Notes on Josh Fox rebuttal of EID
by Thomas Copley
Note: In July, 2010, Josh Fox, the filmmaker behind Gasland, published a rebuttal of a critique of his film published by Energy In Depth (EID) on its web site. I felt compelled to take a few notes and give my opinion.
None of these techniques such as hydro-fracturing or directional drilling are new per se, nor for that matter is drilling in shale formations. So, when you combine all of these things together, does that make it new and a reason for greater regulatory scrutiny? I would not be overly concerned about any claims made by the industry touting the process as a "new technological breakthrough." That is mainly hype.
Regarding the pressure that is used in hydro-fracturing, while it may go up as high as 13,500 psi, it more typically runs 5-7,000 psi in the Marcellus shale, less than half what Josh Fox suggests.
The chemical cocktail used in fracing is the province of the oil and gas field service companies such as Halliburton, Schlumberger and Baker Hughes and not the exploration and production (E&P) companies who inject this cocktail. The E&P companies are consumers of these chemicals, but don't create the formulas. It's the same as you might use 10-10-10 or 8-0-24 fertilizer in your garden. The chemicals are premixed and delivered by the field service companies to the well site. Frequently, the field service companies or other sub-contractors actually handle the injection too.
If Dr. Theo Colborn, who Josh Fox links to in his rebuttal, wants to go after anyone for injecting endocrine disrupting chemicals underground it should not be the E&P companies. The latter are more like the gardeners in the analogy, and merely use the junk that the field service companies make, the same way a gardener buys a bag of 8-0-24 from the garden supply store.
Also, I wouldn't make too much out of the so-called "Halliburton Loophole" having had very much to do with the upsurge in natural gas drilling in unconventional plays. The oil and gas business is very cyclical. Before the current spike, the last major upsurge in gas drilling occurred back in the late 1970's - early 1980's and peaked at the same time the price of natural gas along with all other commodities such as precious metals did at that time. With the latest run-up in natural gas prices that peaked in June, 2008, it became profitable again to explore for natural gas. Exploration of the Barnett shale, granddaddy of all the unconventional plays, began back in the the mid-1990s, during the Clinton years, long before Dick Cheney became Veep. Now that there is a gas glut, and natural gas prices have collapsed, exploration has slowed down to a crawl.
Water can get contaminated, but not through actual hydro-fracturing. That's not to say well casings can't fail under pressure or surface spills may never occur. There won't ever be a perfect energy source without some kind of issues. Even windmills kill birds, and hydro-electric dams mess things up for the salmon. The key question is whether a time-tested practice such as hydro-fracturing can be a root cause of any new problems? An answer in the affirmative is quite dubious, since hydro-fracturing has safely been conducted in PA, WV, NY, and OH for decades.
The idea that natural gas is leaking from shale deposits thousands of feet below the surface into drinking water fails a simple logic test. If gas could flow upwards so easily, then there would be no point in drilling for it. Examples of leaking gas more likely come from drilling through pockets of methane at much higher depths than the targeted shale layer that is a few thousand feet down, and possibly also from occasional failures of well casings. Neither of these causes has a thing to do with hydro-fracturing or horizontal drilling, but may occur even in drilling for shallow gas or water.
While it is true that perhaps more than half of the water pumped down the well in hydro-fracturing remains underground once the process is complete, it remains in the formation thousands of feet below the ground water. Can you imagine how difficult it would be for this water to penetrate upwards or else leach somehow through thousands of feet or solid rock to get into groundwater? Even if a natural fracture were present, it would be a very unlikely route for polluted water to follow. Were it so easy for water to escape up a natural fracture, it seems even less likely that the area would be drilled since the gas would have long since escaped the same way. So long as the fracturing fluid containing the so called chemical cocktail remains in formation, regardless of any possible hazardous nature of the chemicals, and no matter how many tons of it are used, they are rendered harmless by being buried under thousands of feet of rock. Their escape from the shale formation upwards to contaminate groundwater is exceedingly unlikely.
Regarding air drilling that was mentioned, EQT Corporation exclusively has used it for drilling the vertical portions of their Marcellus shale wells. I wouldn't be surprised if more companies eventually use this same method of drilling as it is more cost effective.
Published February 25, 2011 Author's email: tcopley (at) wikimarcellus.com