Fracking: A Tale of Two Countries
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.”