Marcellus Gas Drilling: What does it mean for the North Country Trail?

Imagine an overlay of the North Country trail on the map, and you can visualize how much of the trail is or may be affected by shale gas drilling.

Imagine an overlay of the North Country trail on the map, and you can visualize how much of the trail is or may be affected by shale gas drilling.

Recently, natural gas has been a hot topic of debate, especially in Pennsylvania and New York. The culprit behind the tension is the Marcellus Shale deposit, which lies a mile beneath the earth’s surface and spans over eastern Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York. Within the layers of the Marcellus shale are pockets of natural gas. In the past, it was thought that these pockets of gas did not amount to much. Beyond that, the cost of drilling outweighed the potential profit that could be gained from extracting the gas, and thus, the Marcellus Shale was deemed to be economically impractical.

Over the past two years, this notion was turned on its head. In late 2007, scientists estimated that the shale contained massive amounts of natural gas- 80 to 250 times more than the 2002 estimate– with huge economic promise. Furthermore, horizontal drilling technology, combined with hydrofracturing techniques (which were developed in the 1980s but never tried in the Marcellus region), made it far easier and more economically viable to extract natural gas from deep shale deposits.

This Geology.org diagram shows how drilling horizontally allows access to natural gas embedded within layers of shale.

This Geology.com diagram shows how drilling horizontally allows access to natural gas embedded within layers of shale.

This combination of resources and means of extraction caused an explosion of interest in Marcellus Shale and a flood of drilling companies into Pennsylvania in 2008 and 2009 looking to strike gold in the Marcellus deposit.

The Good:

A Horizontal Shale Drilling Rig in PA

A Horizontal Shale Drilling Rig in PA

The natural gas drilling in the Appalachian region comes with several benefits. First, the economic interest and potential in the region jumped considerably with the rediscovered interest in the shale. Landowners can benefit by leasing land to drilling companies, and the drilling operations bring jobs and business to the areas they affect.

Furthermore, drilling natural gas in the US decreases our dependency on foreign fuels. It also increases regional independence; the Marcellus shale could conveniently supply Cleveland, Erie, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo without being transported over long distances.

Natural gas burns cleaner than coal or oil, which has led some natural gas supporters to label it an “alternative fuel.” Natural gas emits approx. 43% less carbon than oil and 27% less carbon than coal.

The Bad:

Environmentalists and conservationists disagree with the “alternative fuel” moniker, reminding the public that, although gas is better than oil, it is still a fossil fuel producing formidable carbon emissions.

Beyond that, the drilling techniques used to extract the natural gas are stirring up concern in the communities affected by drilling. The hydrofracturing technique involves injecting water mixed with sand and chemicals into the shale at extremely high pressure, thus fracturing the shale and releasing the gas between the layers.

The PA Forest Coalition recently sent out an email newsletter citing many problems surrounding hydrofracturing, many of which focused on the potentially detrimental effects on waterways.

Specifically, the group suggests that extracting millions of gallons of water for hydrofracturing could strain water supplies and alter habitats for fish and wildlife. In addition, the used hydrofracturing water (called “frac water”) is chemically contaminated and high in salt content, and if this water enters into waterways, it can alter ecosystems- hurting some species while creating opportunities for invasive species to move in (specifically those preferring water with higher salinity).

Water used in hydrofracturing, called "frac water," is collected and stored in pits lined with geosynthetic liners. The frac water is supposed to be collected and treated before it returns to the water supply, but many people suspect that chemically contaminated salt water is leeching into waterways.

Water used in hydrofracturing, called "frac water," is collected and stored in lined pits. The frac water is treated before it returns to the water supply, but many people suspect that chemically contaminated salt water leeches into waterways during and after the hydrofracturing process. They cite insufficient quarantining and treatment of the frac water as sources of contamination.

The group claims that contamination could occur during the hydrofracturing process if frac water is allowed to flow back or leach into groundwater/surface water supplies, or it could happen if the collected frac water is not properly handled and treated before discharge. The group cites frac water’s exemption from the Clean Water Act and insufficient oversight as issues of concern.

Some reports emerged of contaminated water supplies, and other reports warn of radioactive contaminants entering water supplies because of hydrofracturing (see also: this article). Still others are concerned about what drilling does to communities, from drilling site activity and seismologic testing to the potential for lands to be seized by imminent domain for gas pipes. In his blog, landscaper Bob Donnan documented his observations of how drilling impacted the small town of Hickory, PA.

The current state of affairs:

In Pennsylvania, the state legislature ordered the DCNR (Department of Conservation and Natural Resources) to bring in $60 million by offering new natural gas drilling leases within state forestland, which amounts to 32,000 acres in PA state forests. While environmentalists and conservationists fight for more oversight and regulation of drilling techniques and frac water, the drilling companies are expanding and making new drilling sites in New York.

An aerial photo of a drilling operation showing the rig and the frac water pit.

An aerial photo of a drilling operation showing the rig and the frac water pit.

What do you think?

On one hand, extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale means reduced dependency on foreign oil; plus, it is a cleaner burning fossil fuel. Investors, drilling companies, and landowners all stand to increase their wealth tremendously through drilling leases and operations.

On the other hand, many worry about the detrimental effects to the communities, the forests, and the waterways surrounding drilling sites.

The debate about Marcellus shale is about natural resources, temporality, and economics. Which resources should prevail? Is the threat of pollution worth risking the economic opportunity of drilling? If/when the waterways do get polluted, is there any way to reverse the damage? Is there a way to protect forests and waterways while also benefiting from natural gas extraction?

And finally: What does natural gas drilling mean for the North Country National Scenic Trail? Whether you are a chapter member or landowner in PA, New York, and Ohio, a visiting thru-hiker from another state, or someone who cares about the trail in any capacity–What does the Marcellus gas drilling mean to you?

For more information, check out:
Geology.com Info on Marcellus Drilling – very informative, with diagrams
NaturalGas.org – a neutral source of information about natural gas/the drilling process

No Responses to “Marcellus Gas Drilling: What does it mean for the North Country Trail?”

  1. Carmen December 8, 2009 at 10:23 pm #

    As much as I love the NCT, I believe this country needs to be energy independent. Nobody wants it in their back yard but I believe we need it. This is the greatest country on earth, we can get the gas with very little disruption to the trail and unlike many other countries, we clean up after we’re done.

  2. Brett W. December 9, 2009 at 8:55 pm #

    Even though expanded drilling would lead to a more energy-independent America, it’s important to remember that companies and communities reap profit from extracting– not from cleaning up after themselves. Once the natural gas is freed from it’s shale, capitalism (in one of its few flaws) provides no incentive to continue working on a site and making necessary reparations. Also, natural gas is, by its definition and makeup, a fossil fuel that is inherently unsustainable.

    Natural gas drilling is a viable option, but it needs to be exploited in a prudent way. Government oversight isn’t necessarily a bad thing– doesn’t it seem suspicious that so many fuel companies so staunchly lobby against it? America CAN be independently powered in the future; as a country, we need to continue to invest in renewable energy infrastructure and make our power grid more efficient. Natural gas drilling can help get us there, but it needs to be controlled in both its size and execution.

    Lets use this shale as a stepping stone, not a crutch!

  3. Carmen December 10, 2009 at 11:11 am #

    You make it sound like profit is a bad thing. Its that profit that allows us to clean up after ourselves, and that profit that funds research into more efficient ways to produce energy. While i agree renewable energy is the future we will still need oil and coal and natural gas for quite some time.
    Where in the past 20 years have we not cleaned up after ourselves? The “evil” energy companies have done a great job.
    Drill baby, drill!

  4. Dave February 2, 2010 at 3:00 pm #

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100202/ap_on_bi_ge/us_gas_drilling_risks

    I get thirsty on occasion

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