Drilling activity for natural gas in the mid-Atlantic has recently exploded (in some cases, quite literally), and landowners considering involvement would be wise to know the issues.
Around 2005, geologists began to discover surprising quantities of natural gas-- much more than was previously found or expected-- in the Marcellus Shale formation covering parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York. The 2002 estimate for the amount of gas contained by this formation was 1.9 trillion cubic feet. This sounds like a lot, but pales in comparison to revised 2008 estimates of up to 500 trillion cubic feet of gas-- enough to power the entire US for two years.
What does this mean to the landowner? Well, natural gas means relatively clean-burning domestic energy, which means big business. The revised estimate of 2008 equates to a value of about one trillion dollars, and the drilling companies have begun to swarm. With this come impressive offers to rural landowners to lease their land for drilling wells. While this may prove to be a worthwhile venture for many, it is important to know the potential risks before signing on.
What the drilling companies don’t emphasize are the possible environmental, human, and animal health issues that may be associated with extracting the gas. These issues center around the process of hydraulic fracturing (often called “fracking” in media), in which water is mixed with sand and a suite of chemicals, and injected deep into wells to fracture the rock and release the gas. Critics claim the waste fluid can contaminate aquifers, or make its way back to the surface to contaminate drinking water wells. Advocates, however, claim that both the depth of separation and the type of rock that exists between fracturing activities and groundwater sources prevents contamination.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) studied one version of the process in 2004 and concluded it was safe. However, anecdotes of water in kitchen sinks catching on fire and landowners and livestock getting sick (as presented in the film “Gasland” and other informal accounts) have brought additional scrutiny. The EPA is now undergoing a more thorough scientific study of the hydraulic fracturing process used in the Marcellus Shale, set to be finished in 2012 ( http://www.epa.gov/ogwdw000/uic/wells_hydrofrac.html ). Meanwhile, federal lawmakers are pushing to pass the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (FRAC Act), which would require natural gas drilling companies to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act.
While the jury is still out in terms of risks for landowners, one thing is clear: before signing a lease, ask a lot of questions and do your research to make sure you’re comfortable with the process and current regulations.
Lynnette Batt is co-Principal of Sustainable Stables, an organization of equestrian and environmental professionals that provides information and resources on eco-friendly horsekeeping through its website, sustainablestables.com. e-mail Lynette at email@example.com