Op-ed column: Drilling shale for natural gas won’t hurt water

A Viewpoint column by Patricia O’Reilly Rush, on June 14, suggests that hydrofracturing of the Marce

My career aspirations led me to study petroleum engineering in the 1950s. Upon graduation, I was employed by an energy company in the Southwest. It took years to develop an understanding of the problems concerning oil and gas production. Eventually, I became fairly proficient, and was involved in designing and performing fracture treatments of oil and gas reservoirs in order to increase production.

A Viewpoint column by Patricia O’Reilly Rush, on June 14, suggests that hydrofracturing of the Marcellus Shale for development of natural gas resources would endanger water supply resources.

This simply would not occur.

Need for facts

Since very few people in the Northeast have had experience with well stimulation, I believe your readers should have a better understanding of the facts before forming an opinion on this aspect of energy development.

Although oil production was first developed in Titusville, Pa., in 1859, the national search for oil energy began after the Spindletop discovery in East Texas during 1901.

Oil and gas reservoirs deplete over time. Often, a well can be stimulated to produce at a greater rate. Initially, well stimulation was achieved by the very dangerous procedure of placing several gallons of nitroglycerine opposite the oil-bearing formation. Upon detonation, the well bore would be increased from perhaps seven inches to two to three feet. The greater exposed surface area would allow increased flow into the well bore, which produced well stimulation.

The introduction of breaking oil and gas reservoirs using hydraulic pressure began in the 1940s. Initially, only a few hundred gallons of oil was used to crack the reservoir rock and stimulate the well. This technique was better than using nitroglycerine, and certainly was safer, but the procedure left something to be desired.

The thinking was that the crack that was propagated by hydraulic pressure immediately “healed” after the pressure was released. This problem was solved by adding sand to the hydraulic fluid. The sand would flow into the cracked reservoir rock, propping the crack open, in effect, greatly increasing the diameter of the well bore and stimulating oil or gas production.

The “frac” treatment technology is very successful and has been used countless times over the past 60 years to stimulate oil and gas reservoirs around the world.

During the early days of the oil industry, natural gas was considered a waste product and was often flared. Eventually, inexpensive natural gas began to displace manufactured gas in our cities. The demand for natural gas rapidly grew, and is still growing. Energy companies soon began to develop natural gas reserves.

The energy industry has long known there were vast quantities of oil and gas reserves in very low permeability or “tight” rock formations. Such deposits are in the oil shales of the Rocky Mountains, the tar sands in Canada, and natural gas in the Marcellus Shale in the Northeast.

The days of cheap energy are over. Domestic oil production peaked in the 1970s. Imported oil to meet our national needs now approaches 75 percent.

Congress should not have allowed this to happen, but it did. The good news is that the United States has massive coal reserves. The bad news is that coal does not burn as cleanly as natural gas and the Obama administration is making moves to diminish — if not shut down, this needed source of energy.

Natural gas burns very cleanly and we are producing about 87 percent of our needs, with the remainder coming from Canada. We must continue to develop additional gas reserves. Therefore, the vast gas reserves locked into the “tight” Marcellus Shale must be developed. Directional drilling into this massive shale formation exposes additional length of this gas-bearing reservoir to production and improved fracturing techniques opens up this valuable resource for decades of reliable production.

Rush’s recent Viewpoint column suggests fracture treatments of this resource will threaten water supplies, and she urges that development of this needed resource be terminated. The possibility of “frac” fluids contaminating water supplies is simply zero. I have never heard of a “frac” treatment ever adversely affecting another formation — let alone reaching the surface to pollute a stream!

What happens after a huge injection of water into a well is a backflow of water following the treatment. The backflow may last for weeks but it will end. The chemicals that concern Rush reduce pipe friction and carry the propping agent, such as sand, that keeps the fracture open.

No reason to stop

Treatment of the backflow should be a permit condition and not a reason to condemn the effort to develop this resource.

Finally, well treatments that involve the use of millions of gallons of water may be a concern to regulators and riparian interests, but can be addressed through the well permit system issued by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

It is good to develop wind, solar, geothermal and other alternative energy sources but they will never replace oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy sources in the foreseeable decades of time. We must recognize the energy realities and not jeopardize our safety and well-being by eliminating sources of energy, thinking that some energy alternative or small-car mandate will solve our energy needs.

Russ Wege lives in Glenville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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