Modern-Day "Gold Rush" in Pennsylvania: The Debate About Drilling Marcellus Shale for Natural Gas

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In current days, the topic of finding alternative energy sources is a major concern and focus for American society. The Marcellus Shale Fields is becoming one of the most realistic possible candidate to use as a new form of alternative natural gas. However, it is also safe to say that being environmentally friendly and protecting wildlife and nature has also become an increasing focus of America and American politics. So how do we deal with the fact that we finally have the potentially to be self-reliant when it comes to natural energy, but in order to do so, we could be simultaneously harming local ecosystems in our environment?

What is Marcellus Shale?
Marcellus Shale is a geological formation of fine-grained layers of sedimentary rock. This shale rock is unique because it can be made into natural gas or oil. The gas can be found in the rock in three different ways:
1) it can be found within the pores of the shale
2) it can be found in vertical fractures or joints that break through the shale
3) it can be found to be absorbed on mineral grains or organic material

The rock formation runs about a mile underground, and expands about 95,000 square miles, mainly through New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. 

marcellus-shale-depth-map.gif

 Pennsylvania State University geoscience professor, Terry Englander and State University of New York at Fredonia geoscience professor, Gary Lash, both issued a survey in 2008 and estimated that the Marcellus Natural Gas Shale Field contains about 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Pennsylvania alone has about 2.8 trillion cubic feet of natural gas that can potentially be excavated.

Drilling 
Technological advances in drilling techniques make it possible to drill through the shale in order to obtain this natural gas. The technique is called "horizontal drilling". First, the shale is drilled and penetrated vertically. Next, horizontal drilling is achieved by using hydraulic fracturing techniques, which uses large amounts of high pressure water blasts, mixed with sand and chemicals, in order to blast through the shale fractures and loosen the natural gas within the rocks. The contaminated water then gets pumped back out into storage containers and transported to a place where it will be detoxified. 

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Importance of Natural Gas from Marcellus Shale
A major positive aspect of drilling for natural gas in Marcellus Shale is because it will reduce America's dependence on oil from foreign companies. The United States has the worlds richest shale deposits. Being able to rely on our own country for energy is a necessary step to take to not only reduce our dependence on other countries for oil, but it is necessary to ensure the United State's energy security. 

Drilling for natural gas and oil in shale will also be beneficial in the aspect that it will help stimulate our economy by opening doors to many new jobs. According to Chesapeake Energy, a company that drills the shale, drilling for natural gas has the potential to generate millions of dollars in revenues and taxable income for Pennsylvania. In 2008, Pennsylvania State University performed a study and estimated that about 29,000 jobs in Pennsylvania alone came about because of the drilling for natural gas. As of the beginning of September 2010, an article stated that nearly 8,000 jobs in Pennsylvania had opened up. In 2008, $2 billion was given to almost 130,000 individuals, families and other groups to lease their land. $6.4 million dollars was given to people in Pennsylvania this year alone. Currently, gas and drilling companies are paying landowners over $2,500 per acre of land leased. 

Downfalls of Drilling the Marcellus Shale 
I beAbout 3-9 million gallons of water is used for the hydro-fracturing aspect of drilling. The water that is used is normally pumped from local streams. Pennsylvania is home to many trout streams, and taking this much water from these streams is truly endangering the trout, and other wildlife. Also, once the hydro-fracturing is done, the water must be pumped out of the well. The water that was used to blast the shale contains arsenic and hydrogen sulfide, along with other harmful and toxic chemicals. This water must be pumped out of the well, put in storage trucks, and transported back to a plant in order to get treated and detoxified. 

Accidents happen all the time, and it is a possibility that even smaller amounts of this toxic water can enter into ecosystems and disrupt the different species and habitats. Even though this is land drilling for natural gas, look what happened in the Gulf of Mexico with the underwater drilling. Even if an accident were to happen with land drilling, the results could also be drastic.

As it stands right now, choosing locations to drill the Marcellus Shale is being done based on economic impact..The environmental aspect of where to drill, or more importantly where NOT to drill, is being overlooked.
 
Meet in the Middle
I believe that there needs to be a meeting point. Drilling needs to happen to help out our economy. But at the same time, there needs to be strict regulations regarding exactly where drilling companies are allowed to drill. Pennsylvania has great wildlife and many beautiful and wild places, that unfortunately sit right on top of the Marcellus Shale Formation. It is just as important to reserve these ecosystems and habitats as it is to help stimulate a certain town or county in Pennsylvania that is greatly feeling the effects of the gloomy economy. 

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1 Comment

I enjoyed reading your blog about the natural gas drilling in Marcellus Shale because it relates to my undergraduate thesis for Materials Science & Engineering.

The environmental problems this process poses are a lot bigger than I knew. From my side of things I thought that natural gas drilling in Marcellus shale was a 100% positive technique. I can definitely see how this can affect wildlife and potentially humans if water reservoirs are depleted and/or contaminated. There is a large amount of water that must be used to perform horizontal drilling and hydrofracturing. As you pointed out, the water cannot just be recirculated due to contaminants that get in the water afterward.

My thesis research deals with proppants which are particles that hold fractured cracks open so the gas can escape and be gathered. Currently proppants are made of ceramics because they are really strong. I am testing the properties of spheroidized magnetite, Fe3O4, to see if it can be incorporated in with the current proppants. This would be useful because magnetite is ferrimagnetic. This property allows electromagnetic equipment to detect and thus map the cracks by viewing where the magnetite particles are.

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