Little noticed in the shadow of the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil eruption, the blowout of a natural-gas well in Pennsylvania last Thursday — after the failure of its blowout preventer — spewed gas and toxic chemicals for 16 hours before being brought under control. A single spark near the scene could have turned the event into a headline-grabbing conflagration that would have brought unwelcome attention to another unfamiliar new technology being used to get at previously inaccessible gas deposits.
Publicized or not, the incident in Pennsylvania — in Clearfield County, about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburg — begged comparison with the Gulf oil disaster. Just as deepwater drillers are pushing the limits of technological capability in an increasingly desperate fight to maintain oil supplies in the face of inevitable depletion, so gas drillers in the eastern United States, from Texas to New York, are using increasingly dangerous methods to get at the last bubbles of natural gas.
The cutting edge of the struggle now is a process called hydraulic fracturing, which involves the injection of millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals under enormous pressure into shale formations deep underground. The fluids fracture the shale with explosive force, releasing trapped gas and forcing it to the future. Occasionally the fluids release gas that is under high pressure, as happened in Pennsylvania, and the result is a very dangerous blowout.
The mortal hazard for the operators is fire, as the world saw when the Deepwater Horizon blew up and burned. Extreme good luck kept the Pennsylvania gas plume, which erupted to heights of 75 feet, from igniting during the 16 hours it took to bring the well under control.
The prime environmental hazard is the fluid used by the drillers to fracture the shale. The contents are a closely guarded trade secret, but the secrecy is breaking down as it is found in more and more water wells near the so-called “fracking” operations. Investigators suspect the industry is deploying about 300 chemicals, of which 65 are known hazards to human health. These reportedly include such poisons as ethylene glycol, otherwise known as antifreeze, benzene and fluoride (which in tiny doses prevents tooth decay, but in slightly larger doses destroys bone).
In the latest Pennsylvania blowout, an estimated 1.5 million gallons of the fluid was discharged onto the surface. Oddly, its presence on the surface is recognized as an environmental disaster, while its injection underground, where it inevitably wanders into freshwater aquifers, is considered routine.
Another hazard to groundwater is the gas itself, which gets pushed around in directions and into places that are completely unpredictable, as the operators are even more blind to conditions they are manipulating than the Deepwater Horizon engineers, who at least could deploy robot submarines. In Dimock, Pennsylania (in the northeastern corner of the state) last year, 13 private wells were contaminated with methane (the gas) when a fracking operation began. One of the water wells exploded. There are hundreds of reports of impaired or polluted groundwater associated with fracking in Alabama, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.
The world’s available supply of petroleum is shrinking while demand for it is increasing. The struggle to avoid the unavoidable implications of this reality is becoming more dangerous as it becomes more desperate.