Underground Faults

One of this year’s Oscar-nominated documentaries was the controversial Gasland, in which money, science, and politics play a role in the development of natural-gas reserves in the eastern United States.

By Jesse Hicks | June 3, 2011

This year’s Oscar-nominated documentaries were a contentious lot, taking on the global financial crisis (Inside Job), the continued fighting in Afghanistan (Restrepo), the world’s largest garbage dump (Waste Land), and the vacuity and faddishness of the art world (Exit through the Gift Shop). But one of the most controversial, Gasland, concerned the development of natural-gas reserves in the eastern United States.

Gasland began when director Josh Fox received an offer to lease his northeastern Pennsylvania property for natural-gas drilling. An unnamed company promised $4,975 an acre, plus royalties—a windfall of nearly $100,000. Fox wondered if it could be that easy and began weighing the obvious economic benefit against his own sense of the environmental impact.

Such stories have become more common in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and Ohio, as energy companies have moved to exploit the Marcellus Shale, a massive shelf of sedimentary rock stretching for 600 miles beneath those states. Deposited almost 400 million years ago, the black shale contains an enormous store of natural gas, which Terry Engelder, a Pennsylvania State University geoscientist, estimated at 363 trillion cubic feet—enough to meet U.S. needs for 14 years.

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Gasland’s director Josh Fox visits extraction wells atop the Marcellus Shale.

Freeing the gas would have several benefits, supporters argue. They’ve touted natural gas as a cleaner-burning “transition fuel” necessary to ease petroleum consumption until more advanced alternative energies mature. A meaningful reserve—the Marcellus Shale has been called the Saudi Arabia of natural gas—could also lessen dependence on imported oil, for which competition will only increase in the future. And in many of the blighted rural areas above the shale, drilling holds the promise of economic renewal in the form of increased spending by energy companies, demand for construction and development, and new jobs for locals.

Extraction became possible relatively recently owing to a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Patented in 1949, fracking involves injecting millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals at high pressure into wells. Increased pressure creates a micro­­seismic event, fracturing rock formations within the well and releasing usable gas.

For most of the last century fracking primarily released more gas from nearly exhausted wells. But combining fracking with advances in horizontal drilling has made shale extraction economically viable. Horizontal drilling enables maximum production by following the shale; fracking releases even more natural gas from the seam. This technique enabled extraction from the Barnett Shale, in Texas, and throughout many western states; over 90% of U.S. natural-gas wells rely on horizontal fracking. It’s just beginning to open up the Marcellus Shale.

But as the procedure has spread across the country, critics say it has spawned a host of environmental complaints. They declare horizontal fracking a new, untested procedure with potentially deadly consequences. Soon after Cabot Oil and Gas began drilling in Dimock Township, Pennsylvania, residents noticed changes in their water. It started bubbling and fizzing: people who drank the water became sick. On New Year’s Day 2009 one resident’s water well exploded. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) then investigated, finding that Cabot’s wells had leaked, contaminating the local water supply with combustible, poison­ous natural gas.

The Pennsylvania DEP fined Cabot a total of $360,000 and in April 2010 suspended the company from drilling in the state until it plugged the wells in Dimock. That June a well in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, exploded, spewing 35,000 gallons of fracking fluid into the air and surrounding forest. The well took 16 hours to cap, requiring the evacuation of nearby campers.

The Pennsylvania DEP suspended two more companies pending an investigation; four months later Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, under advice from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, issued a moratorium on natural-gas drilling leases in Pennsylvania’s state forests. “Drilling companies’ rush to grab private lands across the state has left few areas untouched by this widespread industrial activity,” he said. “We need to protect our unleased public lands from this rush because they are the most significant tracts of undisturbed forest remaining in the state.” The ban was subsequently rescinded early in the tenure of his Republican successor, Governor Tom Corbett. During his campaign Corbett stated, “While there are a few who have called for a moratorium on drilling, I believe that we can achieve strong environmental stewardship of our waterways and lands without putting hardworking Pennsylvanians out of work and sending thousands of jobs to other states.”

Critics see safety violations and political wrangling as a pattern for natural-gas development. In 2005 President George W. Bush signed the Energy Policy Act, emphasizing a need to develop domestic energy sources. The act exempted fracking from protections of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act. These exemptions shift the enforcement burden onto state agencies, which critics maintain lack the resources for sufficient oversight. State funding for the Pennsylvania DEP, for example, has been halved over the past decade.

The exemptions also allow companies to conceal the chemical makeup of fracking fluid. The exact chemicals used, the industry maintains, must remain confidential trade secrets—their intellectual property. They also reiterate that 99% of fracking fluid is water; chemical additives make up only a tiny percentage of the whole. Critics respond that fracking requires from 1 to 7 million gallons of fluid, so even at 1%, undisclosed chemicals are meaningful constituents, accounting for tens of thousands of gallons. Activists and regulators have since identified many of those chemicals, and in early 2011 several companies admitted to injecting diesel fuel (which contains liquids the Environmental Protection Agency considers carcinogenic) during the fracking process. The industry contends that no federal law prohibits them from doing so, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency disagrees.

In March 2011, senators from Marcellus Shale states reintroduced the FRAC Act, intended to close the federal exemptions. (The bill had been introduced in the previous Congress but never came to a vote.) Citing economic growth and energy independence, some legislators have vowed to fight the bill.

In the absence of federal regulation responsibility has fallen to states and in some cases to municipalities. Salem Township, Pennsylvania, for one, passed legislation regulating gas development. Several energy companies challenged the law, arguing that it was preempted by the state’s less restrictive legislation. The case went to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which sided with the energy companies.

These contentious debates, from the federal to the township level, point to the fact that fossil fuels—even natural gas, touted as less environmentally damaging—are becoming increasingly difficult and costly to extract. Yet as demand rises worldwide, riskier means of production have become profitable, forcing citizens and corporations to face hard questions: is fracking safe, and can it truly provide a transition away from a fossil-fuel economy? As John Hanger, then secretary of the Pennsylvania DEP, says near the end of Gasland, “There’s no such thing as a perfect source of energy.”