December 21, 2010

Natural gas in Virginia???

Headlines promise more natural gas in Virginia, but Pennsylvania fines fracking polluters.

Three related, but not so similar headlines about natural gas within only four days?

On December 16, Pennsylvania officials announced a settlement to force a Texas-based natural gas drilling company to pay $4.1 million to Dimock, PA residents. Some of these folks “starred” in the recent HBO documentary, Gasland, after their drinking water became so contaminated by methane (from the fracking process used to get the gas out of the ground) that the water burst into flame. I prefer cold water myself.

It seems that the drilling contractors inject millions of gallons of water laced with chemicals into the rock as part of a process called hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) that releases natural gas so it can be piped to the surface. Some of that gas got into the drinking water; 19 families complained loudly. After a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection investigation, these families received twice the value of their homes in compensation. Also, the drilling company will also pay the state $500,000 for the cost of the investigation and the state pulled the permits.

Then I read on the Chesapeake Bay blog about Maryland State Delegate Heather Mizeur crying out for her state to avoid the mistakes and spills suffered by Pennsylvanians. She stated some wow factor figures: “To release the gas, the rock is injected with a highly pressurized mixture containing at least 2 million gallons of water, 200,000 pounds of sand and 80,000 pounds of chemicals. That would be like putting three Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water, a sand volleyball court, and enough chemicals to outweigh five African elephants into the ground — for just one well.” That got my attention! ....

Then the Daily Press devoted their December 20 front page feature article to natural gas as Virginia’s “Energy Answer.” Hmmm. I still prefer less drama than flaming water when I turn on my faucet.

With drilling for gas off Virginia shorelines on hold for a few years, and opposition to the proposed coal-burning power plant along the James River (across from historic Williamsburg) continuing, more folks are buying into T. Boone Pickens’ proposal. The Pickens Plan pushes for conversion of the truck and bus fleets across America from diesel to the natural gas route.

But natural gas is not pollution-free. It’s cleaner than coal for sure, but not dramatically so. Plus that fracking sure doesn’t get much oversight and regulation at this point.

True, the Marcellus Shale Field, extending in a huge swath from upper New York State through Western Virginia (and Virginia) holds googads of natural gas. The Energy Information Agency (EIA) recently upped last year’s estimate of “technically recoverable” natural gas in the nation’s shale deposits from 353 trillion cubic feet to 827 trillion cubic feet. With that kind of estimating, I have some doubts about their mathematicians.

So . . . who and what do YOU believe?