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Shale drilling, what is it?

Published July 23. 2010 05:00PM

A lack of knowledge among citizens of Carbon County about the issue of shale drilling is seen as a major problem by the Kidder Township Environmental Advisory Committee.

"People have no idea," said committee member Bob Dobosh at the EAC's meeting this week.

This lack of knowledge is seen as a problem because choices made about shale drilling will have an immense impact on the future of both the state and the nation. Debate has raged between proponents, who view it as a vital part of the nation's energy plan, and detractors who fear that the environmental impacts are not properly understood.

Shale drilling is a complex process and the technological advances that have made it possible have outpaced research into its consequences.

"Nobody is asking the question of what happens 10 years from now when we're out of water," said EAC member Hank George.

It is currently believed that there is more than 363 trillion cubic feet of harvestable gas in the Marcellus shale bloom. That is enough to supply all of the nation's energy needs for 15 years. A typical well located on an 80-acre space, is expected to produce around 2.5 billion cubic feet of gas over the course of its operations. The gas is found in small cracks and fissures running through the porous rock.

The process of extracting the gas is complicated and relies primarily on two techniques hydrofracing and horizontal drilling. Hydrofracing is a process where a 'mud' made out of water and chemicals, is shot down into the well in order to break up the shale and allow the gases in between cracks in the rock to flow to the surface. Horizontal drilling is a process whereby the well is slowly turned at a 90 degree angle. Using horizontal drilling, a typical well can extract gas in a radius of over a mile.

According to a report issued by the United States Geological Society, shale drilling presents three main areas of concern over water quality. The first is the massive amount of water needed to perform hydrofracing. Each round of hydrofracing can use up to 3 million gallons of water. Thus, concerns have risen among local municipal water authorities as to where all that water will come from. If too much is used from local water sources, they can be damaged or depleted, leading to unnatural drought conditions.

The shipment of water and materials in extremely heavy trucks over small mountain roads may lead to erosion, which could further damage water tables. In addition, there is no way to know exactly how much material and chemicals will leak out of the trucks over time.

Once the hydrofracing solutions have been used they must be properly disposed. A typical 3-million gallon hydrofracing job can be expected to produce at least 15,000 gallons of contaminated water. Not only is the solution full of chemicals, many of which are guarded company secrets, but being in contact with rock formations means that when the solution comes to the surface, it brings along large amounts of silt and possibly harmful minerals. This presents difficulties because water treatment plants are not able to adequately remove these contaminants. Several alternative solutions have been proposed, such as reinjecting the hydrofracing solutions into shallow pits, but there is no clear consensus or across the board standard.

Knowledge about the process of shale drilling and the issues that go along with it can help citizens make informed decisions about the future of the state. Toward that end, the Kidder EAC is going to prepare informational newsletters and distribute them to the various homeowners' associations in the websites.

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