The Reality of U.S. Shale Gas and Dimock

Nick Grealy
Author, No Hot Air
and Shale Gas Info.eu

I am from the U.K. and am the author of two web sites promoting shale gas development in Europe.  One is called No Hot Air (where we cover worldwide shale gas activity, including a lot of what happens in your region) and the other is ShaleGasInfo.eu.  I had an opportunity to tour the Dimock, Pennsylvania area a couple of weeks back with Tom, while visiting the U.S. to attend a shale gas conference.  Let me share some of what I learned.

The first impression we’re given here in Europe often includes allegedly informed opinion like this from Frack Off (FO), a web site recommended as source of expert opinion by the Guardian.  From an FO piece on the Igas story:

If, for the sake of argument, IGas could produce 4.6 tcf of gas (or a number of companies could produce the 4.7 tcf that the BGS has estimated as an upper bound for the Pennine Basin) that would require drilling and fracking something like 1500 wells, a similar number to all the petroleum wells that have been drilled onshore in the UK in the last 100 years (only one of which has been has had a large slickwater frack performed on it, which resulted in 3 earthquakes that damaged the well).

1,500 wells sounds economically pointless as well as impractical, but to those who rely on a major UK newspaper holding them up as source of expertise, it also sounds incredibly scary. Who on earth would want to see all that activity in a landscape so small?  This makes people think of a sea of gas rigs as far as the eye can see.

Two points: I’ve often noted that the current US best practice is to drill several dozen long lateral wells from one site, not only to cut down on impact but because you produce more gas at lower cost. The landscape impact on Europe is going to be far less than in the US where the current generation of drilling started in the Barnett near Fort Worth ten years ago and in Pennsylvania from 2007 onwards.

But after seeing both the Barnett and Susquehanna County Pennsylvania last week, I’m even more reassured how landscape impact in Europe, and the old “Europe is too crowded” argument against shale simply doesn’t hold up to examination.

No doubt about it, Texas is big. Anything could disappear into the landscape there. But given that Schlumberger estimates modern shale drilling would only need 15% of the Barnett footprint, one would have to really know what you are looking for to find above ground impact of shale. I would imagine that even today, plenty of people visit Fort Worth and remain unaware that gas drilling is even taking place. I know what I’m looking for and I really had to look. Gas wells and pads were distributed over a wide area far away from each other.

The other news is how long that drilling will last. Using US best practice and 24/7 operations, each well takes an average of one week.  Frackturing operations themselves are measured in hours, not days. This is not a permanent industrial landscape by any stretch of a fearful imagination – unless people who have never seen wells themselves have vested interests in either stoking up fears or dismissing European shale as inconsequential.

But it was Pennsylvania that was the real revelation. I visited Dimock, PA because it was at the center of the Gasland movie. I spoke to people who appeared in the movie. I even lit some water on fire, even if it was naturally occurring at Salt Springs State Park.

Dimock and most of Pennsylvania are analogous to Europe in that like them, we are unfamiliar with natural gas development. Dimock, if you listen to the narrative in Gasland should be a wasteland, acres of derricks,  thousands of trucks clogging up the roads and fiery water.

The reality is simply not this exciting at all.  I was shocked to see how low the landscape footprint of natural gas development is for example.  If you were just passing through, one could almost miss it completely.

But one key difference between Dimock and Lancashire, Poland, France or Ireland is that it is rolling hills with little room for the five acres of flat ground needed for a well pad.  That means that well pads are graded out of the hills and would have a much higher footprint than wells developed on flat lands.  However even there I would venture that if you had never heard of drilling or Dimock one could drive through and could miss it.  Drilling in particular is dispersed enough to be only occasionally visible.  In short, the impact of shale development is unlikely to disturb many eyes for any long period.  This isn’t a case of blink and you’d miss it, but it is a case of having to really search hard to find it.

My initial impression was of what on, or under, earth is the big deal here? My second impression is that I’m really angry that European shale has been slowed down by uninformed and misplaced fears. Why do those fears, about all aspects of shale, take precedence over reality?

I’ve lost count of how many times people have asked me haven’t I seen Gasland. Not only have I seen it, but I can also offer a sneak preview of one of the unwilling participants in Gasland 2. Tim lives next door to the Sautners on Carter Road in Dimock, one of the litigants against Cabot Oil and Gas. Gasland seems a little more complex now. No Hot Air will be filming England to Gasland in summer 2012.

This is the view not only from next door, but from the other side of the camera:

While there I saw the houses of those who wanted to make Cabot pay as the signs on their houses said,  referring to Cabot Oil and Gas.

I decided then with a combination of European cynicism and my understanding of special interests in New York City, that this had a lot to do with money and nothing to do with water. I particularly liked the mega mansion being built which confirmed findings from Barack Obama’s EPA.  Here is how Michael Rubinkam reported it for the Associated Press:

Federal environmental regulators say testing of scores of drinking-water wells in a northeastern Pennsylvania village has failed to show unsafe levels of contamination, a blow to residents who assert a gas driller tainted their water supply with hazardous chemicals nearly four years ago.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released test results for an additional 12 homes on Friday and said they “did not show levels of contaminants that would give EPA reason to take further action.” It was the fourth and final release of data for homes in Dimock, a rural Susquehanna County community that’s found itself in the middle of a passionate debate over the safety of drilling and hydraulic fracturing in deep rock formations like the Marcellus Shale.

The EPA testing is only a snapshot of the highly changeable aquifer and will not be the final word on the health of the water supply. But pro-industry groups and Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., the Houston-based driller whose faulty gas wells were previously found to have leaked methane into the aquifer, assert the test results justify their position that Dimock’s water is safe.

How much more can this spin on? It’s starting to seem not very long. Even pro-bono lawyers know when it’s time to stop wasting any more time.  And, here is more from Rubinkam:

Meanwhile, the Dimock plaintiffs, who sued Cabot in 2009, appear to have entered into settlement talks with the company. One of their lawyers, Tate Kunkle, mentioned “progressing settlement negotiations” in a court filing late last month.

That won’t make my film project tentatively called England to Gasland as compelling perhaps, but it will also mean Gasland 2, which I still think is unlikely to see the light of day as time passes, even weaker.

On the other hand, given that even in 2012 we’re discussing what happened in Dimock in 2006 instead of what will happen in Europe in 2014, we can expect the poisoned atmosphere of Dimock to impact perceptions in Europe for years to come. Long after the residents of Carter Road take the money and run, there will the various Frack Offs of Europe spinning their poison for years to come: The story of “controversial” shale gas to a European media who don’t have the time, money or political will to investigate Dimock for themselves. I can give them the name of a good cheap hotel  if things are that tough. We could share a room.

I should have gone to Dimock years ago. The UK and European economies have lost valuable time and money obsessing over chimeras that verge on the delusional. FDR said: “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” Let’s start listening to great Americans like him instead of today’s generation of trust fund whiner cineaste wannabes or those who try and use the US legal system to push shakedown lawsuits.

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