National Public Radio (NPR) this week is taking a close look at the natural gas industry and its drilling practices with a series of segments airing on All Things Considered.
Here are some excerpts from the first piece, which focuses on gas drilling in Pennsylvania.
In Pennsylvania, there's an industrial revolution going on. Battalions of drilling rigs are boring into the earth to extract natural gas from an underground layer of shale called the Marcellus formation.
And as the wells multiply all along the western end of the state, people worry they may be facing another toxic legacy. The first one came from coal mining. All over the state, you can see bright orange rivers and streams. The aquatic life was killed by acidic runoff from abandoned mines.
"Are we really going to let this happen to Pennsylvania again?" asks David Yoxtheimer, a hydrologist at Penn State who grew up here. "Are we going to make sure that we have enough money and that these companies' feet are held to the fire to make sure that once their operations are done, they put everything back together, tidy it up, and make it look like nothing happened there in the first place?"
Progress isn't always pretty. In the natural gas boom, a lot of the ugliness has to do with water. Drillers need billions of gallons of water. It's their dynamite: They use it to split rock.
And they need trucks to move that water. Everywhere you drive in Pennsylvania's gas country, you're stuck behind a truck. You get mud all over your car. One-stoplight towns have traffic jams at noon.
Dan Lopata, who's in charge of water for Chesapeake Energy, says trucks are a pain for everybody. "The transportation of all the fluids is probably our biggest expense, and that's our highest exposure to the local community," says Lopata. "That's what they see driving up and down the road are the trucks."
I visited a Chesapeake Energy well site in the northeast part of the state; it was half the size of a football field. Machinery and workers were everywhere, all surrounded by forest. Deer in the woods, and John Deere on the pad.
To get the natural gas out of the Marcellus layer of shale, engineers drill about a mile deep, then out horizontally through the shale layer. Explosive charges create cracks in the shale. Engineers then mix water with sand and chemicals. Big pumps drive this slurry down into the shale. The fluid is so highly pressurized that it opens the cracks wider and liberates gas.
What comes gushing up is called "flowback," a bubbly mix that looks like muddy champagne. Chesapeake senior director Brian Grove points to the 12-foot-high steel well head that's attached to several big hoses. That's the plug at the opening of the well where gas will emerge. "It will come up through the well head," he explains over the din. "We will then put it through a large-scale separator, which will send water in one direction into steel tanks to be recycled, and then the gas will go in the other direction."
Flowback is nasty stuff. Grove explains that the water has been exposed to what once was a seabed. "When you expose fresh water to it, you absorb the salts. That is something you don't want to spill on the surface."
Besides salt, the water picks up minerals that had been buried in the rock, some of them toxic and some radioactive, like barium. And it still contains some of the chemicals that engineers add to the frack water, some of which are classified as toxic as well.
This wastewater flows back up out of the well for about a month, but the well will continue to regurgitate a salty brine for years, which has to be collected and disposed of. How the industry handles this wastewater is a controversial issue.
For a while, the wastewater was dumped directly into rivers, untreated. Some drillers shipped it to municipal water treatment plants, which weren't equipped to handle the toxic material in the waste. A current practice is to pump it temporarily into man-made, lined holding ponds. But some of those ponds have leaked. Trucks leaked wastewater as well. And there are the claims, most noticeably made in the HBO documentary Gasland, that backyard drinking water wells were being polluted by drilling.
Grove says the industry should have warned people about the kind of mess fracking can make. "I think the biggest mistake the industry made early on in Marcellus development was just remaining silent," he told me. "I think the industry as a whole has, for 50 or 60 years, operated largely in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana. The folks that moved east were people that were not used to having to explain themselves; they were used to being understood."
To continue reading the text version of the NPR article or listen to the on-air segment, click here.