FRACKING: Economic dream, easily-regulated operation

(These are Caleb Rossiter’s notes from talking with Bill Parment, retired NY State Assemblyman, former Director of Public Works in Chautauqua County, lead author of fracking safety laws, and even a former fracking land-owner, on January 19, 2013.  We had a hushed talk in a café in the heart of “fracking is immoral” country – Ithaca, NY.)

Shale is rock that contains compressed micro-organisms that died and turned to methane under pressure of water.  It’s a result of photosynthesis from 100 to 400 million years ago, so it’s solar power!  The shale layer is thicker and farther down in the middle of a formation, like a tub.  In N.Y. state it is half a mile down and 90 foot thick in Chautauqua county (the westerly edge), and a mile down and 600 feet thick in Binghamton (the middle). 

In fracking a pressured water-sand-chemicals mix is forced down a drill pipe and fractures the shale, and the sand grains in the mix stay in the cracks to keep the fractures open so the natural gas can escape up the pipe.  Fracking was first done in 1947.  Gas drillers have been fracking in New York State since at least the early 1970’s.  In western New York most of the fracking was done in the Medina sandstone which is below the Marcellus shale.  Jimmy Carter’s administration banned the use of methane for electric power generation under the PURPA law. This law also required regulated utilities to purchase gas produced from tight sand stone formation at a premium.

Decades ago many cities made methane from coal in gas plants for heating and lighting!  Coal is an extremely dirty way to generate power.  Natural gas is a much cleaner way – sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, the stuff we pay extra to scrub from coal, is not an issue.  (Carbon dioxide is also reduced by half, but that is not a pollutant, whatever the “Enviros” say – he discusses the claim of human-CO2-generated “global warming” below). 

In the late 1980’s the fracking technology went horizontal, with drilling extending out like a spider web from the mile-deep single vertical hole, dramatically increasing the draw from each well, and reducing the need for lots of surface disturbance. Today you can get single horizontal fracking wells with 22 million cubic feet of gas per day.  This is a huge amount.  (1,000 BTUs is about 1 cubic foot.)  In New York there is a typical 1360 foot surface  separation between vertical wells, but a mile or more between horizontal wells, since the pipes go horizontal in all directions, which reduces the number of surface disturbances (i.e. drilling sites) by a factor of about 16 (each horizontal well covers about 4 vertical wells in a straight line from it).

Unlike other countries, in America property owners own the mineral rights under their land. Without laws to the contrary, these mineral rights are governed by the common law principal of ‘the law of capture.’  In New York the state has adopted the process of compulsorily integration/correlative rights.  Constitutional issues exist whether you ban somebody from using their land to make money or if you force them to participate.  NY State law allows compulsory integration – if the owners of 60 percent of a 640 acre plot agree, they can apply for a permit to drill.  Owners who were against drilling can be involuntarily integrated into the production pool. In this circumstance these owners still have options that protect their mineral interests. These people can choose to share in the profits under three options.  The law is written to benefit landowners, not gas companies.  When gas is produced it is then carried in buried pipelines that the driller builds, and they meet up with the national and state pipeline national gas pipeline network which, as you can see by googling it, is very extensive. 

There are lots of jobs and tax revenue in drilling wells, laying pipe, and running plants that boost the pressure of the local gas holdings to go into the national pipeline, but the big payoff is in the cheap gas that comes up near the community.  Gas is a feed stock, say in fertilizer or other chemicals, so you can get huge economic benefits not just from cheaper power for all factories and home-owners, but from manufacturing itself.  This is a game-changer in rural areas – factories are coming back to Louisiana and Pennsylvania from overseas.  It is also a game-changer for coal, since gas is cheaper, and for foreign policy, since foreign oil will become far less relevant. 

Safety and water issues: Hazards to the water supply?  NO.   Potable water is from 60 to    100 feet below the surface, so little danger of contamination comes from drilling a mile down. Problems that do occur are at the surface.  NYState law is very restrictive and well-monitored by Dept. of Environmental Conservation. The well must include a double casing and cementing of pipes to depths below the lowest potable water source to isolate potable water from the gas well. Each well must have a plan approved by a DEC geologist before drilling can commence.  In New York, 14,000 wells have been drilled with only one documented occurrence of methane entering a potable water supply.  Stories of flaming faucets in your house are silly.  In many locales you can light faucets all the time without fracking – it’s called natural gas for a reason – it’s natural and everywhere, and it comes out of lots of water wells.

There are tiny traces of chemical additives in the frack mix.  Less than 1 percent of the mix is sand.  Less than .1 percent is fungicide and other things to make the water slippery and the pipes clean.  Radioactivity is minute and monitored. 

The amount of water that will be used in the North East U.S. for fracking is inconsequential, a small amount compared to what is used on our golf courses. Golf courses return the water they use to the river system untreated after running it through scads of fertilizer and herbicides.   Out in Utah water is tighter, but they still seem to make do – of course just having the city of Las Vegas dwarfs all other water equations, and they still seem to make do. 

 Fracking water eventually returns to the surface water supply, of course, but a share has trace chemicals, and must be treated like waste water and can be treated in regular waste water treatment plants.  Some is disposed of in deep well injection. Industry is now reusing frack fluid on a greater basis. 

Blowback is the fracking water coming back after the frack is complete.  Another type of water is called production water. Production water is separated from the gas and can be used for dust and ice control by counties, in some cases.  The biggest pain about fracking for communities is that you need lots of trucks to bring and take water.  When the investment in water is too great for the return, the well is “watered off” – and plugged, despite lots of gas remaining.

Drillers are now fracking shale to produce not just gas but oil.  Until about five years ago it was thought that fracking wouldn't work for oil because oil molecules are larger than gas and consequently the frack opening wouldn't allow passage of the oil.  This has now been adjusted by using coarser sand in the frack.  The Utica shale in Ohio is being produced this way.  Big oil boom via fracking in central Ohio.

“Enviros:” After 40 years of dealing with Environmentalist he thinks they are like what Lionel Trilling said Orwell felt about intellectuals: they don’t think and they have little regard for the truth.  On global warming, there are fossils on top of the Rockies; Mallory found fossils above twenty thousand feet on Everest – we are always having climate change; what is happening now is predictable and cyclical. There are undoubtedly anthropomorphic contributions to climate change.  However, natural occurrences taking place over tens of thousands of years have a greater impact.

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In the Assembly, Bill was known for his musical “talents” and he often wrote and performed songs to popular tunes to showcase his ideas.  Here is his fracking composition, with apologies to Bob Dylan:

By Bill Parment (long-time N.Y. State Assemblyman and author of natural gas legislation)

How many years must I shiver in the cold, before I’m allowed to get warm?
Yes and how many winters must I chill to the bone, before I can heat my home?
Yes and how many nights must I wander in the cold, before I come in from the storm?

The answer my friend is fracking in the shale, the answer is fracking in the shale.

How many barrels of Saudi oil will we buy, before we burn fuel of our own?
Yes and how many times must the troops go ashore, before they all come home?
Yes and how much blood will we spill for their oil, until we have to atone?

The answer my friend is fracking in the shale, the answer is fracking in the shale.

What’s going to cook my bacon and eggs, and what’s going to heat my bath?
Yes and what’s going drive that chill from my bones, and what’s going to light my path?
Yes and what’s going to pay all those bills that I owe, and what’s going to make me laugh?

The answer my friend is fracking in the shale, the answer is fracking in the shale.

How can we help those who work for their bread, and how can we lessen their toil?
Yes and where will you turn for something to burn, when you want to bring water to a boil?
Yes and where will you find the fuel that we need when the worlds running short on oil?

The answer my friend is fracking in the shale the answer is fracking in the shale.