The modern petroleum industry started here in Pennsylvania in 1859 when Edwin Drake drilled the world's first commercial oil well near Titusville. For a while the entire petroleum industry was located in that area, before oil was discovered in many other places around the world. For many years, crude oil marked “Pennsylvania Grade” was a sign of highest quality. Thousands of visitors still visit that site and the accompanying museum every year.
But that kind of oil drilling is now consigned to historic museums. When the boom went bust, many wells were abandoned. The drillers of the day didn't know about leakage of gases like methane which continued as the wells deteriorated and were abandoned. After a while, most people forgot about the old oil wells. However, Pennsylvania’s abandoned conventional oil fields are a mess and have been leaking methane for decades..
Now, however, there is a new risk – hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” as it is better known. When oil was being actively pumped, there was natural gas (mostly methane) coming to the surface, but as the pumping stopped, this leakage waned. The methane in lower rock strata was bound in place by many layers of unbroken rock. Now, fracking for natural gas is breaking up those layers of rock. Abandoned well holes that have not caused problems for years are now leaking natural gas, harming the air, water and soil. There are many causes of methane leaks, and it is difficult to trace all of them.
Lost, orphaned and abandoned wells may and often do act as a conduits, or pathways, allowing natural gas or other fluids used during drilling to travel between formations to aquifers or the surface. These wells have caused property damage and have claimed the lives of Pennsylvanians after homes exploded.
Continuing to drill and frack among the historic oil wells without locating and monitoring them increases the likelihood more of these wells will be allowed to spew methane, brine and fluids used to stimulate new conventional wells.
Methane, the main component of natural gas is a very potent greenhouse gas which is known to contribute to climate change. It is at least 80 times more serious than Carbon Dioxide over a 20 year period as a cause of global climate change. Recent studies have shown that abandoned wells account for up to 10% of methane from human activities in Pennsylvania.
The current improvements to the Chapter 78 regulations will require companies that drill for fracking for natural gas to identify abandoned, orphaned, active and inactive wells within 500 feet for vertical oil wells. Operators would also be required to monitor the nearby wells while they are drilling and fracking and if they become affected, they would be required to plug them. This is a very limited measure. Once the vertical drilling is done, the fracking can go more than a mile horizontally, causing damage a long way from the well pad. The old oil wells are not deep enough to be intersected by these horizontal shafts, but the effects of the fractures can travel far beyond the actual drilling.
But even this very limited measure is too much for the gas drilling industry. Supported by the drilling industry, the Pennsylvania Senate recently passed Senate Bill 279. This bill calls for a halt in the implementation of the regulatory improvements. If SB 279 becomes law, operators would not be required to identify and monitor nearby wells during drilling and fracking. The bill would abolish these proposed requirements and it would be business as usual.
“Business as usual” for the fossil fuel industry includes water that catches fire, toxic spills of unknown chemicals, huge amounts of water use, destruction of private property and increased methane to cause higher global warming.
I hope that Governor Wolf will veto Senate Bill 279.
The Big Picture of Global Warming
The predicting of how fast the earth will warm and what the specific effects will be at some time in the future is complicated and open to debate. This is best left to those like the scientists in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) with the expertise in the needed scientific disciplines. However, I find the basic tenets of GW to be fairly straightforward, based on well established science and supported by much collected data. As anyone with the capability to read should understand, we are putting significantly more CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than we did 150 years ago and the main reason for this is our accelerated use of fossil fuels.
The advent of the industrial revolution with its increased manufacturing and mass production gave us many conveniences at affordable prices but it also caused a rapid increase in fossil fuel use with its inevitable air pollution and other environmental concerns. Adding to the need for fuel was the increased world population's use of energy for transportation, electric lighting, heating/cooking, agriculture and other needs and wants.
Thus we are reaching a critical point. We are generating so much carbon dioxide, along with other greenhouse gases, that the earth's natural processes that act as CO2 scrubbers, the oceans and the forests & other vegetation, have become overwhelmed and cannot remove the CO2 as fast as we are generating it. Then this atmospheric carbon dioxide absorbs heat from the sun that has reached the earth and been radiated back into the atmosphere. Some of this heat is then re-emitted back to earth,warming the lower atmosphere, the soil and the oceans.
While it is the emissions from burning fossil fuels that are at the heart of many problems, there are certainly other issues related to fossil fuel extraction/use that are also causing environmental destruction. Oil spills have too often caused large environmental disasters, and even some deaths -- events like the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico and many oil-carrying train accidents. As recently as last month there was a significant oil spill from a Shell Oil & Gas Company pipeline in the Gulf. There have been 147 oil spills in the Gulf since 2012!
Here in Pennsylvania we are very familiar with the water pollution from acid mine drainage which will continue for many more years. Natural gas extraction is a newer problem, but despite the gas industry's denial, there have been a number of confirmed cases of water contamination in PA with varying degrees of severity, including some new cases just discovered this year.
When discussing natural gas it is necessary to understand some of the chemical and environmental properties of methane, its major constituent which can be up to 98% in some areas. Methane is the smallest organic molecule and almost half the weight of air. What this means is that it is very difficult to contain methane in tanks, pipes, or some soil/earth formations and thus it is always escaping into the atmosphere. Methane has a global warming potential 80+ times that of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period which greatly exacerbates the earth's warming.
So where do Americans stand on the issue of GW and our human contribution to it? A Gallup poll in March of this year indicated 64% were worried about this issue. In April a National Geographic WILD poll found "...94% of Americans believe our planet is warming and 87% that humans contribute at least a little bit to climate change." An overwhelming number of scientists agree that the planet is warming and humans are the primary cause. Temperature tracking indicates that "most of the warming occurred in the past 35 years, with 15 of the 16 warmest years on record occurring since 2001." The U.S. Defense Department believes that GW will aggravate a number of problems that will lead to further political instability in the world.
If such a large percentage of Americans believe the planet is warming and we contribute to this at least a little bit, why do a significant number of our politicians and leaders not believe in global warming and fight efforts to combat it? For example, EPA's Green House Gas Emissions Standards are being challenged by 29 states.
A few interesting facts:
The G20 nations spent $77,000,000.000 on direct subsidies to fossil fuel producers in 2014, but only 6% of that amount for adaption to climate change.
In the US the fossil fuel industry spent over $350 million in 2013-2014 in campaign contributions and lobbying. This industry then received over $41 BILLION in federal production and exploration subsidies – a return of $119 for every $1 spent on political change.
What could our lawmakers po$$ibly be thinking?
I will close with a most pertinent quote from Wendell Berry:
The care of the Earth is our most ancient and most worthy, and after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.
This is a condensed version of a longer article, complete with photos to illustrate the issues, titled “Will Ignorance and Disaster Win Out?” found at www.responsibledrillingalliance.org.
Ted Stroter, RDA Chemical Advisor