Sunday, November 14, 2010

Contentious Bedrock:
Photos of Marcellus Shale From Marcellus, NY

I drove out to Marcellus, NY, and took some photographs of Marcellus shale.
These are flakes of the now-famous Marcellus Shale at the base of a rock cut along Lee Mulroy Road, a/k/a Routes 174/175, just south of the Village of Marcellus, New York, near sundown on Nov. 12, 2010.

Marcellus shale underlies thousands of square miles in Appalachia, running as far south as the western end of Virginia.  But, of course, it had to have been first named and described within the scientific record from a spot where it could be studied on the surface as an outcropping.  That's where Marcellus comes in.  The naming of this shale
is attributed to Professor James Hall, who worked on New York State's original geological survey, starting in 1836, and first used the phrase "Marcellus shale" in a paper published in 1839.

Prof. Hall, incidentally, was quite the character.  He set the standard for early bureaucratic empire-building within the Empire State — refusing to stop work on the geological survey, even after the originally approved four years of money ran out.  Hall pushed the legislature for more money, and more time, and he relied on private fund-raising in the years when public money was short.  Eventually appointed to three overlapping jobs — State Paleontologist, State Geologist, and Director of the State Museum — Prof. Hall, in 1
894, finally published the last of his 14-volume Paleontology of New York, formally bringing the originally intended geological survey to a close.  [All this relies on the remnants of the New York Geological Survey, as kept alive by the State Museum, which is truly a rich and awesome place.]

My roadside rock cut has probably been sculpted some by road-making machinery, but Prof. Hall's original exposures could have been cut by just Ninemile Creek, working alone.  That creek flows nearby, approximately parallel with the road, carrying the outlet water of Otisco Lake, the easternmost of upstate's famous Finger Lakes.
This was the view around sundown on a Friday, Nov. 12, 2010, in "downtown" Marcellus, NY, a still-nicely-rural village that's also within a commuter's reach of Syracuse. 

The name Marcellus was originally borrowed from classical literature in order to impart an imposing grace upon the surrounding township — which was mapped from the wilderness by government-appointed surveyors in order to pay off Revolutionary War soldiers with free land. 

But the name Marcellus is now best known worldwide for having been applied to that nearby outcropping of shale rock.  That shale layer, and other North American shales, are altogether touted to contain enough domestic natural gas to eventually switch significant portions of the U.S. transportation fleet off of oil-based fuels — including trucks, school buses, and even passenger cars.

I read someplace that institutional fleets of bigger vehicles make the most immediate sense for systematically swapping out traditional models in favor of new stuff designed to run on natural gas.  They could have their own homebase fueling station, number one.  But, also, it's because the bigger vehicles have more room to stash away the fuel tanks, which are way bigger.  The public transit system in Syracuse now consists mostly of buses with these ginormous boxy protrusions lying prone on the roof. 

This is that same rock cut made out of Marcellus shale, out along Lee Mulroy Road, near Marcellus, NY.  I was struck by how crumbly it was, and by how green it was.  I'm told the deep underground stuff is so hard, it'll make a hammer ring when you hit it.  But this stuff that's been weathered, you couldn't build anything out this rock, that's for sure.  The greenish hue is probably from simple plants, now colonizing the nooks and crannies and soaking up the sun.

The hydrocarbons locked up in the more deeply buried sections of this shale were, in fact, made out of atmospheric carbon and solar energy.  It's just that it was old carbon and old solar.
  It's interesting to me that the most strident representatives of the environmental movement — those who have been very quick to develop an emotional commitment to demonizing shale gas — never seem to talk about fossil fuels in this way.

To my skeptical, challenging, contrary way of thinking, though, this is what comes to mind:  When this shale was getting laid down at the bottom of the sea, there was no one around with enough brain-power to think about it, fret about it, or protest it.  Nonetheless, the fact of the matter was — year after year — lots of energy, and tons of atmospheric carbon, were being locked up in those rocks.  No doubt it had an effect on climate, over the years. 

Now — ever since the days of burning significant coal, oil, and natural gas — we humans have been engaged in a furiously paced re-release of all that solar energy, and all that carbon.  I'm pro-shale gas (within limits).  But I don't deny human-caused global warming, like some of the other fossil fuel defenders out there.  I'm just calling it what it is — and suggesting that maybe we could stand to lighten up a little bit about it.
This was a really interesting piece of Marcellus shale, and I wish — looking at it now — that I took this chunk home with me as a memento after snapping this shot.  It’s so awesome and gnarly and colorful and… dessicated.

(Well, I suppose I could always go back…)

But let me just lay this on you:  One of the incontrovertible questions raised by opponents of hydraulic fracturing is the fact that the process “orphans” millions of gallons of fresh water — deep within the shale layer — and that this once perfectly good water is never expected to be returned to the well-known Eighth Grade Earth Science Water Cycle of evaporation, and rain, and snow, etc.

This must be acknowledged as true because industry reports that it only ever seems to be getting back a fraction — 10, 20, 30 percent — of the water it sends down the wellbore to fracture that shale.  What comes back is called “flowback water,” and in the Northeast this stuff must be dealt with within the current high-intensity fishbowl of state agency oversight, freelance monitoring by citizen activists, and the whole general PR issue.  But the rest of that water stays in the shale, a mile or so beneath people’s well water.

Doesn’t all this sound terrible?  It does.  But does it ever become an actual impact on humans or the environment? — that would be my question.

Well, as far as losing water from the world goes, consider this:  Just the act of burning fossil fuels adds new water to the topside environment.  This is because all combustion of hydrocarbons inevitably leads to the end products of carbon dioxide and water vapor.  Here, for instance, is the formula for burning methane:

CH4 + 2O2 = CO2 + 2H2O.

Yeah, but — how much water could that possibly be?  You’re not going to believe this, but Chesapeake Energy already has posted online a PDF by an engineer (whom they no-doubt employ), where the guy claims all that lost fracking water would get replaced within just the natural gas well’s first six months of producing combustible methane.  Everything beyond six months would be extra water.  It is a very interesting reply (although somebody else will have to double-check his calculations).
Another thing I want to say about water (and this is another picture of some very dry-looking Marcellus shale, so it's just as good a place as any to bring this up, I suppose) is that I have been very much taken aback of late by the number of fairly well-educated people who somehow believe that polluted water is an unmanageable, catastrophic, irreversible situation.

There are even heartfelt statements out there, findable online, from well-meaning-but-clueless politicians, warning the citizenry about the absolute fact that water is a non-renewable resource.  I don't understand what this is about.  Is this a new religion?

It's as though these people have never contemplated the fate of their own urine, or the steam coming off a boiling teakettle, or a wet towel drying on a clothes line.  O
r the source of all the rain and snow that falls.  Or why all that salt in the ocean has never really been a big issue for humanity.

The last person who got to me on this was an acquaintance of mine, a kinda-new-agey advanced-degreed biochemist in the upstate New York college town where I live.  Learning of my association with the obviously evil natural gas industry, I found her immediately transported into a vociferously held position — right in the middle of a drug store parking lot — to the effect that used frack water would be irretrievably bonded with its natural or man-caused pollutants, even after filtration, or reverse osmosis, or evaporation, or distillation.

I honestly think it just comes down to we humans wanting to believe whatever fits.  If we have to rewrite 19 years of schooling to get there, then — by God — even smart people will do that.
I was too busy trying to time my picture to get a close look at this car as it sped past — with the Marcellus shale rock cut behind it near Marcellus, NY.  In all likelihood, it was gas-powered, or a hybrid.  Maybe a diesel.  But it was pretty unlikely to trace its power source to the natural gas which is now known to be producible in large quantities from that background shalebed, along with other North American shales.

To be powered partly or wholly by natural gas, the car would have to be a plug-in electric, or a natural gas vehicle (new acronym, NGV).  Sometimes I see these NGV's — usually it's a utility- or government-owned sedan — and the only way I can tell what they are is because they usually have stickers plastered all over them, showing off with another new acronym, CNG (compressed natural gas).

I just re-tweeted something about this the other day from the Pickens Plan — a claim that European car-buyers have 53 different NGV models to choose from, but U.S. consumers have only one (a Honda).  Most of us right now would have a hell of a time finding a station at which to refuel one of these babies.  But — if the price of oil keeps getting pulled higher, while natural gas stays cheap — it could get all changed around soon.  Commerce is like that.
This is just another shot of a second, no-doubt-oil-fired schoolbus rolling through the Village of Marcellus

I never really gave much thought to T. Boone Pickens, and his so-called Pickens Plan, and all that stuff about weaning the U.S. off of foreign oil.  I just assumed it was all a bunch of right-wing, pro-business malarkey, and that's never really been much my style.  But the more I read, the more convinced I am the dude is onto something
— even coming from the perspective of an environmentalist, a social liberal, and a registered Democrat.  To me, domestic natural gas is just the fossil fuels equivalent to all that "Buy Local" proselytizing you get at a farmer's market.  (And the same goes for wind power!  Or corn-powered ethanol!)  The more we shift off of foreign oil, the more my own countrymen — even my own fellow upstate New Yorkers — can get the jobs, or the money, or both.  What the hell is so wrong with us that we can't do this?

And then President Obama
— in a speech he gave the day after his party's "shellacking" during the Mid-Term Corrections — actually touted American natural gas as a growth enterprise, a place where the Democrats and the Republicans could maybe find common ground.  (Boy, did that piss off the frack-o-phobes!  You sure couldn't prove there was much common ground by looking at the political conversation going on afterwards, right here in New York!)

Anyway, I wonder — if shale gas ever gets started upstate, and if it turns out to be not as devastating as some feared — maybe someday the boosters of Marcellus village will change their sign to read, "Home of That Famous Shale."
Here you can see the green-hued shale layers before it all crumbles below onto that sloping pile of loose flakes.

One argument I read a lot from anti-drillers — especially in the relatively anonymous online comments sections of some upstate New York newspapers
— is the green-eyed accusation of "greed" against both landowners and the natural gas industry.

This bothers me, for a number of reasons. 
For starters, I don't think wanting to be able to pay your bills is greedy (and, let's face it, that's what most landowners are going to wind up doing if they ever manage to make any money from their shale gas resource).  Furthermore, I don't think wanting to have a job is greedy (and, at the rate we're going, some of the New Yorkers we're talking about employing here are probably right now still in junior high school).  Lastly, I happen to know firsthand that getting natural gas out of the ground and available to the consumer requires a hell of a lot of effort — across an unbelievable variety of areas of expertise.  I don't think there's anything greedy about the willingness to risk one's money, or sell one's time, getting it done.

Truly, these things are not about greed.  Do these so-called environmentalists drive around the upstate countryside, looking at the rows of ripening corn, and mutter cynically to themselves, "Goddamn greedy farmer"?  Or do they curse themselves as greedy, every time they tear open their monthly retirement account statements — which are almost invariably touched, directly or indirectly, by investments in the fossil fuel business?

Let me just turn this around, and ask about greed in a way that nobody ever seems to want to contemplate:  Is it greedy to enjoy a lifestyle that includes all the benefits of natural gas (and other fossil fuels), but, at the same time, to loudly protest ever being asked to tolerate even just some of the acknowledged impacts required for its production?

(Or is that just childish?)
Shale makes for a big rubble pile, and shale gas makes for a big argument — no doubt about it.

How can there be such a wide variety of very different truths for different people on the shale gas issue?  I think — through a process of contagious persuasiveness and misinformation, some of it even appearing as regular journalism — otherwise intelligent, concerned, and well-meaning people have become, essentially, very afraid.  I don’t mean to be disrespectful or dismissive in saying this.

The fear that is making the rounds these days has quickly converted some New Yorkers into die-hard opponents of the whole concept of shale gas.  Essentially, these folks advocate turning our backs to development of this resource.  (It’s okay to use, but not to produce — at least not from around these parts.  That seems to be the logical end result of their line of thinking.)

The fear also quickly becomes the lens through which opponents take in all further information, and the way in which they spread the word.  And so it goes, like a virus

I don't know how to turn this virus around, but I do know it's not what I believe.  I believe that we in New York have a choice between figuring out how to make shale gas work for all of us in a careful, sensible, and regulated way — or letting fear, ignorance, and political turmoil shackle our future.  So long as we use natural gas, I think it’s a much more responsible approach to get it out of the ground, safely, right here in New York State, where we can manage our own impacts, and where our own citizens stand to benefit — rather than just idly pawning off all the risks, and all the rewards, on the people of Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Texas, or Canada.

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