Hydraulic Fracturing in the Marcellus Shale

What The Frack?!

What is Marcellus Shale?

Marcellus Shale is a large formation of sedimentary rock that sweeps through approximately 95,000 square miles of the Eastern United States and Canada. This shale was formed almost 400 million years ago when this region was covered by shallow seas, and contains large amounts of salt, iron, pyrite, uranium, as well as pockets of natural gas. Because this gas is dispersed throughout the shale formation, extraction companies have begun using a new technology called slickwater hydraulic fracturing to extract the gas deposits[1].

Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling–“Not Your Daddy’s Gas Well”

Drilling for gas in the Marcellus shale requires a much more intense industrial operation than the conventional gas wells that have been drilled in Pennsylvania for the past few decades.  The wells are extremely deep (approximately 2 to 9 thousand ft.) and can be drilled horizontally through the shale for up to a mile; requiring more equipment and producing more drilling waste.  Furthermore, the slickwater fracturing technique requires millions of gallons of water and tons of chemical additives, which must all be hauled in trucks to the site and stored in tankers1.  This means the well pad and associated roads are much larger to accommodate all the equipment.

Hydraulic fracturing, often called “fracking” or “hydro-fracking,” is the process of injecting water and sand into the well at high pressure to fracture the surrounding rock and allow the gas to flow out.   The slickwater technique, which is the only way to drill Marcellus wells economically, requires many chemical additives in the water to reduce the friction of the water with the rock1.  The fracking of one horizontal well uses 3 to 5 million gallons of fresh water and an average of 1000 semi-truck trips to complete1,[2],[3]. A single well can be restimulated multiple times and can stay active for up to 40 years.

Marcellus drilling requires other infrastructure as well.  Containment ponds are often constructed on site to store the wastewater.  Leases may include clauses saying that the gas company can use water from your property, such as streams, ponds, or springs.  The raw gas must be refined before transportation; condensate tanks and other industrial fixtures for storing gas and separating it from water and impurities may be installed for this purpose.  Clusters of wells also require a compressor station and pipeline corridors to transport the gas; which will be added to your community.  Finally, you don’t even get free gas, because Marcellus gas burns at too high of a temperature and pressure for residential use[4].

Impacts of Drilling

Water Quality

The safety of our drinking water from wells, treatment plants and the health of our environment is at risk due to the amount of water involved in the fracking process, the chemicals added to the slickwater, the additional chemicals that come up to the surface of the Earth after a fracturing operation—called flow-back water and sometimes produced water—and the lack of effective water treatment methods. 

Where Will All the Water Come From?

Horizontal hydraulic fracturing operations often use over 5 million gallons of water.  This first requires acquiring that much

water from nearby waterways which can be damaging to ecosystems[5].

Where Will All the Wastewater Go?

Around one third to half of the fracking fluid flows back up the well.  After exposure to the rock in the Marcellus formation and as a result from the chemicals added to initial frack fluid, this flow-back water now contains radioactive elements, metals—including toxic heavy metals— high levels of mineral salts (Total Dissolved Solids or TDS), organic compounds such as benzene and toluene[6],[7],[8], and has salt concentrations that are 6-10 times greater than seawater. There are no municipal treatment plants in Pennsylvania that are capable of removing all of the TDS and the chemical additives2,[9] and natural gas industry leaders at an Allegheny Council Meeting July 21, 2010 said that such treatment facilities would be too costly to build.  In order to allow drilling to proceed, municipal water treatment plants are accepting the water anyway, “treating” it and then discharging back into our waterways. Many companies are dumping it illegally because it is cheaper to pay fines than to pursue legal water treatment when so few options exist[10],[11],[12].

Groundwater Contamination?

The cement casings that are supposed to prevent the escape of frack fluid and flow-back water into the groundwater are notoriously constructed improperly[13].  Furthermore, natural fissures exist between the Marcellus shale and the layers above that can be up to a mile long; hydraulic fracturing enlarges these crevices[14]. Casing problems and natural fractures are pathways for all of these chemicals, along with natural gas and methane, to migrate through to aquifers and into wells.  This is why you hear so many reports of people who are sick from their well water or who can light their well water on fire when it flows from their tap.

About two thirds to one half of the water that went into the well is not recovered and sits underground. There is little information on where unrecovered water resides or how it affects people, animals and plants.

Surface Water Contamination

The water that is recovered, called produced or flowback water, is pumped into waste pits near the well pad that are lined with plastic to prevent seepage.  The flow-back water and all of its contaminants can seep into the ground through tears in the liner or run off into streams or other land.  Wildlife and livestock mistake waste pits for ponds and wetlands and become contaminated, sick or dead.

Furthermore, the municipal treatment plants that are now accepting frackwater discharge directly back into the waterways from which we withdraw our drinking water. The combined volume of all the drilling operations planned for Pennsylvania will contribute high volumes of frackwater pollutants, and drinking water treatment facilities cannot remove this pollution. In 2008 and 2009 the level of TDS in the Monongahela River exceeded drinking water standards. Drinking water treatment plants that pull water from the Monongahela were not able to remove TDS so water contaminated with TDS flowed into our area’s homes and businesses[15]. The problem will only worsen as drilling operations intensify.

Many companies are pursuing the cheapest wastewater disposal option, illegal dumping. The fines for illegally dumping are frequently cheaper to pay than actually treating the water.  Currently documented illegal disposal methods include letting the waste pits leak, pumping the water into trucks and letting the trucks leak, and dumping diluted waste water into abandoned mine holes or directly into the water ways[16].

Ecological Impacts

The TDS pollution from fracking wastewater essentially turns fresh water into salt water. Pennsylvania’s freshwater ecosystems – our fish, mussels, salamanders, and the food chain that supports them –  cannot survive in salt water. The death of all aquatic life in Dunkard Creek (a large tributary to the Monogahela River that flows through Greene County) in September 2009 is an example of the kind of problem we will face more of as drilling expands.  The salinity level of Dunkard Creek was raised above ocean water by the combination of freshwater water withdrawal and disposal of gas drilling wastewater; this allowed an toxic species of saltwater algae (“golden algae”) to fill the creek12.

Recycling Frackwater?

Some companies claim that they are recycling the flow-back water.  While some of the water can be recycled, at some point it accumulates so much salt and other dissolved solids that it cannot be recycled any further.  It has to be disposed of eventually.  Complete removal of the pollutants is an expensive industrial process that companies in Pennsylvania are not now willing to pursue.  Furthermore, there will still be high volumes of toxic sludge that present a serious waste disposal problem.

Land Use

Public and private land is available for drilling. Well pads, compressor stations and waste pits are being constructed next to or on homes, schools, summer camps and state forests. In Allegheny County 7 percent of the county’s land area has been leased for Marcellus Shale exploration. Some counties in New York have leased over 40% of their land area.  As hydraulic fracturing is a relatively new industry in Southwestern Pennsylvania compared to New York, we can expect that more of our region’s land will be leased.

Pennsylvania’s remaining expanses of unbroken forests are also under threat from drilling, threatening songbirds, raptors, and other species that depend on these habitats.  Optimal well spacing for maximum extraction of gas in the Marcellus Shale is 40-160 acre units.  A density of 40 acre units translates to 16 wells in one square mile.  Each well pad takes up 5-15 acres[17].  Additionally, all of these well pads need road and pipelines leading to them.  The proliferation of wells across the state is causing forest fragmentation.  As the forest is sliced into smaller pieces, intact habitats for wildlife disappear[18].

40 Acre Spacing[19]

Public Assets (Roads)

While drilling presents opportunities for wealth for those leasing their land and for drilling companies, municipalities’ capital assets will be impacted and the tax payers will subsidize the residual effects of gas extraction. The most direct implication for municipalities will be a decline in the quality of roadway and bridge composition and integrity, from high traffic of trucks with heavy loads. The Department of Environmental Protection estimates that one Marcellus hydraulic fracturing well requires 1,000 truck trips per well.  Wells can be fracked up to 10 times over decades, so drilling can continue to affect road quality and traffic patterns for an extended period of time.[20]


Air and Noise Pollution

Drilling for natural gas deteriorates air quality in all phases of gas development — the drilling itself, well completions, hydraulic fracturing and pipeline operations.  In Dallas and Forth Worth, where companies are drilling into the Barnett Shale, studies show that emissions of smog-forming compounds, volatile organic compounds, greenhouse gases, and air toxic chemicals from the oil and gas industry now exceed emissions from motor vehicles in the region.[21]

Noise from oil and gas development comes from a number of sources: truck traffic, drilling and completion activities, well pumps and compressors.  In Fort Worth, drilling pads and pumping stations have been constructed less than 300 feet from homes.  For some landowners, noise from oil and gas operations is so loud that it makes them feel as if they are living in an industrial zone[22].

Hydraulic Fracturing Well Pad

Chemicals Used and Produced by Hydraulic Fracturing

benzene is a carcinogen, causes anemia, decreased immune function, bone marrow damage and leukemia * toluene affects reproductive system and central nervous system * ethyl benzene and xylenes have respiratory and neurological effects * methane is an explosive gas * hydrogen sulfide causes irritation of the nose, eyes and throat and causes difficulty breathing * heavy metals including  arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, selenium and zinc cause mental confusion, chronic fatigue, headaches, hair loss, kidney damage, high blood pressure, neurological damage, skin conditions, cancer *  nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxides react with volatile organic compounds to form ozone, smog and particulate pollution, triggering respiratory problems, heart conditions, biological mutations  and premature death * formaldehyde causes irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and skin * sodium hydroxide exposure may lead to ulceration of the nasal passages and chronic skin irritation, intestinal pain,

vomiting * polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are possible carcinogens * salts in high concentrations harm wildlife, waterways * radioactive radium emits gamma radiation and causes lung cancer, lymphoma, leukemia and bone cancer *  hydrochloric  and fumaric acid[23],[24]


What About Regulations and Legislation?

Throughout history industries have poured money into lobbying organizations in order to obtain exemptions from environmental regulations and pass legislation that favors their industry’s interests.  While Bush and Cheney were in office they succeeded in creating an exemption for horizontal hydraulic fracturing, a drilling method developed by Cheney’s former employer, Halliburton[25].  The Halliburton loophole specifically stipulates that hydraulic fracturing is not subject to regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

This exemption has been justified by saying that existing state regulations and oversight are adequate. However, Pennsylvania’s oil and gas laws were written to
regulate vertical natural gas drilling, a process that has gone on in the state for decades.  The current regulations are not adequate in addressing the advent of the recent horizontal drilling technology, a more invasive and risky practice
(HB 2213 “The Land and Water Protection Act” in the state house attempts to bridge this regulatory gap but also faces strong opposition).

The industry also eschews more stringent regulation claiming that hydraulic fracturing does not pose a treat to human or environmental health.  In spite of documented cases of groundwater contamination near hydro-fracked wells[26] the EPA completed a study in June 2004 wherein it concluded that there was no evidence that hydraulic fracturing posed a threat to drinking water.  Several EPA employees expressed concerns about the validity of the study including Weston Wilson, senior environmental engineer and 30-year EPA veteran, who stated, “EPA produced a final report … that I believe is scientifically unsound and contrary to the purposes of the law.”24 The Environmental Protection Agency is beginning another study of the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water which is slated for completion in 2012.  In the mean time, hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale region is growing exponentially.

The gas companies frequently claim that their industry is well regulated and that their well pads receive frequent inspections so we should stop worrying about the impacts of this industry.  It is important to keep in mind that having regulations in place does not mean that companies follow them.   Inspectors from the Department of Environmental Protection do perform inspections and they find an alarming number of violations.  The Pennsylvania Land Trust Association did a study revealing, “DEP records show a total of 1435 violations of state Oil and Gas Laws due to gas drilling or other earth disturbance activities related to natural gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale in this 2.5-year period.”[27]

Finally, industry leaders are attempting to pass legislation that would enact “forced pooling” of mineral rights.  Laws like this exist in other states and stipulate that once a certain percentage of your neighbors lease the mineral rights under their property, your mineral rights become leased as well, with or without your consent[28].  The intertwined relationships between governmental leaders and gas companies enables industries with large sums of money to write and pass legislation that maximizes their profits while reducing their regulatory headaches.  This flaw in our political system takes the power out of the hands of ordinary people and puts it in the hands of a small elite group of rich and powerful people.

What does this mean for Pittsburgh?

Throughout the summer of 2010 more and more gas industry heads have met with city and county council, as well as other entities at public meetings and hearings.  At these meetings the industry paints a picture of a “golden opportunity” for more jobs, money for city projects, and a “greener” and cheaper energy source for all, with a strict emphasis on the need to do it now. The problem with this picture is that the costs to human and environmental health and safety are not acknowledged.

  • Rural areas have long been seeing the effects of gas drilling on their communities, effects often felt for miles around due to the use of horizontal drilling. In a densely populated city like Pittsburgh, we are looking at a much larger number of people who will bear the brunt of this assault on human and environmental health and safety.
  • The disposal of large amounts of ground water is of concern because Pittsburgh sits at the bottom of several watersheds. If water is contaminated in any of these watersheds, it will impact water quality in the rivers that surround the city, which in turn contaminates the city’s drinking water.
  • Heavy truck traffic would further deteriorate already furrowed roads. Emissions from these trucks, as well as all of the other equipment would further spoil air quality (already rated among the poorest in the nation).
  • The noise and ground disturbance, likened to that of a mini-earthquake, combined with the sounds of an already bustling city, would prove far more than a nuisance to its neighbors.
  • Even worse is the track record of spills, leaks, and explosions that already have happened as a result of gross negligence. If any of these were to happen in Pittsburgh, the effects would be devastating.
  • So what of the promise of jobs? The industry says they will provide over a thousand jobs to Pittsburghers if allowed to drill in the city, but what they fail to mention is the “boom town effect.” One well takes approximately 2 months to drill, after that, only a few workers are needed to maintain the well. Companies bring in a large amount of workers from out of state.  After these wells are drilled, most of jobs are gone.

In the past 2 years around 150 leases have been signed within the City of Pittsburgh (mostly in Lincoln Place & Lawrenceville) and over 3,000 have been signed in Allegheny County.  All leases have been signed by Dale Properties–the real estate proxy for the natural gas company, Chesapeake Energy. Where it looks like they have just arrived, in actuality, they are already here.  The first step to being prepared… is being informed.


[1] Pennsylvania Geology vol. 38 number 1. http://www.dcnr.state.pa.us/topogeo/pub/pageolmag/pdfs/v38n1.pdf.

[2] http://www.marcellus-shale.us/drilling_wastewater.htm

[3] “Accommodating a New Straw in the Water: Extracting Natural Gas from the Marcellus Shale in the Susquehanna River Basin.” http://www.srbc.net/programs/docs/Marcellus%20Legal%20 Overview %20Paper%20%28Beauduy%29.pdf

[4]http://palwv.org/issues/MarcellusShale/Marcellus%20Shale%20Study%20Guide%20Parts%201-5.pdf.

[5] Calculations based on water withdrawal rates by companies operating in Pennsylvania. Susquehanna River Basin Commission, Bucknell University, September 11, 2008 http://www.srbc.net/programs/projreviewmarcellus.htm

[6] http://www.propublica.org/article/is-the-marcellus-shale-too-hot-to-handle-1109

[7] http://www.propublica.org/article/drill-wastewater-disposal-options-in-ny-report-have-problems-1229

[8] “New hazards of gas drilling: flow-back water” http://www.riverreporter.com/issues/09-01-08/news-backflow.html

[9] Sapien, Joaquin.  “What can be done with the wastewater”  Pittsburgh Post Gazette.  4 October 2009.  web: 1 June 2010.  www.post-gazette.com/pg/09277/1002919-113.stm.

[10] http://www.thepittsburghchannel.com/news/21984162/detail.html

[11] “Marcellus drilling transforms the state” in Voices of Central Pennsylvania http://voicesweb.org/node/3905

[12] http://www.donnan.com/Hickory-Tree-Series.htm

[13] Report: Marcellus Shale Drillers in PA Amass 1435 Violations in 2.5 Years. http://www.conserveland.org/violationsrpt

[14] Department of Environmental Protection Calls for Prohibition on Drilling in the New York City Watershed. http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/html/press_releases/09-15pr.shtml.

[15] http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/pa-must-take-action-to-protect-water-resources-from-drilling-wastewater-other-sources-of-tds-pollution-90041807.html

[16] Gas Drillers Plead Guilty to Felony Dumping Violations. http://www.propublica.org/article/gas-drillers-plead-guilty-to-felony-dumping-violations

[17] Hydraulic Fracturing Considerations for Natural Gas Wells of the Marcellus Shale. http://www.wvsoro.org/resources/marcellus/GWPCMarcellusShaleFracArticle.pdf

[18] Forest Fragmentation A Concern In Marcellus Shale, Natural Gas Well Development http://www.paenvironmentdigest.com/newsletter/default.asp?NewsletterArticleID=14649

[19] Shaleshock, http://www.flickr.com/photos/34299700@N06/3192219824/

[20] Preparing for Natural Gas Development: Understanding Impacts and Protecting Public Assets. <www.co.sullivan.ny.us/Website/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=7kXvmd8vpQk%3d>.

[21] Emissions from Natural Gas Production in the Barnett Shale Area and Opportunities for Cost-Effective Improvements. <www.edf.org/documents/9235_Barnett_Shale_Report.pdf>.

[22] http://www.earthworksaction.org/noiseresources.cfm#GENERALNOISE

[23] Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/.

[24] EPA. June, 2004. Evaluation of Impacts to Underground Sources of Drinking Water by Hydraulic Fracturing of Coalbed Methane Reservoirs. EPA 816-R-04-003. p. 3-11.

[25] Halliburton’s Interests Assisted by White House.

http://articles.latimes.com/2004/oct/14/nation/na-frac14.

[26] Washington County Lawsuit http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE5A80PP20091109 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TEtgvwllNpg”

[27] http://www.conserveland.org/violationsrpt

[28] http://www.bizjournals.com/pittsburgh/stories/2010/02/08/story12.html