Sunday, September 27, 2009

Quandary in the quarries: the Marcellus Shale formation

The Marcellus Shale formation has been the focus of countless headlines and the fodder of endless conversation for residents of central New York and Pennsylvania and parts of West Virginia since 2007. The layer of rock which lies underneath much of northern Appalachia and which contains large quantities of valuable natural gas is now gaining national attention as well as its importance as a potential energy source for surrounding areas becomes clear. According to this New York Times article, geologists have known for more than a century that the shale contained gas. Recovering the gas did not become economical until the introduction of the new technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the last few years, however. Combined with rising energy prices and a national push to reduce American dependence on foreign oil, the new found feasibility of extracting the gas has transformed the Marcellus Shale formation into a proverbial gold mine.

Following the discovery of the new technology, gas companies quickly moved in and began going door to door and making phone calls to landowners with the mineral rights to the shale, the majority of who are rural dwellers. Just as quickly, community groups began forming on both sides of the debate over whether and how to allow the drilling to commence. Environmental groups sprouted to fight the drilling. Landowners banded together in certain areas to negotiate optimal leases. Lawyers rushed in to write the terms of the contracts and to advise both the gas companies and the residents on how to proceed.

Now the drilling has officially commenced in Pennsylvania, altering the rural countryside and the lives of the residents in the area of the Marcellus Shale formation alike. Massive rigs tower over the gas wells all throughout the green hills and valleys of the Endless Mountain region of Northeastern Pennsylvania, working throughout the day and night. As the rigs pump gas out of the wells, they simultaneously pump huge amounts of money into this economically depressed area. As reported in an article in the Press & Sun Bulletin, my hometown newspaper in Upstate New York, the royalties that many residents are already receiving are seen as blessings from God. The money allowed one 63-year old farmer and auctioneer to retire. Others have been able to repair dilapidated farm houses and barns and make new purchases, such as flat-screen televisions.

Of course, not all the news is good. The constant activity at the site of the drilling creates significant amounts of noise and light pollution with negative effects on the quality of life of many residents. On a trip home to visit family in August of this year, I saw one of the newly installed rigs lit up against a dark sky, initially mistaking the bright, colorful lights and the loud clamor for a carnival. I cannot imagine living within a few hundred feet from one of the sites. In addition, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection blames the drilling for contaminating the water supply in areas surrounding the drilling wells with Methane, rendering it undrinkable.

The risks of pollution from the new hydraulic fracturing technology led New York to “suspend[] permitting for Marcellus wells while the state Department of Environmental Conservation reviews its impact on the environment.” The State’s focus is on preserving water quality, as Upstate New York reservoirs near the Marcellus Shale formation supply New York City’s drinking water. According to this website:
"New York is one of just four major cities in the United States with a special permit allowing its drinking water to go unfiltered…. If the special permit was revoked, the city would have to build a treatment facility that could cost nearly $10 billion, said Walter Mugden, a senior official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency."

In spite of the real dangers and the costs, owners of the mineral rights clamor for the drilling, and the royalty checks, to begin.

I am incredibly ambivalent in my feelings towards this entire phenomenon. Cynically, I look at this scenario playing out in New York State and see the classic marginalization of rural Upstater’s interests by Downstate urbanites. On the other hand, I am thankful that the State is protecting the environment, regardless of the motivation.

Continuing in this vein of ambivalence, I see that the money that is flooding into to Pennsylvania is an obvious boon. There could not have been a better time for the discovery of a new way to extract the gas then in this recession when so many in this already depressed area were already teetering on the edge of financial disaster. Furthermore, my family members in the Northeast of the State- from my grandfather to my aunts and uncles, and even my parents- will directly benefit. All have all already signed leases with gas companies.

At the same time, however, I have the sad sense that I am watching history repeat itself. Appalachia was home to the coal mining boom in the last century and the countryside throughout the entire region is still visibly scarred. The residents lived hard lives in the mines and received little in the way of remuneration. Once the coal companies got as much as they could from the region, they left, all the richer, leaving the area in its current state of economic depression, with little hope in the way of recovery in the near future. I think with trepidation of the worst example of the type of devastation visited on the region- Centralia, Pennsylvania- a ghost town where a mine fire has been burning since 1962, resulting in the total abandonment of the town.

Given this history, I cannot help but think that, even with the royalty checks, residents of the three states atop the Marcellus Shale formation will not be better off in the long term. Once the gas wells dry up, the companies will leave behind gaping holes in the earth and a long list of environmental problems. I asked before in one of my questions to the class what would happen to the other 80 percent of America if the rural migration to cities continued at its current pace. Is the answer that rural America will go on being plundered and forgotten, in the current pattern? I hope I am not being overly sentimental in wishing for better.

I anxiously await the final determination of the future of the drilling in New York, which could come as early as sometime this fall, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conversation website.

1 comment:

tcruse said...

The hawk-like descending of gas companies onto these Marcellus Shale towns following the discovery of natural gas reminds me of a previous post ( regarding a similar occurrence on the plains of Wyoming. There, landowners successfully banded together to negotiate with wind developers seeking rights-of-way across their properties.

It is encouraging to hear that some landowners on the Marcellus Shale formation banded together to negotiate optimal leases. It is also understandable that those who found out they were sitting on gold would want to cash in immediately while the opportunity presented itself – for who knows if someone would be offering money for it tomorrow…

But, as noted in the other article, private landowners are often at a disadvantage when dealing individually with developers since the developers usually know more than the landowner about the value of the resource and the transmission possibilities. Bargaining collectively allows landowners to get the best deal economically, but also ensure that the extracting company doesn’t leave them with a social and environmental nightmare when it leaves.