Thursday, February 02, 2012

Fracking for Natural Gas

We’re going to cast a wider net than usual today. We want to talk about Natural Gas. Perhaps you’ve noticed the many advertisements for Natural Gas [NG] that have been on TV lately, most of them talking about places far away, but for some reason, Williamsport comes into play a lot, as “a Natural Gas town.” The news stories are rampant, appearing daily.

NG used to come as a by-product from oil wells. The majority of our pipelines from the current sources of natural gas emanate from Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana primarily. But now we have a rich source of NG in our own back yard, as do the neighboring states of New York, Maryland and West Virginia, in particular. It’s called the Marcellus Shale formation and it houses an incredible amount of NG. Unfortunately, the NG is in small pockets embedded in the shale that lays under western New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and into West Virginia, and eastern Ohio. Until a recent development, the NG in the Marcellus Shale beds was unreachable. Then someone figured out a way to get to it by injecting high pressure water and chemicals [unspecified] into the shale and forcing it to basically explode, releasing the NG inside. It’s called ‘fracking’.

What they have not figured out yet is how to extract the water and chemicals used in the process. So the water and chemicals [unspecified] go into the underground water supply right from the shale, and also from above ground from the slurry and water that are brought up from the process, and in many cases allowed to run off into local streams. That is where the majority of rural and suburban homes, and small towns get their water, via wells. The drillers and the NG companies answer to this problem was first to lie, that the chemicals were not getting into the water supply and streams, and that they were harmless chemicals [as yet still unspecified]. After a high number of homeowners complained of poisoned water wells near fracking operations, the companies responded by hauling trucks of water to the homes. Now, in public advertisements, they promise to “…safeguard your wells by encasing them in steel and concrete.” One wonders what it is that would require concrete and steel protections for our well water. The last time anyone protected anything with concrete and steel it was bomb shelters in the 1950s and 60s.

One also wonders how long it took to come up with that solution…or non-solution. Wells generally go down pretty deep. So do fracking wells. Wells also operate from the bottom up, that is the water supply for a well seeps from the ground or from bedrock and fills up until far above where the pump is hanging. One cannot encase the entire well in concrete and steel or no water would get in.

Whole towns now rely on trucked in water supplies, and the drillers and gas companies are not happy that they are being told to supply clean water for people to drink. That costs money. So does repairing the roads. Huge trucks hauling drilling equipment and supplies to the drilling rigs barrel around the western and northern part of the state at high speed on roads that used to see nothing more than traffic from an occasional hunter or fisherman. One town mayor was so frustrated with the lack of response in calling the driller to fix the roads so the tax payers did not come under undue financial strain not of their own making, that he went out to the road to the rig site, and felled 8 trees across it, blocking the trucks from moving in either direction. The road repair was started the next day, and the mayor cut up the trees.

Don’t get us wrong, we love NG, and we love that there is enough in the Marcellus Shale beds to last the entire country for more than 30 years. With other shale beds being discovered, the rapid shift to cars powered by NG will begin as soon as all safety measures are met, and gas stations provide refueling under pressure to fill a car’s NG tank. The result is more efficient, and cleaner burning automobile fuel, and of course, far less reliance on foreign oil. We could conceivably reach a point in NG extraction and use that the United States will be totally and completely energy self-sufficient. No more OPEC driven gasoline prices. There are other ramifications as well and not necessarily all positive, especially on the international diplomacy front.

But if we continue allow our water supply to be poisoned, which may or may not be starting to run low anyway, we may just find ourselves importing water, instead of oil, and on a scale equal to or higher than the amount of oil we import today. We may resort to sending our oil tankers to the poles to catch icebergs and drag them back to US ports, or find a way to harvest the water from them and haul it back in their tanks like they do now with oil. We may also be forced to learn a more efficient way to desalinize sea water and use the oceans themselves as the source of our water…if we can keep the oceans clean enough!

The Website Data360 [which got its data from the UN, so keep that in mind] rates the US as the highest consumer in the world of water per person per day. As of 2002, that rate was 525 liters, or about 139 gallons per person, per day. That includes bathing, washing, cooking, internal consumption [drinking], flushing and other uses rated to a personal level. The seems a bit high to us, but at a minimal 2.5 gallons per flush that can add up pretty quickly.

Or, we could act now, and do so with the realization that with an increased availability of a new energy source comes an increased need to protect our environmental resources. We need to regulate the gas industry and the drillers, and hold them accountable for protecting the environment. It really is just that simple: you drill, you take care of any damage and make it right…completely.

Corporations go to Africa and dig out the natural resources that exist there…ores, minerals, and the like. They are rarely regulated, and almost never inspected. They have gone into areas after paying off government officials from top to bottom, and proceeded to take away the natural habitat of the people, the flora and fauna that have lived there for eons. What is not physically destroyed and pushed out of the way of the heavy equipment, is usually left poisoned and unusable. The people and the animals have to go elsewhere. Very few are employed by the corporations, and those that are usually are poorly paid. These are not just US corporations they are corporations from around the world. And they are exploiting the wealth of Africa and leaving destruction and contamination in their wake. Think Avatar.

One gets the sense that the gas companies and the drillers are treating the lands of the Marcellus Shale beds the same way. Already Pennsylvania has allowed thousands of acres of state forests, game lands, and parks to be used by the drillers, and some of that ground has been ruined by the process. Trout streams have been poisoned. The legislature was very lax in formulating regulations governing the protection of the environment and who would be responsible for that. While the public will benefit from the new NG source, the public also has a fiscal, ethical, moral, and legal responsibility to see to it the environment is protected. Hopefully the Pennsylvania General Assembly will see its way clear to passing the proper laws. Enforcement is a cost the public must bear, environmental restoration and repair is not. That should be the responsibility of the NG industry, which, of course, will pass that cost along to the customers.

Another issue is rearing its ugly head. Eminent domain is being used not all that far from here to provide drill sites for the NG industry. This is quite disturbing. We have seen what we believe to be US Supreme Court sanctioned use of eminent domain to clear whole neighborhoods of houses to make way for a factory, office complex or even a shopping mall. We think this misuses the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution, which states,

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

The term ‘public use’ has come to mean anything that would benefit more of the public than that which is already in place, and provide a profit for the businesses that replace the original property owners. That means private enterprise, with willing cooperation from local politicians, can take your house so they can put up a gas station, or a store, or even an apartment building. Frankly, that is a very ‘communistic’ idea that was rampant in Russia after their revolution – landowners were stripped of ownership, and if not evicted, were forced to live in a small portion of the home they previously had to themselves, while strangers moved in to the rest of the house. The similarities are striking.

We believe the framers, in this case James Madison particularly, for it was he who wrote the Bill of Rights section, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, had a more restrictive intent. Many of the states were concerned that the Constitution did not provide protections of the natural rights of liberty and property ownership for the individual. So Madison, who was familiar with the tenets espoused by the English philosopher John Locke, constructed twelve amendments, ten of which were adopted.

We, too are familiar with John Locke and believe that both he and James Madison are spinning in their graves when eminent domain is used to move people out of the way for private business or corporations. In essence, when it happens, it means that the business people who need/want the land for their business, cannot provide the ‘just compensation’ to acquire the property, and as a result the government does it for them. Tax payers foot the bill. So the people, get double shafted.

We believe that if the government needs a property to put a road across it, or run a water main through it, or to build a new courthouse, then eminent domain can be used as a last resort, failing all attempts to reach a reasonable settlement. That is for the public good. Only the public profits from the taking of the land. As it is now, private enterprise profits, and the public’s share is often little or nothing at all.

The US Supreme Court has held that essentially the states have the right to define “public use,” and upheld that premise in Kelo v City of New London, in 2005. Therefore, if eminent domain is being used in Pennsylvania to take private property and turn it over to the NG industry for drilling, that is on the state, or local government’s responsibility. We disagreed with the Court on ‘Kelo’ then, and certainly disagree now with public seizure of private property for private enterprise to use, including the NG industry as well.

It may be time to buttonhole your local state Representative, and Senator, and let them know where you stand on this issue. It may also be time for Congress to amend the Fifth Amendment to preclude the taking of private property for commercial, or non-governmental use.

The investors in the NG industry are making a profit on every cubic foot of NG they sell. That is good. That is as it should be. That is the Free Enterprise System that we depend on to run our economy. But it is time for corporations and investors to understand that there is a cost to making profits, and that is the responsibility of the corporations to safeguard the entire environment in which they physically operate, directly or indirectly by contractors. No one person, or group of people, are above the law, and neither is any business or corporation.

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