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Friday, June 20, 2014

Report: PA health dept. workers told to ignore fracking complaints

Does unconventional shale gas development impact public health?  And in Pennsylvania, does anybody in positions of authority care?

As I wrote here$2 million of proposed funding that would have supported the establishment of a statewide health registry to track illnesses potentially related to gas drilling was stripped out of the ugly, flawed Act 13 prior to its passage in 2012. 

Now, StateImpactPa has reported that two retirees from the Pennsylvania Department of Health say employees were instructed not to return phone calls from residents who expressed health concerns about natural gas development. 
This is, frankly, a shocking and deeply troubling accusation.  It must be investigated thoroughly. If true, those responsible must be held accountable.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Shale gas as economic driver? Not in PA

Contrary to relentless industry spin and industry-sponsored "research" (largely debunked - more than once) depicting shale gas as an economic powerhouse, Pennsylvania is languishing in the poorhouse.  

Marcellus shale natural gas drilling is not a big driver of job growth in the Keystone State. Indeed, the so-called "Saudia Arabia of natural gas" ranks 42nd in job growth among all US states over the past 12 months and 49th in job growth since the beginning of 2011, according to a new analysis from the Keystone Research Center.

The job creation from shale gas drilling shouldn't be dismissed - but it also shouldn't be exaggerated. Nor should other economic opportunities that the drilling boom affords be missed.

Pennsylvania's incredibly anemic economic performance in the midst of a shale gas boom should be the subject of serious public debate - and a cautionary tale to other gas-producing states.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sandy, baby

Will the natgas industry be branded a fool (apologies - I couldn't resist) for using ever more polluting, dangerous, and impactful truck-intensive development practices?

Or will it use its enormous intellectual capital to achieve breakthroughs in safety, environmental impact, and public health protection? 

Those questions are raised by this article in the Pittsburgh's Post-Gazette's excellent Power Source section.  It reports on the "dramatic" increase in the use of sand in hydraulic fracturing to boost productivity in the Marcellus play.

“You’re seeing wells pumped now with seven, nine, 11 billion pounds of sand,” says the article.  That's surely a typo or an error by the individual quoted.  The "b" in billion is likely meant to have an "m" as in million - as the article goes on to say 3 paragraphs later that "the Marcellus will require more than 13 billion pounds of frack sand this year, up from 9.6 billion pounds last year. In 2015, that’s expected to increase to nearly 15.8 billion pounds." 

So, it's likely that Marcellus wells require upwards of 10 million pounds of sand per frack job.

That's a lot of sand.  

Two takeaways from this article.

First, the growing use of sand involves a growing number of truck trips per well. That bodes ill for local traffic safetylocal air qualitylocal governments and taxpayers - and for the industry.  As the article points out, "there's not enough trucks out there" to meet the sand demand.

Second, the industry continues to be resourceful in getting more gas out of every well. Indeed, according to the US Energy Information Administration, a Marcellus Shale well completed by a rig in April 2014 can be expected to yield over 6 Mcfg per day more than a well completed by that rig in that formation in 2007. That's a testament to not only the profit motive but some really smart folks in the industry. Which gives me hope that - if properly regulated and incented - the industry can dramatically reduce it's environmental and public health risks and impacts.   

The business case for sustainable unconventional natural gas development is growing by the day. States must develop nex-gen regulations that use business drivers to better regulate the practice and drive continuous improvement.

Will they? 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Let's talk about refracking

I've written frequently about the landscape industrialization that results from shale gas development, and the important studies that are underway to document change in Pennsylvania.

But words on a computer screen don't convey the reality. This photo gallery on shale gas development on Pennsylvania state forest land does a lot better job of showing what happens to forests when the drill rigs move in. Here's a sampling:

All photos courtesy

All of this development is occurring on state forest land, where - generally speaking - higher environmental protection standards are practiced compared to privately-owned lands. But even subject to these higher standards and under the best management, any way you slice it, natgas development is a heavy, invasive, and disruptive industrial process. Indeed, it turns forests blocks into industrial parks.  Impacts are inevitable,  and not nearly fully understood. It's clear, though, that these impacts are already very significant in these early days of Pennsylvania's shale gas era, and cumulatively troubling. 

Now, to be sure,  some of those disturbances will be reclaimed.  Eventually.

Which is part of the problem.  

How long will these awful wounds to forests stay open?  When will reclamation of well sites and right-of-way occur? Some partial reclamation has occurred in PA. But will those wounds be reopened as wells are refracked to maintain production?  That appears likely, even if nobody's talking about it.  

The US Energy Information Administration says that the average shale gas well will be refracked every five years. Other sources suggest it could happen every one to two years, or at least several times per well - and may require more water each time. 

Does refracking happen only where it's profitable - which appears to be just about everywhere

Refracking is apparently already occurring in PA, but I haven't been able to discern that from state data, because it apparently doesn't require a separate permit to refrack a well.

When will the wounds of shale gas development be healed? We can't answer that question until we talk about refracking. And that requires much more transparency - from both the industry and state government - as well as better regulation, and much more careful work by the shale gas industry.