Hydraulic Drilling at AAAS: Fracking Annoying

I grew up in Broome County, NY, down by the PA border, and my parents still live in scenic Whitney Point. Broome County is one of the areas affected by a huge environmental controversy, because it sits on top of the northern bit of the Marcellus Shale formation, which contains huge amounts of natural gas. For years, this has been deemed too difficult and expensive to extract, but gas prices and drilling technology, specifically hydraulic fracture drilling where they pump large amounts of water down the hole to break up the rock and let the gas escape, have moved to a place where it’s beginning to be developed. Tension between the desire for energy and money for a region that’s been shaky economically for as long as I’ve been reading the news, and concerns about environmental and social effects of exploiting the gas deposits is THE issue in local politics right now.

Thus, when I saw an AAAS meeting session titled Fractures Developing: The Science, Policy, and Perception of Shale Gas Development, I said “I have to go to this.” The speakers looked kind of balanced: one guy from a state agency, one from an energy consulting firm, and a sociologist from RPI. It seemed like it would cover most of the bases.

I would’ve been better off skipping it, because all it really did was to piss me off.

I missed the start of the first talk, but the speaker, John Martin, is apparently no longer with NYSERDA, but has started his own energy company. The basic message of his whole presentation was that drilling is essential because society as a whole needs the energy, while the negative effects are confined to a few local communities. He talked about the environmental regulations governing the situation, but presented them as basically an annoying hassle that only served to raise the price of drilling the wells. He repeatedly referred to the need for companies exploiting the gas to “look good,” in a way that suggested this was just a tedious bureaucratic hoop that needed to be jumped through.

The second speaker, Anthony Gorody, works for an energy consulting firm, so I was expecting him to be kind of a dick. He didn’t disappoint. The whole message of his talk was that concerns about the environmental effects of hydraulic fracture drilling are completely misplaced and overblown. He said again and again that the gas-bearing shales are a mile or so deep, and there’s no way for any of the crap they pump into the rock down there to get up to the shallow level where most of the people in the region get their drinking water. He attributes the cases of drinking water contamination in Pennsylvania (where this sort of drilling has been going on for a while) to gas seeping out of shallower layers, and making its way through imperfectly sealed concrete well casings to the drinking water level. He said that none of the documented instances of drinking water contamination came from the fracking process, but were natural contamination from other layers of rock.

His whole presentation had a very peevish tone that was grating right from the start. It was also almost completely irrelevant to the real concerns of the communities. Even if every word he said was absolutely true, that doesn’t change the fact that drinking water has been contaminated by drilling in the Marcellus shale, and that it would not have been contaminated if the wells hadn’t been drilled in the first place. The exact mechanism by which the contamination gets in the water is not really that important to the people who now need to have water trucked in to their communities.

The sociologist, Abby Kinchy from RPI, was a breath of sanity. She gave a very nice presentation laying out the real concerns of people in the affected communities, based on interviews and focus groups with people both in PA where drilling is already happening, and in NY where the issue is still being decided. She laid out both the environmental arguments– risks to drinking water, hunting, and fishing– and the social argument– changes in the general character of the communities, increased traffic and industrial development, and economic inequality. I would’ve liked some more numbers, but that’s just because I’m a physicist.

I probably should’ve left at the end of her talk, but I wanted to see if people would challenge them in the Q&A session. which they did– most of the people who asked questions pushed back hard against the pro-drilling position. The response they got was condescending and deliberately obtuse, and just dickish all the way around.

Gorody was the worst by far. One person pointed out the irrelevance of his argument to the actual concerns, whereupon he repeated his argument that “simple physics” dictated that nothing could possibly make it up from the deep levels. When that failed to convince, he started throwing around names of hydrodynamics equations, and asserting that while gas could move up from deep levels, liquids would not. When somebody pointed out that in addition to natural gas, the process extracts large amounts of brine from the deep rocks, which would tend to suggest that liquid can, in fact, move up the well, he asserted that it couldn’t make it into the rock. When it was pointed out that his whole argument depended on the concrete casing being flawed, he repeated his claims a few more times.

Then he attempted the charming tactic of asserting that the people who were complaining about the contamination of their drinking water had probably had contaminants in their water all along, but had never had their water tested until it looked like they could extract money from the gas companies. Kinchy actually stomped on that one from the panel, pointing out that while there may have been some gas dissolved in the water before, the people she talked to had seen their well water change from clear and drinkable to fizzing, foul-smelling, and brown water. That’s not a minor change, indicative of some sort of gold-digging operation.

I left before the whole thing had wrapped up, because it was that or start throwing stuff at Martin and Gorody. Honestly, their presentations made me more convinced than ever that we need strict regulations governing the development of the shale. While the gas will inevitably be extracted (unless somebody comes up with a cheap and readily manufactured solar cell with 60% efficiency tomorrow), if the people running the operation are assholes to this degree, they deserve to be positively mummified in red tape.

I had been planning to go back to the hotel to pack up and check out following that session, but I was so annoyed that I needed to go to some better talks, so I went to the LHC session, which I’d been planning to skip. And, really, if your policy session is so condescending and dickish that I seek out particle physics talks as an antidote, you’re doing something wrong.

(The LHC talks I saw, from the ALICE and LHCb experiments were excellent, and not at all condescending and dickish. Of course, they’re the least hyped of the LHC experiments…)

21 thoughts on “Hydraulic Drilling at AAAS: Fracking Annoying

  1. I’m sympathetic to your concerns, but if the brines could move that easily through a mile of rock, your groundwater would likely already be contaminated by every single fault in the area, even if small.

    There are ways to monitor how far fractures propagate in a shale, such as microseismic imaging, so that you know they don’t go shallow (though microseismic is really done to know how much reservoir you’ve created). All the microseismic I’ve seen indicates fractures can propagate at most 700 m away from a well in a shale, though generally less and the most intense fracturing occurs close to the wellbore. And the biggest fracture half lengths are inside the formation and not up or down — I believe that has to do with the least confining stress, though I could be wrong (I’m not a reservoir engineer).

    Also, as you move up, you get heterogeneity in your rock section (other formations) and those act as frac barriers. For example, a good, thick limestone will act as a frac barrier — there’s a limestone frac barrier in the middle of one of the big shale reservoirs in Canada and, therefore, the shale must be developed as two separate reservoirs instead of one.

    That’s not to say that oil and gas development is benign. The focus on hydraulic fracturing is a red herring away from other more serious problems: bad well casing, surface spills, and inadequate waste-water treatment. If you look at Pennsylvania, these have been where the problems have occurred (Cabot, I’m looking in your direction). I imagine the focus on fracturing is where the companies want it to be since they can easily dispute it. It’s much harder to disprove accusations of bad casing and spills because evidence can be acquired at the wellsite.

    Good, strong, clear regulation is essential in getting safe development and it should be okay to say “no” to a company looking to drill if they’ve got a bad history. Maybe producers should be required to submit any acquired microseismic data, for example. Of course, as I’ve heard it, Pennsylvania has one of the most producer-friendly sets of regulations in the U.S. Anywhere else, this means the regulations suck.

  2. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head of why gas companies are having trouble making in-roads into Broome County and New York in general. Most companies seem to be relatively dismissive of the environmental concerns, and any mistakes they made weren’t their fault, it was someone else.

    As far as the engineering, the main problems come when the casings aren’t installed correctly, which is where you’re going to get most of the localized bubbling water and high salt. His dismissiveness about migration through 5000ft of rock may not have been the wrong answer, but it definitely wasn’t the right explanation

    If companies truly want to give assurances, why not just establish a strict liability standard, where unless they prove otherwise, contamination of drinking water within their horizontal radius is assumed to be by them.

    PS Endicott is way better than Watkins Glen

  3. Miguelito,

    The Pa regulations are essentially nothing. You fill out some paperwork with no fight from the state(because the DEP has no money) and the punishment(which only occurs if you’re within 1000 ft and it happens within 6 months of drilling) is that they have to replace your water supply(either water buffalo or equipment to mitigate the methane in the water supply, neither are very expensive in the long run).

  4. I moved from Endicott a few years ago and now live in PA in an area that is under threat of drilling. I was similarly frustrated in a discussion with Dr. Terry Engelder from PSU. He told me the chance of gas or contaminant migration through the natural pathways was less likely than getting hit by a meteorite. But as you indicated, that misses the point entirely. It’s not the natural pathways that I’m concerned with; it’s the thousands of man made paths that will be created to extract all of the gas. That’s where the risk lies – in the engineering calculations, on-site measurements, material variations, tolerance stackup, etc. A thorough analysis of the entire process (something like a process FMEA) is needed to fully understand and gauge the risks to the hosting communities. Anything short of that is smoke and mirrors meant to distract or mislead the public.

  5. the main problems come when the casings aren’t installed correctly

    Shades of Deepwater Horizon. We know that the drilling companies will not of their own good will ensure that casings are properly installed. They will only do this if the penalties for screwing it up are sufficiently high, which is evidently not the case in Pennsylvania.

    indicative of some sort of gold-digging operation

    An unfortunate metaphor on Chad’s part: apparently gold mining is rather environmentally unfriendly even by the standards of the resource extraction industry. Often cyanides are used to separate the gold from the ore, resulting in tailings ponds that are even more toxic than usual.

  6. The way oil prices swing up and down, it’s hard for developers/producers of these more difficult HC operations to know whether it’s economically worth it. At this point it looks like oil prices are just climbing up, but recent ME troubles make it hard to see the underlying forces. Of course, we also have to think about the direct environmental problems and the extra carbon going into the air. IMHO a good way to think about such things: It’s best of all to have renewables, but given the choice between domestic NonRs and NonRs from outside, better to have the domestic sources used (other things being equal, which of course they often aren’t as we see here. BTW a good post.) Anyway, I thought that domestic NG was the big thing, not shale etc.; but the former does require changing the prevalence of point-of-use technology a lot.

  7. What of we took all the money that went into developing new sources of natural gas and shale oil, and the money it took to train all their advocates or influence government officials, and put it into solar cell development? Or catalyst energy systems like BloomBox? I think we’d all have panels on our roof or in our yard.

  8. The inside baseball in what happened at Cabot was that they assumed the curing times for cement in Pa would be the same as they were in Fort Worth, Texas(it doesn’t take a ChemE like me to tell you that cement drying in mud in NE Pa would be different than dry land in an arid part of the country) and instead of coming in and saying “sorry, we messed up, we’ll fix it” they denied everything and built themselves a huge political hole. As for the engineering, it can be done, but everyone wants to cut as many corners as possible(reasons why I dislike most MBAs, they never listen). If I had the power, I’d put in place a “prove to me every time what you did was safe by putting the money aside for remediation” instead of being completely open.

    PS Bloombox is energy from natural gas.

  9. Hi Chad,

    Part of me does hesitate to get into this with you, as in my experience nobody *ever* changes their mind on shale gas, once they’ve got it made up. And I can see you’ve got yours made up.

    But I can’t restrain myself.

    Your post clearly reveals you responded emotionally to the pro-drilling and pro-fracking positions, and I understand that pretty much everybody does this.

    But, for you, it meant you weren’t able to think like a scientist anymore — somebody who ordinarily seeks to clearly and objectively test where the others might be wrong.

    Instead, you were repulsed by their conclusions — and by how you perceived them to be carrying themselves. That’s what I read when I see words like “dick,” “peevish,” “grating,” “condescending, “deliberately obtuse,” and “assholes.”

    (Probably anybody that differs with you on this issue seems to come across like a dick, or an asshole — am I right?)

    Here’s what I think is interesting, though (and it’s a place where you did not want to go, in your writing): All anybody has to do to put an end to the practice of hydraulic fracturing is to clearly demonstrate that on rare, unpredictable, and unmanageable occasions fracking fluid does migrate up through thousands of feet of bedrock and contaminate ground water.

    [The surface spills and the casing failures, as big as they’ve played in the media, are not enough to thwart deployment of this technology — because most of us still accept that every complicated enterprise suffers from similar rates of failure, and because the professional community asserts these issues can be minimized (though never eliminated) through better practices and tougher regulations.]

    But doesn’t it seem remarkable that no scientist or technician has yet shown the smoking gun on frack fluid?

    You are free to take the position that this has already happened, but nobody was on hand to test for it. Or that the results were in fact collected, but they were suppressed. Or that it hasn’t happened yet, but it is likely to happen in the future.

    Or you can try coming to terms with the alternative explanation — the possibility that John Martin and Anthony Gorody were actually giving you their best professional conclusion, based on years of paying attention to observable reality in their respective fields.

    Andy Leahy

    Blogging and tweeting as: NY Shale Gas Now


    P.S. — Been awhile since I’ve run into your dad or uncle back home in Whitney Point, but send them a hello for me.

  10. BTW, in case anyone forgot: “Frak” was an expletive and substitute for F**k, as used in the original Battlestar Galactica series. Originally it was as frack but moved to being spelled as frak. See for example http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frak_(expletive). However I think that it could also be correlated with “freaking” in similar vein too. I’m sure Chad used it purposely in the title.

  11. The LHC talks I saw, from the ALICE and LHCb experiments were excellent, and not at all condescending and dickish.

    Please do share, before I join you in anger.

  12. I worked on a frac crew for a while based out of Oklahoma. I’ve been on multiple wells with bad casing jobs. I’ve been on a well where we pumped thousands of barrels of fluid through bad casing. It doesn’t happen routinely, but it does happen often enough for people to be really concerned.

    Bad casing happens. It is routine enough that the industry has developed methods for recementing bad wells. Usually, bad casing jobs are caught before a frac crew ever hits a site.

    Sometimes, it takes the high pressures of a fracture job to expose the weaknesses in the casing. When that occurs, it usually becomes obvious and there isn’t a huge amount of fluid that makes it through before things are shut down. That is a problem because until the well is re-cemented, you can have contamination. I’ve seen that happen a few times.

    The worst-case scenario is when you either have inexperienced engineers on site, or for some other reason it isn’t obvious when the casing gives out. In those instances, you can have entire stages pumped through a casing without anyone being the wiser until the wireline crew goes down hole and gets stuck on the break. That is a bad day for everyone. I was only on one of those wells one time in just over a year and an half in my time on the crew. Still, that is one time too many.

    Engineers that talk about natural seepage not being a concern are talking out of both sides of their mouths. If I had to guess, I’d say they focus on that because they don’t want to be caught openly lying about the issues with casing. Things like that would probably be liability concerns later.

  13. I readily admit that my reaction to the talks was largely emotional. It’s not because I’m absolutely and utterly opposed to drilling though– quite the contrary. In fact, a large part of the reason I was so pissed off was that I am broadly sympathetic to the idea of extracting that gas. It’s an energy resource that doesn’t involve paying vast sums of money to religious radicals in Texas or Saudi Arabia, and it’s potentially the first really good economic news for the Southern Tier in as long as I can remember.

    What pissed me off was that the presentations were so arrogant and condescending to the very real concerns of people who live in that region. I would happily support drilling in the region if I believed that the people doing the extraction had the best interests of the region in mind. If they said “We recognize that there are potential problems here, and these are the steps we are going to take to prevent those problems,” I would be willing to listen, and even give them some benefit of the doubt.

    When the treatment of the very real social concerns of the community are treated as something that the locals just need to suck up for the good of the rest of society, that doesn’t incline me to cut them any slack. When the whole thrust of the pro-drilling presentation is that the environmental concerns are completely overblown, and what regulations already exist are presented as an annoyance to be worked around, that doesn’t inspire confidence that this is going to be handled any better than any of the myriad other regions that have been wrecked by incompetent extraction of natural resources.

    When I look at the way parts of the area where I grew up have withered over the last thirty years of economic stagnation, I think that the gas industry could be a potential savior for the community. I want to see that resource used, in a way that creates economic opportunities for the people there, while preserving as much as possible of the best parts of the region.

    When I listen to presenters who belittle the concerns of people who live there, though, and dismiss concerns about safety as just stupid, that sounds less like a potential economic savior than a new and brutally direct way of crushing the life out of the region. That kind of presentation makes me want these operations taxed and regulated to within an inch of their life, because I suspect that money will be needed down the line to clean up some utter catastrophe brought on by the thoughtlessness of the companies that will ultimately reap all the profits.

    Now, it may be that there are more responsible outfits involved in this– Kinchy’s sociological studies are funded by something that sounded a whole lot like an industry body. If they’re paying for her studies, and plan to use her findings in a serious way to assuage the concerns she discussed, then things could be worked out. Martin and Gorody, though, who appear to be much closer to the operational side of things, don’t give me any confidence that her work will be used as anything other than the basis for a PR campaign. After listening to the way they belittled the concerns of others, and ignored or misrepresented direct questions, I don’t trust them or the people they work with any farther than I could throw a natural gas tanker truck.

  14. An important thing to be aware of is that the usual scientific/reservoir engineering defense used in these cases is true. If it weren’t, that natural gas or oil wouldn’t be located where it is, it would’ve seeped to the surface millions of years ago. If those hydrocarbons weren’t sealed off with an impermeable layer, over geological time scales those hydrocarbons seep to the surface, such as the seeps off coast near Ventura, CA. Drinking water would already be contaminated before drilling occurred.

    So if it can’t be natural processes, it must be man-made. Bad hangers, bad cement job, break in the liner, burst casing – there are endless numbers of things that could go wrong. If you pump 15 stages of treatment and the rock doesn’t frac where planned, you lost thousands and thousands of dollars, perhaps rendering the well useless, or perhaps fracking into paleo-aquifers (not drinking water aquifers) or other zones without hydrocarbons.

    Which is why shills and lobbyists and others fight to prevent regulation enforcement – increased costs == decreased profitability next quarter. People are deathly afraid, not so much being caught f@#$ing up, but of actually f@#$ing up. People are afraid of having to spend more money and thus making their projects unprofitable. This is horribly bad when you’re an operator on a shoe string budget, so the industry as a whole fights tooth and nail to prevent regulations from being enacted and enforced.

    This leads to situations such as Flower Mound, TX and Lewisville, TX banning all drilling within city limits since there is no other way to guarantee environmental protection.

  15. When the treatment of the very real social concerns of the community are treated as something that the locals just need to suck up for the good of the rest of society, that doesn’t incline me to cut them any slack.


    It’s not the first time I have encountered such arrogant attitudes on the part of people arguing for building or development of something. Builders of freeways and airports, and real estate developers, have a similar history of downplaying the concerns of the affected communities. If you’ve ever wondered why NIMBY attitudes develop, this case is Exhibit A–NIMBY is a rational response to this kind of arrogance.

  16. Erik Lund @ 6:

    Often cyanides are used to separate the gold from the ore, resulting in tailings ponds that are even more toxic than usual.

    Minor edit. If the cyanide used in the heap leach process gets into the tailings, then the company has screwed up royally. The cyanide-rich water coming off the leach pad is supposed to go into the pregnant liquor pond for extraction, then recycling or neutralization.

    Erik Lund @ 16:

    f you’ve ever wondered why NIMBY attitudes develop, this case is Exhibit A

    QFT. Rule 1 of field work is don’t piss off the landowners. They (and their heirs) have very long memories.

  17. Andy,
    If you actually do work as a pro-Shale gas proponent, I’d like to give you a little advice in terms of dealing with the lay public: be gentle. There is nothing worse than being told you’re an idiot, or that real concerns you may have are unfounded. To most people, they see drilling and anything bad that’s associated with it is automatically because of the fracking(because that is what makes noise and is in the news), not because of shoddy well construction, loss of containment on the pad or any other relevant engineering concerns. If you really want to make a PR push, fess up to the legitimate engineering concerns(which explain the Cabot situation pretty well) and explain how these concerns don’t jive with that persons theory, and what you’ve done to mitigate those concerns. The only thing that hiding the ball does is make people distrust what you have to say. It’s really just human psychology, and you won’t win everyone, but you’ll get a substantial part of the voting public on your side.

    The other suggestion I’d make is that companies need to be more cognizant of what kind of people they’re dealing with, and should honestly try to work things out with citizens on a one on one basis. From my limited anecdotal experience(I spent last summer at an environmental clinic in Western Pa), some large companies are fantastic(they offer to test and check and pay for the remediation without going to court) while others give you the runaround. That runaround caused the City of Pittsburgh to ban all drilling in the city. Just remember, strict laws usually come as a retaliation against people who are abusing the system and if Cabot had acted responsibly and addressed the concerns upfront, I doubt there would be as much of a backlash right now.

  18. Erik-

    Andy’s basically saying “just prove that it’s not safe and I won’t be for it” which is the same as saying “just prove it is safe and I won’t be against it”.

    The problem is that neither is a possible outcome. If I have to “clearly demonstrate” (what is “clearly” in this case?) “that on rare, unpredictable, and unmanageable occasions” (what if it is often or predictable? what does “unmanageable” mean here?) problems can occur, that’s a huge hurdle to overcome.

    How would these standards have affected gulf drilling? Would they have changed the Deepwater Horizon explosion/spill? What about the Big Branch Mine disaster? Were these “unpredictable”? Were they “unmanageable”? Should we increase regulations on these industries or shut them down completely?

    To me the standards of “prove that this is causing or will cause a problem” does cause a problem of accountability.

  19. Andre,
    My problem with Andy’s response was that it was almost as dismissive as the response by the scientists, and it is almost the opposite of the climate change debate, where all the scientists say “ridiculous” and “that’s not worth our time” yet the other side hits an emotional cord that is a little more intuitive, and instead of the scientists explaining their position they just say “we’re right, they’re wrong, we have science.” As a ChemE, it pains me to say that scientists aren’t trained to communicate, they’re trained to find the answer, and most aren’t good at telling people they’re wrong in a polite and gentle manner.

    For the record, I actually think the scientist got it right, there is probably no way that anything besides methane(which outside of making it so you can light you tap water on fire isn’t much of an issue) could make it to your well water from where the fracking occurred. My problem is that there are legitimate community concerns and it sounds like the people who know the science just said “you’re theory is wrong, therefore your concerns are invalid.” My suggestion is that they say “your theory is wrong, your concerns are valid because xyz caused them in these instances, this is how we’ve learned and this is how we’ll fix them.” I think most people are just looking for a reassurance that their lives will not be affected through others actions.

    The other thing, Andy may be saying “prove that it’s not safe” but he throws in the caveat of “prove that it’s not safe in the situations we don’t already know about(well casings, surface spills).” In an area of the country where most people get water from wells, surface spills and casing failures are a legitimate community concern that most people want addressed prior to the problem occurring(especially if a company does something stupid like drill on top of a hill). Most people are worried about their drinking water, the water their kids drink and bathe in, the water they put on crops and their livestock drink? That’s the local issue, which in my opinion the companies aren’t doing a proper job of explaining away or explaining how they would mitigate the problem. That’s really the only issue here, that the people pushing for fracking have used a single argument(money) without much in terms of mitigating concerns.

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