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Gas drilling - a short explanation and suggestions for regulation

By Tom Glendinning
Posted Monday, September 12, 2011

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Pittsboro, NC - Gas drilling has become a highly contested issue for central North Carolina counties in 2011. The legislature passed bills allowing drilling and changes in regulation, SB 709 and SB 781, which were vetoed, and the vetoes overridden. HB242 passed easily. A roving debate invades newspapers, television, county commissions, and barber shop international policy bodies all over the state.

Local and state governments currently focus on encouraging job creation and energy independence, besides the normal job of providing infrastructure, education, protection, and laws by which citizens will live and flourish. When times are good, the priorities lean towards building services and infrastructure. When times are difficult and the economy suffers, these priorities shift toward revenue generation.

In 2011, the economy is the worst in recent memory. Factories are closed, businesses shut down, and income scarce. Prices avoid dropping, as if federal policy props them at desirable levels. Bankruptcies are common. Hope is disappearing.

Natural gas supplies becoming available are promised. The wells would furnish homes and businesses with an energy source from down the road at Aunt Clarice’s farm, not the conglomerate pipeline from across the country. Fuel costs, which have played games with the imagination, could become stabilized. The counties would become richer by virtue of the businesses, employment and independence from imported fuels. These benefits seem like a blessing in these times.

The opposing side to the political equation is environmental groups. They argue an untold number of bad consequences. The general strategy is to reveal policy makers as enemies of the people. Chemical pollutants in processing materials, well pollution, general health decline of neighboring residents, degradation of roads from traffic, and false gains from profits depleted by one-sided contracts are repeated at public meetings. These arguments are founded in evidence from the main states hosting gas wells, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, West Virginia, Colorado, Texas and Louisiana. From thousands of wells, the incidents appear frightening.

There is sound evidence of water well invasion by methane, in thermogenic natural gas from deep deposits. This form is not the same as biogenic, or that produced by decomposition of living matter near the surface. There are incidents of well pollution from cracks in well casings. Surface water has become contaminated by storage and transport of fluid used to induce cracks in subterranean rock formations. Methane gas harbored inside a building can cause harmful effects on humans.

The number of chemicals in the rock fracturing slurry runs from two hundred to nearly one thousand. The list of toxic chemicals is long on some reports. These constituents of the fluid comprise less than a few thousands of a percent of the mixture, which is quoted to be 99.5 percent water and sand.

A report from the Nicolas Institute at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina reveals a typical make up of the fluid. This chart appears in a slide show called “Shale Gas Regulation by States 4-10-11.pptx” and presents an explanation of the process, regulations from drilling states, industry history, health effects from pollutants, and recommendations for policy makers. Typical rock fracturing fluid constituents:

In addition, the backflow fluid, that retrieved from the well after fracturing is completed, has been found to contain barium, strontium, alpha radiation, benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and zylenes. All but strontium have very harmful health effects.

An unbiased evaluation of these risks to human health addresses exposure. Exposure to fracturing fluid is non-existent. Breaches in the underground system can make it possible, but facts on the number of incidents are not produced here or found in available documents to this point. Backflow fluid and post fracturing releases appear to be more threatening because the fluid is stored above ground in retention ponds and transported to treatment sites or treated on site for pollutant removal. When the fluid is stored, leaks may occur. When it is treated, all pollutants Nicolas Institute Slide Show, number 18: EPA, 2010. “Draft 1 Hydraulic Fracturing Study Plan” may not be removed., the defense of Gasland by director, Josh Fox, is biased but makes interesting factual statements.

The goal is to make the fluid acceptable for disposal on soil or in surface waters. Because of the volume used, stored and transported, there are chances of leaks before treatment. The leaks and spills of backflow fluid are management, monitoring and regulatory issues. Cracks in well casings are construction inspection issues as well. The faults are not designed into the process by intent.
Presence of dangerous chemicals in the basic fracturing fluid would appear to be inconsequential, given their low concentration. Corrosion inhibitor, dimethyl formamide, and biocide, gluteraldehyde, are poisonous. But concentrations are below Center for Disease Control stated human health limits for exposure and would require direct consumption of them for concern. Regulations can be crafted to provide inspection at critical points during construction, regular monitoring of well sites, regular and pertinent reporting to regulatory agencies, solid industry, state and local government communication protocols, and a series of back up plans for accident response. A human health monitoring protocol should be outlined with clear departmental and industry responsibilities. Otherwise, normal highway inspection, vehicle licensing procedures, mining practices, and review procedures should make the process as safe as it can be. The drama and color of environmental arguments should be overlooked. Facts and honorable reports must be studied before making rules which will penalize us all.

The benefits of local natural gas production would be great. Royalties should be lucrative for lessors and the government.

Avg. Lease Length Early Leasing Level 2009 - Leasing Level
Year Bonus (/acre) Royalties Bonus (/acre) Royalties
New York 3-5 years 1999 $5 12.50% $3,000 15%-20%
Pennsylvania 5-7 years 2002 $12 12.50% $2,900 17%-18%
West Virginia --- 2007 $5 12.50% $1,000-$3,000 16%-18%
Texas --- 2000 $1,000 20%-25% $10,000-$20,000 25%-28% 2

Pre-construction contracts, agreements and regulation may offer reassurance to landowners and citizens concerned about well degradation, water supply, post closure clean up, health risks. Terms and conditions of leasing may also be regulated to provide these assurances with procedures, back up measures, and plans published in advance and guaranteed by permitting for drilling. These concerns are, after all, the responsibility of lawmakers and regulators. Experiences and laws from other states will provide excellent guidance for crafting these instruments for the protection of North Carolinians and for the benefit of energy independence.

Nicolas Institute Slide Show, slide number

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Gas drilling - a short explanation and suggestions for regulation