Category Archives: Background

Background information on Fracking

Colorado study finds higher occurrence of contaminants near fracking sites

A researcher from the University of Missouri School of Medicine has found evidence of higher occurrence of endocrine disrupting chemicals near fracking sites when compared to presence in control areas. The study was published in the journal Endocrinology.

LATimes report on University of Missouri study finding endocrine disruptors at fracking sites

Based on the information in the abstract, the study collected samples from drilling sites, the Colorado River, and a control site in Missouri. The drilling sites had elevated levels of contaminants, and the Colorado River showed a higher level than that of the control site in Missouri. To be fair, the study does not indicate that these endocrine disrupting chemicals had been released directly into the natural system from fracking sites, but merely points to the evidence as indicating the increase in industrial activity in remote sites present a greater likelihood of contamination. The study certainly verifies the presence of endocrine disrupting chemicals in the fracking process (something, you may recall, that Josh Fox mentions highlights in Gasland without making a qualitative link).

I want to emphasize here again: wastewater storage, treatment, and disposal are the most critical pieces that must be in place for fracking to be any kind of success.

BT

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Exploratory wells coming to… western NC?

A nice summary courtesy of Carolina Public Press of the report DENR Assistant Secretary Mitch Gillespie gave to the Environmental Review Commission of the General Assembly last week draws attention to a an unforeseen plan to explore areas in western NC for natural gas. The report included a list of feasibility studies for fracking, which I presume to mean exploratory wells for core samples, though the article does not specify what the studies will fully entail. The point that raised eyebrows was the identification of a feasibility study in western NC:

the list included a rare mention of a site in the mountain area, identified only as a “precambrian rift basin” in “western NC.”

I admit that I have not really studied the geology of North Carolina in more than 10 years, but considering those precambrian basins are more than 540 million years, those formations have not changed much. I cannot imagine that those precambrian basins are anything but crystalline rock, and though they may be porous, any gas that was there is probably cooked.

Presentation slides from Mitch Gillespie to NCGA Environmental Review Commission

Thanks to a commenter on the article, he points to a nugget of policy presented to the Environmental Review Commission that has a huge impact on local jurisdiction:

…municipalities will not be allowed to prohibit fracking within their boundaries.

There has been a lot of attention given to Colorado after several municipalities there voted earlier this month to ban fracking. Clearly, the legislation in North Carolina has preempted that option for local governments. The state does have that power as they are the body to recognize legal standing of municipalities and counties, but this prohibition on localities is heavy-handed.

BT

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“The End of Country” by Seamus McGraw: a thoughtful perspective on fracking

I finally read “The End of Country” and want to encourage everyone in the potential fracking areas of North Carolina to go to your local bookstore and buy this book or go to your public library and check the book out. Quite simply, his book is appropriately titled, and the content moves from historical, journalistic, anecdotal, and to personal, all of which provide a thorough perspective on life in a fracking area.

Back in March, I had the opportunity to hear Seamus McGraw speak at a forum at UNC-Charlotte, and even walked and talked with him there to ask for his insight. You may remember a post I wrote summarizing that forum, and then sharing Seamus’ advice to have a comprehensive plan around energy policy, energy use, land and resource use. He preceded his speech then with acknowledging he is neither for or against fracking, and has two wells on his property in northeastern Pennsylvania; the book is basically a 250-page explanation of how those wells came to be.

McGraw did his homework in writing this book. He describes the history of natural gas “mining” in nearby Fredonia, New York, in the 1820’s, and then the development of the “Drake well” in Titusville, PA, the first [commercial] oil well in the US.  And then he describes how slick water fracking was developed, almost by accident. Mitchell Energy’s development of fracking as a means to extract natural gas trapped in rock formations almost retired with an effective but inefficient practice; likewise, many petroleum geologists in Pennsylvania almost missed the primary source of natural gas, aiming at other strata around the Marcellus Shale.

The strength of the book comes from the in depth interviews McGraw had with people on the ground, starting with his grandmother. It was his grandmother’s property that he and his sister would inherit that raised the question of why someone would knock on her door to offer money for signing a mineral lease on that land. His research led him through the infamous town of Dimock. He spoke with land owners there, some of whom had not signed a lease, at least not initially. He also spoke with landmen. He heard from neighbors who sought consumer representation as a group. He spoke with Terry Engelder at Penn State. The following are some insights I’ve gotten from the book, and encourage others to share as well.

* The landmen are simply doing their job. They want happy customers and therefore willing to work patiently with property owners, but their job is to get leases signed for the gas-producing company, and get those leases grouped over the gas-producing formations without giving up too much in the process.

* The geology is vital to where a well will be located. This may seem obvious, but it is actually in the details of how the rock formation has been stretched and strained that influences the alignment of the pores where the gas is trapped. Identifying the orientation of these built-in fractures in the formation helps economize how the driller should directionally drill to extract the most gas with the least disturbance.

* One proposed alternative to fracking with water is to frack with a nitrogen gel: the nitrogen would dissipate into the atmosphere, reduce water use, and thereby eliminate the need to control large volumes of fracking wastewater. McGraw actually describes how the first attempts by Mitchell to do hydraulic fracturing relied on a nitrogen foam or gel, but these inconsistent results, especially in deeper wells. For us, though, the orientation of the Cumnock may actually be better suited for this nitrogen gel. The water resources specialist with DER has reassured that there is plenty of water in the Deep River to supply fracking opertations, but considering the fracking wastewater – both the return water and the produced water – has been problematic, anything we can do to reduce the volume of wastewater should be practiced.

* Unknowing consumers have gotten a raw deal, therefore we need very real consumer protection from the state. Those that signed leases early, such as many of the folks in Dimock, got a fraction of what property owners received later. The Marcellus gained recognition for a wealth of shale gas, but the early leases paid very little per acre, and only the Pennsylvania minimum for royalties. This resulted a gross reality of haves and have-mores, and still a lot of have-nots. We know the situation in North Carolina is such that many property owners signed a lease that is not beneficial to them – or of course, property was unknowingly bought and sold without the mineral rights. I do not know fo any course of action property owners may take to renegotiate their mineral lease, but this is exactly the kind of situation to create severe mistrusts within a community.

* There is an overwhelming feeling that fracking is a last resort. Yes, land owners have achieved financial security by opening their place to fracking. But McGraw writes about the perceptions of disparate voices that felt a common dread about the industrialization of their region. He wrote of unlikely alliances that formed to fight for consumer and environmental protection, and how they all recognized the land would never be the same. He also wrote about families that could no longer afford for the land to be the same – how farm subsidies have not risen at the rate expenses have and how communities were losing their next generation of workforce for the lack of opportunities: receiving a signing bonus for their mineral rights would let these families stay on their land.

I encourage you to read this book whether you are pro-fracking or against fracking. The book is informative and entertaining, and never do you feel he is trying to persuade you, the reader. The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, Circle City Books in Pittsboro, and the Central Carolina Community College Bookstore should have copies of “The End of Country” available, and if they do not, ask them to order it. Lee County Public Library in Sanford has the book in its stacks.

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“Reference sites” and “Maps” pages updates

Just a quick note to alert readers about some updates on the pages “Reference Sites” and “Maps.” Both pages have links to the websites for the Register of Deeds in each of Chatham, Lee, and Moore Counties, and also the link to the Lee County GIS/Strategic Services website with the searchable GIS map that includes a layer of properties with mineral rights leases.

The Maps page also has a link to the Southern Environmental Law Center that has plotted the public water supply sources with the extent of the all the known Triassic Basins in NC (Deep River Basin, Dan River Basin, and the Wadesboro Basin).

The Reference Sites page has the links for the Mining and Energy Commission members’ bios, committees, study groups, and list of stakeholders. I have also put in the the links to the NC Department of Justice (Attorney General’s office) information on property rights and what to watch out for when purchasing property. RAFI’s information on property rights is included on the page as well.

I will continue to update these pages as needed, so check back frequently. Thanks, –BT

Gasland: what the documentary shows us, part 3

The last item that Josh Fox’s documentary reveals that I wish to highlight (there are several more that other outlets have picked up on already) is the one that is not mentioned specifically: the problem of the endocrine disruptor. His interview with Dr. Theo goes into what the effects of endocrine disruptors are, which are primarily neurological. If you have not heard of endocrine disruptors, here’s the description from our favorite source on the web for such unknowns, wikipedia. The subject is addressed by NIEHS as well.

 

Josh captured reports from individuals experiencing these very symptoms, and tragically filmed animals experiencing these symptoms rather strikingly. The reason I highlight this issue here is because we have no treatment for endocrine disruptors. It seems that people and animals had exposure from endocrine disruptors that traveled by air. Again, the dispersed nature of this kind of gas development poses an extra challenge for protecting environmental health, in the air, soil, and water. Admittedly, endocrine disruptors are not unique to gas exploration at all. I bring it up here as something of a public service announcement.

The one critique I have of Gasland is that he does not talk about the benefits of natural gas, and of the lease holders. I know he mentions the adds run by Chespeake and what not about this being a ‘game changer’ and of course starts the movie by describing the generous offer he received in the mail. The reason it is important to note the incentive is that there are a lot of landowners out there, a lot of farmers whose business is struggling, home owners scraping by, who have a justified reason to exercise their mineral rights: they can plain and simply use the financial boost. Second to that is the fact that our way of life here calls for this steady supply of cheap energy, and this is a resource that we can and will use. Once we acknowledge these facts, I believe we can have a better discussion about how to extract those resources responsibly to provide all stakeholders better economic stability.

BT

 

GasLand

GasLand (Image via RottenTomatoes.com)

 

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Gasland: what the documentary shows us, part 2

The second great insight that Gasland provides on the hazards of hydraulic fracturing is something that he does so effectively in the movie that he doesn’t even mention it specifically: the dispersed nature of the industrialization.The cumulative effect of the dispersed setting is actually identified by the scientist at SMU as a major barrier to regulating the air emissions because each well does not reach the threshold to trigger Clean Air Act reporting. But the cumulative effect of all the wells in a region more than surpass that threshold.

Going back to the problem listed in part 1 of the limitations of regulation, the dispersed setting of industrial sites in the midst of farmland must be a challenge to regulators to review well pad siting and construction, hold pond construction, materials storage. When Josh is first speaking with folks in Dimock, you can see first hand the rural setting, the space between neighbors that dilutes a critical mass of both industrial material and of people.The footage of the well explosion in Wyoming is remarkable, where regulators just could not respond until it had gone, and then simply had to sit back and let the thing run its course. Again, in the extras section of the DVD, Josh interviews a gentleman in Arkansas who shows where a truck of flow back water pulls up to a creek to dump its contents.

There is a reason that cities and counties zone industrial areas: it attracts economic development, yes, but it also defines a specific area that infrastructure can handle heavy industrial practices. Heavy traffic and industrial materials can be handled appropriately. Hydraulic Fracturing brings those heavy industrial practices to the farm in rural areas along country roads, separated by several hundred acres from the next industrial site – the closest fracking well. The lesson here is one of acknowledgement, and preparing for that as best we can in the process of planning and development. For example, permits may be issued in a way to account for road repair, which is actually mentioned in the DENR report. Ironically, those of you know me know that I am fan of dispersed management or decentralized systems, but the dispersed nature of these little industrial sites should be managed in some type of cumulative, central manner.

BT

Gasland cover

Gasland cover (Photo credit: darthpedrius)

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Gasland: what the documentary shows us, part 1

On the morning of the first public comment session for the DENR shale gas study, I want to share three main points highlighted in Josh Fox’s documentary film Gasland. Yes, there are a lot of attention-grabbing images in the film, most notably the faucets being set on fire. And if you hear the critique of Gasland from industry representatives, you hear these cases are not due to gas drilling practices. With this, let me again say that I am not surprised that the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has stated in the draft report that hydraulic fracturing can be done in this state if the proper precautions are in place. Those precautions are not in place at the moment. But let me get back to Gasland…

The first remarkable enlightenment from Gasland is that state agency’s hands are tied to legislation. There is the scene where Josh is in Colorado speaking with people who are each experiencing problems with their water, and the one woman shared the conversation she had with a state regulator who had defended industry: she asked if he was helping industry, who was serving her, the public? His response: I don’t know – hire a lawyer. No wonder public trust in government is precipitously falling.

Then, later, Josh is interviewing the Head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. This conversation was tough because I felt that Josh was a little adversarial, and yet both of them were frustrated by the limitations of their respective positions. The DEP could only respond to the complaints they had received, and responded accordingly – they can’t respond to the perception of the problem, only to the reality. The state of Pennsylvania has touted itself on having the toughest regulations for gas drilling, and they have a long list of fines levied against gas developers that have violated those regulations; but the key question is how can the state regulate gas development in a way to prevent those violations before they occur?

And the interview with Weston Wilson from the EPA exposes these same parameters. He points out that testing on water quality, well construction, etc., came to a halt after the Energy Policy Act of 2005 was passed, yet here was a situation in which the public have industrial practices in their backyards with unknown contents and consequences. In the extras portion of the DVD, which is a must-see, an extended interview with Wilson mentions one of the biggest challenges with hydraulic fracturing: wells that have gone bad due to poor design or construction are being studied, but there is the problem of good wells that go bad that are not being studied.

So, the lesson here is for North Carolina to have very clear regulations on the technology, and the whole practice (I didn’t even mention the extent of problems caused by lack of treatment of the flow back water and other surface contamination from the drill site), and then for the public to have a thorough understanding of how to work with DENR and the industry to protect public interest.

GasLand

GasLand (Image via RottenTomatoes.com)

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