Business Rhetoric: Drilling in the Marcellus Shale
and Environmental Politics
Inexpensive energy sources are a requirement if the country is going to continue to thrive the way it has for more than 200 years. The United States is trying to decrease the amount of fossil fuels that it uses in everyday applications. However, the worry is not the fuels themselves, but the costs associated with the fuels. Fossil fuels are a viable resource if they are clean and extracted from the earth in ways that can be shown to be environmentally friendly. Because of these requirements, natural gas has become one of the new class of fuels that is thought of as superior to producing products from crude oil.
Natural gas is a clean energy source that can be extracted more safely than other sources of gas. Another bonus is that the product is very plentiful in the United States. More than any other country in the world, the U.S. has vast fields from which natural gas can be extracted, and the methods of extraction have been used for many years. these methods have been proven, by any different agencies, to be very safe and reliable. Also, the initial cost of setting up a site can be somewhat costly, but when the cost is extrapolated to the life of the site, it is actually one of the least costly means of producing energy. So, natural gas can be gotten from large fields such as the Marcellus field in the eastern United States, and by using hydraulic fracturing methods it can be gleaned safely. This report will discuss natural gas, how that fuel is being extracted from previously unusable sites, the environmental issues associated with the extraction, and how the Marcellus site in particular is being used.
The important element of this report is that natural gas is a safe reliable method by which the United States can increase clean energy and reduce its reliance on foreign source of energy. The fact is, the U.S. And other western countries have been relying heavily on the oil producing countries of the Middle East for many years now and that reliance has cost in terms of both wealth and political power. Finding a source of energy that will reduce that dependence has been a significant focus for more than a decade now in the United States and around the world.
Although natural gas is not a new source of energy (it has been used for more than one hundred years (API, 2010)), it has also been seen as a limited resource. The United States sits on top of some of the largest natural gas reserves in the world (API, 2010), but they were unavailable because the gas is encased in rock that has not allowed it to be easily recovered. To efficiently extract the gas, a process had to be used that would be low cost and efficient. Hydraulic fracturing seemed to be the perfect solution to this dilemma. The process was developed more than seventy years ago (City of New York (2010), and it had been perfected over the decades. Now hydraulic fracturing (also called hydrofracking or, more simply, just fracking) has been proven effective in use on the most stubborn of shale regions.
Of course, there are issues that present with regard to environmental concerns, but these have been adequately answered by the EPA and certain environmental watchdog groups. The construction of the wells has proven to be safe over a multitude of tests. Because the fracturing occurs far below the level of ground water, there is very little danger of leakage back into clean water sources.
Which brings this discussion to the Marcellus shale field. The Marcellus field is an enormous geological region under the land area covered by at least seven eastern states. This field has been subject to exploration for more than five years now, and the yield is expected to be in the trillions of cubic feet (API, 2010). The investment potential is enormous, but environmental concerns must be taken seriously also.
Natural gas is that which does not have to be processed in a refinery for use from crude oil sources. It is an abundant resource in the United States, and could reasonably be responsible for up to 50% of the energy used in the U.S. within the next decade (Geology.com, 2010). "Of the natural gas consumed in the United States, 87% was produced domestically; thus the supply of natural gas was not dependent on producers as is the supply of crude oil, and the delivery system is less subject to interruption" (USDOE, 2010). These two factors, availability and usage, are, in part, why the U.S. Department of Energy is so excited about natural gas. Another significant reason for the excitement associated with the increased exploitation of natural gas reserves is that;
"Natural gas is cleaner burning that coal or oil. The combustion of natural gas emits significantly lower levels of key pollutants, including carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen oxide, and sulfur dioxide, than does the combustion of coal or oil. When used in efficient combined-cycle power plants, natural gas combustion can emit less than half as much CO2 as coal combustion, per unit of energy released" (USDOE, 2010).
These facts show why natural gas is desired more than either coal or oil for use in power plants, and there are many programs which are promoting the use of natural gas as a fuel for automobiles also. And one of the issues that has restricted the recovery of all natural gas buried under the U.S. has been solved in the past decade.
Hydraulic Fracturing and Horizontal Drilling
As discussed briefly above, hydraulic fracturing has been used as a method of extracting material from underground sources for more than 70 years. In the United Kingdom, the process has been used to generate geothermal energy.
"Hot dry rock (HDR): in which the heat generated by radiothermal granites was to be exploited by drilling deep boreholes, between which fractures would be developed artificially (e.g. hydraulic fracturing; explosives). Cool water would be pumped down into the fractured granite, left to equilibrate thermally, and then pumped out again at much higher temperatures" (Manning, Younger, Smith & Jones, 2007).
This method is very similar to the fracturing that is being used by the U.S. To release natural gas resources from shale fields. This fracturing of the rock releases energy (in the above case from the heat contained in the granite) which could not have previously been used.
In the natural gas industry in the U.S., fracking is explained as "the creation of fractures within a reservoir that contains oil or natural gas to increase flow and maximize production. A hydraulic fracture is formed when a fluid is pumped down the well at pressures that exceed the rock strength, causing open fractures to form in the rock" (City of New York, 2010). The fluid that is used is 90% pure water, 9.5% untreated sand, and .5% chemicals (Geology.com, 2010). The chemicals used range from simple soaps and table salt to acids (such as citric acid) and industrial cleaners. This chemical product can be seen to be only a very small percentage of the total volume used to extract the gas from the shale.
Hydrofracking is accomplished by establishing a drill site and then drilling vertically through the rock until the shale play is reached. "At the desired depth, the drill bit is turned to bore a well that stretches through the reservoir horizontally, exposing the well to more of the producing shale" (USDOE, 2010). The fracking itself was begun in the 1940's ( and has accounted for "600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 7 billion barrels of oil" (API, 2010)), but until it was combined with horizontal drilling techniques it was not possible to get natural gas from the shale plays. The actual site is constructed by the following operation:
"Typically, steel pipe known as surface casing is cemented into place at the uppermost portion of a well for the explicit purpose of protecting the groundwater. The depth of the surface casing is generally determined based on groundwater protection, among other factors. As the well is drilled deeper, additional casing is installed to isolate the formation(s) from which oil or natural gas is to be produced, which further protects groundwater from the producing formations in the well" (API, 2010).
Federal, state and local regulations determine how the drill site is set up and how disposal of the used fluid is to be dealt with, but safety of the ground water is a major concern for the companies that drill. However there has been constant resistance to this type of drilling by environmental groups because of the use of chemicals in the process.
From a report conducted by the City of New York (2010):
"There are many environmental impacts associated with hydraulic fracturing, or "hydrofracking": among them are, water consumption, wastewater disposal, use of toxic chemicals, substantial truck…