The Facts are Secondary at Best

By Bill Weber
Branchport, NY

Trained at Yale and Oxford as an engineer, Bill has been involved in a number of enterprises involving business and engineering, and in many civic activities.

A “FRACK” IN PHOTOS
(Captions supplied by a friend of Bill’s in the petroleum industry.)

Drilling locations with the rig on location, which lasts about a month.

The site during the two-week frack job, after the drilling is complete and the rig has been removed.

The site during the flow-back period, lasting about a month.

What the site looks like during the production phase when all equipment has been removed.

You may recall that I wrote an article for the website in 2010 entitled “Drill, Baby, Drill.” It was found by one of my opponents in our November, 2011 election for Town Supervisor (a.k.a. mayor) of the Town of Pulteney, NY. The article was somewhat modified to demonstrate that I was in favor not only of gas drilling but the subsequent destruction of Keuka Lake and its surroundings, and was mailed to virtually all the voters in town just before the election. I lost by 15 votes. Here follows a follow-up on a second piece I sent in before the November elections.

As I am sure many of you know, gas drilling and the extraction method known as hydrofracking has become a hot topic, seized upon by the likes of Josh Fox, who produced a movie called “Gasland,” which purports to show in great detail the evils associated with this process, especially in Pennsylvania, very near the Finger Lakes region where Pulteney is located. The gas is located in a vast underground geological formation known as the Marcellus Shale.

Although this “documentary” is riddled with factual errors and the emotions of willing participants, it has spawned a belief among many people, both well-educated and not, that this practice of hydrofracking, a.k.a. “fracking” will destroy lakes, streams and ground water, and create havoc in local communities, with heavy truck traffic and industrial type drilling sites, not to mention the undesirables who will come to town as site workers and behave badly.

Being an engineer dealing with facts, I studied the situation and discovered early in the game that the claims of Josh Fox and his followers were simply not true. They held any pronouncements by industry or government to be false, the products of people on the take from the evil gas companies.

So in my capacity as Supervisor and candidate for re-election, I decided to stick to the facts and not endorse a moratorium on gas drilling in my town, an action demanded by the “anti frackers,” as we have come to know them.

Sadly enough, this situation calls up the essential issue for anyone running for public office — how do you stick to your beliefs and counter the claims of your opponent and the beliefs of the public? Do you attempt to weasel-word your way through a campaign? Go with the flow?

In my case, the result is clear: only heavy lobbying for the few lost votes would have made the difference. Ironically, the new Supervisor has a Board which has voted down a moratorium by a 3 to 2 margin and she is fit to be tied for not delivering on her sole purpose in taking the office.

“Many lakeside property owners… could not care one bit for the plight of the local year round populace.”

After the Board vote was taken in June, the antis went wild and have dominated the public comment section of Board meetings with demands for a re-vote and the resignation of the member who voted against the moratorium.

To analyze this situation a step further, one has to recognize the unique geography and demographics of the Keuka Lake region. We are part of the poverty-stricken portion of upstate New York, and gas drilling could provide wealth for land owners, tax revenue for government, and jobs for the younger people who typically leave the area after school. But because of the fundamental belief that fracking will destroy Keuka Lake, lakeside property owners are absolutely opposed to gas drilling and, because many are retired folks with independent incomes who have permanent homes elsewhere, could not care one bit for the plight of the local year round populace.

Any attempt to use scientific data or logic and reason with regard to the purity of Keuka Lake is fruitless, so the only hope in the long run for gas drilling in our region will be based on government action at the state level, gas prices, the geological considerations for Marcellus Shale gas under our ground, and what may happen in the courts where lawsuits are underway for and against gas drilling in other parts of New York State.

Like so many issues in today’s world, people have differing opinions and the facts are secondary at best.

I have no regrets about my stance at election time and have no intention of returning to government. Rightly or wrongly, I have paid my dues and will watch intently to see a younger generation make the best of a confusing situation, be it gas drilling, wind farms, power plants, global warming or what have you.

Please respond and comment here.

More Details from Bill Weber:

THE CURRENT LEGAL SITUATION

New York State has a moratorium in place on hydrofracking for gas and oil. An environmental impact statement has been issued and the state is considering lifting the moratorium on a limited basis in certain areas.

The state conservation law reserves all regulation of gas, oil and solution mining to the state so that demands for local moratoria or bans fly in the face of the law. This is one reason I refused (upon advice of the Town Attorney) to consider such local legislation, even though some other communities were doing it. Lawsuits are currently under way on both sides of this issue.

THE TECHNOLOGY

Gas drilling involves drilling down to various shale formations and until recently, the method was simply to drill down vertically to the shale, perhaps hydrofrack it (later explained) and pipe the gas to the ground and off to the world.

The Marcellus Shale proved to be a treasure trove of virtually pure methane, accessed by reaching the shale (perhaps 6,000 to 8,000 feet below the surface) and drilling horizontally from there for a distance of 5,000 to 10,000 feet. Then the metal tube in the horizontal section is broken open with shaped charges to open a set of holes into which water and chemicals can be injected at high pressures. This fractures the shale and the cracks are propped open with sand included in the fracking fluid. This is hydrofracking.

One problem is that huge quantities of water are required — as much as 5 to 7 million gallons per well. Then there is “flow back” of some of the fracking fluid, which may now contain salt and residual minerals which may be slightly radioactive. This flowback fluid can be re-injected into another well, properly treated and discharged, or transported to a deep injection well (typically a depleted vertical gas well).

THE PROBLEMS IDENTIFIED BY THE ANTIS

1) Truck traffic and the drilling process.

There is no doubt that truck traffic is a serious, but short term, problem, as the process involves huge truckloads of water and drilling mud/cuttings. Operations at each drilling site take place just once, but usually last 30-40 days and it is pure mayhem during that time. When the drilling is done, the equipment leaves, the well is “fracked” and the gas is piped into the network. The final area disturbed is 3-5 acres and all that is left is replanted vegetation, a service road, and the above-ground collection equipment. Road damage is covered by road use agreements that the drilling companies agree to, and they repair all problems created by the heavy equipment.

2) The fracking fluid

The antis characterize this as containing toxic materials with radioactive elements and highly concentrated brine. The claims are that these fluids are improperly disposed of and represent a threat to local fresh water supplies, both surface and underground.

The facts are simply that the fluids contain no toxic materials (hazardous, yes, but not toxic) and are disclosed in the DEC Impact statement as well as gas companies’ literature. The difference between toxic and hazardous is one of a chemical definition. “Toxic” materials represent a clear and immediate threat to life and well-being of humans. “Hazardous” materials can be dangerous, but are not an immediate threat to life and limb. How concentrated the materials are is also an important part of the discussion.

In fracking fluid, the radioactivity is at the NORM level (Normally Occurring Radioactive Materials) and not any sort of health hazard unless ingested by some means. By comparison, radon gas exists at levels above the EPA limits in 50 percent of our local households in Streuben County — but the antis ignore this fact.

The release of the frack fluid to the environment certainly represents a threat and a spill of 10,000 gallons or so could be damaging to small streams or bodies of water, but in my case, Keuka Lake is so large and deep that a spill could not create any contamination problem. Consider that the local highway departments put about 8000 tons of salt on the roads in winter and yet the sodium and chloride levels in the lake are undetectable. Fuel oil trucks travel our roads continuously; a spill of their non-soluble material is far more dangerous than that of a dilute aqueous fracking solution.

Flowback fluid is captured in the above ground piping and transferred to tankers where it can he hauled to the next well, treatment facility or injection well. The reason such a small percentage comes back is that the residual stays in the cracks opened up by the high pressure and kept open with sand particles. I do not think the worries about residuals working their way up thru 6000 feet of bedrock are realistic and no reasonable geologist would ever accept the notion that such a thing could happen in the case of a proposed injection well near Keuka Lake. Some critics claimed the seismic fissures would allow frack fluid to rise into the lake, but they fail to recognize the pressure required (over 2000 psi) and the lack of a pathway. And as noted, if by some quirk some fluid did get into the lake, so what? The fluid is 98% water, with some brine and chemicals and could not conceivably do any harm to such a large body of water.

3) Gas migration

One of the most vivid scenes in the “Gasland” film shows water from a household tap bursting into flame when lighted. This is most likely “gas migration,” the movement of poor quality natural gas occurring in the ground near a person’s water well. It is not all uncommon for gas to be entrained in normal water well when the drilling goes into a gas vein on its way the fresh water. Gas migration can be caused by poor sealing of the vertical bore or simply can be the effect of penetrating shallow gas on the way to the depth of the shale gas. In the case of Dimock, PA., there may have been gas migration, later proved by the EPA to have contaminated about 12 wells, but this problem has absolutely nothing to do with horizontal drilling and hydrofracking. To claim it only happens in gas drilling is simply not true. Josh Fox’s movie leads one to believe it is unique to gas drilling, but he knew the difference, and admitted it at one encounter.

In Pulteney we have about 12 working vertical wells with no history of gas migration.

4) Socio-economic factors

Opponents raise the question of risks vs. rewards, including the creation of wealth that can benefit land owners and local government as well as job creation during the drilling phases. The antis claim (which I dispute) the risks outweigh the rewards, which they say flow only to a few “greedy” landowners. The antis also say the process would possibly bring non-local and undesirable workers into our region. The economic spin off is discounted and, as we have a thriving local wine and tourist business, gas drilling is seen to be a death knell to tourism. But the tourists only come in the warm weather and the true economic benefit has yet to be weighed vs. the wealth created by gas extraction. As an example, Wellsboro, Pa., an area surrounded by gas extraction, is home to a very popular tourist attraction, the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, and the boro is a bustling community with a hotel expansion and convention center being developed by a local family believing in the future economy of the area despite the gas activity.

5) The outlook

With the current position of New York State on its moratorium and possible selected drilling areas, the lawsuits, the low price of natural gas, and the poor geological considerations for the Keuka region (here, the Marcellus Shale is not deep or thick enough to make gas drilling as attractive as in other areas South of this area), I see little chance of any Marcellus Shale horizontal gas drilling/hydrofracking occurring here for years to come, if at all.

If the State were to lift the moratorium statewide, but endorse “home rule” (allowing local regulation), I see the gas companies being very reluctant to drill where there is a patch work of anti and pro communities.

CONCLUSION

I am convinced the dangers of fracking are minimal and the advantages significant. But as with any public issue of intensity, there is little room for logic and reason. I have no idea what will transpire in the courts or Albany, but I do know the antis will never be convinced of the safety or benefits of gas extraction and its related activities. Local demonstrations against the gas companies are continuing, even with no drilling going on in NYS, and classes are being given on civil disobedience.

I am still amazed at the impact of Josh Fox’s “Gasland” and the near universal belief that he is telling the truth about the horrors of the predatory gas companies. I recommend a counter to his story entitled “Truthland.”

______________

Ed Note:  Al Chambers has helpfully provided a link to a recent report on fracking activity and protests against it in Europe. A New York Times story on possible health factors in New York State’s decision is here.

Please respond below.

7 comments to The Facts are Secondary at Best

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  • Hi Chip,

    I was unable to access the complete article, but suspect the NY Times has over played this issue and Pa. DEP report. They have been anti drilling in the past and tend to cry wolf over some of the issues on gas drilling and now fracking, as if it is a different process from conventional drilling.

    I have yet to see a reliable report that can link any ground water contamination to fracking. No question about it, gas drilling of any form can easily create gas migration, but the presence of heavy metals from fracking has yet to be shown.

    One has to be careful of the term toxic vs. hazardous, as it becomes a matter of exposure and the concentration. This is also true of the radiation present in flowback liquids. The concentration of radio nuclides is often mis understood and people must understand the mean effective dose of radiation a person could reasonable expect to receive from drilling mud or fluids. The standard for the annual dose of radiation is 5 mrem per year for an unmonitored individual and this level cannot be achieved with drilling materials unless ingested.

    So, Chip, the real question is whether any of the reported materials can affect human health and I have yet to see reliable reports of any injuries to humans caused by fracking. Josh Fox has done a magnificent job of promoting the evils of gas drilling and I have yet to find the root cause of this widely accepted fear of gas drilling with fracking. Have you ever read Eric Hoffer’s TRUE BELIEVER?

    Keep the faith! Thanks for your comments.
    Bill Weber

  • Chip Neville

    One of the problems with fracking is that it is hard to trust the assurances of government officials and gas companies doing the drilling. Here’s a case in point from yesterday’s New York Times: “Pennsylvania Report Left Out Data on Poisons in Water Near Gas Site” by Jon Hurdle, New York Times, November 2, 2012 at
    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/03/us/pennsylvania-omitted-poison-data-in-water-report.html

    What happened was that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection admitted in court that they failed to report the presence of toxic metals they found in well water near a fracking site! Read the Times article for a complete picture.

  • Comment on question by Terry Willys:

    Terry, you asked about pipe lines and transmission of the gas. Typically the gas is taken from the well and fed into a local distribution system of pipes along a road or even cross country in larger flow situations. In my area the wells that are still producing have plastic containers at the well site and also along the pipelines for the collection of “produced water” which is collected separately from the gas. It is usually concentratde brine and was used until recently for spreading on gravel roads for dust control. With all the hassle lately on gas drilling, the gas companies are not giving the brine away so as to avoid charges of further pollution of our country side.
    In the case of the large Marcellus fields in Pa., for instance, the gas is being transported cross country in larger pipe lines to be taken to compressor stations for entry into the grid system for larger distribution.
    With gas in this country currently at $3, and gas in Europe at $10, the possibility exists of liquifying the gas we produce and exporting to larger, more profitable markets.
    The larger distribution systems required for the Marcellus fields are another reason the gas companies are not being very agressive in NYS, as the price of gas and the moritorium imposed by the State make the building of larger pipeline systems not worth the effort and investment.
    Many of the antis have contended that if drilling is done in NYS, it will only be exported to China and who wants to do that? Export earnings and the creation of wealth—not on the hairs of my chinny chin chin!

    Bill Weber

  • Comments on questions by Tad Ogden and Terry Willys:
    In a nut shell, the fracking process is secondary to the vertical drilling, as it is in the horizontal shaft (in the case of Marcellus Shale)and really has nothing to do with gas migration, which is the unhappy consequence of a penetration of a fresh water layer and another methane layer that migrates into the fresh water layer because of a poor seal of the metal tube liners with the bed rock. In fact, in many areas the mere drilling of a fresh water well creates gas migration to the water supply and has nothing to do with gas drilling.
    To be sure, there are many claims of fresh water contamination related to fracking, but the real culprit is the vertical shaft and the fracking process has nothing to do with this problem. There are no documented cases of fresh water contamination due to fracking.
    One interesting feature of the NYS regulations is that fracking is permitted on vertical wells up to 80,000 gallons per vertical well, such as a Trenton Black River shale deposit, which is the common shale drilled in NYS before the Marcellus layer and high volume fracking was developed.
    So in the Dimock case, the alleged fresh water contamination may well have been caused by the poor vertical shaft seal and has nothing to do with fracking, if it even was performed on the wells in question.
    Another complication is the poor quality of the EPA work which has had erroneous date published that leads people to believe fracking is the culprit.
    My real problem with high volume fracking is the incredible quantities of water required to be haukled in at the rate of 10,000 gallons per truck load and having to haukl away for the next site or disposal the 15-20% flowback of largely brine and some heavy metals, as well as the hazardous (not toxic) additives.
    In the case of proposed drilling and fracking in the regions where there are large water supplies, the ideal situation would be to pipe the water in and pipe it out to some emote location that will not create havoc with all the truck traffic.
    On the other hand, I still have a problem in understanding the blind faith people have put in the Josh Fox movies with no thought as to the possibility he may be wrong/biased and the assertion that the gas companies are predators may not be entirely true!
    I am reminded of Eric Hoffer’s book, “The True Believer”

    Thanks for your comments,, Bill Weber

  • Wyllys Terry

    Nice article. I agree with Tad’s request on clarification.
    A couple of points.
    I recently read an article that the EPA had found well contamination due to Fracking. Forget ( a common occurance) where it was or all the details. Do you know?
    Also, I have seen nothing about how the gas is transported to users. Are pipelines needed and if so what does that do to the land they travel over? What are the risks? Trucks?
    Thanks, Wyllys

  • Gas Migration.

    I am not sure I understood your point under this caption. You seem to be saying that VERTICAL drilling (for water, gas or anything else) can cause gas migration. However, you seem to be saying tha HORIZONTAL drilling (in preparation for fracking) cannot cause gas migration.Cannot a horizontal drill “go into a gas vein on its way to” whatever.

    Your article is VERY interesting, but a little clarification on this point would be helpful, if for no other reason than your paragraph on this point could be cited as supporting the argument that fracking contaminated 12 wells in Dimock, PA.

    Fracking seems to be worth the risk and could be a source of low carbon energy and many jobs in the U.S. Keep up the good work!

    Al (Tad) Ogden

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