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Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Quakes in Arkansas: New Cause for Concern About Drinking Water?

CNN reports that central Arkansas experienced over three dozen quakes in the past week. An Arkansas Geologic Survey scientist described that number of quakes occurring in such a short time as being "Powerball sort of odds," while emphasizing that he did not know whether the quakes were natural or man-induced. The two strongest tremors were measured at 3.4 and 3.5 on the magnitude scale.

This somewhat disturbing news came on the heels of better news for the gas industry last week, also out of Arkansas. In that news, Duke scientists sampled 127 drinking water wells over the Fayetteville Shale formation in central Arkansas and found no indication that fracking had contaminated any of the drinking water wells.

When talking quakes, one needs to distinguish between wells fracked for gas production and the use of deep wells for disposal of wastewater. One obvious difference is that fracking for production rapidly increases pressure for a short period of time and then releases that pressure as wastewater and production fluids flow back to the surface, whereas deep well disposal pressurizes rock formations for an extended period of time.

Thus far, scientists have made the link between quakes and deep disposal wells -- not production wells. The U.S. Geological Survey concluded that disposal wells near fault lines can cause earthquakes by increasing fluid pressure along faults, causing them to fracture. In 2011, scientists attributed a magnitude 5.6 quake in Oklahoma to wastewater disposal near a fault line. Columbia University scientists came to the same conclusion about earthquakes just outside of Youngstown, Ohio in 2011.

The concern is not solely, or even primarily, about personal and property damage at the surface, it is whether the quakes will cause fractures that ultimately lead wastewater to escape and contaminate fresh drinking water aquifers.

There is increasing evidence of a link between deep wastewater disposal wells and earthquakes, which emphasizes the need for the natural gas industry to fund research into developing better ways to efficiently manage its wastewater, other than by putting it down a hole under pressure.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

New Duke study finds no contamination from fracking in Arkansas

Duke scientists sampled 127 drinking water wells over the Fayetteville Shale gas development area of Arkansas, where 4,000 wells have been drilled. The samples were analyzed for radioisotopes and chemicals and those results were compared to analysis of flowback water from gas wells. The scientists found no evidence that natural gas development using fracking contaminated shallow drinking water wells.

This is the same group at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment that found direct evidence of methane contamination in drinking water wells near shale gas drilling sites in the Marcellus Shale basin of northeastern Pennsylvania, as well as possible connectivity between deep brines and shallow aquifers, but no evidence of contamination from fracking fluids.

According to Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry who participated in the study, "the take-home message is that regardless of the location, systematic monitoring of geochemical and isotopic tracers is necessary for assessing possible groundwater contamination."

Pennsylvania does not require this sort of systematic, geochemical and isotopic monitoring.

Fast Facts

Does radon in shale gas pose a health problem?

State Impact (NPR) reports on a You Tube video that questions whether shale gas can increase cancer risks because it may contain radon.  The viral video was produced by a group that opposes a pipeline that will transport shale gas from Pennsylvania to New York. Michael Arthur from Penn State says there is not enough information but it is worth studying. PA DEP says that they "don't expect there to be much of an indoor air exposure issue" even though they haven't completed their year-long study that may generate facts to support that assumption.  The Marcellus Shale Coalition says that the group's claims "are unsupported by facts and science," all the while failing themselves to produce any studies or data on the group's concerns.

The question to us is which of these groups has access to the data that will answer the question, and why don't they know the answer?  The unknown is scary to the public, and yes, there are groups that will exploit that unknown.  But the burden here must fall on the industry and government.  The industry produces, transports and sells the gas.  As with any purveyor of goods, the industry should know what they are selling to the public and be able to answer these public health questions - not simply yell back at those groups like two kids in a playground.  And the government, which is now conducting a study more than eight years after it allowed production to proceed full-throttle, hampers its credibility when it makes assertions about public health issues without first having the facts in hand.  Let's get the facts and answer the question.

More good news for public health and the environment

The Harrisburg Patriot reports that NRG Energy will shutter two more coal-fired power plants - one in New Jersey and another in Pennsylvania. John Luciew, who wrote the post for the Patriot, adds plenty of commentary to the article - in his first sentence slamming "environmental groups" who he apparently sees cheering for the job losses from these closings while they "don't want fracking for natural gas either."

News flash to Luciew: all "environmental groups" are not built the same.  There are several that support the environmentally conscious development of gas so long as that production is part of a comprehensive plan that promotes energy efficiency, conservation and development of renewable energy. The principle of sustainability recognizes that we must meet the needs of the present while planning for and accommodating the needs of future generations.

And though Luciew emphasizes job losses from these plant closings, he does not report on the lives that have been cut short by the pollution spewed out of these aging plants over the years. The true cost of society relying on coal for energy - from acid mine drainage and mercury in our streams, to heart attacks and climate change - has never been fully internalized by the industry. And worse, Pennsylvania continues to subsidize the industry by billions of dollars per year - something our governor refuses to do for alternative energy that would cause much less harm to the public and our environment.

And speaking of which ...

Governor Corbett announced that he recently awarded a whopping $32,880 in energy-efficiency grants to four small businesses "because investment in small business is a cornerstone to economic growth." Hey, it's not $1.65 billion that he's willing to pay for a cracker - apparently a bit larger of a cornerstone - but it's worth what we used to call a "finger nail clap."  So this one's for you, governor ...


Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Wet Gas, Pipelines, Fractionation and a Changing Landscape

The Dayton Daily News recently reported that Houston-based Enterprise Products Partners would begin expansion of the ATEX Express Pipeline in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Indiana.  These types of projects will continue to come online in an effort to push natural gas liquids (NGL) from Southwest Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia to the Gulf Coast and elsewhere, and it will be sure to change our landscape.

Most Pennsylvanians know NGL as "wet gas" - the liquids produced in association with methane. NGL production is growing by leaps and bounds in certain parts of the Marcellus and Utica shale plays. As industry analysts RBN Energy explain, NGL itself does not have much value until it undergoes fractionation - the process of separating NGL into its component parts - ethane, propane, butane, iso-butane, and methane (or pure natural gas).

Once LNG is broken down, the ethane component can be used as feedstock at an olefin or cracker facility to produce ethylene, a basic building block for making plastics. This is what Shell is considering for Beaver County. The other components can be shipped to various domestic and overseas markets, such as the growing Latin American market for propane.

If the NGL cannot be fractionated, production at the well head must stop - and that is not good for companies that invested millions of dollars to purchase gas reserves. For that reason there is a rush to rapidly ramp up fractionation capacity and construct pipelines to transport LNG and various components to market.

The Enterprise pipeline is being constructed to transport NGL to Texas. Sunoco/MarkWest are constructing the Mariner West pipeline to take NGL north to a fractionation complex in Sarnia, Ontario, which will eventually deliver products throughout Canada. The Mariner East Project will take NGL from Southwest Pennsylvania to Sunoco's processing facilities on the Delaware River, and from there products will ship overseas and to other markets.

In addition to pipelines, the major Midstream companies operating in Southwest PA (MarkWest, Dominion, Williams and Chesapeake) are constructing up to eleven fractionation facilities between Moundsville, WV and Houston, PA - less than 50 miles apart.  At the same time, numerous expansion projects along the Gulf Coast are underway to increase fractionation and cracker capacity there.

These pipelines and fractionation facilities will enable NGL production from Marcellus and Utica shale to boom. According to Callie Mitchell, an RBN Energy analyst, NGL production in Southwest PA is poised to grow astronomically in the next five years - as shown on this graph - from 43 Mb/d (a meager 1.2% of US annual production) to an astounding 450 Mb/d by 2017.

Governor Corbett and others envision the processing of wet gas as a "second industrial revolution" that will "transform" all of Pennsylvania into a second Gulf Coast that doesn't just produce gas, but also processes it. In contrast, I recently heard an industry insider dismiss that vision as a "pipedream," explaining that it was much more convenient to enlarge existing facilities on the Gulf Coast, with their easy access to shipping ports and downstream markets, than to reconstruct Mont Belvieu, Texas along the Ohio River. Most likely it will be a blend - perhaps more a rowdy party than a revolution. We will see.

The Governor now does not expect to know whether Shell will build a cracker plant in Beaver County until sometime next year.

One thing is certain - wet gas will continue to change our landscape. This blog will continue to explore what those changes will mean for our communities and environment.