Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Mr. Marcellus And His Shale

Editor's Note: Folks, I've been remiss in my blogging duties because some other things have occupied a lot of time in the last few months-primarily my defense and teaching duties plus the life of a country gentleman maintaining a chunk of land and an old house takes up an inordinate amount of time. However, it is my intention to get on the case and get current. My extended coffee break is over.

A lot of my friends in rural New York and Pennsylvania are up in arms over the issue of natural gas extraction and how it is starting to take place in areas where the Marcellus Shale layer has now become profitable to drill into. In particular they don't much like the process of hydrofracturing, and they say with some truth to it that it poses serious environmental problems for rural folks who use shallow water wells for their domestic uses.

As it happens we've had the same thing here (shallow water well and ground water contamination) for a long time-the contaminants are more localized but the problem is similar in scope.

Here's how I responded to a fellow over on a social network I spend altogether too much time noodling around on. You know which one I'm talking about.

The point is, Stephen, that a lot of folks-not saying you're one of them of course-a lot of folks don't bitch about stuff until their ox gets gored, so to speak. The problem y'all have if you've got the Marcellus shale formation in your basement is, you don't have any lawyers in your area who know anything about oil and gas law because nobody's ever figured out how to get at the stuff until recently, and not that many folks in the region are knowledgeable about gas extraction technology and what it can be made to do as well as what the dangers are.

Added: That's simply because nobody ever had a need to know about this stuff until recently. Michigan farmers could probably write the book on it because I think there's only one or two counties that do not have some level of oil or gas drilling activity in them.*

Remember that it isn't what people know that's dangerous, it's what they know that ain't so.

Here's my prediction for the next fifty years.

The gas is there, and there's a lot of it. Extraction of it is a matter of private property rights, so it is going to be brought up from the ground and sold, and there's not a whole lot people can do about that without rewriting the last 350 years of American law. It's an emotional issue particularly when one group of people wants to scotch what should be a comfortable retirement in Florida for some farmer and his wife because of what's under their land that they've scratched out a living on for the last 50 years or so. Nobody's got the right to condemn other people to penury because they don't like what they're doing.

Two things will happen.

First, you can expect that rural water districts with centralized distribution will become the norm in all the areas where people get their drinking water from shallow wells. This is what's happened here because of farm nitrate runoff-basically, animal shit and piss and fertilizers. As long as you've got shallow water wells in the front yard and a septic tank or drain field in the back and farm animals wandering around, nobody's got a principled right to complain they suddenly don't like the taste of their drinking water. That's been the history here on the prairie for the last 150 years.

Second, the petroleum drillers and producers will have to start doing a better and cleaner job of drilling and cementing, and they're going to have to use simpler and less offensive methods of hydrofracturing. The people who are against it will have to get used to the idea that it can be made environmentally safe and will have to insist on that as a precondition to getting a drilling permit, and they'll also have to get used to the idea that private property is a pretty important idea.

Image of the rig courtesy of Chief Oil and Gas. They've got a very informative website.


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