Appalachian Basin

Cavorting with Natural Gas Friends and Enemies in Covert

RachaelThis week, natural gas opponents in the Town of Covert tried, unsuccessfully, to use an educational forum as an opportunity to demonize the industry.  The forum was conducted by geologist and former Covert Town Supervisor Brayton Foster, who professionally handled all detractors and gave the audience some in-depth knowledge in the process. 

The meeting was held primarily for the benefit of Town of Covert (Seneca County) residents and was focused more on the nuts and bolts of what occurs during natural gas development than the question of whether or not it should be allowed in New York.  But that didn’t stop Pennsylvania residents Vera Scroggins and Craig Stevens from showing up.  Craig, of course, came with his dirty water jug in hand, usual laundry list of allegations and simultaneous claims to being a 6th generation Pennsylvanian and 5th generation New Yorker.  Despite all this, he only played a small part in the event, because chief presenter Brayton Foster stole the show by mastering the detail.

Foster, who is a consulting geologist and also happens to be a former Covert Town Supervisor, extensively discussed the natural gas development process from drilling and cementing the well to hydraulic fracturing and recycling of produced water.  He also brought in examples of shale, frac sand and casing, as well as his own illustrations to show the attendees.

Our own Tom Shepstone provided some brief remarks on road use by the natural gas industry and road usage agreements. He also made a point of comparing adjoining counties in New York and Pennsylvania to illustrate economic impacts and noted there isn’t a single case in the entire U.S. of hydraulic fracturing polluting drinking water supplies.  This brought some howls from natural gas opponents in the audience, of course, but that’s par for the course (facts are stubborn things). Moreover, it quickly became evident the antis, who represented perhaps 30-40 percent of the audience, had little more than a handful of anecdotes to counter this fact (e.g., the Hallowich case that we recently debunked here).

Most importantly, Brayton Foster carried the day against these charges by cooly and calmly offering “just the facts.”


Brayton Foster explaining horizontal drilling.

Fact Filled Presentations

Foster methodically led his audience through the complete process of developing a natural gas well, not only in the Marcellus Shale, but also other formations where hydraulic fracturing has been used in New York for decades to stimulate production.  He brought in an example of the sand used as proppant in hydraulic fracturing and some fragments of the Marcellus Shale, making many points not often addressed in such presentations, such as the ideal width for a fracture (five grains of sand, according to Foster).

He explained how development of a horizontal shale gas well begins in the same way as a vertical well. This includes the casing used to protect aquifers from the operations — which, he noted, is subject to strict standards of long standing in New York State.  Ensuring the integrity of that casing is critical, but there are very common misconceptions regarding the risk.  He explained, for instance, that pipe placed underground where there is no oxygen does not rust.

Foster also described the functions of each strand (or layer) of casing, and how to tell if the cement has been pushed through the whole bore hole (it will come back to the surface).  He discussed the science used to determine how quickly the cement needs to be pumped in before it will dry and how to ensure it dries properly.  Additives are often used to either speed up or slow down drying, depending on the circumstances.

He also took the time to explain how rig operators are able to bend the steel pipes to curve the well and move from a vertical to horizontal position. This process of setting the curve for the horizontal leg of the well is not only an art, but also involves a great deal of science to stay in the desired formation, particularly when the formation is not particularly thick.

Foster also talked about the hydraulic fracturing process.  He explained the stages, the typical timeline of events during a fracturing operation, and of course the potential additives used alongside water and sand. All of these elements must come together to ensure gas can flow through the cased well bore and eventually into a pipeline.  He discussed the use of food grade fracturing fluids now available and suggested some traditional ingredients such as hydrochloric acid may not be necessary at all, but, in any case, never come in contact with aquifers. (NOTE: Hydrochloric acid is also found in swimming pools.) graphic

One cannot discuss hydraulic fracturing without also talking about water usage, so Foster addressed this as well. He went over the roles and responsibilities of the Susquehanna and Delaware River Basin Commissions, how natural gas actually creates water when combusted, and the industry’s use of recycling to cut down on the amount of fresh water used in operations.

He also went over the costs associated with developing a natural gas well and the increased efficiency at well sites that allows for lower and lower costs – the secret of managing any commodity.

Naturally, as a geologist he relished the opportunity to explain the various formations such as the Marcellus and Utica, and the various compositions of the natural gas and/or oil found within each, using some wonderful props taken from his own research and work in the field.

He explained how in the Northeastern region of the Marcellus where the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania and the Southern Tier of New York meet, the gas is considered very dry at about 98 percent methane, an amount considered “pipeline ready.”  Natural gas in Ohio and Southwestern Pennsylvania, by contrast, is called wet, meaning it contains things like propane, butane, and ethane — all of which are marketable products that can be sold, and are actually critical feedstocks for manufacturers.

Foster hit an incredible number of topics in a relatively short time frame. He even discussed the improvement in technologies over time that have allowed us to go from a country believing we had an extreme shortage of natural gas to one where, thanks to shale reserves, we are now in a position to discuss the possibility of becoming a net energy exporter.

This was an excellent and thorough presentation (a little over an hour), which you can watch in the following videos. Foster’s initial presentation was followed by Tom’s on the subject of road impacts, road use agreements and economic impacts.

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Q & A

As noted above, Tom’s remark about the lack of pollution from hydraulic fracturing predictably set off a handful of people in the audience.  Nonetheless, Foster managed the meeting well by responding professionally to each detractor.

A few activists attempted to pose “gotcha” questions or make statements, but none offered much in the way of facts, as is typically the case at these meetings.  Craig Stevens, for example, showed up with his jug of dirty water from the same Dimock junkyard where he and Vera took Yoko Ono – you know, the same Dimock where the EPA found the water was safe.  Keep in mind, my water looked very similar to this just a few months ago.  Don’t take my word for it though, watch FrackNation where the director begs Craig Sautner to produce a brown jug and on the spot he couldn’t produce anything but clean, pristine water.

We are used to the outbursts from natural gas opponents.  When they aren’t hearing the things they want to hear, they try to interrupt the person speaking, lest facts and accurate information actually be made available to a large audience. During the initial presentation, one attendee was angry because Foster spoke for an hour.  If she didn’t want to hear the presentation, why did she attend?

Another attendee asked about the sand.  She insisted frac sand was going to give farmers and animals lung cancer. She presented no evidence, facts, or proof of anything, of course.  She even refused to believe the frac sand that was shown to the audience was the real thing.  Foster tried, to no avail, to explain that all sand is a form of silica, and what he brought with him was the real thing, but his words went over like a sand-filled balloon with this closed-minded opponent.

Another man asked why several larger cities had banned natural gas development.  Foster, once again, tried to offer the obvious answer: most don’t have any natural gas to develop.  It was, sadly, a wasted effort, as the participant simply insisted on believing that the politicos of Buffalo and Syracuse, where hydraulic fracturing will (according to existing plans) be prohibited, must know something Foster wasn’t telling the audience.

Still another detractor suggested modern natural gas development was a 19th century technology and offered his own ideas for producing “industrial strength methane.” What is industrial strength methane?  Well, we don’t know either.  He recommended developing “methane farms.”  What’s a methane farm?  Again, we don’t know. Perhaps one of our readers can explain — although we should point out that methane is the chief component of natural gas.

And so it went: Foster presented the facts, and natural gas opponents talked about Dimock, where the water is clean, and offered similar misinformation on just about every other supposed issue with hydraulic fracturing.  Here are the clips. Enjoy!

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