Op-ed column: A drilling tale of riches, risks, part 1

As a former petroleum engineer, I have designed and overseen fracturing of wells in Oklahoma. I have

I’ve been a tad discouraged ever since the potential large gas deposits discovered in the Marcellus and Utica shales, deposits that could be developed with a 60-year-old technique called fracturing, became a controversy over safety of the process.

As a former petroleum engineer, I have designed and overseen fracturing of wells (mostly done with oil) in Oklahoma. I have written pieces trying to inform the public that there is no basis to fear the breaking of hydrocarbon-filled sedimentary rock formations. However, the wave of anti-fracking pieces that has appeared in the Gazette and elsewhere, based on unfounded fears and downright untruths, clearly indicates that my efforts have not been successful.

Congressional testimony

Recently I ran across testimony from the director of North Dakota’s Oil and Gas Regulating Agency before a congressional subcommittee that may help in our understanding of resource development. North Dakota has tripled its oil production to 440,000 barrels per day in the past few years from hydraulic fracturing a “tight” oil saturated formation 8,500 to 10,500 feet below ground elevation.

Related story

For a related Opinion piece, click here.

North Dakota has 200 drilling rigs running, and state unemployment has declined to about 4 percent. The director’s testimony included this fact: Approximately 35,000 wells are hydrofracked annually in the United States without any known harm to freshwater resources.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is finalizing its Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement that will govern gas well development, including hydrofracking.

It is the most stringent regulating document in the country. Its single purpose is to protect the public while developing this great natural resource.

Prior to the new regulations, I have stated that the potential for groundwater pollution from hydrofracking is essentially “zero.” Not absolutely zero, but with the same risk assessment that we take when we enter any building, cross any bridge or choose to live downstream from any dam. All such structures have the potential to fail or fall down, subject to certain very unusual conditions.

The whole story

Critics do not tell the whole story when they allege that gas resource development will require acres of land, generate much noise and damage property values. The public needs to know that gas well development will not require large acreage and be subject to heavy truck traffic 24/7 forever. The construction phase requires a few acres for temporary occupancy that would last about a month, maybe two months, where trucks and crews would service the construction site. The same would be true when constructing a building or a bridge. Upon completion, the well site would be restored and site activity would be limited to short visits by a technician in a pickup truck.

Critics talk about chemicals, suggesting contamination of water supplies. The basic “chemical” is a soap that reduces friction pressure in order to achieve the necessary pump rates in breaking the formation. Other chemicals and materials are used to carry the propping agent (sand) and break down other rock areas to be fractured.

All materials used in the process will be required to be listed before the DEC issues a permit to develop the well. In addition, the source of water and disposal of blowback water will be mandated in the permit. Spillage will not be allowed.

Critics will say “accidents do happen” and water supplies will be threatened by gas well development. Think of all the fuel trucks that service energy needs on a daily basis in watershed areas. The probability of an oil spill seems greater from fuel trucks than from gas well development.

Recently, a critic suggested that gas well development should not be initiated, as blowback water contains traces of uranium and radium. This is another fear tactic. All shale deposits probably contain minute quantities of radioactive elements. I live in Glenville over a massive shale bed six inches below sod depth. The decay of minute radioactive minerals results in homes being more exposed to radon as compared to those over the great aquifer deposits in the Mohawk Valley. However, this radioactivity is not a health issue if the basement is sound or is vented.

All water supplies are routinely tested for minute traces of radioactive elements. The trace radioactive material in our water supplies probably originates from shale deposits. Fracture treatment of gas wells neither adds nor subtracts from what naturally exists in the formation.

Interstate commission

Finally, the oil- and gas-producing states formed the Interstate Oil & Gas Compact Commission in 1998 for the purpose of protecting the public from procedures that might pollute the environment. The commission periodically meets with the federal Environmental Protection Agency to ensure that all oil and gas regulators are on the same page in protecting the public. New York state, through its DEC, is a leader in regulatory efforts to protect the public.

The public has nothing to fear from gas well development. The economic benefits to countless thousands of property owners, primarily in the Southern Tier, and job creation cannot be overstated.

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

Categories: Opinion

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