The Costs of Natural Gas, Including Flaming Water

Mike Hale, The New York Times
“Gasland,” a documentary making its television premiere on HBO on Monday night after winning a special jury prize at the Sundance Film .Festival, is maddening in several distinct ways

The first is the way its director, Josh Fox, intended. If you are predisposed to distrust big business and the bureaucrats who regulate it, then “Gasland,” a soberly muckracking film about the health and environmental dangers of the current nationwide rush to drill for natural gas, will light a flame in you. It might resemble the flames Mr. Fox films sprouting from people’s kitchen faucets or from the surfaces of polluted creeks, in places where methane has turned water into a fire hazard.

Mr. Fox lives in northeastern Pennsylvania above the vast Marcellus Shale formation, which has been much in the news the last few years as energy companies have rushed to sink wells employing the controversial technique of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which millions of gallons of water and chemicals are pumped underground to extract natural gas trapped in the shale. The film came about, he says on screen, when he received an offer from a company to lease his 19.5 acres with an upfront payment of nearly $100,000. Rather than take the money, he begins investigating stories he has heard of ruined water wells and sickened families in nearby Dimock Township.

From there he heads west, visiting landowners and drill sites in states like Colorado and Wyoming, where fracking has been practiced for years. Wherever he goes he finds flammable, foul-smelling water, sick people and animals, and families who no longer use their wells but truck in all their household water (usually bought at Wal-Mart). In some cases oil companies provide the water after settling lawsuits.

The accumulation of stories and sympathetic faces is persuasive; it’s buttressed by testimony from scientists like Theo Colborn and Al Armendariz, named regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency in Dallas since the film was completed. Most viewers who seek out “Gasland” are likely to share Mr. Fox’s outrage (which he expresses in melancholy tones) and to accept the picture, familiar and so often true, of heedless profiteering, co-opted and ineffective regulation, Orwellian spin control and innocent, ruined lives. Comparisons to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will be unavoidable.

That’s not how everyone will respond of course. The oil and gas industry has already been busy condemning the film and disputing Mr. Fox’s assertions. And, again, it’s maddening to see how easy he makes it for the film’s critics to attack him, and how difficult for sympathetic but objective viewers to wholly embrace him…
(20 June 2010)

Marcellus Shale gas drilling put under microscope: Moratorium weighed as towns, people wary of potential mishaps

Don Hopey Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
This month has not been a quiet one for the booming Marcellus Shale natural gas well drilling industry, and the commotion has the attention of Debbie Borowiec of Upper Burrell, where two gas wells are planned near 67 homes on Chapeldale Drive.

The industry noise began with a “blowout” on June 3 at a Marcellus Shale well outside Penfield in rural Clearfield County. That well, adjacent to the Moshannon State Forest, spewed natural gas and drilling wastewater contaminated with toxic chemicals into the air for 16 hours.

On Monday, drillers hit a pocket of methane in an inactive deep mine, causing an explosion and fire that flared 50-feet high for four days, destroyed a drilling rig and burned all seven workers on the well pad, located in a farm field near Moundsville in West Virginia’s northern panhandle.

“We’re horrified by the possibilities of that happening here,” Ms. Borowiec said about Marcellus Shale wells planned for a pad 1,500 feet from homes in Upper Burrell. “The more research we do the more horrific it is, and I don’t think a lot of people know what’s going on.”

The Pennsylvania and West Virginia accidents at gas wells tapping into the mile-deep, gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation have alerted some for the first time to risks that accompany what some have termed a gas-drilling gold rush, and heightened serious safety and environmental concerns for others.

…The recent accidents have raised calls for a moratorium on Marcellus Shale drilling until environmental and public health risks are addressed.

“I do think we need a statewide moratorium. It’s the only thing that will stop all this drilling and give us time to figure out what’s going on,” said Ms. Borowiec, who plans to join other residents of Upper Burrell and Murrysville today on a bus tour of Hickory. Some residents of that Washington County community say Marcellus Shale wells and gas pipeline compressors there have caused air pollution, noise problems and road degradation.

Allegheny County Council President Rich Fitzgerald said enacting a moratorium on drilling would go too far. But he said he favored more regulation and safeguards, especially in more densely populated areas.

“We always realized that there are risks going after sources of energy, be they oil or gas or coal,” Mr. Fitzgerald said. “The Marcellus Shale development is only a few years old, and it could be an important new industry; but we’ve got to make sure it’s done right, that it follows procedures and that the procedures are right.”..
(13 June 2010)

Struggle for Central Asian energy riches

BBC News
A year ago, the Kremlin issued a stark warning: that growing competition for control of global energy resources could spark wars on Russia’s borders, including those in Central Asia.

“Problems that involve the use of military force cannot be excluded, that would destroy the balance of forces close to the borders of the Russian Federation and her allies,” said a key Kremlin strategy document assessing the main security threats of the coming decade.

Just 20 years ago, Russia and the energy-rich countries of Central Asia, such as Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus, were all united, as parts of the Soviet Union.

Moscow would have had unfettered access to their oil and gas reserves.

But the Central Asian states realise one of their greatest strategic strengths as independent countries is playing off the big global powers now scrambling to buy their precious energy supplies.

So, Moscow now finds itself in fierce competition with the big players: China, the US and Europe.

“Russia’s overall position in Central Asia is shrinking,” says Mikhail Kroutikhin, editor-in-chief of the Russian Energy Weekly.

“Russia is in retreat and the Chinese are jumping on the big opportunities.”

New ‘Great Game’?
Rivalry in the region is often compared with the 19th Century British-Russian imperial rivalry nicknamed the “Great Game”.

China’s president officially opened the Turkmenistan-China gas pipeline
The past year has seen some key moments in the new energy “Great Game” in Central Asia, with the first pipelines being commissioned that take oil and gas east to China, instead of north and west.

From Kazakhstan, 200,000 barrels of oil are now being pumped every day across the border into the western Chinese province of Xinjiang, and there are plans to double this pipeline’s capacity.

From Turkmenistan, a pipeline carrying gas to China via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan was opened last December by the Chinese President Hu Jintao. It could satisfy around half of China’s current demand by the time it reaches full capacity in 2013…
(2 June 2010)

Russia Cuts Gas Deliveries to Belarus

Ellen berry, New York Times
Russian President Dmitri A. Medvedev on Monday ordered Gazprom to cut deliveries of natural gas deliveries to Belarus over unpaid debts, a step which could jeopardize supplies to Poland and other European countries.

At a morning meeting with Mr. Medvedev, Aleksei Miller, the chief executive of Gazprom, said Belarus was willing to pay its debts through barter, and Mr. Medvedev tartly refused such an arrangement, saying, “Gazprom cannot accept payment for debt in pies, butter, cheese or other means of payment.”

He then ordered Gazprom to gradually reduce supplies sent through Belarus, whose pipelines carry roughly 20 percent of Russia’s experts to Europe.

President Aleksandr G.. Lukashenko has said Belarus has no debts to Gazprom, and one of his top officials complained this weekend about Russia’s strong-arm pricing policies…
(X June 2010)