'Fracking' brings prosperity, problems to Pennsylvania

Shale gas drilling boom yields jobs, but some wells are contaminated

  • Bill Desrosiers, of Cabot Oil & Gas, describes a drill rig that drills for natural gas wells.
Bill Desrosiers, of Cabot Oil & Gas, describes a drill rig… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
March 09, 2013|By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

DIMOCK, Pa. — — Times are good these days at the Linde Corp., where despite a sluggish economy nationally, the company is on a hiring binge.

The construction company, based near Wilkes-Barre in northeastern Pennsylvania, has seen its workforce nearly triple over the past five years as it switched from helping to build big-box stores to laying miles of natural gas pipelines connecting hundreds of gas wells drilled in the rolling rural terrain here in Susquehanna County.

"It has completely changed the complexion and future of the company," Linde spokesman Kevin Lynn said of the natural gas boom that has transformed the region. So bright has gas made the company's prospects that it recently gave $100,000 — its largest gift ever — to help build a new hospital near here.

Matt and Tammy Manning of nearby Franklin Forks say the gas boom has affected them, too, but for the worse. More than a year ago, the water coming out of their household well turned dark gray. Tests by the state found dangerous levels of methane in it, and regulators are investigating the cause. The couple must buy bottled water to drink, while a gas company that drilled in the area furnishes non-potable water for showers and washing clothes.

"Our house could've blown up with the levels we had," said Tammy Manning, 42. "It's very scary."

Pennsylvania's headlong plunge into drilling for natural gas from Marcellus shale formations deep underground has produced winners and losers — and provides a window on what could occur in Western Maryland should the drilling spread there. Businesses that cater to the energy industry have opened or expanded, while landowners who signed leases allowing wells to be drilled on their property have been able to buy new trucks and pay off loans with royalty payments from the billions of cubic feet of gas being siphoned daily across the state.

But the surge in drilling has fed a fierce nationwide controversy around the technique used to extract the gas, known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." The crossroads village of Dimock became ground zero for that furor three years ago after a homeowner's well blew up from a buildup of methane, and 18 other households alleged that their wells had been contaminated by Cabot Oil & Gas, the Houston-based company drilling in their community.

Homeowners in other Pennsylvania communities also have complained that their wells were fouled and their health endangered. The allegations — disputed by the industry and only rarely upheld by state authorities — have caused bitter divides, pitting neighbors and even family members against one another.

While the state has tightened regulations and the industry says it has installed additional safeguards, the long-term effects of the state's burgeoning gas industry on health and the environment are unknown.

In Maryland, a similar energy bounty is believed to lie beneath the surface in Garrett and part of Allegany counties, which sit atop the eastern edge of Marcellus shale deposits that sprawl from New York to eastern Kentucky. Energy companies leased the right to drill in nearly a third of Garrett, though some are letting the leases lapse in favor of drilling elsewhere.

But the O'Malley administration has held off permitting fracking for gas until studies can tell whether it can be done safely. A state advisory commission has been examining the issues for more than a year and expects to take at least another year before concluding its work.

Several fracking-related measures are pending in Annapolis, including one that would levy a state tax on extracted gas. A proposal to impose a moratorium on the drilling technique was killed last week in a Senate committee.

While Marylanders debate what could happen if fracking is allowed, Pennsylvanians are struggling to understand what is under way.

Hydraulic fracturing has been in use since the 1940s to help extract oil and gas from deep underground. Millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped at high pressure down a newly drilled well to crack or fracture rock layers in which gas is trapped, freeing it to be brought to the surface.

What's new about the current boom is the combination of fracking with directional drilling, in which a well is drilled vertically for several thousand feet, then gradually bent sideways for a mile or more. The method increases the ability to tap layers of gas-saturated shale.

Together, horizontal drilling and fracking have enabled drillers to tap natural gas in shale deposits previously thought too hard or too costly to access. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects a 44 percent increase nationwide in natural gas production over the next three decades.

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