Sunday, March 30, 2014

Gas and Geopolitics

In the beginning, which was about the year 2007, a rural community in the northeast corner of Wayne County, PA discovered it was in the “sweet spot” of the “Marcellus Shale Gas Play.” That is, there was lots of natural gas some 7,000 feet underground, and many drilling companies were offering to lease the land to put down wells.
Land agents, fluttering sheaves of papers, urged land owners to sign up fast lest the valuable gas be pumped out from under them from their neighbors’ lands.

Most people didn’t sign. Instead, the woman who headed the county farm bureau’s information department began offering speakers – the top authorities in their fields of geology, environmental protection, drilling technologies and contract law regarding drilling leases. She charged five dollars per person for attending these talks and the gymnasium in which they were held was jammed with local land owners.

But there were hold-outs. While much of the county is large farms, the eastern-most sector, the township of Damascus, is subdivided into small lots for the vacation homes of New Yorkers and New Jerseyites. City dwellers with jobs that kept them away from the region for all but a few weekends and summer vacations.

These city folk who, having small lands, paid minimal taxes, were fearful their splendid views of rolling farm lands (which pay crushingly high taxes) would be spoiled. They did not attend the meetings, did not inform themselves, but organized a resistance group to drilling: The Damascus Citizens for Sustainability.

Among them was Josh Fox, an aspiring playwright who made a documentary film of numerous spots in the United States where oil or gas drilling had caused problems. His aim was not to inform, but to oppose, and to use the popularity of environmental issues to raise his own career.

 In a world-wide culture of free floating fear that is perpetually looking for a cause, his film, Gas Land, became a call to action, a popular cause with broader appeal even than gay rights and women’s equality. And the handy word “fracking”, which signifies a process used safely in the gas drilling industry for over 40 years, became an obscenity.

Now opposition to gas drilling has become an international movement. People fear their drinking water will be polluted, or used up by some unimaginably vast consumption and tainting of water resources. 

In fact a gas drilling operation uses tractor trailers to haul water to the site, and uses 5 million gallons at most. And that’s recycled rather than discarded. While that sounds like a lot when you think of the space a gallon of milk takes up in the fridge, that much water would lower Wayne County’s Belmont Lake (at 172 acres, one of over 50 lakes in the region) by 1.1 inches.*

But decent, thoughtful citizens, not only in Wayne County but all over the world, have come to fear and strenuously oppose gas drilling.

Who benefits from this movement? Well of course Josh Fox has done very well. So have oil companies in the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, because cars could be retro-fitted to use the much cheaper liquefied natural gas instead of oil.

Few buildings are heated with natural gas – the heating oil and propane used could all be replaced, so a change to natural or liquefied natural gas would be bad for the oil companies too. And the gas drilling companies, for the most part, are not the same companies as the big oil companies.

Electricity generating plants could use gas and cease using coal and nuclear reactors. The New Yorkers who fear the well at their summer cottage might be polluted would better turn their attention to the Indian Point nuclear power plant just up wind and up river of New York City: a plant far more out-of-date and with less security than Fukushima.

But a larger issue has developed recently.

Russia threatens to withhold or raise the price of it gas exports to the numerous countries in Europe that are dependent upon Russia’s Gazprom. While Putin agrees that people in the West should fear “fracking” – it will make black stuff come out of their water faucets – he’s able to manipulate dependence upon Russia’s export to blackmail Europe into restraint regarding the Ukraine – or whatever other issue he chooses. (Apparently he doesn’t fear any black stuff coming out of Russians’ faucets.)

Obama has countered with an offer to supply Europe with exported American liquefied natural gas. Such a move could reduce Russia’s export earnings by 30%. We’re seeing The Showdown at the Okay Gas-well.
What is the truth about fear regarding water?

Water pollution from gas drilling, in so far as it poses any problem, would only affect rural home owners’ wells immediately local to the drilling site – either through a leak from the well into the aquifer or from a surface spill.

Both issues are addressed by reasonably safe drilling practices: casing the drilling bore with concrete to a level below the aquifer (in Wayne County PA the aquifer is no deeper than 1,500 feet maximum, the gas target area is 7,000 feet down), and by careful maintenance on the surface to avoid spillages. Pennsylvania and many other states have stringent laws regarding pollution by well drilling operations, including, in PA, closing down all a company’s operations in the state if there is one incident until the problem is repaired.

Property owners’ leases can determine much of drilling practices, especially when property owners gather in associations to defend their rights and contracts and the undefiled quality of their land – as has happened with the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance (with a drilling lease that is used as a model by the World Bank and Harvard Business School.)

It’s strikingly ironic that the anti-drilling movement began simultaneously with the landowners’ own pro-drilling and environmental preservation movement in an obscure corner of Pennsylvania. But the panic story promoted by the anti-drilling group has entranced the media, and the landowners’ program of safe drilling has been almost unheard beyond the drilling industry itself.

Most private foundations have long ceased to be eccentric disbursals of wealth by individuals, and have become the work largely of hired professionals guided by other professionals who set forth a list of causes considered important, which of course they are: world peace, kids at risk, the environment… 

So the anti-drilling movement found ready support in the world of private foundations. Writers and professors could get a grant for “proving” the harmfulness of gas drilling. Already existing environment preserving organizations had a new topic for their fund raising. Actors, who are urged by their agents to have a public image supporting a worthy cause, saw an easy opportunity for visibility as defenders of the earth.

But the fact remains that natural gas, neither in its production nor its use, is as polluting as most of our other sources of energy. A switch from oil to natural gas would reduce our carbon emissions and the ever increasing greenhouse effect and global warming.

Would gas drilling discourage the use of solar and wind energy?

China can deploy forests of wind mills – but in the U.S. there is opposition to windmills for the sake of  birds, and often even the best sites have no wind.

The U.S. has deserts where solar panels could be useful almost every day – but there are those who oppose solar panels for the sake of desert wild life. And the highest use of electricity is not in the deserts, but in regions that don’t have enough reliable sunshine for their energy needs to be met by solar panels.

It will be interesting to see what the emergence of geopolitics into the gas drilling issue will do.

* In the cradle of the anti-drilling movement: Here are some notes pertaining to the northeast corner of Pennsylvania, gas drilling and its water use. While concern over water use would be appropriate in the American southwest, here the irrationality of the gas drilling opposition movement is particularly evident.

Delaware River (which forms the eastern boundary of Wayne Co. PA) Specs from the National Park Service
Average Water Level
Depth: 2 1/2 - 4 feet
Flow: 790 - 2,530 cubic feet/second
River current: 2 m.p.h.

Pick an average spot in the river, and the flow would be:

790 + 2,530 = 3,320/2 = 1,660 cubic feet per second

60 x 60 = 3,600 and 3,600 x 1,660 cf/sec = 5,976,000 cf/hour

5,976,000 x 7.48 gallons = 44,700,480 gallons per hour

It's safe to say that at an average spot on an average day along the Delaware River, nearly 45-million gallons of water flow by in an hour.

________________________________________________________________ If someone drew 1-million gallons of water from a 100-acre pond, it would lower the water level of that pond by less than 3/8ths of an inch. If someone drew 6-million gallons from the pond, the drop would be about 2-1/4 inches.
If one-half inch of rain falls on 100 acres, that's more than 1.3-million gallons (1,348,397 gallons, actually).

According to the National Weather Service, the average yearly precipitation (rain, snow, etc.) at the Binghamton, NY Airport(nearest report to Wayne County, PA)is 40.76 inches, so it wouldn't be unreasonable to assume that a 100-acre parcel gets 40 inches of precipitation annually, that's nearly 108-million gallons (107,871,773 gallons)