After an overview of the natural gas industry occurring in much of Pennsylvania, several questions were raised at the Upper Delaware Council (UDC) session in Narrowsburg, NY, December 7th.
The special presentation came only a week after the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) released its long awaited- and not surprising - set of revised draft regulations on hydraulic fracturing.

UPPER DELAWARE - After an overview of the natural gas industry occurring in much of Pennsylvania, several questions were raised at the Upper Delaware Council (UDC) session in Narrowsburg, NY, December 7th.

The special presentation came only a week after the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) released its long awaited- and not surprising - set of revised draft regulations on hydraulic fracturing. 

If passed, the regulations would prohibit natural gas exploration using this method of extraction, from anywhere in the drainage area of the Delaware River. Since this only has application to the region where the gas-soaked Marcellus Shale exists deep underground, and that New York State has already banned gas drilling activities, it only has to do with the Pocono counties of Pennsylvania- and most especially, Wayne and Pike counties. 

The DRBC has announced that comments on their proposed regulation are being taken online, and public hearings have been scheduled to take testimony. Two of those hearings are on Tuesday, January 23, one from 1 - 4:30 p.m. and the other from 6 - 9:30 p.m., at the Ladore Camp, Retreat & Conference Center’s pavilion in Waymart. Advanced registration is required to attend the hearings. The deadline was 5 p.m., December 31, 2017.

For more information on the DRBC’s draft regulations, how to make comments and registering for the hearings, visit online at http://www.state.nj.us/drbc. 

Contrasting two basins 

The overview given at the UDC meeting did not directly address the DRBC draft. The discussion was led by David Yoxtheimer, P.G., hydrogeologist and Penn State Extension associate with Penn State University’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. 

His discussion concentrated on the process of natural gas drilling and its progress over the past decade in the Susquehanna River Basin of Pennsylvania. He contrasted the scope of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC)’s role in regulating the drilling industry, comparing it with the DRBC. Drilling activities have been active across north central Pennsylvania, with the Susquehanna basin; only a very small part of that basin extends into Wayne County, which is almost completely in the Delaware drainage area and overseen by the DRBC. 

Most productive in U.S. 

Yoxtheimer said that the Marcellus Shale is the most productive gas-bearing shale in the United States. It produces around 20 billion cubic feet of gas per day. This is nearly a quarter of all natural gas developed in the U.S.

The shale is about 7000 feet below ground in the Delaware basin. Below the Marcellus Shale is the Utica Shale, around 2,000 to 5,000 feet further down. 

About 60 drills have been drilled into the Utica Shale in Pennsylvania. About 16,000 shale wells have been drilled in this part of the Appalachians, approximately 10,500 in Pennsylvania. 

Shale gas and oil accounts for about half of what America uses. The U.S. exports some to Canada and Mexico.

Conventional reservoirs will become more and more depleted in the next 25-30 years and shale gas will be tapped more and more, he said. A lot of it will come from the Appalachian basin. 

Questions & Answers 

There were several questions raised. A few are noted here. 

Al Henry, UDC representative for Berlin Township asked what percentage of water use for Marcellus in the Susquehanna basin, compared to overall water use. Yoxtheimer stated that the 18 million gallons/minute flows near the mouth of the Susquehanna River. The peak amount of water used is 12 million gallons per day. “It’s way less than a tenth of a percent,” he said.

Fred Peckham, UDC’s Town of Hancock representative, added that the Susquehanna basin has a massive amount of gas wells, unlike in the Delaware River watershed. Only two counties in PA (Wayne and Pike) are under discussion; gas drilling is already banned in the NY region of the Delaware watershed. “It’s such a small percentage,” Peckham said. Yoxtheimer agreed, that this is a fairly small area of the total Marcellus and Utica shale region.

There were only seven or eight test wells drilled in Wayne County in early years. “That data was never released publicly,” he said, “But if I had to take a guess, there’s maybe a few trillion cubic feet of gas that could be recovered in that area, compared to the roughly 500 trillion cubic feet that would be throughout the entire Marcellus… Until you drill and fracture and find out, we can only speculate. On some level it could be economic in a relatively small region…”

Susan Sullivan, UDC representative, Town of Tusten, noted that the SRBC regulates quantity of water. “If you have a drought, what happens? Who gets priority?” Yoxtheimer replied that the SRBC regulates pass-by flows. If a river dropped below a critical threshold, that intake would be shut off. Water could not be removed until the river level was restored. “That’s especially true of the shale industry,” he said. The shale industry impounds water to tap during the drier months.

Peckham asked about recycling systems for the water. Back around 2010, Yoxtheimer said, the Department of Energy was working on waste management strategies. There was some federal funding provided. It’s evolved over time, he said. “Pennsylvania…  is unique in that over 90% [of water used for fracking] is recycled. That minimizes a lot wastewater treatment.”  Recycling is found to be more cost-effective here.

Another question asked what was more of an environmental risk: Horizontal fracking or deep, vertical drilling. Yoxtheimer said that generally the deeper you go, the more difficult it becomes, with higher pressure and increasing heat. Risk increase with depth and the longer the laterals reach. Drill bits can be damaged, and other things can go wrong.
 How often is a well drilled that fails to produce? The shale, Yoxtheimer said, “is almost like an assembly line at this point” with high probability of yielding gas. In Pennsylvania there is almost 10,000 wells. Only 39 wells have released stray gas.

The industry, he said, knows what to expect from the region’s geology.

There are a few shale wells in the state that have reached the end of their economically productive life.

Over the course of a well’s life, approximately half of the water that is injected ultimately stays underground.

Yoxtheimer noted that a stray gas issue or spilling brine costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to cleanup The industry obviously wants to avoid that and have improved their efforts to minimize risk. Onsite monitoring is done by automatic sensors, and well tenders visit wells on a daily basis.

There are regulated compounds, but a lot of the chemicals used by the oil and gas industry are not regulated. Labs may be able to test for them, but are not necessarily looking for unregulated chemicals. Penn State is researching to improve laboratory analytical techniques so that a larger range of compounds can be simply checked for any issues.

James Barth, Berlin Township, asked how risks from gas extraction can be minimized given the staffing and funding shortages at the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). After citing statistics, Barth said he sees this as a potentially serious health risk, although Yoxtheimer seemed to be portraying the risks as manageable and minimal.

Yoxtheimer replied that he did not intend to portray the risks in that way, acknowledging that risks do exist. He says he knows the staff at DEP takes their job very seriously, while being understaffed and under-funded.

Barbara Arrindell, Damascus Township, questioned how only 39 wells, according to the DEP, were found to be straying gas. Yoxtheimer said that 268 private water wells may have been impacted by those 39 gas wells.

A Pike County resident asked how recycled wastewater is purified so that it go back in the river. Yoxtheimer stated that the total dissolved solids in any shale-derived wastewater have to be reduced to 500 mg/liter, and barium and strontium levels have to be reduced to 10 mg/liter. An evaporative technology is typically used. Distilling, therefore, must bring the levels down to meet permit regulations. 

The resident said that if the testing companies can’t test for some of it or it’s too expensive, how can the public be reassured? “It’s not an industry without risk,” Yoxtheimer replied. “Whether you trust your regulators or not, they are doing their job… a lot of is legislative approved.” He said that Penn State is trying to “push the science” to the point that it holds the industry accountable.