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The Hydrofracking Impact

Roberta Brandes Gratz / Jan 21 2012

For Release Saturday, January 21, 2012

Roberta Brandes GratzIs natural gas the clean energy source it has been successfully marketed to be? My judgment? No. It may burn more cleanly than other fossil fuels. But the process to create the wells and then to transport the gas — even before and after the actual hydrofracking process — is so destructive of the natural and built environment that it is a wonder anyone can call it clean.

Just visit  Pennsylvania, relatively new to the gas exploration industry that really started ramping up operations two years ago. In this one state, 3,000 wells have been drilled. Thousands more are planned. And already, enormous change has occurred.

Pennsylvania is not the only state to experience intense gas exploration. But it is a popular target because of its location on top of the Marcellus Shale rock formation that also fans out under New York, West Virginia and Ohio. A map of existing and proposed drill sites makes Pennsylvania look like the victim of chicken pox. Add to that the requisite pipelines either in construction or yet to be and it is difficult to imagine any community large or small escaping the impact.

A recent visit to Bradford and Susquehanna Counties in northeastern Pennsylvania, currently a prime drilling target, revealed very troubling impacts that have received little attention so far. On scenic farm roads that never before bordered anything but farms — not even a gas station — industrial sites are sprouting left and right, representing the different segments of the gas production process — compressors, storage tanks, staging sites, maintenance operations and more.

Consider for example the situation in and near the towns of Wyalusing and Montrose. Both are small, historic towns, not quite fitting the description of ‘sleepy’ but, then again, not home to intense activity either. The library in Montrose is packed daily with gas company researchers poring over land deeds. The small hotel in Wyalusing is mostly filled with gas workers or deal makers. The coffee shop conversation on this short, storybook Main Street is filled with complaints about endless midnight truck traffic and news of residents trying to sell or move.

The road between these towns is a bucolic, windy, two-lane farm road. About midway is a staging area for trucks each carrying 50,000 lbs of sand. I observed roughly 30 trucks waiting to deliver to a nearby drill site under construction. The truckers report that each load had been trucked 80 miles from Wellesville, N.Y. One driver noted, that this typical site — a drill pad with six well holes — takes 480 million pounds of sand! At 50,000 pounds per truck driven 80 miles one-way — you do the math. Then calculate diesel fuel burned, exhaust released, road wear caused for that 80 mile trip for one pad of six wells. How could this be defined as clean energy? That doesn’t even begin to touch the controversy of the impact on global warming of the leaked methane during the drilling process.

The enormous consumption of fresh water for both site creation and the drilling process is alarming environmentalists. Construction of a single gas well requires upward of one million gallons of water. That is for just a single gas well. In that same well, the fracking procedure requires upward of five million gallons of water.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission overseas the industry’s water usage, limiting consumption according to availability and suspending withdrawals when necessary. Some 40 withdrawals were suspended last summer due to low water levels, Andrew Maykuth reported in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “The SRBC,” he reported, estimates “that the industry will need about 30 million gallons a day.” That is a demand equivalent to that of a nuclear reactor.

At this point, no one can honestly say how many wells will cover Pennsylvania or New York. When asked what the impacts are on the area, one local resident laughed. “It is still new for us,” he said. “We’re still learning.”

Roberta Brandes Gratz is an urban critic and author of the newly published The Battle For Gotham: New York In the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs,2010, Nation Books. columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Joel King
    Posted January 21, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Your comment about the trucks burning diesel fuel and polluting are correct…today. Truck stops around the nation are installing CNG fueling facilities right now for the coming quantum change to CNG from diesel for the US trucking fleets. They, of course, are changing for economic reasons but the improvement in air quality and lowering CO2 emissions will be a wonderful side benefit.

  2. Sharla Lee
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    What a myopic view. Sure, there is intensity to the initial efforts to bring energy to the marketplace. There is an initial intensity to building a hospital or city hall or solar panel manufacturer. Only in the latter cases you will see all that infrastructure for decades or generations to come. Bringing natural gas to the marketplace will see most of that inital infrastructure quickly disappear. The drilling rig and drill pad will disappear soon after the well is completed. The trucks will long be gone. Pipelines will safely deliver the gas to homes and power plants and a multitude of other customers. How can someone suggest that the diesel used over a few days is worse than, in just one example, the diesel and gasoline used to deliver fuel oil to all the households that use it for heating all winter, when cleaner natural gas could be delivered with no more effort than turning a valve and running a compressor?

    If there is a strong demand for water and other resources, that can be paced to availability and the need is only temporary. Take the longer view.

  3. Bradley Booms
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Good article, the continual water requirements are a great burden on the surrounding communities and landscape, but I believe they pale in comparison to the potential geological instabilities and contamination of the local water supply. The longer view doesn’t look that rosy either.

  4. CPepin
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    I disagree that the longer view justifies “the intensity of initial efforts” that do so much lasting damage to land and the community. Damage done during construction will not be automatically halted or magically reversed. The long view includes the irrevocable changes to the ecology of the sites, through moving the hundreds of millions of pounds of sand and the enormous consumption of water, not to mention contamination of the soil and water from the methods employed to extract the gas. The long view respects the profound demands on the environment and the people who live there, beyond the life of a well.

  5. James M. Seif
    Posted January 22, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Mistakes: “Pennsylvania is not the first state to experience oil and gas exploration.” Actually it is, starting in 1859, with Edwin Drake. About 300,000 gas and oil wells –vertical only dot the landscape now. The regulatory experience here is lengthy and sophisticated, and easily researched.

    Susquehanna and Bradford counties are not in Western Pennsylvania at all.

    One does not pour over documents; it’s pore.

    The use of diesel fuel in the trucks will go the way of gasoline some day, because they will use natural gas, with virtually no emissions.

    Water use is less that any other fossil fuel, both in extraction and in burning. In fact, 5 million gallons is about one municipal golf course worth, and about half of that is recycled into the next well. The standard for treated effluent is the drinking water standard.

    And you missed the real environmental benefits of gas, so please sit in your study — heated by gas that is getting cheaper by the day, I’d bet — and do some research.

  6. Posted January 22, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

    In reply to James Seif’s critique:
    I didn’t say Pennsylvania was the first at all.
    Don’t confuse vertical wells with hydrofracking wells. The 3,000 fracking wells SO FAR.
    Why doesn’t the industry wait til they can use natural gas for the trucks instead of diesel?
    Water usage is VERY controversial. Don’t minimize it. That’s why so many golf courses are being converted to development sites.
    Sorry for the misspelling of pore.
    This piece and more to come is based a lot of research, thank you.

  7. Patrick Walker
    Posted January 23, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink

    My point here isn’t to argue or agree with any particular individual, but I was struck by Sharla Lee’s use of the word “myopic.” That word seems appropriate only to those who enthusiastically embrace unconventionallly drilled natural gas.

    Even Dr. Terry Engelder admits the combo of technologies used–not fracking by itself–is experimental, and the CEO of Sclumberger has said that there is currently no “steady state” of unconventional drilling technology. Moreover, the geology it’s being deployed in is novel to drillers and already rendered fragile in many ways by coal and other extractions. For an “experiment,” this is all being launched into (under corrupt politics) with an incredible lack of caution.

    Plus, the word “myopic” applies to drilling enthusiasts for another reason: they fail to consider the history of similar experimental technologies that were rushed into practice simply because the science and profit motive existed. The fine recent book “Fool Me Twice” by Science Debate cofounder Shawn Lawrence Otto clearly documents how the unforeseen consquences of such “rush rush” implementations of science that failed to take into account biocomplex systems launched the environmental movement in the 60s and 70s and unfairly gave science a bad name. Anyone who can’t see the clear parallel to today’s unconventional gas drilling is clearly myopic.

    It’s also myopic not to clearly consider the context for unconventional drilling: the age of extreme fossil fuels. Clearly, most of the low-hanging fossil fuel fruit is gone; methods of extraction must hereafter be ever more powerful, dangerous, and disruptive to community life.
    It’s arguable that some of these technologies are necessary–but ONLY as a bridge (preferably short) to renewables. But it’s very myopic and highly irresponsible to trust the deployment of such dangerous technologies–even if needed–to a government like PA’s that shows unbridled enthusiasm for them. IF unconventional drilling is needed, it must be in the hands of self-proclaimed environmentalists who believe firmly in climate change and accept gas only as a bridge. And since it will require “necessary sacrifice” (Dr. Engelder’s term),
    that sacrifice MUST be fairly shared among ALL users of the gas, and NOT sit just on the backs of people in drill zones.

    Gas is cheap precisely because the sacrifice is NOT fairly shared; if drillers were forced to include community and environmental impacts in their price (for example, being forced to capture fugitive methane), it would be far pricier. to say otherwise is very myopic.

  8. Bruce Payne
    Posted January 23, 2012 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Your stated concerns about water consumption could be taken much more seriously if you properly contrasted it with other uses, such as the amount of water used in suburban environments for lawn irrigation (i.e. dumping it on the ground). The truth with regard to gas well drilling is that once the well is drilled water consumption ceases, unlike suburban lawn watering. Your quoted millions of gallons of water usage for fracking absolutely pales in comparison to that, but you make no comparisons to put it in context. And to your reference of (OMG) 480 million pounds of sand, that converts to 240,000 tons, or about 2/3 the calculated weight of the Empire State Building. A tall structure for sure, but it doesn’t suggest a volume that causes an environmental catastrophy. You do not help your case with air quality hyperbole either. I suppose you are saying that it is better for the planet that oil to be drilled in the middle east, shipped here over the ocean and used here, than for local energy sources to be used which are substantively cleaner.

  9. Posted January 23, 2012 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    I live in Susquehanna county, Pa. and been watching , videotaping, journaling about the influx of gas wells for three years and see what Roberta describes. The gas wells will remain at a site while they are withdrawing the gas into the pipelines and the sites have several components on them and emissions stacks and brine tanks. Emission and noise come from these drilled sites and from the compressors that are planned every two to four miles along the pipelines and the endless grid of pipelines that have to go in from the well pads to the compressors and on out of our state. Our whole landscape is being transformed into an industrial zone which is taking years.
    This is will no longer be a rural area that families want to raise their children and grandchildren in. The EPA is in Dimock today and this week testing 61 homes for industrial pollution that has recently come up in tests done by the gas company. The EPA delivered water to four homes so far on Thursday who have water that is not acceptable for use. If landowners couldn’t make money out of this fuel, they would never choose to have their land, county, state ripped up to be extracted and then have to deal with all the damage done.

  10. Mike Devonshire
    Posted January 31, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Mr. Seif is Managing Partner of 21st Century Energy Development Partners LLC, a firm which develops alternative energy projects

  11. Mike Shuster
    Posted February 1, 2012 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    Thanks for such good writing and putting a human feel on the devastating effects of fracking. We are so busy with studies to prove the damage caused by fracking because our Governor in NY would like to look at the science and not react out of emotion, so we are always looking to Cornell and elsewhere for the plethora of information and scientific studies that clearly demonstrate that drilling for natural gas is a wicked Ponzi/investor duped scheme designed to reek havoc on our landscape that will cause irreversible damage. THANKS FOR THE GREAT STORY, and to James Seif… he should look to Robert Howarth’s study on how much dirtier fracking is compared to oil or coal because of the METHANE leakage. … Also Google Anthony Ingrffea’s op-ed from Alberta on Natural gas myths DEBUNKED, nothing is more clear if you want to see