Editor's Note: Some laud natural gas as cleaner burning, home-grown energy — a "bridge" fuel to a renewable future. But others fear the environmental costs of the industry's newest extraction technique — a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing or fracking — are too high. SolveClimate News reporter Elizabeth McGowan traveled to Northeastern Pennsylvania in late March to find out how this quest for energy is affecting the landscape and the people who call it home. This is the second in a multi-part series. (Read part one.)
MONTROSE, Pa.—Executives in the energy exploration and drilling industry practically salivate when talk turns to possibilities in Pennsylvania.
Perhaps fittingly, their nickname for the Keystone State is "the Saudi Arabia of natural gas."
Being heralded as twin energy founts, however, is about where the similarities between the natural gas-rich Middle Atlantic state and the oil-laden Middle Eastern nation end. Their geographies are studies in extreme contrast and size-wise, two Pennsylvanias could be shoehorned into just one Saudi Arabia.
Right now, the hydraulic fracturing fever sweeping their state has many Pennsylvanians in turmoil. In addition to concerns about impacts on their water and air, state residents are worried about the indelible footprint fracking infrastructure is in the midst of stamping on the forests, open spaces, rural hamlets, agricultural fields and public lands they call home.
After all, William Penn is the Englishman and Quaker credited with founding the state. Back in 1681 he christened the region Sylvania — the Latin word for woods — for obvious reasons.
So, just how will this hunt for buried energy treasure transform the landscape of a state that draws millions of tourists to its state parks and prides itself on its productive forests?
"This is going to be like a spider web spun across the state," John Quigley, a former state environmental leader, told SolveClimate News in an interview. "The scale of this is just unimaginable. At this point, I don't think anybody can fathom how much."
Quigley served as secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources from April 2009 until January when a new administration headed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett took office. He is now an adviser to a former employer, Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future. Known as PennFuture, it's a statewide public interest organization based in Harrisburg.
"Hydraulic fracturing will dwarf the cumulative impact of all of the previous waves of resource extraction that punctuate Pennsylvania history," Quigley said, ticking off a list of successive destructive acts that began with the clear-cutting of old growth trees across the states northern tier to fuel the Industrial Revolution, then morphed into the drilling of the first oil well in Titusville and the rise of King Coal. "It's impossible to downplay or avoid the environmental impacts.
"Not only is this going to cause massive habitat fragmentation but what emerges will be a fundamentally different Pennsylvania," he continued. "The question is, are we going to repeat the mistakes of the past?"
Geologists hail Pennsylvania as a natural gas mother lode because nearly two-thirds of the state's 28 million acres rests atop a yawning sheath of sedimentary rock formed around 400 million years ago during what scientists label the Devonian Period.
What's called the Marcellus Shale is basically a thick horizontal seam undulating anywhere from 4,000 feet to 10,000 feet beneath the Earth’s surface. It measures about 150,000 square miles and stretches from the lower tier of New York State south through parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia and a sliver of Virginia.
The Appalachian Basin is reportedly packed with enough natural gas, experts estimate, to meet the nation's energy needs for nearly two decades — or perhaps longer.
The organically rich shale is already naturally pocked with fissures. Companies use a relatively new technology known as hydraulic fracturing to open up those cracks and release the trapped gas.
This technology, which combines traditional vertical drilling with horizontal drilling and rock fracturing appeared on the scene in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale close to six years ago.
In a nutshell, fracking requires companies to drill a vertical well about a mile deep. From that point, the well can "grow" a long "arm" that bores horizontally into the shale formation for close to a mile. Drillers then inject sand, millions of gallons of water and a special recipe of potentially toxic lubricants and chemical additives under extremely high pressure to further fracture the dense black shale and draw the liberated gas to the surface. Wells can be fracked numerous times.
In Pennsylvania, the Marcellus Shale rests beneath the entire western half of the state and the northeastern corner. Numbers gathered by state authorities reveal that natural gas companies have thus far leased about 7 million acres of public and private property — about one-quarter of the state’s entire land mass.