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N.Y. home to natural gas source, but extraction could do damage

peter groffman
Microbial Ecologist

New York is not typically thought of as a state with abundant energy resources. We don't have a lot of coal and oil, and other than Niagara Falls, we don't generate much hydropower. But as it turns out, there is a vast reserve of natural gas in New York State, buried thousands of feet below the surface in a geologic formation called the Marcellus Shale.

Named after a town near Syracuse, where the carbonaceous black shale is visible at the surface, the Marcellus Shale covers large parts of southern New York, northwestern Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and West Virginia. It was deposited when the area was once a shallow continental seaway and it represents one of the largest shale gas basins in the United States.

Because it is trapped in small cracks and fissures, the natural gas in the Marcellus Shale is difficult to extract. Mining companies rely on a technique called "hydraulic fracturing" to access the gas. This involves injecting vast quantities of water, sand, and chemicals deep into the earth to open up the cracks in the shale, allowing the gas to flow to the surface. Traditionally, extraction has been considered to be too expensive.

Recent increases in the price of energy, and a focus on developing domestic energy supplies, have created an explosion of interest in extracting Marcellus Shale gas. And indeed this formation could provide a significant percentage of energy needs in the states where it occurs. During an April 2009 survey, the U.S. Geological survey estimated that the formation could yield over 262 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas.

But what about the environmental impacts? Hydraulic fracturing requires vast amounts of water, with potentially significant impacts on local water resources. There are also concerns that extraction techniques could compromise the quality of adjacent residential wells. Hydraulic fracturing operations would result in huge increases in truck traffic in rural areas with dirt roads. In addition to polluting streams with sediment, this would strain the road maintenance budgets of small towns.

Drilling fluids pose additional threats to water resources near drill sites. Extracting shale gas requires injecting a mixture of water, acid, surfactants, and other chemicals into wells using high pressure. The fluids have a short life span; large volumes would need to be disposed of on a regular basis. To date, these toxic mixtures are protected by trade secrets, making it difficult to fully assess their true environmental hazards. They are enough of a concern that New York instituted a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in 2008.

Would it be a good idea to produce natural gas from the Marcellus Shale? In many ways it sounds like an environmental disaster for some of the most scenic areas of our state. The situation should make us think about where we get our energy and how the environmental impacts of shale gas might compare with those from other sources of energy. Is it ok for us to say no to drilling in New York and use gas produced from the same formation in Pennsylvania? Is it ok for us to say no to drilling in New York and burn coal taken from highly destructive mountaintop mining in Kentucky?

All sources of fossil energy have environmental impacts. We can't be blind to our responsibility for these impacts every time we turn on our clothing driers, ovens, or porch lights. We are a country of energy consumers.

New York and other states must come to a decision about drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Hopefully we will develop regulated methods that allow us to safely extract this resource while protecting the environment and the communities that live within the footprint of the formation. The issue should also motivate us to recognize that the only solution to dwindling energy supplies and the environmental impacts of fossil fuels is reducing our energy use, improving energy efficiency, and developing truly clean energy sources.

For example, if we had more effective solar collectors, and if all the appliances in our homes were much more efficient than they are now, we could generate almost all the really homegrown energy that we need with almost no impact on the environment. Let's use the debate about the Marcellus Shale to motivate us to really solve our energy and environmental problems.

peter groffman
Microbial Ecologist

Peter Groffman studies how microbial processes impact gas exchange - particularly nitrogen - between the soil and air. He has authored more than 300 publications on water quality, greenhouse gases and climate change.

Groffman is a Senior Research Fellow at Cary Institute and a Professor at the CUNY Advanced Science Research Center at the Graduate Center and the Brooklyn College Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences.

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