Op Ed – So what’s the rush to drill for gas?

Reposted from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (August 17, 2011)

A seasoned environmental health professional looks at the Marcellus Shale
By Bernard D. Goldstein, M.D.

Haven’t we learned anything from our past mistakes?

Public health and the environment have been my life since 1966. I have been a U.S. Public Health Service officer stationed in Los Angeles, our most polluted city; an assistant administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the Reagan administration; and the director of an academic environmental health program in New Jersey, arguably our most polluted state.

Before the Marcellus Shale issue, I believed we had learned from past mistakes to approach potential environmental health risks intelligently. But now I’m not so sure.

Let me start by saying I’m in favor of extracting Marcellus Shale gas — but not yet. For reasons that include air quality and global climate change, natural gas is a better energy source than coal. At the risk of offending my environmentalist friends, I don’t believe that conservation measures combined with alternative energy sources will eliminate our need for fossil fuels within the next few decades.

I also agree it is in our national interest to decrease our reliance on fossil fuel imports. The gulf oil commission recently supported a return to drilling in the Gulf of Mexico because if we do not get this oil, Cubans, Venezuela or China will. But unless the Canadians can horizontally fracture under Lake Erie, the gas in the Marcellus Shale is ours for the taking.

The Marcellus Shale’s fixed location and limited amount of gas provides many reasons to go about it thoughtfully. Whenever we begin, we still will have at least the same amount of gas extracted over the same duration of time. In contrast, delaying allows us to prepare for three certainties…  Read more

If It’s Unsuitable For Mining, Is Drilling Advisable?

There are a handful of watersheds, predominantly in central Pennsylvania, that the Department of Environmental Protection has deemed to be unsuitable for mining activities.

According to pages 100-101 of the Oil and Gas Operator’s Manual, a region may be determined to be unsuitable for mining if the mining operation will:

  1. be incompatible with existing State or local land use plans or programs;
  2. affect fragile or historic lands in which such operations could result in significant
    damage to important historic, cultural, scientific and esthetic values and natural
  3. affect renewable resource lands in which such operations could result in a
    substantial loss or reduction of long-range productivity of water supply or of
    food or fiber products, and such lands to include aquifers and aquifer recharge
    areas; or
  4. affect natural hazard lands in which such operations could substantially
    endanger life and property, such lands to include areas subject to frequent
    flooding and areas of unstable geology.

Marcellus Shale Permits in Areas Unsuitable for Mining (large)
Marcellus Shale permits that were issued in areas which were deemed to be “unsuitable for mining” according to the PA DEP in 2002.

These seem like worthy goals. So if these areas are unsuitable for coal mining, why is it OK to put gas wells there?

Surface coal mine. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Coal_mine_Wyoming.jpg

Granted, drilling a well is not quite the same impact as a surface mining operation, but to protect an area from one mode of mineral extraction and not the other seems inconsistent. After all, many of the problems with coal are still relevant for gas drilling, since the drilling operator must go through the coal seam to get to the gas. The pyrite associated with the coal is still exposed to air, meaning that the drilling mud and drill cuttings probably contain sulfuric acid, the key component of acid mine drainage (AMD).

And it’s not just the drill cuttings that could be a source of problems…it could be the well bore itself. Consider the Hughes Bore Hole, which, according to Wikipedia was drilled in the 1920’s to drain underground mines in the area, then capped in the 1950’s. So what’s the big deal? In the 1970’s, pressure built up and the hole burst open, and has been spewing about 800 gallons per minute of acid mine drainage ever since.

Hughes Bore Hole releasing acid mine drainage. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hughe%27s_Bore_Hole_071.jpg

Could drilling a gas well in the wrong place have the same effect?

Maybe to be safe we ought not drill in areas where geologists have determined that AMD could exist. That wouldn’t affect that many wells, would it?

MS Permits in Areas With AMD Potential (large)
Marcellus Shale permits in areas with acid mine drainage potential. Please click the map for a dynamic view and more information.

Oh. Well then let’s hope the well casing experts don’t have any bad days.

[Note: if you want to watch a video of Hughes Bore Hole and don’t mind salty language, click the Youtube link on the “Hughes Well Bore” link above.]

West Virginia Marcellus Shale Data Updated

Three new West Virginia datasets have been added to the DataTool to keep up to date with Marcellus Shale activities in that state. The West Virginia DEP is the source for all three datasets. Included are:

West Virginia Marcellus Shale Permits (large)
Marcellus Shale permits in West Virginia through September 6, 2011. Please click the image for a dynamic view.

The permits list was filtered online to include only Marcellus Shale permits, then filtered on the desktop to reflect only “Permit Issued” actions, thereby ignoring applications, renewals, and other actions for the same well. I also converted the coordinate system from UTM’s to the more familiar system decimal degree latitude and longitude. There are 1,868 records in the dataset. One well apparently was given the wrong coordinates, and appears to be in Pennsylvania instead of West Virginia.

West Virginia Marcellus Shale Drilled Wells (large)
Marcellus Shale drilled wells in West Virginia through September 6, 2011. Please click the image for a dynamic view.

Each triangle in the map above represents a Marcellus Shale gas well that was listed as an active well. Location data was determined by matching the unique well numbers to the permits list, above.

Marcellus Shale Violations in West Virginia (large)
Marcellus Shale violations in West Virginia through September 6, 2011. Please click the image for a dynamic view.

The violations list did not mention whether or not the well was a Marcellus Shale well, nor did it give location information. Both of these categories were determined by matching the well number to the permits list.

2nd Annual Health Effects of Shale Gas Extraction Conference

Pitt GSPH LogoHosted by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health
Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall, Grand Ballroom (3rd floor), Pittsburgh, PA 15219
Friday, November 18, 2011 — 7:30 AM – 5:00 PM

There is no cost to attend. Refreshments and lunch will be provided during the event. A light reception will follow.

Registration is required. Visit the conference website for more information.

Marcellus Shale Production Decline Over Time in Pennsylvania

There are now three different Marcellus Shale production reports available on FracTracker’s DataTool:

The production data, which is self-reported by the drilling operators, is also available from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

In this post, we will explore the change in production from the 756 Marcellus Shale wells that reported positive (nonzero) production on each of the three reports. Of these, exactly 300 were flagged as horizontal wells on the most recent report, leaving 456 to be classified as vertical wells.

PA Marcellus Shale Production:  1-11 to 6-11 (large)
Marcellus Shale production in Pennsylvania from January to June, 2011. Please click the image to see a zoomable and dynamic map.
It is important to note that the first of the three production cycles is for a one year period, while the other two are for six months each.  Luckily, each report includes not only production in thousands of cubic feet (Mcf), but also the number of days for which each well was in production.  Therefore, we can look at the data in terms of thousands of cubic feet per day (McfPD), which solves not only the 12 month vs. 6 month problem, but also makes sure that we aren’t comparing six months of production to just a handful of days.

One important factor that this analysis does not account for, however, is when the well first entered production. This is significant, because gas wells typically have a very high initial production, which falls steeply in the months and years ahead. This produces a hyperbolic decline curve, such as this Department of the Interior graph found on Wikipedia.

In this case, we only know that the initial production was some time since 2006 and before June 30, 2010. Add to that fact that there are only three date ranges, and the result is definitely not a proper decline curve.

However, there are results, and they do show decline over time. Interestingly, there are some differences to note between horizontal and vertical Marcellus Shale wells.

Average Marcellus Shale production in thousands of cubic feet (Mcf) for wells on all three production reports.

Average Marcellus Shale production showing rates of decline.

The overall production of the sample decreased 40.7 percent from the period ending June 2010 to the one ending one year later.  Interestingly, the vertical wells are declining at a sharper rate than horizontal wells, although not dramatically so.

The chart also highlights the amazing difference in production that horizontal drilling provides to Marcellus Shale wells, with average production values 5.6 to 6.9 times higher than their vertical counterparts.

What’s Missing?
Not all of the Marcellus Shale wells from the July ’09 to June ’10 list were still reporting production for the period that ended one year later. These wells were not included in the above analysis, but are interesting in their own right:

Number of Marcellus Shale wells on the production report for the period ending June 2010 that are also reporting production one year later.

Surprisingly, the rate for horizontal wells no longer producing gas is more than twice as high as their vertical counterparts.  Does this mean that a side effect of horizontal drilling is a shorter well production life, as all of the gas is extracted faster?  We’ll have to wait and see what future data shows to find out.

Energy and the Environment: Preventing and Resolving Conflicts

Citizen David Tames Gas Goliaths on the Marcellus Shale Stage: Citizen Action as a Form of Dispute Prevention in the Internet Age

A NY colleague of ours recently published an article on the issue of natural gas drilling and public engagement in New York State. The potential for environmental and public health issues were discussed in great detail for those who are interested in becoming more versed on the topic. (FracTracker was mentioned as a tool for dispute prevention, so that is exciting for us, too!)

Article Excerpt

“Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.” This could soon become the lament of millions of people who derive their drinking water from sources located near the latest natural gas boom site in the East, known as the “Marcellus Shale” region. Drilling is underway in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but not yet in New York. The focus here is New York.

Horizontal hydraulic fracturing holds promise for accessing shale gas. But with the current state of the industry practices, it also promises certain devastation to the environment and human health unless all local, state, and federal government officials immediately begin to take seriously the already documented risks associated with this unconventional drilling method. Every citizen has an interest in protecting our natural resources, water included. In this real life drama, David is played by U.S. citizens and Goliath is played by the rich and powerful oil and gas industry. Members of the oil and gas industry and land-owning citizens seeking to lease their property for gas extraction prefer the circumscribed definition of the term hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which refers only to the actual gas drilling. Environmental groups and individuals advocating for conservation of natural resources opt for a broad interpretation of the term, reasoning that every step in the hydraulic gas drilling process is worthy of attention since adverse impacts can and do result from steps before and after the actual drilling occurs. The future environmental and human …

Published in the Spring, 2011 edition of Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution. 373. by Elisabeth N. Radow

If you have a LexisNexis account, you can view the entire article online.