Shale Game

May 15th, 2010


Playing with unknowns underground

by Sandra Steingraber
Published in the May/June 2010 issue of Orion magazine


WHEN I MOVED MY FAMILY FROM a cabin in the woods outside of Ithaca, New York, into a house in a nearby village, it felt like a faith healing. I could walk again. A sidewalk stretched from my door out to a craggy maple tree and then connected with another sidewalk that headed down the block toward Main Street. Here was a track, upon which the wheels of a double stroller could roll, that linked me to coffee, library books, postage stamps, hardware displays, bank tellers, and a bus line. Hallelujah.

Out in the woods, foxes and newts had roamed our backyard, but I myself wasn’t doing much roaming. The road that connected me and my children to the rest of the world was ditched on both sides and carried trucks and a 50 mph speed limit. Nobody was going to be tricycling along it, and trips to obtain cash, band-aids, or wallboard nails involved car-seat buckles, tantrums, and drive-through windows.

But now I sat on my front stoop and grinned. To be sure, the village sidewalks—century-old slabs of stone—were neither plumb nor true, but this was evidence that they had outlasted a generation of street trees whose roots must have lifted them and then, in dying, set them down uncrumbled but askew. Looking at the misalignments, I tried to guess where trees had stood in 1840. From a geologist neighbor, Bill Chaisson, I learned that our sidewalks are a form of shale—the mother of slate—created from marine sediments. That’s when I noticed the marks of a vanished ocean on the walks’ rippled surfaces.

And it is this vanished ocean—and a deeper layer of shale called the Marcellus—that has now placed the Finger Lakes region of New York, known for waterfalls, vineyards, and dairy farms, at the center of a looming epic battle over a new form of energy extraction known as high-volume slick water hydrofracturing. Or, to use the world’s ugliest gerund: fracking. There are four stories to tell about it.

The geological story goes like this: Four hundred million years ago—before the Earth knew trees—the Acadian Mountains eroded into a nameless sea. Its silt sank into a trough in the ocean floor, together with the remains of mollusks, squids, and sea lilies. Under pressure, this graveyard turned into shale, forming a chalkboard the size of Florida. And the plankton and animals trapped inside became bubbles of methane. Because eroding mountains shed elements, this trough also captured uranium, mercury, arsenic, and lead. And so, in a bedrock layer that ranges from 2 to 200 feet thick, at a depth of 1 to 2 miles below the Earth’s surface, at a temperature that ranges from 140 to 180 degrees Fahrenheit, extending for some 600 miles throughout West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, the shale’s rock, methane, and heavy metals have remained locked together. Underlain by brine. Overlain by drinking-water aquifers.

Geologists refer to the Marcellus Shale as New York’s ancient basement. Nevertheless, it comes blistering out of the ground in the little village of Marcellus—sixty miles and three finger lakes east of my village. That community became its namesake.

The engineering story goes like this: The Marcellus Shale holds the largest natural gas deposit in the United States. (What geologists call methane, energy companies call natural gas.) Drilling for gas by fracturing shale is an established practice, but, before the twenty-first century, capturing an effervescence of gas bubbles dispersed within a horizontal formation like the Marcellus was not profitable.

Enter slick water hydrofracking.

For this method, a drill bores down and then turns sideways. Explosives are detonated along the horizontal pipe, shattering the shale bedrock above and below. A pressurized slurry of water, sand, and chemicals goes down next. The water forces open the shattered rock, the sand grains keep it open, and the chemicals inhibit corrosion, kill algae, and reduce friction so that the released gas can flow up the pipe. Some of the water and chemicals forced into the fractured shale flows back up. And some of the water and chemicals—40 to 85 percent—stays in the ground.

A single fracking operation requires drill rigs, a compressor station, a network of pipelines, an access road, 2 to 8 million gallons of fresh water, 10 to 30 tons of chemicals, and about 1,000 tanker truckloads of water and toxic waste. About 4,000 wells are envisioned for my county alone.

The environmental story goes like this: In New York state, fracking represents the industrialization of a rural landscape and foodshed. If it goes forward, fracking will usher in the biggest ecological change since the original forests here were cleared. Road-building and pipe-laying will accelerate habitat fragmentation. Spills and seepage of toxic contaminants, including methane, into drinking-water supplies have been documented in other states and will certainly be an ever-present threat in the Finger Lakes region as well. Beyond this lie the unknowns.

The chemicals found in fracking fluid are unknowns both because their formulations are proprietary (Halliburton et al.) and because radioactive materials, heavy metals, and brine, freed at last from their subterranean chambers, combine with the chemicals in the flowback water. Where will it be treated? How will it be stored? We do know that fracking fluid contains benzene, a known carcinogen. Of the 300 other chemicals that are suspected ingredients of fracking fluid, 40 percent are endocrine disrupters and a third are suspected carcinogens.

The nature of government oversight is unknown because fracking is exempt from federal environmental regulations, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Superfund law.

The impact on agriculture and public health is unknown because a cumulative impact assessment has not been done. Dust, noise, traffic, diesel emissions, ozone, soil compaction, light at night, methane plumes. How will these affect asthma rates, pollination systems, cancer risk, the growth rate of alfalfa?

There are also more elusive unknowns. Can fractures in the Marcel Shale radiate upwards? Could they connect with other passages, faults, fissures, and channels? Could they crack an aquifer? Can shattered bedrock safely contain toxic chemicals for 430 million years?

The human story goes like this: The Marcellus Shale could be worth a trillion dollars. It may provide enough natural gas to supply the nation’s consumption for 2 years. Or 11 years. Or 20 years. Or 100 years. Leasing your land to a gas company can get you out of debt. It can allow you to retire.

Across the border in Pennsylvania, fracking is going full tilt, but, at this writing, there is a de facto moratorium in New York, as we await the release of a state review. Meanwhile, a pipeline has been laid from Corning to Rockland County, and millions of dollars are being spent quietly issuing leases. In my village, 14 percent of the land is already leased to gas companies. In the county, 40 percent. “The shale army has arrived,” said a representative from an energy company. “Resistance is futile.” And, indeed, in December 2009, ExxonMobil purchased a large natural gas company, a decision widely viewed as a game-changing commitment to fracking technology.

Nevertheless, at a recent meeting at my village firehouse, candidates for board and mayor declared their opposition to fracking. A public meeting about fracking at the village library included lively discussion about a community on nearby Keuka Lake that had turned away fracking wastewater trucked in from Pennsylvania. An older man in the audience declared passionately, “We have to be ready to lie down in front of the trucks.” On the way home, walking on an unbroken sidewalk made of shale above an as-of-yet unshattered bedrock made of shale, my son said, “We shouldn’t wreck this place down, right, Mom?” And his words drew a battle line across my heart.