Presentation notes from Mt. Aloysius College in Cresson, PA

Had a lovely time today presenting to Mount Aloysius chemistry students about shale drilling.  I am posting these notes in hopes that they can be useful to others talking about and thinking about this issue.Many of these points are documented in my PowerPoint at

Dr. J. Stephen Cleghorn


Why we need a moratorium on drilling for methane gas in the Marcellus Shale below PA.

APRIL 19, 2012

  • The essence of the debate before us today is found in an exchange between Dr Terry Engelder of Penn State (perhaps the major proponent of shale gas, sometimes called the “father of Marcellus Shale”) and Dr. Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University, who has 30+ years in performing, researching and teaching about the processes used in the type of “unconventional” gas extraction we are discussing today.  From their January 2011 debate we have this:
  • “(The natural gas) industry needs to practice” and there will need to be some “necessary sacrifice” for Pennsylvanians as they work to get it right.  – Dr. Terry Engelder.
  • “Industrial experiments usually take place in contained buildings, not out in the midst of our communities. The industry plan so far is Fire, Ready, Aim.” – Dr. Anthony Ingraffea
  • WHAT ARE THEY TALKING ABOUT? What sort of great experiment has come to PA? What is the scope of the drilling that is underway now?  Where is it headed? What can we expect it to do in changing our state?
  • It is this:  Heavy industrial development of one-half of PA’s land mass for gas extraction over the next 50 years. Well pads, 25-30 thousand of them. Well bores into the shale (as many as 200,000 of them) to systematically fracture, grid-like, all the shale beneath by reaching into the shale with horizontal well bores a mile or more in length,  with perhaps 6-8 of these (maybe more) coming off of each well pad. 
  • Surface disturbance of earth, forests and farms – and this is just for building the 5-10 acre well pads, not including all the ancillary facilities of the gas field (I will mentions those in a moment) – surface disturbance that will require the bulldozing of 70% more land than all 350,000 conventional has wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 1859, leaving behind a permanent footprint of so-called “reclaimed” sites that will take up 50% more land than all those conventional wells ever did. Sites that may not be fully reclaimed for decades because drilling and fracturing may continue at each site for that long.
  • The building of a gas field: Pipelines, the gathering types to each well and the major transmission pipelines to urban centers. Waste impoundments containing highly toxic “flowback fluid.” Compressor stations to move the gas. Midstream facilities to process it. Five million heavy diesel-spewing truck trips annually to develop 3,500 wells.  Not only that: two State Police “frac nets” to stop drilling trucks finding that 40% of trucks or drivers doing the development now were illegal and had to be taken off the road. 
  • Development at a density of two major gas facilities per square mile. It will be everywhere we turn. Drilled counties show that now.
  • Serious air pollution. From the trucks, the drilling and fracking process that blasts fine ling-penetrating particulates and benzene-rich diesel exhaust into the air, the flaring of each well which has been shown to release up to 60 dangerous volatile organic compounds into the air.  From condensate tanks and piping that routinely release invisible methane and other volatile organic compounds into the air around them, with people living nearby reporting headaches, nausea, skin lesions, nosebleeds and elevated levels of toxic chemicals coursing through their blood just as a result of air pollution.
  • Farm and domestic companion animals sickened and dying from exposure to hydrocarbons associated with oil and gas drilling that they breathe in.
  • Methane pouring into the atmosphere from this industry’s shoddy practices, leaks galore from their piping and tanks.  Releasing a gas 20 times more powerful in contributing to climate change (global warming) than is Carbon Dioxide.  Wiping out by some accounts any advantage natural gas has over coal just because it burns cleaner than coal.  The EPA trying now to get the gas industry to clean up its act. The gas lobby furiously fighting and crying that new EPA rules on air pollution will “hurt business.”
  • A process that requires an average of 4 million gallons of freshwater for the “frac job” in each well, including anywhere from 70-90 tons of chemicals to “slick” or lubricate the water per well bore, with up to 90% of those chemicals staying down in the shale.  More than 15 million tons of chemicals may end up lying beneath one-half the state, as much as one ton per acre. Some of those chemicals so toxic that they can contaminate water at microscopic levels.  Cancer-causing chemicals.  Chemicals that interrupt animal and human reproduction.
  • A drilling process that mobilizes water-soluble (cannot-be-filtered-out) radioactive elements in the shale and brings it back up with the waste water.  Part of a wastewater disposal problem, the solution for which is not present and is being made up as it goes along, that has already lead to the pollution of major sources of drinking water such as the Monongahela River.
  • Water contamination for certain; already has happened for dozens if not hundreds of families statewide (mostly covered up and hidden from view by legal maneuvering, settlements and gag orders for which the gas industry has unlimited resources) – these contamination events from mistakes made in the drilling where well casing failures inevitably result from the complexity and power this drilling process.
  • Many other events of water pollution from spills and leaking plastic liners of waste water impoundments. 
  • A current well-casing failure rate of 6%, according to Dr. Ingraffea research on completed wells, which means – if 3,500 wells are drilled annually – more than 200 wells gone bad with toxic flowback fluid and methane gas from the shale blasting out into the underground cracks and fissures to find their way into drinking water aquifers.
  • A serious risk of contamination over the long run (decades, perhaps 100 years) by at least the methane from the shale (80% of which stays down there), but also by the tons of toxic chemicals we put down there, and the toxic and radioactive components of the shale itself. Human-made steel- and concrete-cased well bores that must be plugged so perfectly, and hold up so well, that they protect future generations in perpetuity.  But if they fail, then we may have 200,000 well bores thousands of times more permeable than the rock layers through which they were drilled, potential conduits of future disaster that could leave one-half of the land mass of Pennsylvania, and many more areas downstream of “shale country,” without a safe source of drinking water.  And all of this likely to happen after the gas companies have taken the profitable portion of the gas and left the state, leaving the cleanup to Pennsylvania residents and taxpayers.
  • The public health effects of this industry are very serious, to the point that some doctors have called for a moratorium until its cumulative public health risks and impacts are properly studied.  One study identifies 16 pathways for exposure to drilling toxins that can harm animal or human health.  Not likely in PA to get either a moratorium or a study. My Senator Joseph Scarnati and my Representative Sam Smith made certain that recent gas drilling legislation called Act 13 did not include a $2 Million fund from so-called “impact fees” to study the human health impacts of drilling.  They don’t want to know. In addition, Act 13 prevents doctors from talking about (to other doctors or to the public) about the drilling chemicals that sickened their patients when that happens.
  • I could go on. There is actually much more to say about the well-known and poorly understood risks of this drilling, but I want to cut now to the critical problem that confronts us with this drilling.
  • Let me quote to you what John Quigley, former Secretary of PA’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, has said about the Marcellus drilling (which someday could even include other shale deposits below the Marcellus):   “I am afraid for the future of this state. It is hanging in the balance,” he has said. “The cumulative impacts of Marcellus development will dwarf all of the impacts on Pennsylvania of timbering and oil and coal combined.”
  • Think about that for a moment: Cumulative negative effects on our environment greater than all the clear-cutting of PA forests, greater that all the acid mine drainage that has ruined hundreds of streams, greater than the subsidence of land left behind by underground coal-mining, and greater than all the land disturbance and pollution outcomes of strip-mining for coal.
  • And all that underway now, with a huge looming issue right at the very heart of it.  That issue is this:  In the face of much credible evidence of present-day environmental harm (one serious environment-damaging incident per day according to reports on violations), there exists no scientific consensus that this kind of drilling for gas cannot cause irreparable harm to our environment or even just that part of our environment that we call our aquifers, or sources of clean drinking water. 
  • The industry has not proven their case that such harm cannot happen. Some scientists like Dr. Engelder say it cannot.  Other scientists say it will most certainly result in irreparable harm as the well bores break down and deteriorate over time.  Which is it?  Until we have more study of the long-term cumulative risks and impacts of this drilling, what we are doing amounts to a huge gamble, the stakes of which are the future livability of this state we call our home. 
  • As to the process formally called “High volume slickwater fracturing of long laterals, Dr. Ingraffea says this:  “They’re still inventing it. It’s still an industrial process that has yet to reach a steady-state operating procedure, because every well is going to be different, every formation is going to be different.”
  • And he’s not alone in thinking so.  Andrew Gould, CEO of oil services giant Schlumberger has stated: “I don’t think the actual optimum technology set for producing shale gas has yet been defined…At the moment, we’re doing it by brute force and ignorance.”
  • Now in the face of all that what do we hear from the gas industry?  Repeated unproven assertions that the gas drilling is safe for the environment?  Yes, we hear that.  But mostly we hear in their ubiquitous commercials (dozens every day on TV, in print, on the Internet) about all the jobs and the contributions to energy independence for America. 
  • The energy independence claim can be dismissed out of hand. Natural gas will be sold in a global market.  There is no national policy to keep it in America.  Corporations will decide where it needs to go for the greatest profit. Export facilities are being built right now. Land is being assembled for foreign interests.  According to data from the US Energy Information Administration there has been no appreciable lowering of natural gas costs for consumers in the shale gas era.
  • Now as to jobs, the science on that is also fractured.  Some regional economists not funded by the gas industry show very little new jobs since 2007 – under 10,000 in PA.  Other industry-funded studies use statistical models that show spin-off effects that have created maybe 200,000 jobs. That’s a huge difference, is it not? Not even scientific consensus on that.
  • But I want to end on this jobs note by suggesting to you that number of new jobs is a difference that does not make a difference in terms of whether we should be drilling like this. The central issue is what we are doing to our living environment, and what we plan to hand on to succeeding generations. 
  • If I could create 200,000 jobs that would result in handing on a wasteland to my great-grandchildren, would I want to create those jobs?  Would I want to have one of those jobs?  Yes, people need jobs. Jobs aplenty could be created in renewable energy industries if we had the same public commitment to that as we have to extracting, by extreme measures, and then burning it up, every last dollop of fossil fuel we can find on the planet.  Yet people taking these jobs do not know, and maybe do not want to know, what the long-term risks and consequences of this drilling are or might be. 
  • It is our job to help them understand what they are being asked to do.  With respect. With patience. But also with resistance to letting this drilling go forward.  Because like anything else where we see a harm unfolding, it is our responsibility beyond the talk and education to act to stop that harm.  

About jstephencleghorn

My name is Dr. J. Stephen Cleghorn. I am now a resident of Baltimore, MD. I continue to own a 50-acre certified organic farm in Jefferson County, PA that I operated with my late wife Lucinda between 2005 and 2011 when she passed away from cancer. The farm is now under lease to organic farmers and protected by "The Dr. Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez Conservation Easement” which protects it for organic agriculture and against the threats of industrial development that would violate the Rights of Nature. The blog’s name is taken from the writings of Saint Augustine who believed “Hope” to be the greatest of spiritual gifts. And, says Saint Augustine, Hope has two lovely daughters: Anger and Courage. Anger so that what must not be may not be; courage so that what should be can be. Anger and Courage. Now in late 2016, after the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, these are the spiritual gifts that must come to the fore if we are to have “Hope” for a loving culture and a sustainable world for future generations. When I first created this blog it was focused on the extreme form of fossil fuel extraction known as “fracking” that was threatening much of the state of Pennsylvania and many other parts of the United States. At the root of that struggle was and is a struggle to halt and reverse climate change. Now the struggle has turned to resisting an incoming Trump Administration that is an existential threat to the climate with its plans to ramp up extraction and use of fossil fuels. This blog will be about having the courage to stand up to the massive global corporations that would ruin our planet and its climate, take their profits and leave the mess to future generations of to clean up. We need to rise up, my friends, and be not afraid.
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