Fracking: A Tale of Two Countries

Journalist Dimiter Kenarov ’04.5 speaks on shale gas fracking in Poland and Pennsylvania

Journalist Dimiter Kenarov ’03.5 speaks on shale gas fracking in Poland and Pennsylvania.

Journalist Dimiter Kenarov ’03.5 has covered the hunt for a Macedonian serial killer and Baghdad’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal training program (think “Hurt Locker”) but says of his current assignment, “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” The young Bulgarian writer, now a resident of Istanbul, returned to Middlebury recently to talk about the complexities of “Shale Gas: From Poland to Pennsylvania” at the Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest. The widely published Kenarov is partially supported in this project by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, a clue to how combative the issue of drilling for this so-called “energy game changer” has become.

The affable Kenarov began, at the audience’s request, with a brief presentation explaining what shale gas is and how drillers recover it from rock through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Small-scale shale gas drilling has gone on for years, but new horizontal drilling technology puts gas on the leading edge of the “unconventionals,” or fuels (tar sands, ultra deepwater oil, coalbed methane, etc.) being developed now that supplies of the world’s “cheap and easy” fossil fuels are waning. One benefit of shale gas, he noted, is that it’s found worldwide and doesn’t require expensive exploratory drilling.

After Kenarov outlined some of the risks and costs, however, it was hard to understand why Poland was leading the shale gas charge in Europe and how the practice has already achieved such a foothold in the U.S. As Kenarov explained, horizontal fracking wells cover a large surface area. To force and keep open the shale fissures and release the gas within, drillers inject at high pressure from three to seven million gallons of fresh water per well, mixed with sand and toxic chemicals such as benzene and lead. Some of that water is then recovered as “flowback.” “Then what do you do with it?” Kenarov asked. Much of Pennsylvania’s flowback is sent for underground disposal to Ohio. “The water picks up 200 times the salts contained in seawater—in the Marcellus Shale [in the U.S. Northeast] it’s 3,000 times more,” he said. The water also carries as much as 1,000 times the safe drinking levels of radioactivity from its travels through the rock. Chemically tainted water from the wells can seep into underground aquifers; if pumped out and sent to standard water treatment plants, which are not equipped to decontaminate this flowback, the water seeps into rivers, water tables, and food chains.

Then there are the noise and air pollution of huge trucks needed to move water and drilling rigs; the methane released from the wells that cancels out natural gas’s comparatively modest carbon footprint; the quick decline of many of the wells, which prompts more drilling; and the pipelines extending for thousands of miles through previously scenic farmland.

In Poland, one word explains an enthusiasm countered by many other European countries’ fracking moratoriums: Russia. Poland’s longtime nemesis provides two thirds of Poland’s natural gas, and while gas comprises only 13 percent of Poland’s energy mix, many Poles want to make sure it’s “Polish gas.” The writer noted that only eight percent of Europeans overall support shale gas, but any Pole questioning gas development is branded a “national traitor” supporting Russian interests. Despite the U.S. State Department’s technical support for fracking in Poland, and the fact that the state, not farmers, owns subsurface mineral rights, “Poland doesn’t have the infrastructure,” Kenarov said. “The economy of scale doesn’t exist in one small country.” In response, Exxon has withdrawn its interests.

Scale limitation is not the problem in the U.S., where millions of square miles are mapped for fracking and half a million active wells exist. Kenarov described coming into Pennsylvania to report on fracking as “going into a mosh pit at a punk rock concert.” In northern regions of the state that lie over the Marcellus shale gas play, towns are dealing with higher crime rates, accidents caused by huge trucks, and tensions between neighbors on either side of the issue. Struggling dairy farmers who sold their mineral rights for additional income have found their supply chains collapsing as businesses shift to ride the gas wave. Vegetable farmers are either concerned about their water quality or are discovering that their customers, wary of toxicity, are buying elsewhere. (As Kenarov noted, thousands of contamination accidents caused by faulty well casings and other mishaps throughout the U.S. have been registered with the Environmental Protection Agency.)

Still, enough interests are benefiting that the shale gas drive continues (Audience members noted that Vermont is the first and only state so far to ban fracking). Kenarov commented as he showed aerial photos of vast expanses of well clusters that looked more extraterrestrial than Texan, “the scale of development is striking.”

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  1. While it is true that Vermont has banned fracking the current governor (along with business interests including Middlebury College) apparently have no problem supporting fracked Canadian gas running through Vermont on its way to International Paper in New York. The small communinities of Monkton, Ferrisburgh, Cornwall and Shore face irrevocable changes in their landscape and identity while being offered NO access to the gas as it makes its way to IP. Historic homes, public trees and overall public safety are greatly endangered as VT Gas (a subsidiary of Canadian owned Gaz Metro) runs roughshod over Vermont taxpayers. It has been proposed that these transmission lines (carrying fracked Canadian gas) could run within SEVERAL FEET of homes, making

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    them inherently worthless. The ban on fracking within the state is a move to be applauded but Vermonters still face the ugly pressures of having fracked Canadian gas threatening their health and homes.

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  2. I work down in Houston now in oil and gas (I can already feel the disappointment from the Midd community). I get to hear both- often extreme- sides of the story, with fracking being a common subject. It is pretty exhausting and now I just ask for the facts that would make a complicated argument a lot more simplified.

    For instance, what is the methane’s carbon signature pre and post drilling? What are the microseismic monitoring trend values for the area pre and post drilling? What are the water radioactivity readings pre and post drilling? Has the air been tested for methane? Why would methane just stop at the water table and skip the last few 100 meters to the

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    surface if it’s made it’s way all the way up from the very deep subsurface? Are faulty well casings just limited to hydrocarbon exploration wells only and not the thousands of water wells across the US?

    Also of further puzzlement, why would an oil/gas company want their precious hydrocarbon to escape to the surface? The practice is to drill perpendicular to fracture direction to create a pressure differential for flow TOWARDS the well. Why are only methane and toxic chemicals making their way to the surface then?

    Most importantly, what’s the geology of the area?

    There are observations made but they are not scientifically linked to fracking. If these questions were answered, I’m happy to concede but not to something that has echoes of “Gasland”.

    I will admit we do a terrible job at educating the community with the facts that we have on hand. However, there are open sources of geology and geophysics literature readily available for anyone wanting further edification on the issue.
    (Feb. 2012, “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development” by Charles G. Groat, Ph.D., Principal Investigator. Also see:

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  3. “Also of further puzzlement, why would an oil/gas company want their precious hydrocarbon to escape to the surface?”

    Maybe we could ask BP. Plenty of their precious hydrocarbons escaped to the surface because of slipshod practices in extreme environments. Why do any of the other numerous spills happen (1.3 million gallons annually from pipelines alone, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, and that’s just routine spills, not major ones)?

    Frankly. a farmer with dead sheep has a lot more credibility than any of the oil and gas PR flacks who make their livings denying the damages of fracking.

  4. As long as there’s proof that dead sheep weren’t a comparative occurrence before and there’s a direct link between cause of death to the chemical signature of the associated fracking material. These studies haven’t been conducted.Maybe someone should. Would be very compelling proof. Facts first, assumptions later.

  5. Also, BP’s spill wasn’t due to fracking. I was referring to the method of drilling used to enhance recovery and I’m pretty sure BP’s intent wasn’t to lose their HC’s. Once again, while that was a terrible and unfortunate and hopefully-never-ever-repeated event, it’s not relevant to the question I laid out.

    The 1.3 million gallon estimate: What’s the estimate for naturally-occurring seeps per year? And what were those effects and what did anyone do or report about it?

    If fracking is bad, it’s bad. If it’s okay, then it’s okay. I am only interested in an accurate path to either conclusion.

  6. No, BP’s spill wasn’t due to fracking, and I didn’t assert it was–rather, it was due to slipshod practices based on profit (the rig BP rented for that drilling disaster, the Deepwater Horizon, cost $1 million/day and they were running over budget and schedule).

    If you’d like more information on how the rush to drill for gas pushes past what science knows about the limits of what aquifers and rock formations can handle, and how known limits are often ignored, I suggest Scientific American’s June 2012 cautionary story: A sample:
    Regulators say redundant layers of protection usually prevent waste from getting that far, but EPA data shows that in the three years analyzed by ProPublica, more than

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    7,500 well test failures involved what federal water protection regulations describe as “fluid migration” and “significant leaks.”

    Also, about chemical signatures of methane from drilling rather than any ambient sources:
    *Finally, let’s not forget the 2011 Duke University study proving that drinking water wells near fracking sites have 17 times more methane than wells not located near fracking, and that this extra methane has a chemical fingerprint which shows it’s coming from deep drilling. Fracking operations have generated billions of gallons of radiation-laced toxic wastewater that weren’t managed properly and fracking has forced families to abandon their homes after they were poisoned by dangerous levels of arsenic, benzene and toluene.
    More such information from January of this year:

    As for natural oil seeps, yes, they can be significant in marine environments, due to natural releases. All the more reason not to add to them with the kind produced by inevitable human error.

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  7. I am a graduate of Middlebury College and I find their support of the fracking pipeline to be the ultimate hypocrisy. I live in PA. Come see the fracking mess. My family has lived in Vermont since 1972 and we have all seen the real Vermont. Middlebury College is not real Vermont. Vermonters depend on tourism and the beauty of our state should be nourished and cherished.

  8. As a geoscientist of some 35 years, split between the petroleum industry and environmental consulting, I have see a lot of disinformation and ignorance. Every company has had their problems and it started very early in the industry and continues to the present. There was a time when oil was pumped as quickly as possible to beat oil price drops. Oil was stored in open pits, surface water was contaminated. I recall having to clean up an old pit located near an old Exxon refinery that had been built on by a school district.

    With regard to fracking, people who are not geoscientists have very little understanding about where oil is found, how it is drilled

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    for and how it is produced. Comparing the Deep Water Horizon blowout to methane leaks allegedly associated with fracking illustrates that ignorance in capital letters. Companies are divided up into divisions and onshore has nothing to do with offshore. Do companies have a “culture” that may pervade the organization? Yes, my old employer Phillips had a reactionary culture that was reflected in its numerous refinery and plant accidents: we will do it this way till something goes wrong and then react to clean things up. Does BP? I don’t know but those who I know working in Houston for BP don’t seem to. Yes, the accident was caused by rushing things to meet a schedule and cut costs, but that was the managing engineer’s fault.

    With regard to methane. I used to map gas seeps as an exploration tool. It can also be “typed” by a form of chemical fingerprinting that would likely tell whether the methane is from deep gas associated with fracking or coal gas methane associated with near surface coal.

    Fracking takes place as moderate to deep depths. In faulted and deformed strata like those in the Appalachians this can be variable. My experience in Texas the fracking is much deeper than any usable aquifer and is too deep to pose any kind of problem.

    The last thing non-geoscientists need to understand is how and why fracking is used. It comes down to permeability. That is the inherent characteristic of a rock to transmit fluid. A rock can be porous, that is contain lots of open voids between the grains to hold fluids, but if it lacks permeability fluids will not flow. So think of it as two ways, a room filled with basket balls or a room filled with shoe boxes. The one containing the Basket Balls would allow fluid to flow between and out of the room, the one with shoe boxes would be compartmentalized and no flow would occur.

    The shoe box room is analogous to shale, the basket ball filled room is like sandstone. We have to frack shale formations to form connections between the pours containing gas or oil so it can flow to the well. Fracking is done in such a way that it is controlled and limited to the target horizon. If not our target fluid will be lost and that would result in very costly and worthless well.

    Now having said all that, geology in complex areas are prone to faulting and bedding planes tilted at odd angles. Those are the preferred paths for petroleum seepage. Seeps occur all the time, which is illustrated by gas leaking into mines. It is a natural phenomena and recall that hydrocarbon gas is one of the most plentiful compounds in our solar system. Venus is made of it, and most of the moons of the outer planets are made of frozen methane and other hydrocarbon gases.

    What the article is about in my opinion is really an opportunist, who saw an opportunity to make money as a professional rabble rouser, globe trotting to fan the flames of hysteria. He just jets to wherever he hears there is a confrontation between petroleum companies and the local community. It has always been said that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” That is well illustrated by the likes of Matt Damon, Sean Penn and Leonardo Decaprio, who collectively might have one year of college between them. Just having a public platform or having journalist credentials does not make you an expert. The writer could probably put together his presentation on fracking in less than an hour from sources on the internet and probably did.

    Be careful who you hear things from and ask yourself why they are interested. This guy is making a career on this, that is until the next crisis wagon he can jump on comes along.

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