You may have heard that a new natural gas field called the Marcellus Shale was discovered in the Northeast, primarily under Pennsylvania and New York. Reserves of natural gas in this discovery have been estimated to be at least 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. That makes it the second-largest natural gas field ever discovered. Natural gas is a clean-burning fuel so any sensible person might conclude that we have been handed an incredible gift with the Marcellus Shale. But there’s a problem. The rocks containing this wondrous find underlie the politically insane Northeast. Which means that the standard method of extracting the gas from the rocks, a process called “fracking” which has been used without the slightest environmental damage since the 1930’s, is now being demonized by the radical environmentalist kook-fringe Left.
Gas and oil migrate through rock formations that are permeable, meaning liquids or gases can pass through. There are three kinds of rock: igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary. Igneous rock, meaning rocks formed in fire and solidified from lava or magma, are not permeable and do not contain oil or gas. Metamorphic rocks are formed by extreme pressure which pretty much rules out having much permeability. It is in sedimentary rocks which are formed by the collection of sediment over long periods of time in which the dinosaurs and pterodactyls left their bones to form oil and natural gas. Fortunately for us, we can get the oil and gas out of those rocks because they tend to be porous and permeable, allowing the gas and oil to flow through.
But whether we can get it easily or with such difficulty as to make it uneconomic depends upon the degree of permeability of the rock. Usually permeability varies in degree from place to place in a rock formation. Thus, the gas may flow freely in one or more parts of the formation but there may be a barrier between those parts restricting the flow from one area to another. How to get the gas from all the areas that contain it is the problem to be solved. One solution would be to drill a lot of wells in order to punch into each permeable area. But that would be a costly way to do it, and experience has also shown that method to lack true effectiveness because it tends to destroy the pressure in the formation that makes the gas flow. In the 1920’s in Texas one might have seen an oil and gas field with literally hundreds of oil derricks sticking out of the ground. Many otherwise good oil fields were destroyed by that practice. Since then each oil and gas producing state has enacted laws against it and established oil and gas commissions to enforce those laws and promulgate regulations for sound drilling and production practices.
A better way both economically and effectively it to use induced hydraulic pressure to fracture the rock to open up a seam that will connect the permeable areas and allow the gas to flow among them and then to be extracted from one or only a few well bores.
Shale is a clastic (containing particles) kind of sedimentary rock and is not as permeable as other types of sedimentary rock. Fracking is a long-used method of extracting gas from shale. It may be the only practical way of getting the gas. Until now, no one has raised any concerns over any sort of environmental damage from this process. The technology of oil and gas drilling is so well established and the rules and regulations of the oil and gas commissions of the various states so well define the practices to be followed, making oil and gas drilling the most environmentally safe of all mineral development methods.
Joe Nocera, writing in, of all places, the opinion pages of The New York Times, understands the choice this presents to America:
Which means that those of you who live near this tremendous resource have two choices. You can play the Not-In-My-Backyard card, employing environmental scare tactics to fight attempts to drill for that gas.
Or you can embrace the idea that America needs the Marcellus Shale, accept the inconvenience that the drilling will bring, but insist that it be done properly. If you choose this latter path, you will be helping to move the country to a fuel that is — yes — cleaner than oil, while diminishing the strategic importance of the Middle East, where American soldiers continue to die.
It’s your call.
If you haven’t already, you will soon be hearing that we don’t dare drill for the gas in the Marcellus Shale or life as we know it will surely end. When you do, just remember it is all utter nonsense.