The Marcellus Shale play spans the area of the Appalachian Basin from upstate New York, through Pennsylvania, and into West Virginia (Rahm, 2011 p. 2975). This ancient deposit of natural gas rich shale was laid down around 400 million years ago, covers an area of approximately 95,000 square miles, and lies over a mile beneath the earth’s surface (Kargbo et al, 2010). When describing shale deposits, play refers to one in which lies the possibility of economically feasible extraction of natural gas. Shale has been known to contain natural gas for over 70 years, as it is a natural byproduct of anaerobic degradation of organic material in the shale. Until recently, however, it was considered too expensive to extract. That changed a few years ago when an extraction method was developed that made it fairly simple, and economically viable, to extract. This method, known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, utilizes horizontal wells and millions of gallons of water to crack the shale deposits deep underground. This process releases the gas so it can be easily extracted. Fracking is highly controversial and has become a heated topic in Pennsylvania, where use of hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale deposit has already begun. It is also causing much debate in upstate New York, where concerns over the impact of hydraulic fracturing on the environment and public drinking water supply prompted the state senate to impose a moratorium on new drilling until May 15, 2011 (McKay et al, 2010). While fracking has been attracting much controversy, it is not abating in intensity. “Across the U.S. withdrawals from conventional gas and oil wells are declining while withdrawals from shale gas wells and coalbed wells are increasing” (Rahm, 2011, p. 2978). Society needs cheap energy, and natural gas companies are committed to meeting that demand, despite the increasing concerns over its implications for environmental and human health.
Research has revealed that there are more than 1,744 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas within U.S. shale plays. That is enough gas to supply the U.S. with natural gas for an estimated 90 to 116 years at the current rate of usage (Campbell, 2010, p. 5679). There are may shale plays in the continental U.S., but the Marcellus shale play is the richest and most expansive source of shale gas in play in the U.S. Natural gas companies have already tapped into shale plays in places like Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas. The results have been highly lucrative for the gas companies, but have wreaked havoc on the environment, drinking water supplies, and the public health of individuals living close to the drilling rigs and pads. “A controversy has arisen as the use of hydraulic fracturing has increased and expanded with its application to horizontal drilling. The major issues that are discussed include groundwater (aquifer) contamination by fracking chemicals, accidental chemical spills, waste disposal, air quality, the land footprint of drilling activities, pipeline placement and safety, and the amount of water used” (Rahm, 2011, p.2975). Yet, there is a chilling lack of empirical scientific studies surrounding the effects of hydraulic fracturing on groundwater supplies. Herein lies the controversy, or what could also be called the cover-up.
A 2005 piece of legislation inserted into the energy bill, often called jokingly the Halliburton Loophole, was initiated under then vice President Dick Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton, allowed hydraulic fracturing to be exempt from the Clean Water Act and EPA scrutiny. Far from a laughing matter, this meant that gas drilling companies did not have to report any of the chemicals that were being used in the hydraulic fracturing process, even though they have a real possibility of interacting with the groundwater supply of both rural and urban areas. The reason for the secrecy concerning the chemical uses is two-fold. On one hand, companies claimed that the fluid was used far below the surface of the earth, well below the groundwater table and thus would have no effect on groundwater systems. The other point was a matter of intellectual property rights. Fracking fluid is a proprietary mix of some untold number of chemicals plus water. The result of the loophole has been that “since 2005, the industry has…been exempt from the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Superfund rules” (Federman, 2010).