Deep-rooted environmental concerns persist over shale oil

November 25, 2012


Spreading beneath six eastern states, including New York, lies the expansive black shale Marcellus Formation, a potential gold mine of oil and gas reserves. For developers, its proximity to major gas consumption markets makes it very appealing, but that very proximity has triggered an outcry over potential health hazards and environmental destruction.

The problem lies in the means of getting at the trapped resources.

Hydraulic fracturing uses pressurized water pumped underground to fracture rock, and the process is essential to mining gas and oil trapped in subterranean layers of shale. In the state of New York, the process has been practically banned due to fierce opposition from residents.

In the suburb of Ithaca in upstate New York, Sandra Steingraber, 53, is a central figure in the opposition to shale gas development. Holding a Doctor of biological sciences, Steingraber is also an expert on the impact of chemical substances on the environment.

"When the toxic fracking fluid goes down the hole, if there's any cracks in the cement, it can leak through the well casing into the water," she says.

In order to reduce friction and curb the growth of microorganisms, among other reasons, various chemicals are mixed into the water used for fracking. According to a report released by the U.S. Congress in 2011, 29 kinds of toxic substances, including carcinogens such as benzene and lead, were found to be contained in the material mixed in with the water. There were also reported cases of companies refusing to reveal the names of the substances they used, claiming them to be trade secrets.

Because of factors such as gas wells not being sufficiently lined with concrete, there is also a danger of excavated methane gas contaminating groundwater. In one scene from the 2010 documentary film "Gasland," water coming out of a kitchen faucet is lit on fire. The New York Times has also been sounding the alarm with a continuing series about the risk of environmental pollution and the negative effects on local communities caused by shale gas development.

Results of a 2011 survey by Duke University on the Marcellus region revealed that the closer gas wells were to groundwater, the higher the concentration of methane in the groundwater became. However, a relationship between this and shale gas development could not be proven, and no cases of chemicals used in fracking mixing with groundwater were found. But Steingraber isn't satisfied.

Not enough data has been gathered to recognize fracking as safe--anti-fracking groups like her complain.

Since 2008, New York state has been investigating the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing. Once completed, a final decision on whether or not to lift the moratorium on hydraulic fracturing can be made.

According to John Armstrong, 23, a member of Frack Action, an organization opposed to the procedure, there are approximately 200 anti-fracking groups in the state.

"In New York state, the movement to stop fracking has largely come from grass roots. The communities have done a tremendous amount of educational work," he says. "They are just going door to door, talking to the neighbors and going to town hall meetings and talking about (the dangers of) fracking."

Meanwhile, drilling operators are being more thorough in lining the insides of their wells, reusing water, and putting more effort into environmental protection measures. The voice of industry urging the pursuit of development, including gas and oil companies, is also strong, and for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is believed to have presidential aspirations, it is a complicated political issue.

The impact of "Gasland" and its message is spreading across Europe as well. The town of Lebork, Poland, is located not far from the central northern city of Gdansk. There, a local nutritionist, Grażyna Mazanowska, 50, is putting together an organization opposed to shale gas drilling. Near the entrance to a worksite she has hung a banner calling for a halt to drilling.

"I saw the scene in 'Gasland' where tap water was lit on fire. Unlike in the States, here, private homes are only a few hundred meters from the drill site. This is a much more serious situation," says Mazanowska, who does not trust the companies involved in drilling because they have failed to provide adequate explanations regarding their operations.

This spring, the International Energy Agency (IEA), headquartered in Paris, released a report titled "Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas." The IEA believes that natural gas will become the world's most important fuel in the future. However, impacts on the environment cannot be ignored.

The Golden Rules can be said to represent the balance that should be struck between shale gas development and environmental conservation.

Problems can be solved though means such as existing technology, adherence to the very best rules, and application of a 7-percent cost for preventive measures--the report says.

Precautionary provisions, such as having operators provide local governments and others with data concerning all the chemicals they use in their operations, form the basis of the report's suggested measures.

"Providing information to ordinary citizens is the number one rule,” stresses Fatih Birol, the IEA's chief economist.

The IEA is collecting up-to-date information from sites where shale gas development is proceeding, such as those in the United States, Canada and China. It is planning a "new platform" for countries to share their experiences with success and failure. The group estimates it will be able make the information available to the public within a few years.


In the town of Marcellus, New York, there is a place where an outcropping of shale can be seen exposed on the Earth's surface. Thin sheets of shale lay on top of one another resembling the layers of German "baumkuchen" cake, and the outer surface of the shale is very hard to the touch. Examining a piece that had fallen to the ground, however, reveals that each of the thin layers that make up the weathered rock can easily be peeled away. These layers look similar to chocolate wafers or ultrathin porcelain tiles.

It has long been known that seams of shale contain oil and gas. However, in contrast to gas that has pooled in traditional pockets due to factors such as changes in the Earth's crust, this gas cannot be brought to the surface by simply drilling a vertical well.

What has made shale gas accessible are the techniques of horizontal drilling, which allows wells to be extended in a horizontal direction, and hydraulic fracturing.

In the gas extraction process, a vertical well is first drilled to a depth of several thousand meters. Gradually, the direction of the well is turned horizontally, and this is the direction from which the shale seam is penetrated. Horizontal drilling allows a single gas well to gain access to a large volume of shale gas.

Water mixed with sand is then injected down the well at high pressure, cracking the shale bedrock into tiny fissures resembling blood capillaries. This hydraulic fracturing allows the gas to flow up the well. After the water has been extracted, sand gets stuck into the fissures and ensures that the path for the gas does not become clogged.

Hydraulic fracturing requires several tens of thousands of cubic meters of water for each well.


Shale gas development has been called "revolutionary" in recent years, partly due to the drastic drop in natural gas prices within the United States.

In 2005, the United States was importing 60 percent of its petroleum.

However, due to a chilled economy following the collapse of Lehman Brothers investment bank in 2008, and with gas and oil from shale seams starting to replace imports, America's reliance on imported oil dropped to 45 percent of its total needs last year. The benefits of falling gas prices are even reaching family households.

These changes are notable for the short amount of time in which they occurred and for the unexpected places in which they have occurred.

Though it has been known since the 19th century that shale seams contain gas and oil, extraction was thought to be costly and technically challenging, leading major companies controlling the oil and gas markets to ignore it.

Fixated on this resource, however, were independent companies in the United States. In the 1990s, Texas-based Mitchell Energy and Development Corp. made progress in improving hydraulic fracturing techniques. At the same time, Devon Energy Corp. of Oklahoma made advances with horizontal well drilling technology.

In 2002, Devon bought Mitchell. The two technologies were combined, and production was increased through competition between contractors. Advancements in digital technology also helped increase the accuracy of well drilling. Furthermore, oil prices had risen significantly in the good economic times prior to the "Lehman Shock." With favorable winds blowing in the gas market, shale gas production advanced in one mighty leap.

These factors could signal a major change for the future, according to Ed Morse, managing director and global head of Commodities Research at Citi Investment Research.

"I think the U.S. will be a net exporter of natural gas by 2017," he said. By around 2017 or 2018 there could be no need to import oil from anywhere but Canada.

"The U.S. will be pretty energy self-sufficient," Morse added.

For the United States, which has relied significantly on imported oil since the end of World War II, this is a groundbreaking development.

Discussion about changes in U.S. diplomatic strategy, should the country become self-reliant in energy, are gaining momentum. There are those who feel that it would no longer be necessary for the country to rely on resources from Middle Eastern countries and that it would enjoy advantages in its power relationships with places like Russia and Iran. However, matters cannot be determined by energy issues alone, and at this point it is too early to tell how much change could actually occur.

Attention is also being paid to the spread of shale gas and oil developments outside the United States.

Unlike oil, there is not a disproportionate concentration of shale gas in a small number of producing countries. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates there are 188 trillion cubic meters of technically recoverable shale gas in the United States and 32 other countries and territories. That is equivalent to approximately 60 years' worth of global natural gas consumption. Commercial production of natural gas is set to begin in Australia in late October, while in places like Poland and China prospecting is moving forward.

However, the speed of development is slow, and changes as rapid as those seen in the United States are not expected to occur in other countries.

And along with the spread of shale gas development, come concerns over environmental pollution. While those promoting development say negative impacts can be prevented by applying a fixed cost to production, fears of water contamination and other anxieties mean that opposition to development continue.

(This article was written by Naoatsu Aoyama and Dai Narusawa)

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