Welcome to Frackville: Natural Gas Drilling Threatening Communities


On June 3, about 100 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a natural gas well “blowout” shot natural gas and drilling fluids 75 feet into the air and onto the ground.  As the name makes clear, a “blowout” is the industry’s term for a surge of pressurized oil or gas that causes an eruption -- basically the same thing that caused the explosion and fire at BP’s Deep Horizon offshore drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico, resulting in the biggest oil spill in U.S. history.  Fortunately, there were no injuries from the natural gas blowout.  But that doesn't minimize the potential dangers.

“The event at the well site could have been a catastrophic incident that endangered life and property,” John Hanger, secretary of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, said in a statement to reporters.  “This was not a minor accident, but a serious incident that will be fully investigated by this agency with the appropriate and necessary actions taken quickly.”

Just yesterday there was another explosion 55 miles south of Pittsburgh, in West Virginia, when a crew digging a natural gas well hit a pocket of methane.  Also yesterday, in Texas, one worker was killed and several injured when a natural gas pipeline erupted.  

On the same day as the blowout last week, I happened to be touring natural gas development not too far away in upstate Pennsylvania.  I was in the bucolic township of Dimock, northwest of Scranton, accompanied by NRDC experts and colleagues from the Waterkeeper Alliance.  We met with local residents who have learned by hard experience that natural gas drilling is a threat not just to their rural way of life but also to their water supply and their health. 

It stands to reason that the more we crack down on offshore oil production in the wake of the Gulf catastrophe, the more pressure there will be for onshore oil and gas drilling.  Couple that with rising energy costs and fears of more volatility in the future, it's easy to see why shale gas production in the U.S. rose 71% in 2008 from 2007 (to 2.02 trillion cubic feet) -- or about 10% of total U.S. output, according to the most recent Energy Department data.

Right now the natural gas industry is scrambling to find additional fuel sources.  One such source is the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale, an ancient rock formation that spans 600 miles and four states, including New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.  While there may be benefits to drilling this large natural gas reserve, doing so without the proper monitoring and regulation by state and local officials will present a number of serious threats to human health and the environment.  NRDC is therefore working with leaders across the state to ensure that if or where drilling in the Marcellus Shale occurs, it will be done responsibly and only in appropriate areas.  (See NRDC's fact sheet for more details.)

The big problem with natural gas drilling?  There are many environmental concerns but perhaps the biggest is this: hydraulic fracturing.  NRDC science and policy experts have blogged extensively on this topic, but suffice it to say that this resource extraction technique involves the injection of fluids -- often containing toxic chemicals -- into oil or gas wells at very high pressure.  A loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act exempts hydraulic fracturing from regulation, despite the threat to drinking water supplies. Hydraulic fracturing has been linked to contaminated drinking water in communities around the country.

An ironically, if not appropriately named northern Pennsylvania town. (Photo by Rob Perks)

In the town of Dimock, Pennsylvania, water quality problems are paramount.  As my colleague Amy Mall noted in her blog, this is a community paying the price for natural gas production with hydraulic fracturing fluid spills.  During our visit, we met with several residents who recounted being sold pipe dreams by the industry about how much money they could make by leasing their land for natural gas exploration.  But they say the industry conveniently failed to inform them about the problems associated with "fracking", in which millions of gallons of water -- mixed with sand and up to 250 chemicals -- is pushed into underground shale layers to release natural gas. 

On the day of our tour, we met with a group of citizens who are fighting local gas developers to restore their quality of life.  Some 15 families have filed a lawsuit against Cabot Oil and Gas, seeking to correct what they say are pollution problems caused by the company's activities and to halt future drilling in the Marcellus Shale near their town.  These faces of Dimock cite extensive damage, such as fish kills and contaminated drinking water from toxic spills, methane-triggered exploding water walls, fires and out-of-control flaring, animal deaths and human illness, as well as a host of other concerns associated with the industrialization of their rural community. 


Dimock resident Victoria Switzer briefs us on the problems caused by natural gas drilling. (Photo by Giles Ashford)

The concern over the safety of hydraulic fracturing has prompted calls for a moratorium on drilling in Pennsylvania.  However, permits continue to be issued at an alarming pace.  Concerned residents are frustrated that state regulators appear to be bending to the wishes of the industry, which is caught up in a mad rush to exploit the natural gas lying beneath their land.  NRDC is intent on assisting the folks in Dimock however we can and also applying the lessons learned by them to aid other places in the Marcellus Shale region now facing growing pressures by the natural gas industry to frack up their communities.

On a side note, joining NRDC on our visit to Dimock was actor Mark Ruffalo -- pictured below holding water samples taken from faucet of a local homeowner.  Mark's home in New York's Catskill Mountains is threatened by hydraulic fracturing from natural gas development.  "Communities are being torn apart by the insatiable thirst for this dirty energy," Mark told me.  "The natural gas industry is selling people pipe dreams about the economic windfall of this booming development, and then leaving them a living nightmare of rampant industrialization, water pollution and depressed property values."