By Alison Grass, Senior Researcher at Food & Water Watch
Over the past decade, the natural gas industry has experienced a renaissance that has been a boon to energy company profits. But it has altered the quality of life for the rural communities where most new gas wells have been drilled. Now, fracking is fueling a gas-fired power plant boom in Pennsylvania, with 47 new facilities. Most have already been approved, with a handful in commercial operation (see map below).
New research by Pennsylvanians Against Fracking shows, in vivid detail, the scale of this buildout, and the impacts it will have on Pennsylvania communities.
Current & Potential PA Gas-Fired Power Plants & their Emissions
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Approximately half of the new gas power plants are located in northeastern region of Pennsylvania, a part of the state already overburdened by the lingering environmental maladies of coal mining and the more recent dangers associated with fracking. These rural communities may see increased drilling, fracking and pipeline construction to support the power plants — and the siting could be strategic. In a StateImpact Pennsylvania article about the first Marcellus shale gas power plant, for example, a company representative admitted that the location was chosen specifically due to its convenient access to shale gas. “This plant was sited precisely where it is because of its access to the abundant, high-quality natural gas that’s found a mile to two miles beneath our feet.”
The first modern Marcellus well was drilled in Pennsylvania by Range Resources in 2003, and commercial production began in 2005. Although fracking expanded rapidly in several areas across the country, Pennsylvania has been ground zero of the fracking boom, with just over 10,000 shale gas wells drilled between 2005 and 2016. Since then, however, there has been a rapid downturn in new wells drilled. After the early and dramatic increase in drilling – from 9 shale wells in 2005 to 1,957 shale wells in 2011 – the number dropped to 504 in 2016.
According to Natural Gas Intelligence, natural gas from the Appalachian Basin “…hit a roadblock in 2016, as pipeline projects struggled to move forward and a storage glut slowed the region’s previously rapid production growth.” Thus, it appears that in order to maintain fracking’s profitability, the gas industry is relying on new gas-fired power plants to alleviate the storage glut, while potentially increasing demand for shale gas (which could propagate more drilling and fracking).
Gas-Fired Power Plant Siting
The siting of these power plants also enables companies to use Pennsylvanian fracked gas to generate power for larger regional markets. This is because northeastern Pennsylvania is close to dense populations, including New York City. In Luzerne County, for instance, the new Caithness Moxie Freedom Generating Station gas-fired power plant will supply electricity to not just Pennsylvania residents, but also to New Jersey and New York State. And in the more central region of the state in Snyder County, the Panda Hummel Station will send “much of its power to the New York City market.”
Siting gas-fired power plants in the northeast may also increase drilling and fracking in the region, where gas is predominantly “dry” and less profitable than the “wet” gas found in southwest PA. This trend is largely due to a resurgence in North American petrochemical markets and increased ethane exports that rely on wet gas. (Dry natural gas contains primarily methane and smaller amounts of other hydrocarbons, while wet natural gas has higher concentrations of natural gas liquids. Natural gas liquids — predominantly ethane but also propane, butane, isobutane and pentanes — are the raw materials for manufacturing petrochemicals.)
Well Integrity and Other Risks
However, increased drilling and fracking mean more pollution for the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania, where shale gas wells have proven to be more prone to well construction “impairments” and well integrity problems, compared to conventional wells. This risk is especially true in the northeastern part of the state, where over nine percent of shale gas wells have indications of compromised well integrity.
Overall, fracking causes many public health and environmental problems. Methane, fracking fluids, and wastewater can pollute water supplies and imperil the livelihoods of farmers, who rely on clean water. Increased truck traffic and drilling emissions reduce air quality, and methane leaks contribute to global warming. Meanwhile, the proliferation of natural gas derricks and associated infrastructure destroys pristine landscapes (and related tourism and recreation industries).
The last thing that Pennsylvanians need is another way for the oil and gas industry to capitalize on shale at the expense of residents’ health and well-being.