Hydrofracking Symposium Discusses Efficiency, Fugitive Emissions, Water Usage, and More

This past Friday, a symposium in Upper Tarble explored the long-term consequences of hydrofracturing in Pennsylvania’s natural gas industry, with special regard to the environment and communities affected by nearby hydrofracturing wells. (For a video on how hydrofracturing works, click here.) The symposium was sponsored by Swarthmore’s Board of Managers’ Social Responsibility Committee, the President’s Office, the Environmental Studies Program, the Sustainability Committee, and Earthlust.

The symposium featured three panelists, Tracy Carluccio, Deputy Director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN), Nels Johnson, Deputy State Director at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Katharine Fredriksen, Senior Vice President of Environmental Strategy and Regulatory Affairs at CONSOL Energy [1], who called in through Skype.

Carr Everbach, Chair of the Engineering Department, moderated the panel, and invited each speaker to present their opening remarks. Johnson began by establishing that TNC does not officially support or oppose hydrofracturing, and gave four ways in which communities like Swarthmore can make an effort to prioritize the environment.

Screen Shot 2014-12-09 at 1.28.20 AMThe first way he cited was to put a price on carbon. Disney, for example, builds a $13/ton charge into its budget for all the carbon they emit, allocating the money from this carbon tax towards offsetting their carbon emission through reforestation and investment in renewables.

Second, we can make climate change an important part of our civic engagement. Third, we can support certification programs like the Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD), which are often better than current regulatory agencies.

Fourth, we can use our research capacities to work on technology that will make energy companies more efficient and minimize the negative side-effects of natural gas development.

Next, Fredriksen, an engineer and biologist who previously worked at the US Department of Energy, spoke about her work at CONSOL Energy, a 150 year old company which was originally a coal company, and switched to natural gas four years ago. She said CONSOL tries to minimize fugitive emissions of natural gas and employs responsible drilling methods based on the CSSD’s 15 core standards for air, land, and water.

Last to speak was Carluccio, who strictly opposed natural gas extraction and outlined the main problems associated with hydrofracturing. These problems included the pollution of air and groundwater caused by hydrofracturing wells, health problems associated with this pollution, which is not currently tracked by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the lack of knowledge about the side-effects of hydrofracturing in the future, especially as the concrete and steel used in the wells corrode over time, releasing shale gas into aquifers and other water sources over the next 80-100 years.

“How can we say natural gas is a good investment if we don’t know enough about it?” Carluccio said. “Natural gas is a dead end because there will not be enough to fuel us for the next 100 years.”

Carluccio also said that the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has not been answering the public’s demands. According to a recent audit, there have been 2,576 complaints against the DEP since 2005. This is important because hydrofracturing frequently takes place near farms, parks, forests, watersheds and urban areas.

After the initial remarks from the panelists, Everbach opened up the symposium to the audience, who could ask questions in person at a microphone, or write their question on a card and ask anonymously.

Olivia Ortiz ‘16, a member of Earthlust, posed the first question, giving a personal anecdote about working at a small organic farm at the edge of the Marcellus Shale Formation that was adversely affected by a pipeline installed within two miles of the farm by Williams Companies, Inc., an energy company based in Oklahoma. She felt that the company was not treating local farmers and residents fairly and fed them misinformation.

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In response, Johnson emphasized the need for more co-location of other pipelines, highways, and other utilities like electric lines. “We have 1.5 million miles of large diameter gas pipelines in this country,” he said. “That ought to be enough to get most of the gas where it needs to go.” Carluccio pointed out that there are currently 12 pipeline projects in the Delaware River Watershed and no organization keeps track of the cumulative impact of these projects, which facilitates the spread of misinformation Ortiz described because nobody offers facts to counter the narrative of energy companies.

Next, an audience member asked about the long-term effects of steel and concrete as they corrode over time. Johnson responded that companies often try to minimize the risk of gas leaking from abandoned wells by plugging the wells with concrete. “Some of them do cause problems, no question,” he said. Fredriksen added that plugging a well usually costs approximately $30,000. Carluccio said that Pennsylvania currently has over 300,000 abandoned wells which will inevitably leak in the future because we have not yet invented epoxies or cement which will not degrade in harsh downhole conditions.

The same audience member then asked, “What is the motivation to look at alternatives to fracking?” Both Johnson and Fredriksen responded that the future will largely be market-driven, and will depend on the technological changes in natural gas and alternative energies that make production and extraction more efficient. Johnson pointed out that in Texas, wind currently outcompetes both natural gas and coal. Carluccio said, “The most economically viable option is being more efficient. If we were efficient, we’d be able to get rid of fossil fuels.” She also mentioned that five times as many jobs are created by renewable energy investment than fossil fuels.

A third audience member asked about the fugitive emissions from extracting natural gas. Fredriksen and Carluccio gave noticeably different answers: Fredriksen said 1.4% of natural gas escapes in fugitive emissions whereas Carluccio cited a 9% loss of natural gas in fugitive emissions. Johnson, on the other hand, said that we still do not know for sure how much methane escapes as fugitive emissions as the available data is not yet conclusive. He pointed out that methane is a relatively small molecule which leaks easily, and more methane is leaked in Philadelphia than most other places in the United States because Philadelphia has poorer infrastructure than most major US cities.

One member of the audience asked about the extent and effects of water usage in the hydrofracturing process. Hydrofracturing uses 3-10 million gallons of water for every well but this is a “drop in the bucket” compared to the amount of water in the Eastern US watershed and compared to the water usage by other utilities like nuclear energy, according to Johnson. Additionally, Johnson said compared to places like Western Texas, North Dakota, or New Mexico, which all have low levels of available water, Pennsylvania has a good water situation where water in hydrofracturing is recycled and most of the water used in wells gets absorbed into the ground. Carluccio, however, said that Pennsylvania’s water situation is not under control at all. She said that contrary to Johnson’s statement that most water used in hydrofracturing is absorbed into the ground, the DRN finds that “8-10% of water does come back up. The rest is lost to the hydrologic cycle. It’s completely lost.” The water that does resurface is a problem because that water is polluted with hazardous chemicals; Carluccio said resurfaced water is 10 times saltier than seawater and has 200 times the radiation of surface water because it picks up Radium 226 underground.

“We’re going to be one of the countries with no more drinking water if we continue to put it into the ground,” said Carluccio.

Other questions covered topics such as how earthquakes might affect hydrofracturing wells (an earthquake would cause a well to crack and leak natural gas, which is why, Fredricksen noted, energy companies like CONSOL assess fault lines before building wells), trains transporting natural gas (some trains which transport natural gas were originally designed for transporting corn syrup, which is not adequate for holding natural gas according to Carluccio, but the train cars were still approved by the Department of Transportation), and whether or not we can use carbon tax revenue to pay for education (Johnson pointed out that we could, but we wouldn’t want to become dependent upon carbon tax revenue to the extent that education would lose money as society switched to cleaner fuels and revenue from taxing natural gas runs out).

To read about audience members’ responses to the symposium, see the corresponding response article.

[1] CONSOL Energy is ranked 59th on the Carbon Underground 200, making it one of the companies that Swarthmore Mountain Justice (MJ) has been petitioning the Board of Managers to divest from.

Photo by Sarah Tupchong ’17

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