Water v. Energy: The Marcellus Shale Saga

Commentary by Tim Rowland

Each winter, the International Festival of the Waters is celebrated in Berkeley Springs, a small town as pretty as the name suggests, tucked into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle.

Six miles from the Potomac River, it was a rollicking place in the time of George Washington, before government became involved in the stern work of banning gambling casinos. But its main fame is derived from the pristine mineral springs that stay warm and healthful the year around.

At the festival, contestants from around the world ship samples of their water to Berkeley Springs, where a panel of judges picks the most refreshing, crystalline fluid that Planet Earth has to offer.

This year, the festival was also attended by friendly picketers who have become concerned about the effect that hydrofracking will have on Eastern aquifers.

Hydrofracking has become associated with the Marcellus formation of black shale that runs from southern New York through much of Pennsylvania and into West Virginia and Western Maryland — essentially the mountainous sources that feed the Chesapeake Bay.

The amount of gas is staggering; a century’s worth of supply exists, maybe more. And in a time when petroleum-industry claims of job creation are often dubious, Marcellus Shale appears to be the real deal. Where the shale is fracked, there is work.

Traditional wells are not cost-effective in the Marcellus, because the gas resides in many smaller horizontal pockets as opposed to one vast underground pool. The remedy is to fracture this rocky web, allowing the production of a single well to increase exponentially. Hydrofracking is accomplished by mixing millions of gallons of water with chemicals and sand, then shooting it down the well with enough force to crack the rock.

The process has raised obvious concerns, some involve potential man-made earthquakes, but most involve the purity of groundwater. The gas is far below the water table, but the well must pass through the aquifer to get to their intended target. Preliminary EPA studies have suggested that the mix of water, chemicals and gas can migrate into deep-water test wells and to a lesser extent into drinking water aquifers. Some neighbors of fracking wells have made a parlor trick of posting videos of flaming faucets on YouTube.

Also, the water and chemical mix must be pumped back out of the well and held in lagoons until it can be trucked away for treatment, and spills and liner leaks are always a concern.

The water to be pumped down the well is also considerable. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission estimates future hydrofracking in the watershed will require 28 million gallons a day. Drawing that much water out of traditional sources has ecologists troubled.

Finally, the well sites themselves are a concern. In Maryland, the Department of Natural Resources estimates that only 10 percent of the proposed wells will not adversely impact tourism-dependent Western Maryland’s forested viewsheds.

States have dealt with fracking at different speeds; drilling is ongoing in Pennsylvania, for example, but still under a moratorium in Maryland. Maryland geologists strike a theme heard from other states when they say that traditional gas-drilling regulations aren’t terribly relevant to the Marcellus Shale. To illustrate, there was never any need for a regulation requiring companies to disclose which chemicals they pump into the ground. Nor were there any regulations regarding the supply of pre-fracking water or the treatment of post-fracking water. Now, states are playing catch-up.

New York recently required permits for water withdrawals exceeding 100,000 gallons a day.

Dispassionate observers believe that fracking can be done safely, but that this safety will only come with conscientious government oversight.

Three miles North of Berkeley Springs, another geological feature comes to the surface, a vein of pure sand that’s been mined for more than a century for use in glass-making and sandbox-filling alike. The small sand plant has trudged through the decades in typical workmanlike fashion, providing a good base of jobs but no particular excitement otherwise.

But a few weeks before the International Festival of the Waters, the plant’s parent, U.S. Silica, announced an IPO; it’s now traded on the New York Stock Exchange. A new star attraction in the company’s product line are “proppants,” the grains of sand that wedge the hydrofracked rock apart.

One local activist was appalled. In a letter to the weekly Morgan Messenger, she wondered how a small community with a centuries-old devotion to pure water could at the same time mine an element essential to fracking. With Marcellus Shale at the fore, her water v. energy conundrum is one that is likely to played out in states and communities in the mid-Atlantic for years or even decades to come.

Tim Rowland is a newspaper columnist and author of “Maryland’s Appalachian Highlands: Massacres, Moonshine and Mountaineering.” Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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