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Extracting the gas: Is it safe? 'Gasland' questions safety of Marcellus Shale gas drilling

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF "GASLAND" "Gasland" filmmaker Josh Fox turns on a a faucet, then as a lighter is placed near the stream of water, it bursts into flames. Gas has gotten into the water well. Was this the result of fracking?
    PHOTO COURTESY OF "GASLAND" "Gasland" filmmaker Josh Fox turns on a a faucet, then as a lighter is placed near the stream of water, it bursts into flames. Gas has gotten into the water well. Was this the result of fracking?
Published June 26. 2010 09:00AM

With the discovery of vast quantities of gas-bearing rock beneath the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania is fast becoming known as the potential Saudi Arabia of natural gas. A reported up-to 760,000 wells will be required to extract the gas. In the past year, the industry has spent $1.8 billion in lease bonuses for the rights to drill on private property.

One of these property owners is the family of Josh Fox who live in Milanville, Wayne County, in Pennsylvania's Upper Delaware River Basin. In May 2008, his family received a letter from a natural gas exploration company offering to pay a $100,000 signing bonus to lease 19.5 acres of land.

Instead of accepting the money, Fox decided to travel around the country to see how the process of gas drilling affected communities and homeowners. This project evolved into the documentary film, Gasland, which has garnered awards at the: Sundance Film Festival, Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Thin Line Film Festival Audience Award, Yale Environmental Film Festival, and the Sarasota International Film Festival. Its broadcast television premier was Monday evening, June 21 on HBO.

Gasland is about the largest gas drilling boom in U.S. history. This boom is the result of both the discovery of a vast reserve, the Marcellus Shale that underlies most of Pennsylvania and New York, including the New York watershed and the Catskills/Poconos,. It can be accessed thousands of feet underground using a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

According to Gasland, "Hydraulic fracturing is a process of injecting, at incredibly high pressure, a huge volume of water-they use between two and seven million gallons of water per frack to fracture the rock formation. It's called unconventional gas drilling. It fractures that rock apart and gets at all of the tiny bubbles of the gas that are sort of infused in that rock. In order to do that, they inject millions of gallons of fluid down the well bore that breaks apart the rock. It causes a kind of mini-earthquake under very intense pressure."

Fracking is used to recover gas from reserves between 5,000 and 20,000 feet underground by fracturing the rock using a solution of water and chemicals. The fracking process has created environmental concerns about solid toxic waste, air pollution, ground water contamination, migration of gases, and the nature, recovery and treatment of the hydraulic fracturing chemicals.

A third of America's hydraulic-fracture drilling for natural gas is by Halliburton. In Gasland, Fox focuses on the 2005 Energy Act, a law that exempts fracking from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Superfund law. Fox notes that the Act was initiated by former Vice President Dick Cheney, who before becoming vice president, was chief executive officer of Halliburton Co.

This statement was supported by a New York Times article which stated, "Among the many dubious provisions in the 2005 energy bill was one dubbed the Halliburton loophole, which was inserted at the behest of - you guessed it - then-Vice President Dick Cheney, a former chief executive of Halliburton.

"It stripped the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate a drilling process called hydraulic fracturing. Invented by Halliburton in the 1940s, it involves injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals, some of them toxic, into underground rock formations to blast them open and release natural gas."

In the most explosive scenes in the film, a homeowner or Fox would turn on a faucet, then as a lighter was placed near the stream of water, it burst into flames. Was this the result of fracking? An industry group, America's Natural Gas Alliance, disputes this explanation, claiming that the water came from a well that was, at least in one instance, drilled into a gas pocket.

As he journeyed across the U.S., Fox discovered home after home with wells polluted, with the homeowners stating that the wells were good one day, then polluted after the start of gas drilling.

As one woman stated in the film, "They make the people sue, and the last person standing gets bought off."

The film alleges that those who have sued and been successful in receiving compensation for their losses were required to sign to a nondisclosure agreement. Therefore, the extent, perhaps widespread extent of the ecological damage from fracking may be kept secret, according to Fox.

With America waking up to the so-far unstoppable BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, greater attention is being paid to the safety of drilling for fossil fuels. With the Marcellus Gas Fields covering most of Pennsylvania and, the problems of contaminated wells illustrated in Gasland, and the secrecy allowed by the "Halliburton loophole" and the gas producer's nondisclosure agreements, the public and the government are asking for assurances that fracking is environmentally safe.

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