For Release Saturday, January 21, 2012
Is 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.
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