Wagering With Our Lives

For the past six months, I have been researching since I found out that it might happen, what it would mean if a Marcellus Shale natural gas well gobbles up five to ten acres of our 50-acre organic farm in western Pennsylvania. In doing the research, I was often troubled by talk about the Marcellus Shale “play.” Is that the shale formation a mile or more below us? Why would they call that a “play”?

I got some insight into this word through my dialogue with Dr. Terry Engelder, an oft-quoted Penn State geologist, who has researched how much natural gas could be obtained in the Marcellus Shale play. His are the huge estimates that have made the eyes of the gas companies’ executives grow wide as saucers.

He told me that “risking the play” of the Marcellus Shale will require the drilling of about eight wells per square mile over 70 percent of the five-state Marcellus Shale region. The term sounded odd to me because I still assumed that the “play” had something to do with the actual gas-rich shale.

Then I asked him about a presentation at the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas-USA that challenged his estimates of 20 years of gas for the whole nation in the Marcellus. That presentation argued that the Marcellus region might disappoint expectations and suggested that environmentalists could be a factor in limiting how much of the field could be exploited. Dr. Engelder rejected as serious the implication that “environmentalists will somehow degrade the quality of the play.” Again I was confused by his terminology. How could environmentalists “degrade the quality” of shale rock?

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Dr. Engelder explained to me, “In gas shale plays, the political reality and geological reality blur into the same continuum … as in, the Marcellus is under the New York City water supply of the Catskill Mountains and under the Delaware River Basin. In risking a play, political reality and geological reality and geographic reality are all poured into the same bucket.”

Then I got it.

Dr. Engelder was saying that “risking the play” means putting down a bet on it. The “play” is not at all a physical entity. “The play” refers to a human activity of risk taking. It is the act of risking an investment to go after these riches. In short, it is a high-stakes wager; one that the “players” think will pay off royally.

Now I could finally understand why we find natural gas companies clambering all over each other as they rush to line up as much of “the play” as they can. The shale will stay. It has been there for 350 million years. But the chance to strike it rich is fleeting. The gas companies are like fevered participants in a poker game or at an auction who better make their play before anyone else gets the rewards.

As this high-stakes gamble gets ever closer to my farm, my problem is that there is, at present, no scientific consensus that unconventional drilling for gas in the shale by a method called “hydraulic fracturing” – which entails injecting millions of gallons of water and thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals into each well bore at very high pressures – will not cause irreparable environmental harm, perhaps despoiling water aquifers that supply millions of people, including those in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York City.

A recent Scientific American article reported that the 2004 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study, which the gas industry so often quotes as a clean bill of health, was not even about hydraulic fracturing in deep shale formations, but, instead, about going after coal bed methane. Buried within that study, the EPA noted that “hydrofracking” fluids “migrated unpredictably – through different rock layers, and to greater distances than previously thought.” The author of that article, Abrahm Lustgarten, searched for more than a year for a study that proves that hydrofracking deep shale formations like the Marcellus for natural gas is a safe technology, putting that question to “more than 40 academic experts, scientists, industry officials, and federal and state regulators.”

No such study exists.

There is no evidence that deep well drilling and hydrofracking is safe in places where people live – any people, whether living in densely populated cities, or on sparsely populated farm like ours that feeds the cities.

If bringing up the risk of lethal consequences from gas drilling somehow “degrades the quality of the play,” then so be it. We should not allow gambling until we know better the risks of this kind of extraction. The gas companies do not yet have the right to wager with our lives and livelihoods “in play” as they are now doing.

Abrahm Lustgarten’s Scientific American article about the threat to water supplies posed by hydraulic fracturing can be found here.