CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Marcellus shale gas development isn't automatically a permanent improvement for our state.
Within half a person's lifetime, almost all of the wells will be drilled, and since Marcellus wells have a useful lifetime of less than a decade, the field will be in decline. We need to think seriously about what will come afterward. The drilling companies will go on to some other place and like strip mines, the damage will be left here.
Grass and trees will return, but we need to keep our water clean and a healthy environment for people to live in. We need to think about the long-range effect of the money passing through. Will there be enough devoted to West Virginia to improve our standard of living and our economic resources, or will it dribble off elsewhere?
There is an experimental aspect to horizontal drilling and intensive fracturing.
The previous fracturing we have seen in West Virginia has been vertical fracturing in porous rock, primarily sandstone. It affects an irregular cylinder around the well for a few hundred feet in the source rock. The type of drilling and fracturing done in gas-bearing shale has been tried elsewhere for a few years, but always there have been complaints.
A Marcellus well is drilled in a different kind of rock, shale. A single well may be drilled a mile or more horizontally. The distance affected around the well is not well known. It can only be estimated by the disappearance of frack solution. The fracture water may undergo as many as 20 repressuring cycles. The next well is often drilled adjacent to it, so the space between is affected. The Marcellus is known to have natural crack systems, too.
There are two main differences from the old method: First, the area fractured is vast in Marcellus wells. Second, much more frack water enters the source rock at extreme pressure and temperature far above the surface temperature, so a lot of substances dissolve in the fluid. These are largely unknown, but do include some radioactive elements.
The fact is that the Marcellus industry is conducting a vast experiment. It is sampling a complex stratum a mile below the surface while discarding the flow-back fracking solution and cuttings. Simultaneously it checks for leaks back to the surface and/or inadequate well construction. Presently it is without scientific oversight or much concern for anything except production.
No one should expect great wealth from mineral extraction without expecting damage to what remains and inconvenience or worse to other people.
It takes one drilling pad for each square mile. The Marcellus is under every square mile, so you can look up the number of square miles in your county and that number will be within 20 percent or so of the drill pads that will be there eventually. The drillers need access roads and right of way for many miles of pipes to take the gas to market. They need pump stations and plants to remove the natural gas liquids from the gas. It will take a lot of land. Rural roads are frequently inadequate for hundreds of trips by heavy trucks. The industry denies it, but there are frequent complaints about damage to well water and streams.