Drilling in Shale is a Shell Game

Morgantown Dominion Post
7 December 2008
Guest Commentary
By Beth Little

The title of William Overbey’s commentary “Marcellus shale source of clean energy” is as misleading as he claims Pamela Dodd’s commentary was.

The actual production of energy from gas may be clean, or at least cleaner than coal (it still puts lots of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere), but extracting it from the ground is anything but clean.

People in the gas drilling industry seem to exclude the disturbances created by such things as leveling several acres of ground, building miles of new road and pipeline, exhaust from hundreds of trips of 14-wheelers and running generators and drilling rigs 24/7.

This disturbance exists for every well, but then there are the mishaps. Many wells may be drilled without problems, but when it comes to exploding houses, polluted wells, sterile farm animals and organ failure, most people want zero odds, or close to it. These things have all happened. Read the recent article in Scientific American ( Drill for Natural Gas, Pollute Water ) for hair-raising examples. Or visit the Fernow Experimental Forest right here in West Virginia where drilling waste was spread on several acres and killed all vegetation within days.

Then there are the consequences 10, 15 or 25 years from now of unknown chemicals buried in the ground.

Because the content of the fracking fluids is secret and excluded from regulation by the Safe Drinking Water Act (as a result of Vice President Dick Cheney’s oversight during preparation of the 2005 Energy Policy Act), no amount of assurances by the gas industry is going to reassure people who are familiar with history. During major pollution horrors such as Love Canal, Three Mile Island and Bhopal, government and industry spokespeople were claiming that there was no danger until it became impossible to continue their denials.

The idea of folding up toxic waste in a plastic liner and burying it a few feet in the ground is not my idea of a safe practice. Out here in the mountains, where there is talk of drilling hundreds, or even thousands, of Marcellus shale wells, I can think of a number of things that could cause holes in the plastic, assuming there were no holes or tears created during the practice of folding it up and burying it.

Then what happens to that spot where it is buried? Is it marked and fenced? Will nothing ever grow there — sending down roots? Will groundhogs never dig there? Will fences never be built there? Or a house or barn? Forever?

And what is in these fracking fluids anyway? Why is it such a secret? Then there is the matter of how much water it takes to drill in the Marcellus shale. It rains a lot in West Virginia, but most of it runs off in small streams; and there are two or three months when things get dry.

In fact, there are three towns in Pocahontas County, where I live, that are out of water this year; and the Tygart and Stonewall Jackson Lakes are lower than they have ever been. Streams in Pennsylvania were pumped dry for gas drilling.

A 10-year supply of gas doesn’t sound like much to me. It just postpones the day when we are going to have to learn to live without getting energy out of the ground.

If we could tap into an unlimited supply of gas, there might be an argument for sacrificing more of West Virginia to heat the hottubs elsewhere. But for only 10 years of gas, we would be wiser to protect the best source of clean drinking water for the Eastern Seaboard.

Beth Little is on the Energy Committee of the West Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and is an administrative assistant of the Public Works Committee of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy. She lives in Hillsboro. This commentary should be considered another point of view and not necessarily the opinion or editorial policy of The Dominion Post.