Rebutting the criticism of “fracking”


To the Editor:

As a petroleum engineer, oil and natural gas producer, and summer resident of Tisbury, I felt compelled to respond to Peter Cabana’s letter published October 14, regarding alleged pollution of ground water in Pennsylvania, as a result of a process known as hydraulic fracturing. That process is used to complete new natural gas wells in that state’s burgeoning and prolific Marcellus Shale play. I assume a connection between Mr. Cabana’s interest in this subject and the ongoing debate over the attractiveness of offshore wind energy in New England waters and the need to do away with any form of fossil fuels.

I reviewed the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s (PA-DEP) press release on the alleged water well contamination issue, as well as statements issued by the defendant, Cabot Oil and Gas Company. Interestingly, in April 2010, the PA-DEP had entered into an agreement with Cabot, allowing Cabot to install venting mechanisms and water treatment devices to remove both methane gas and certain aromatic hydrocarbons from 18 or fewer water wells in a rural area that were the focus of the contamination allegation. Cabot agreed to this arrangement under the now typical government threat of significant economic harm if it failed to agree — in this case, an indefinite withholding of approval for dozens of natural gas wells which Cabot plans to drill in the state.

Cabot maintained its innocence in the alleged water well pollution and had in hand water analyses from the same water wells, taken before it had done any drilling in the area, showing the presence of aromatic hydrocarbons likely caused by runoff from a nearby automotive repair garage. It also demonstrated that natural migration of methane gas into area water wells had been a longstanding issue, prior to recent drilling activity. It was acknowledged that methane gas from a shallow coal-bearing strata in one or two recently drilled Marcellus Shale wells may have communicated to the groundwater, since Cabot could not conclusively prove otherwise. While this would in itself be a rare occurrence and worthy of investigation, it had nothing to do with the hydraulic fracturing process used by Cabot and other natural gas companies to unlock the previously unrecoverable Marcellus Shale gas from these wells.

The state apparently agreed to the Cabot remediation plan and asked Cabot for time to convince the litigants of its suitability. But between April and September 2010, lawyers for the affected property owners advised the state that their preferred solution was to build the $11.8 million water pipeline that Mr. Cabana referred to, and the state apparently caved in, undoubtedly yielding to pressure from environmental groups who have created an atmosphere of hysteria over the issue of hydraulic fracturing, which is done at depths at least one mile below the closest groundwater strata.

Hydraulic fracturing has been used for more than 60 years on over a million oil and natural gas wells in 20 more states without a single confirmed case of ground water contamination. Most of the recent allegations were initiated by property owners who do not stand to benefit economically from this new drilling and simply don’t want drilling taking place on or close to their land. The Pittsburg Post Gazette published an article on this groundwater contamination issue dated September 22, 2010, quoting a PA-DEP official as saying, “A lot of folks relate the (contamination) problem in Dimrock, PA to a (hydraulic) fracking problem. It isn’t. We’ve never seen an impact to fresh groundwater directly from fracking.” This is the state in which the first oil well in America was drilled in 1859 and in which hundreds of fracking treatments have been conducted at much shallower depths, and in much closer proximity to groundwater, than the Marcellus shale deposits.

This new Marcellus natural gas play, and several similar new plays in the U.S., have the proven potential to dramatically increase America’s long-term reserves of a clean burning alternative to coal-fired electrical generation, at reasonable cost. New Englanders rely on natural gas for 40 percent of their electric power generation capacity and would be well advised to encourage the development of nearby, reliable, long-term supplies, with responsible state oversight, and not be influenced by unsubstantiated claims of drinking water contamination.

Robert E. Landreth

Tisbury and Midland, Texas