Sunday Forum: The bottom line on Marcellus Shale

It presents an enormous economic opportunity to Pennsylvania that can be safely exploited, says oil and gas engineering expert ROBERT W. WATSON

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Pennsylvania is experiencing a unique convergence of economic stress, economic opportunity, land-rush speculation, media interest, rumor, misunderstanding and competition as it looks to exploit the economic potential of the natural gas that rests in the Marcellus Shale formation.

While this will be a long and thoroughly debated energy-development issue, it is one that desperately needs a "time out" to allow for fact-checking.

One thing to keep in mind is that oil and natural-gas development is nothing new to the commonwealth. It's been going on since before the Civil War. Natural-gas storage, crucial to the nation's interstate pipeline system, was pioneered near Warren. Petroleum engineering studies started at two of our great universities: the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State.

Neither is drilling of the type employed in the Marcellus Shale something new. Some of the technology has its roots in Pithole City, Pa., circa 1865, and Gulf Oil Co.'s laboratory research of the 1950s.

Hydraulic fracturing, which involves injecting water and sand into a formation to help natural gas flow up a well, was first observed by South Penn Oil Co. at its operations near Clarendon during World War II and was patented by Standard of Indiana in the late 1940s. The technique has been used extensively in Pennsylvania since the 1950s and has made oil and gas operations throughout North America more cost effective. In fact, without hydraulic fracturing, there would be little or no on-shore oil or gas operations.

This process for drawing natural gas from shale has been developed, tested and refined in other formations throughout the country and offers to Pennsylvania a huge economic opportunity. The natural gas produced from shale is the cleanest-burning fossil fuel and is seen as the bridge fuel for the next several decades between fossil fuels and new alternatives. No extreme leaps in technology are necessary for it to generate electricity, to power transportation fleets or to be used in the production of materials such as plastics.

In fact, most concerns raised about drilling Marcellus wells are of little consequence, given that the wells are carefully regulated and employ best-management practices. Most concerns are temporary, as well, because they go away once a well is drilled, fractured and completed. For example, erosion and sedimentation controls; the maintenance, repair and improvement of roads; and the construction of pipelines and other infrastructure have all been a part of drilling wells in Pennsylvania for years. And all are essentially minor and short-term challenges.

Much discussion has been focused on water: Where would companies get the 3 million to 5 million gallons needed to fracture each well? Would the chemicals added to the water degrade the environment? How would water returning to the surface be treated?

1) The amount of water needed for fracturing, even if the Marcellus Shale is widely developed, is not appreciable when compared to daily water consumption across Pennsylvania. In the Susquehanna and Delaware River basins, interstate commissions regulate the withdrawal of water, and the state Department of Environmental Protection is working closely with industry to identify appropriate water sources in other parts of the state. Efforts also are under way to recycle water and to use water affected by acidic mine drainage.

2) Hydraulic fracturing has been misrepresented -- even demonized. Additives are used in very small quantities and concentrations. The Marcellus Shale lies below nearly a mile of rock, so fracturing does not affect ground water.

3) Flowback water is recognized as a challenging issue, but current techniques adequately treat waste water and permit its disposal. Flowback water is recovered at the surface and collected in DEP-approved plastic-lined pits. The pits are pumped dry and the water is recycled for future fracturing or trucked to DEP-permitted treatment facilities. Existing facilities can safely support current and planned drilling activity (and more capacity is planned). A recently formed industry-DEP partnership will spearhead efforts to develop promising new technologies for treating and recyling water, and these will contribute to the economic investment by the industry in Pennsylvania.

Marcellus Shale development promises enormous economic benefits to Pennsylvania and raises important environmental, economic and land-use issues that should be robustly debated. But such development is not new. It is not unproven. It is not unsafe.

Robert W. Watson is an emeritus associate professor of petroleum and natural-gas engineering and of environmental systems engineering at Penn State University ( ). He also chairs the technical advisory board for the Bureau of Oil and Gas Management of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.


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