Lehigh Valley Marcellus Shale Events: A Study in Contrasts
Northern Wayne Property Owners Association
Delaware River Basin resident
Over the past week, Northampton County, Pennsylvania has played host to several events focusing on Marcellus Shale development in the state. As a citizen who seeks to educate myself as much as I can about this opportunity I decided to attend Shale Gas Exposed where Tony Ingraffea spoke, a few days later I attended a presentation by former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary, John Hanger. It was a study in contrasts to say the least.
Before I give you a rundown of what happened at those events, let me first share a little information about natural gas and the Lehigh Valley, seen in yellow on the map.
The Lehigh Valley is located in the Delaware River Basin, so it is currently under DRBC’s de facto moratorium on natural gas development. Once the DRBC votes on their regulations, the area still is not in the heart of Marcellus Shale production. If you look at the map, you can see the green representing the Marcellus Shale formation actually stops just outside the Lehigh Valley with the economically viable shale 40-50 miles to the north
What the Lehigh Valley is rich in, while not the Marcellus Shale, is consumption of natural gas. In 2011, UGI reported record numbers of households in Lehigh and Northampton Counties converting to natural gas.
In Lehigh and Northampton counties, 78,536 homes had natural gas as the primary heat source in 2010, making it the No. 1 heat source in the Valley, according to U.S. Census estimates. Oil was a close second as the primary fuel used to heat 77,668 homes, and electric was third with 74,405 homes.
So while we may not have development in our backyards, what happens in those of our neighbors to the north and west will have an impact on our region. I also have friends with Lehigh Valley based businesses (insurance, fabrication, welding) that are currently growing their businesses by taking advantage of the increased business environment brought to the state from natural gas production.
We Don’t Want You to Produce It, But Love Those Lower Heating Bills
The first event I attended was Shale Gas Exposed – a conference sponsored by the Sierra Club and Berks Gas Truth. This conference, held in Bethlehem, was targeted at individuals opposed to natural gas development, so naturally it began with a screening of Gasland.
Friday Night at the Movies
I’ve now seen Gasland three times, and to be honest, it’s getting a little old. Many of the claims in the film include old data, technology, processes, and frankly are not applicable in the current state of development. It has also been thoroughly debunked by Energy In Depth and America’s Natural Gas Association (ANGA), where you can learn how claims such “Cheney pushed through the Energy Policy Act of 2005” are entirely false. In actuality, the Act was supported by nearly three-quarters of the U.S. Senate, including then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. In the U.S. House of Representatives vote count, 75 Democrats joined 200 Republicans in supporting the final bill.
For most, the most theatrical part of the movie is the lighting of a kitchen faucet on fire due to methane. Josh Fox didn’t mention that has occurred in Colorado (and in Pennsylvania) long before natural gas development and Gasland. And, when his lie was exposed on video, he worked overtime to get it taken off the web but it’s still there for all to see!
Another comment in the movie that hit me was “What took a million years for mother nature to create can be gone in a few hours with heavy equipment.” I agree and believe I am a steward of my Pennsylvania land. I suppose, though, the guy in the movie who made this statement never saw a shopping mall, highway, housing development, or wind/solar farm being put in either, something we are all too familiar with in the Lehigh Valley.
After the movie showing there was an attempt to have a Skype call with Josh Fox (who was in Dimock based on the day’s EPA ruling, probably chomping at the bit to get more content for Gasland 2). The Skype video call had all kinds of technical challenges and, overall, did not work out well. After the call, some thought they had seen “the expert”. I felt I was listening to a “story teller”.
There was also a small session focusing on concerns for abandoned oil and gas wells and efforts to locate and tag them via GPS. I applaud the efforts to find 100+ years of wells, but the group apparently believed it would be cheaper for companies to lose the bond than plug the well. Recent legislation in Pennsylvania has just upped the amount of the cap bond, though, and at this phase of development there is plenty of time–perhaps 30-50 years– to raise it even further before companies begin considering abandoning their wells.
Saturday Brings Out the “Experts”
Dr. Tony Ingraffea from Cornell (who grew up in Easton, PA) spoke and delivered pretty much the same speech as he always does essentially directing his attack on “unconventional” development to appear as an expert on rock fracturing (which he is) but, also, on anything and everything having to do with natural gas (which he is not).
Ingraffea admitted hydraulic fracturing isn’t a new technology but argued that, since 2006, a combination of directional drilling, high fracturing fluid volumes, slickwater and multiple wells per pad had created a new danger. His premise for this assertion was there hasn’t been sufficient time to determine long term impacts. He didn’t stop there of course, predictably he launched into still other aspects of the industry (e.g., emissions reporting by DEP) that are clearly far beyond his expertise as a geologist. Noticeable by all the entities that debunked his earlier methane emissions study including DOE, Carnegie Mellon and many others. Tony also took cheap shots at Pennsylvania government and natural gas companies by saying they will “drill everywhere because they can.” He showed a well map from inside the perimeter of Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) airport property and implied our region would develop the same way.
Ingraffea argued that the number of casings installed by operators didn’t matter because there is still leakage between the outer-most casing and the surrounding rock due to imperfect cementing processes. He cited statistics from offshore wells to assert “all wells leak over time,” which wasn’t very convincing. He also claimed failure rates were not getting any better and recklessly extrapolated to suggest there would ultimately be as many as 6,000 “failed” wells leaking in Pennsylvania. His analysis, of course, assumed there would never be any repairs, or ongoing technology innovation, which is a bit out-of-touch. Then he went on to mention Schlumberger has just released a new cement component, FUTUR that will bond with any leaking gases to self -heal leaks. This guy was all over the map
The professor then proceeded to launch into a broadside attack on natural gas development that ventured far outside his areas of expertise. He depicted a 9-well pad, and somewhere out west, a 16-well pad with all kinds of equipment scattered about and asserted all kinds of impacts to the area from this development, as if it was permanent not temporary. It’s a very subtle form of demagoguery that sells well with his followers. He also asserted natural gas was not so clean due to the CO2 impacts but a reader of this blog will know his work with Robert Howarth on this issue has been widely discredited.
Overall, Ingraffea’s presentation and the entire event were less than impressive. Their basic pitch was that government is in collusion with the natural gas industry, as if there couldn’t be any legitimate position but their own. As an illustration, a Sierra Club leader said “I’ve seen where they cut out 100 yard wide swath through the forest to lay connector pipes.” He had obviously never seen what one looks like after the pipe is buried and the vegetation quickly grows back, supporting incredible amounts of wildlife as reported in this Ithaca Journal piece. He likewise must not have seen fire breaks or electric power lines being run either. Ingraffea, incredibly, stated natural gas is not safe and the only way to reduce methane in atmosphere is to stop using it altogether, as if that were possible or wouldn’t result in worse impacts. Ironically, as he ended his presentation, he proposed no immediate energy alternatives.
The Other Side of the Table
A few days later I had the opportunity to attend a session called The Truth, and Nothing but the Truth, about America’s Energy Choices and Marcellus Shale Gas, event at nearby Moravian College. John Hanger, former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection under the Rendell administration, spoke at the event. He gave essentially the same speech as he did here and talked about different energy options. He’s a big wind supporter, but said ALL forms of energy have impact issues. He identified various environmental issues associated with natural gas including water supply concerns (withdrawals, handling waste water, contaminants), operational issues that can occur (spills, leaks, fire responses) and truck traffic (congestion, road damage, unsafe trucks) among others. He then discussed the regulatory approach to these issues and how they had been addressed. He commented on DEP programs to regulate water withdrawals (2008), waste water disposal (2010), operational standards (2011), mandatory disclosure of fluids, the buffers from streams, cementing standards and enforcement, and increased permit fees to cover some of the plugging issues. He stated Pennsylvania has the toughest inspections and enforcement regime in the nation. He also noted there are 9.48 billion gallons of water extracted per day in the state and natural gas development only uses, 1.9 million gallons/day or less than 1% of the total extraction, making the water extraction volume argument a complete non-issue.
Hanger said there were three remaining issues (air emissions, methane leakage and methane migration) and all are being addressed. He observed EPA had proposed new air emissions standards, there were conflicting opinions on methane leakage from Cornell University and the methane migration issue had resulted in similar confusion with Duke going one way and Penn State another. He also noted low natural gas prices were creating $500/year in heating savings for Pennsylvania residents making the median income of $40,000 net and that was real money and a tangible benefit. He said natural gas prevented broad energy shock in 2011 and tempered the economic recession. He argued we will never have zero risk from any energy source. He answered many tough (and ridiculous) questions from the anti-natural gas crowd and pointed out wind and solar will not provide baseline power sources since there are days they don’t produce, and before large scale use, in many cases, more power lines will need to be run through the countryside and communities to transport electric from renewable sources to local consumers.
All in all, it was quite a study in contrasts. Ingraffea is a showman who starts off by demonstrating his expertise in rock fracturing and then softly but steadily leads off into the political world, making a whole series of essentially NIMBY arguments as if he were the expert on them all. Hanger, who comes from the political world in some respect, did just the opposite. He was quick to say what he didn’t know and argue for the science over the political. His pitch, basically, was to leave the ideological spin out of it and deal with the facts by making reasonable assessments of risk and acting accordingly.