Natural gas causes as many problems as it solves

Gas well in ANF

Courtesy Kirk Johnson


By Ben Cramer

Skyrocketing oil prices have once again brought public attention to the benefits of weaning the developed world off its oil dependency. But while some consumer groups and politicians are advocating for a decrease in energy consumption across the board, others are calling for an increased use of alternative fossil fuels. Unfortunately, increased demand for such alternatives makes the exploration and drilling for natural gas more economically attractive, and creates many of the same environmental problems that result from the consumption of other fossil fuels.

In its efforts to discourage oil consumption, Sierra Club’s official stance is that natural gas is an acceptable “transitional energy” to be used as a temporary stopgap as we reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050. However, the Club only endorses natural gas that is extracted in an environmentally responsible manner. Though Pennsylvania contains abundant natural gas reserves, they are not necessarily easy to extract. Nor can they be extracted without causing considerable environmental damage. Regardless, rising prices and increases in demand have made drilling for natural gas in our state economically viable.

In response to the demand, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is now providing permits for drilling in an increasing number of sites within state forests and other public lands. Although the forests of Pennsylvania are already crisscrossed with hundreds of pipeline rights-of-way, an increase in natural gas consumption is creating the need for more and more environmentally destructive strips traveling in straight lines through woods, over mountains, and across riverbeds.

Pennsylvania’s reserves of natural gas were not considered viable until the 1950 discovery of the vast Leidy field, a natural gas reservoir in northwestern Clinton County that once delivered millions of cubic feet per day. Today, many of the gas reserves in the state are found in Western and Central Pennsylvania, which sit atop the Marcellus formation, a vast seam of shale stretching from New York to West Virginia. The Marcellus shale contains measurable, but relatively insignificant amounts of natural gas that must be extracted via a technique called “fracturing,” made necessary by the largely impermeable characteristics of the rock. Typically, equipment is delivered vertically to the underground shale formation, and then the shale is cracked horizontally. These cracks can extend thousands of feet away from the vertical well and the energy company holdings above, and can cause sub-surface geologic damage to adjoining private properties and public lands.

Natural gas is then extracted by forcing open the cracks in the rock with vast amounts of water (and occasionally sand or chemicals) delivered at great pressure. The water must be obtained from nearby natural sources or delivered via incoming pipelines. During fracturing, this water becomes contaminated by the very same natural gas it is helping to extract. The wastewater is usually pumped back out of the fracturing site, but must be disposed of nearby, causing pollution to local drinking water sources. The use of this pressurized water underground also alters groundwater patterns and releases natural gas and other chemicals (formerly locked in the impermeable shale) into the surrounding ecosystem.

After natural gas is extracted, it must be transported to market. In addition to roads and energy company infrastructure, delivery requires the construction of pipelines. The construction and maintenance of long-distance pipelines adds greatly to the market price of natural gas, and creates environmental pressures that extend far beyond drilling sites. Pipelines deliver natural gas in a highly pressurized state, requiring compressor stations to be built at 40 to 100-mile intervals. Pipelines also require valves and maintenance points along their entire lengths, which bring infrastructure and access demands of their own to pristine areas.

When compared to oil, natural gas may be cleaner and more accessible, but the extraction of natural gas causes many of the same problems as the extraction of any other fossil fuel. Sierra Club supports natural gas that is extracted in an environmentally acceptable fashion, but in Pennsylvania, the extraction and delivery of natural gas produces a number of environmentally unacceptable side effects, many of which affect public lands and may simply prolong our expensive and destructive dependence on fossil fuels.

For more information on gas drilling in the Marcellus shale, see the Oil and Gas
Accountability Project

Ben Cramer serves as Outings Chair of both the Moshannon Group and the Chapter.


Published August 2008