was three years ago. Back then, a lawyer told us fracking was the best thing that had ever happened down there, and that we’d better sign up. He came back recently and said it was the worst thing that had ever happened to his county.”
These are familiar concerns and conflicts, even supplying the plot for the new Matt Damon movie Promised Land. But in the small towns of western Pennsylvania, where many landowners have zero control over the fate of hydrocarbons beneath their property, the battle lines can be oddly mutable, and the Amish, many of whom have been rooted to this landscape for more than five generations, now find themselves in deeply unfamiliar territory.
* * *
Luckily for her Amish neighbors, Carrie Hahn, 47, is adept with a smartphone. She knows her way around county records and has no problem challenging corporate or local authority. With her husband, Bill, and their two horseback-riding, soccer-playing teenage daughters, she moved here from Pittsburgh nearly two years ago, seeking a healthier lifestyle and room to start a market garden. (A registered Republican, Hahn also works as a nutrition advocate for the Weston A. Price Foundation, which promotes a diet centered on fresh produce and animal products.)
The Hahns spent considerable time searching for property in the area, but an uptick in oil-and-gas drilling had tripled the price of land that included subsurface mineral rights. The Hahns could see that drilling would soon be a part of their daily life, so they started digging into what that might mean.
“I spent hours every day, researching, and reading anything and everything I could find on the environmental, financial, and social impacts of fracking,” Carrie Hahn says. “Soon, we were looking for land anywhere the shale was not.”
This was physically impossible if the family wanted to stay in western Pennsylvania, but the Hahns decided that controlling the rights to minerals beneath their home would be the key to minimizing their exposure. Thousands of leases have already been signed in Lawrence County, although only 26 wells destined for hydrofracking had been drilled as of June 2012. Residents are looking warily toward Washington County, to the south, which has 896 deep wells, and Bradford County, to the east, which has 1,795. According to estimates by Terry Engelder, a Penn State geoscientist, the Marcellus shale formation might contain enough technically recoverable natural gas to supply the entire United States, at the current rate of use, for up to 20 years.
The Hahns eventually purchased a modest house on 14 acres, and they continue to turn down offers from landmen seeking to purchase their mineral rights. But the couple knows that holding out will do little good if a deep well is drilled on the 100-acre property across the street, where rights have already been leased to Atlas Energy. “That would be the end of my organic farm,” Hahn says.
But she hasn’t given up hope. Before Atlas can sink a well on that property, it needs to piece together rights to hundreds more acres to make its investment worthwhile, which means the company is pursuing mineral rights from some of the Hahns’ Amish neighbors.* And that’s why Carrie now spends her days going door to door with rolled-up property maps, standing on wind-whipped porches and in dimly lit vestibules, respectfully explaining the risks of hydraulic fracturing to a community that, because of its religious convictions, is largely immune to both the cries of energy independence that rally fracking supporters and to the consumer opportunities that fracking windfalls might put within their reach.
* * *
The next morning, Hahn introduces me to Seth Bender, a sprightly farrier, 35 years old and the father of six. “I’m against the drilling because I live here,” he says as he bangs a horseshoe against an anvil in a drafty barn. “I’ve heard about the sinkholes and the earthquakes. I’m too much of a land lover to favor drilling. I want to keep the land the way God made it.” Bender’s Amish neighbors leased their land, “but I don’t think they’d have signed if they had it to do over again,” he says. “People here think, ‘If everyone’s done it, then so will I.’” He rasps the hoof of a bay mare, muddy in her harness. “Lots of people said they wouldn’t drill, because it’s against the elders, the rules. But they signed anyway and don’t talk about it. That two-sided thing used to be against our teaching.”
He drops the hoof. “This friction is caused by greed. Scripture says that at the end of times, it will take over. I could have been engulfed in it, too: we all like to make money. But I was taught at home that money not worked for” -- money from leasing, that is -- “is no good.”
The prospect of deep drilling has strained relationships not just among the Amish. “My cousin wanted no part of this, but his wife and kids did,” Ivan Dubransky, the former power company worker, tells me. “He ended up signing, but now he won’t even talk to me about it.”
“I went on the township’s Facebook page to ask questions about the seismic testing near me, and someone told me to go chain myself to a tractor,” says Suzanne Matteo, a local resident who now travels to distant post offices to avoid her pro-fracking local postmistress.
* * *
It’s tempting to think of the Amish as low-carbon innocents, the last people on earth who would knowingly invite oil and gas companies to intrude upon the land that sustains them. And the sight of wooden buggies parked near chemical tankers does spark some cognitive dissonance (as does learning that some Amish feel animosity toward energy companies only because they settled for $3 an acre, instead of $3,000).
But “the Amish are capitalists,” says Erik Wesner, a former scholar of Anabaptism who founded the website Amish America, which examines Amish culture and communities across North America. They’re astute businesspeople, Wesner continues, and “they make individual decisions, so long as they don’t go against their Ordnung,” or rules and standards.
Besides, the Amish have to pay taxes like anyone else, and farming has never been lucrative. They say the wells, as presented by the gas companies, seemed innocuous. According to Hahn, the technological isolation of the Amish can make them easy marks: “They don’t have televisions or the Internet, so they can’t learn about fracking or even see if the landmen are lying when they say their neighbors have leased and that they could make a lot of money.”
Landmen even brandish maps, Hahn adds, with plots falsely marked as leased. Dubransky says that landmen tried fooling him, as well. “I had a kid tell me I’d have more protection [against other drillers] if I signed a lease than if I didn’t,” he says, incredulous. (Pennsylvania law doesn’t allow energy companies to drill under non-leased property, so by not signing a lease, Dubransky kept his land protected.)
With other concerned community members, Hahn last year formed the Fracking Truth Alliance of Lawrence and Mercer Counties, which hosts forums to raise awareness about oil and gas development. Amish men have come to several of these, Hahn says. The group fought, unsuccessfully, to prevent the Wilmington Area School Board from leasing district-owned land to an energy company. And it’s currently trying to raise money to help Amish families test their water before deeper drilling and fracking begin. Without such baseline data on pre-drilling conditions, it’s impossible to win a lawsuit should water later become polluted.
“It costs $1,200 for a Tier 3 test, which is the broadest spectrum,” Hahn says. “But many of these families live below the poverty level.” (The Penn State Cooperative Extension Service recommends twice-a-year testing for the next 30 years if there is drilling and fracking activity near your house to monitor any potential pollution. Pricing may vary.)
The Amish worry about water quality for themselves, for their livestock and their gardens; they also worry about heavy traffic, which could shatter the carefully cultivated tranquility of their daily rhythms. There are reports, in other fracked counties, of well-servicing trucks running horses and buggies off the road. In Minnesota, an Amish family is fighting a rail yard that will wash and load fracking sand, on the grounds that the noise and traffic may prevent them from practicing their religion. Constitutional issues aside, their legal action is noteworthy because the Amish way is to resist quietly, if at all.
* * *
One afternoon, I accompany Hahn as she makes a cold call on Fred Kingery, the financier who owns the vacant 100 acres across from her house. In the double-height living room of his large stone house, a gas fire glows in the grate and nautical paintings decorate the walls. Kingery explains his pro-drilling position, which is based on a belief that the burning of hydrocarbons isn’t warming the planet, and that Marcellus gas will free the nation from dealing with its political enemies.
Hahn interrupts. “I’m screwed if you do a platform across from my house.”
“I wouldn’t want one across from my house either,” Kingery concedes. “But that’s just how it is.”
Hahn frowns, and Kingery adds, “It’s not about the money. It’s all about energy independence.”
“It’s constant noise and high-voltage lights.”
“It’s not forever,” Kingery sighs. “These issues come with progress. It’s part of the process, whether it’s the railroads or building skyscrapers.” Hahn realizes she’s getting nowhere. She asks Kingery if he tried to persuade her neighbors to allow seismic testing on their property.
“No,” he says. “I wasn't trying to talk them into it. But I spoke to them about it because I thought it would be in their best interest.”
* * *
A few sheep-dappled miles away, a drilling rig towers 150 feet above a soybean field behind Sam and Lydia Mullet’s farmhouse. The drill pad sits on land owned by Dorothy Hurtt, an elderly “English” woman -- as the non-Amish are known -- from whom the Mullets bought their property 18 years ago. The steady thud of drilling, which has gone on round the clock for several weeks, makes normal outdoor conversation impossible. The Mullets have nine children; the family subsists off its extensive garden (a strawberry patch produces 200 quarts a day at its peak), fees from training carthorses for others, and sales of the bentwood rockers that Sam Mullet crafts in a workshop behind the house. Asked how the drilling has affected her, Lydia answers in a tremulous voice. “I’m depressed about it, but we feel helpless because it’s not on our land. And the lights shine through our windows at night. It’s not relaxing.” Since the work began, Lydia has been waking at 3 a.m., unable to go back to sleep.
“I just hope it turns out good in the end,” Sam says.  “My attitude is live and let live, as long as it’s not hurting the earth. We try to avoid conflict.”
The Mullets’ 3-year-old son, bright-eyed under his broad-brimmed hat, skips about his father’s workshop with a length of strapping and motions for his visitors to peep inside a cardboard box, where five yam-sized puppies squirm. “I don’t want your kids outside breathing that silica dust once they start fracking,” Hahn says to Lydia.
“Okay,” Lydia answers, diffidently. “I think they’re going to be done here in another week or so.”
“They’re just doing the first well now,” Hahn tells her. “You know they could put 12 wells on that platform?” Lydia’s face goes ashen. She looks shocked. She had no idea that the pounding could continue for several more months.
If the drilling and fracking weren’t temporary, Sam tells Hahn, he’d likely move away. Perhaps this is possible: the Amish own thousands of acres throughout Lawrence and Mercer Counties. But a new address is no guarantee that drilling won’t intrude -- the Marcellus underlies a vast area, and neither water nor air pollution stick to property lines.
I ask Mullet if his community would ever take a unified stand against this sort of activity, as Andy Miller had hinted they might. He shakes his head and answers slowly. “We don’t want to go to court, to testify about water problems. But we’re glad for people like Carrie to do this.” Mullet’s voice trails off. Then he repeats, in a tone halfway between resolved and resigned, “We try to avoid conflict.”
Hahn smiles weakly. She feels deep empathy for families like the Mullets, who are stressed and sickened by the drilling activity nearby and are living, she says, in constant fear and worry. “If something goes wrong here,” she asks, “who’s going to help you? The government? I don’t think so.”
After her confrontation with Kingery, Hahn is hopeful that he won’t allow Atlas to put a drilling platform near her house, should the company eventually piece together the acreage it needs. But she still worries that a well within a few miles of her property could affect the food she plans to grow. And so for her own family’s sake, as well as the sake of her Amish neighbors, she continues to pull together community forums, to take water samples around the county, to talk to her new neighbors and prepare them for what’s coming -- and what’s at stake.
“We want the industry to know that we are out there,” she says. “We want them to know that we’re watching what they’re doing, and that they can’t just come in here and sandbag us.”
Correction January 14, 2013: This story originally misstated the conditions necessary for Atlas to drill a well near Carrie Hahn's property. Return to the corrected sentence.
In Space, Everyone Can See You Frack
U.S. from space at nightI never fail to be awed when I see pictures of our planet’s lit-up nighttime surface from space. There’s something strangely beautiful about tracking the spread of modern civilization in those rays of light we shine into the dark void. (Of course, we could also be alerting hostile aliens to our presence, but I try to stay positive.) I enjoy trying to match the patterns of light to my personal history -- say, pinpointing the bright belt across the lower Atlantic states that represents the Raleigh-to-Atlanta interstate corridor, where I lived for several years.
NPR science correspondent Robert Krulwich apparently enjoys the same sort of thing, and he’s highlighted a fascinating blob of light where you would never expect to see one -- a blob that wasn’t there six years ago. (I’ll skip ahead for anyone who might be getting a bit too excited: it’s not space invaders.) High on the Western plains, right near the Canadian border, it looks like someone built a brand-new city overnight.
North Dakota oil fields from space
There is a city there -- or more of a frontier town, really. It’s called Williston, North Dakota, and its population has indeed boomed in recent years. (If you read the New York Times, you learned earlier this week about how that hasn’t exactly been a good thing for at least one segment of the local populace:women.) But the lights shining into space aren’t Williston’s homes or street lamps. They’re lit-up oil rigs and natural gas flares from the immense Bakken Shale deposit.
In other words, we can see fracking from space.
Here’s what Keith Schneider wrote about Williston for our publication last year:
To understand the magnitude of the current oil and gas boom in North Dakota, you need only stand alongside U.S. Route 85 anywhere just north or south of Williston at night. The area’s 200 drilling rigs are lit up like carnival rides: towers of floodlights make up a luminous vertical cityscape amid the surrounding darkness. Semis hauling heavy equipment, pipe, water, fuel, oil, rigging, and any number of other loads roll past -- an unyielding train of oilfield supplies and products.
Over the last several years, OnEarth has reported, nearly 50,000 men have come to North Dakota to find work in an oilfield that now measures 18,000 square miles. Energy companies are drilling about 200 new wells each month in the western part of the state, over an area roughly the size of New Jersey. Last year, North Dakota passed Alaska to become the nation’s second-largest oil producing state, after Texas.
A boom like this doesn’t come without consequences. For one thing, natural gas isn’t as profitable as oil, so North Dakota allows the drilling companies tojust burn it off (30 percent of the gas that comes out of the ground is “flared” away, according to state officials). There's no regard whatsoever for the climate impacts (the equivalent of 2.5 million cars, according to World Bank estimates) or the fact that, hey, maybe if we’re going to take that much fossil fuel out of the ground, we ought to at least find a way to use all of it. The Timessays more than 100 million cubic feet of natural gas is flared this way every day. With that much fuel, you could heat half a million homes.
Of course, if the oil companies stopped flaring, North Dakota would go dark again. And then where would the aliens cast their gaze?
Truthfully, pretty much every dot of light on the planet’s surface that’s bright enough to be seen from space represents humanity’s unquenchable thirst for energy -- and our disregard for its collateral damage. I’m not nostalgic for the Dark Ages (far from it -- I miss my electricity a lot when it’s not around). But maybe looking at that bright glare on the Great Plains can serve as a reminder of how painfully far we’re willing to go to keep all those other lights shining.
Images: NASA/NPR

Pennsylvania's Frack-tured Landscape

Drill rigs and access roads carve great gashes in Pennsylvania’s pristine Tiadaghton State Forest. 
Natural gas drilling has scarred Pennsylvania’s pastoral landscape, divided communities and neighbors, and raised serious questions about public health
The defining natural feature of northern Pennsylvania is its woodlands, which make up one of the largest expanses of publicly accessible forest remaining in the eastern United States. Though decimated by logging in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this region has been recovering for nearly 100 years, and now attracts hundreds of thousands of hunters and trout fishers, hikers and canoers, bird-watchers, campers, skiers, and stargazers. (The so-calledPennsylvania Wilds are renowned for their exceptionally dark skies.)
But these plateaus of hardwoods and conifers, whose biological diversity and ecological integrity send scientists into reveries, are coming under increasing pressure from the rapidly expanding energy industry. Most of Pennsylvania lies atop the gas-rich Marcellus Shale, where industry may develop as many as 60,000 wells over the next two decades -- two-thirds of them within forest areas. The opening photograph by Martha Rial, taken over Tiadaghton State Forest in Lycoming County, hints at what’s at stake.
The Marcellus Shale Documentary Project is a nearly yearlong reconnaissance by six veteran photographers of the impact of shale gas in Pennsylvania. Taken together, the work depicts both winners and losers, the good and the bad, the awesome and the appalling. At times it’s difficult to say which is which: the issues are that complicated, the social and economic terrain ever shifting, and the dividing lines surprisingly fluid.
By any measure, extracting natural gas from deep shale formations is an ugly process. Three-and-a-half-acre drill pads are scraped from the earth, then connected with roads, pipelines, and million-gallon ponds that hold fresh and contaminated water. Clearings are crammed with condensate tanks, separators, compressors, generators, chemical-filled storage containers the size of freight cars, office trailers, and Porta-Potties. Drill rigs, like the one pictured above, project like rocket gantries from the rolling terrain.
What happens underground is no less violent for going unobserved. After reaching the shale formation, in places more than a mile deep, operators turn their drill bits 90 degrees and proceed for another thousand feet or more. They blast small holes in the lateral borehole, then inject millions of gallons of highly pressurized water laced with chemicals and sand. The shale fractures, releasing pockets of natural gas along with water now contaminated with volatile organic compounds, radioactive materials, and heavy metals. (Many of these chemicals are linked with cancer, genetic mutations, and endocrine disruption.)
The development of a drilling site involves roughly 1,000 vehicle trips back and forth each day, generating plumes of dust and diesel exhaust and straining local roadways. Engines rev, steel clanks, trucks beep, and the earth shakes as pipes are pounded into wells. At night, methane flares lend forests and cornfields a Hadean glow. During drilling and fracking, high-intensity lights shine around the clock. Noxious fumes from vehicles, tanks, flares, and wellheads drift on the wind.
Nobody likes these intrusions, but industry reminds us that most of the assaults are temporary: drilling a single well can take months, but fracking rarely lasts longer than a few days. Still, opponents say, degradation of groundwater and soil (to say nothing of forest fragmentation and increased runoff of pollutants into streams) will last far longer. Then there are the social impacts: depressed home and business values, increased traffic and crime (as transient workers move in), rental units priced beyond the reach of non-gas-field workers, and fractured relations with neighbors, especially when drilling rigs rise just over the property line of a homeowner who will receive no financial benefit.
On the flip side, energy booms have also boosted local economies, manufacturing, and tax revenues. Oil and gas royalties have allowed livestock owners to expand herds, parents to send children to college, and debtors to pay off loans. And let us not forget that natural gas is abundant, cheap (for the moment), and domestically sourced. Burning it generates fewer greenhouse gases than does burning coal, but producing it -- a process during which up to 9 percent of total gas output may be lost through venting and leaks -- may negate those advantages.
Perhaps the most worrisome aspect of drilling and fracking operations is their long time line of uncertainty. No one knows for sure if shale-gas extraction, even when performed to the letter of existing law, harms human health. Anecdotes of illness and death and reports of contaminated air, water, and soil abound. Janet McIntyre, pictured above in her living room in Butler County, claims that nearby drilling contaminated her tap water. She now uses bottled water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. But proving cause and effect, especially when energy companies aren’t required to disclose all the chemicals they use or discharge, is extremely difficult.
Unfortunately, the federal government hasn’t funded any long-term studies of the transport and fate of fracking chemicals, let alone how these might interact with existing compounds in the environment or whether they move into plants and animals consumed by humans. The Environmental Protection Agency iscurrently conducting a four-year study of fracking’s impact on drinking water, but the results aren’t due until 2014 and are not expected to define the probability of water contamination.
Compared with mountaintop removal or strip mining for coal, the footprint of shale-gas extraction is admittedly small. Drilling rigs eventually come down (though the heavy equipment may return to re-fracture existing wells numerous times over several decades), well pads shrink, and wastewater impoundments are filled in after wells quit producing. Still, these operations’ social and environmental effects ripple widely, both because the practice continues to grow (and will grow even faster in the Marcellus if Governor Andrew Cuomo lifts New York State’s current fracking moratorium) and because every additional drill site requires ever more associated infrastructure: pipelines, access roads, processing plants, substations, compressor stations, and staging areas. Already, gas companies have leased about seven million acres of Pennsylvania’s public and private property -- a quarter of the state’s landmass, including 385,400 acres of state forest land.
As energy extraction industrializes the countryside, it’s exactly these forest refuges that gas field residents will turn to for solace. How disappointing, then, to discover -- or just to learn, for those who take comfort simply in the knowledge of wild places -- that these dense and contiguous forests, so recently recovered, have quite recently been rebroken.