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 1894, 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 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).
|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."