A Controversy: Fracturing in the Marcellus Shale
The New York State Supreme Court ruled last month that the upstate town of Dryden in Tompkins County is legally allowed to ban natural gas drilling. The decision came as a victory for opponents of hydraulic fracturing and was the “first in New York to affirm local powers in the controversy over drilling in the Marcellus Shale.”
The drilling company, Anschutz Exploration Corporation, has since responded with a lawsuit against the town of Dryden. The state court decision and ensuing lawsuit depict the push and pull relationship between environmental sustainability and laws in regulation. New York State environmental officials are still “reviewing proposed regulations to govern natural gas drilling to exploit the Marcellus Shale” but it is yet to be seen if the court’s ruling will affect their continuing review.
The organic-rich source rock of the Marcellus Shale is an on-going target for massive gas extraction. Advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, have made this extensive area of Marcellus black shale one of the largest unconventional and widely controversial gas operations in the United States today.
The Marcellus Shale, part of the Appalachian Basin, covers an area of approximately 400 miles, spanning New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. This black shale rich in organic content is an accumulation of sedimentary rock deposited in the Devonian age over 350 million years ago. The environment of deposition was an inland, enclosed shallow sea in the area that is today the Appalachian Mountain range. The anoxic environment of the basin at this time in geologic history contributed to heavy organic-rich sedimentation of marine organisms and promoted its preservation. The amount of natural gas, an estimated mean of 84,194 billion cubic feet of gas, in this large span of area makes this region important to petroleum geologists and drilling corporations.
There has been much concern and debate regarding the hydrofracking practices and the consequences that they may have on freshwater aquifers and nearby streams and wells. This very important reserve of natural gas requires significant amounts of water to drill and hydraulically fracture the shale in order to get to the gas contained within. The water used in the hydrofracking processes is mixed with sands and chemicals and imposes the need for disposal of the wastewater after the procedure. When hydrofracking techniques are performed on naturally existing fractures in the shale, a good flow of gas can be obtained. However, the hydrofracking process itself and surface spills of fracking fluids can pose great threats to local water resources.
CERC is offering a course on Hydraulic Fracturing: Energy, Environment, and Policy as part of the Certificate in Conservation and Environmental Sustainability. The course contextualizes the practice of hydraulic fracturing to provide an overview of key issues around energy, water, and biodiversity. Students will examine the social and political conditions that make hydraulic fracturing a highly contentious issue by weighing tradeoffs through the analysis of business decisions, economics, science, and the regulatory environment surrounding this practice. This first session is free and open to the public. Registration is required to attend the full 10-hour course.
Katina Boutis is an intern at the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation.