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Natural gas wells - clean or dirty?

By Tom Glendinning
Posted Monday, June 25, 2012

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Pittsboro, NC - Below are two wellheads for natural gas extraction. Can you guess which one is green and which one is dirty? This article may lead you to wonder.

The recent natural gas drilling proposed for deposits along the Goldsboro fault line in North Carolina, specifically in Chatham and Lee counties, has evoked a groundswell of criticism from the environmental community. Many parts of their argument are falsely founded, lacking sound scientific evidence and are based on little data from environmental departments in the states which allow such drilling.

Fifty seven wellheads will be installed over the life of the project, costing Orange County, North Carolina and United States taxpayers $ 4.5 million

As a counterpoint, the Orange County Solid Waste Management Department in Chapel Hill touts a gas collection wellhead at its landfill when it closes.

To a reasonable and competent person, a solid argument would include all hazards and benefits based on scientific and economic evidence. The arguments against gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing are manifold. The evidence of hazards from the collection of leachate gas from landfills and the dangers of landfill leachate to human health are not revealed in the article in the “Waste Matters” publication. Apparently, landfill gas is clean and approved because it is published in a green publication.

Two wellheads:

Hint: the “green” wellhead is the green one.

Orange County, North Carolina will build Landfill-Gas-To-Energy (LFGTE) gas extraction wells over the closed landfill on Eubanks Road beginning in June, 2013. The projected life of extraction is twenty years. Fifty seven wellheads will be installed over the life of the project, costing Orange County, North Carolina and United States taxpayers $ 4.5 million. Nearly four miles of pipeline will be constructed. Gas extracted will produce electricity through an onsite generator. This form of conversion is rated at twenty percent efficiency, whereas burning fuel in vehicles or heating furnaces is rated at sixty to eighty percent efficiency. And the LFGTE fuel
must be cleaned of toxic chemicals before consumption. Break even for such a project is $ 102 per ton processing cost of waste. Waste will be shipped to the private Uwharrie Environmental Landfill in Montgomery County 108 miles away after the landfill is closed, making the cost of waste close to the break even mark.

Because the project is designed, engineered, approved in Orange County, Chapel Hill, Hillsborough by the Solid Waste Management Department, it must be green. It is a fine project when break even is achieved and energy is produced locally.

There are two problems with the model. First, it will be built at taxpayer’s expense. Either local taxes will pay for the wells, pipelines and electric generator, or state and federal agencies will pay most of these costs. Second, the location and pollution of the source of the methane gas is a landfill. Pollutants of known and unknown nature are held and generated in landfills. Yet environmentalists say nothing about the chemicals in the landfill leachate or the methane produced from the LFGTE project.

Below is a Wikipedia article on landfill leachate from the composition section, which lists types and categories of toxic chemicals. Many will be listed by environmentalists as threats from hydraulic fracturing fluid. The dark secret of leachate is in its recombinations and permutations while reacting in the murky soup.1

Composition of landfill leachate

When water percolates through the waste, it promotes and assists the process of decomposition by bacteria and fungi. These processes in turn release by-products of decomposition and rapidly use up any available oxygen creating an anoxic environment. In actively decomposing waste the temperature rises and the pH falls rapidly and many metal ions which are relatively insoluble at neutral pH can become dissolved in the developing leachate. The decomposition processes themselves release further water which adds to the volume of leachate. Leachate also reacts with materials that are not themselves prone to decomposition such as fire ash, cement based building materials and gypsum based materials changing the chemical composition. In sites with large volumes of building waste, especially those containing gypsum plaster, the reaction of leachate with the gypsum can generate large volumes of hydrogen sulfide which may be released in the leachate and may also form a large component of the landfill gas.

In a landfill that receives a mixture of municipal, commercial, and mixed industrial waste, but excludes significant amounts of concentrated specific chemical waste, landfill leachate may be characterized as a water-based solution of four groups of contaminants; dissolved organic matter (alcohols, acids, aldehydes, short chain sugars etc.), inorganic macro components (common cations and anions including sulfate, chloride, iron, aluminium, zinc and ammonia), heavy metals (Pb, Ni, Cu, Hg), and xenobiotic organic compounds such as Martin Schweigkofler and Reinhard Niessner, Determination 1 of Siloxanes and VOC in Landfill Gas and Sewage Gas by Canister Sampling and GC-MS/AES Analysis, Envirnmental Science Technolgy, 1999. halogenated organics, (PCBs, dioxins, etc.).

The physical appearance of leachate when it emerges from a typical landfill site is a strongly odoured black, yellow or orange coloured cloudy liquid. The smell is acidic and offensive and may be very pervasive because of hydrogen, nitrogen and sulfur rich organic species such as mercaptans.2

Environmentalists are quick to point out that there are seven hundred chemicals in hydraulic fracturing fluid. They are not so enthusiastic to list the chemical in landfill leachate and landfill methane gas. Nor are they happy to say that they are the source of that pollution in the Orange landfill. It is someone else, naturally.

The Wikipedia article is only the surface of the landfill pollutant topic. Yet so much is known about fracturing fluids that only two of the constituents are listed as toxic by the Center for Disease Control(CDC) in Georgia. Both of these are at concentrations allowed by drinking water quality standards. The others are found in auto radiators, cosmetics, food, and other products on store shelves. They must, of course, be so dangerous that we are allowed to purchase them every day without a permit from the CDC, EPA or Supreme Court.

Which gas extraction method would make most sense? The wells drilled by private sector companies, permitted by state and federal agencies, allowed by law, monitored by state agencies, or gas wells operated at the county landfill by county employees and departments? Which one would make sense economically? Which one is cleaner from cradle to grave?

2 Leachate, Wikipedia; URL:

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Natural gas wells - clean or dirty?