Realities of shale gas extraction in the USA

installation to shale gas extraction in Pennsylvania

Shale gas boom in the USA is widely discussed in Poland. Therefore, the Heinrich Böll Foundation organised a study tour for Polish activists, journalists and experts to USA in order to show them the results of the effects of natural gas exploration on local communities along the Marcellus Shale. One of the participants, Tomasz Ulanowski wrote an article about environmental, social, economic and political aspects of drilling in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania Drills Wherever It Can. America is divided over shale gas. Will it divide Poland?

by Tomasz Ulanowski

“We blocked them for 400 days, this was the longest ever protest in modern Europe,” laughs Barbara Siegieńczuk, an activist from Żurawlów. A small village in the Zamość region of Poland, Żurawlów became famous after the locals drove away Chevron, an American corporation that extracts gas and oil around the world. “Their permit to search for shale gas expired in June 2012,” Siegieńczuk explains. “We blocked the way to four plots that were on lease to the Americans. We were simply defending Polish law.”

Why did the people of Żurawlów and other neighbouring villages not want Chevron?

“I moved here in 2008 from Zamość. I bought an old house,” Siegieńczuk explains, “you think I was going to let fracking destroy our village?” She is clearly surprised by my question.

Recently Siegieńczuk had the opportunity to see for herself what Żurawlów defended itself from. The German Heinrich Böll Foundation (which has links with the Green Party) invited her to join a study visit to the USA. She visited Pennsylvania, where there are almost 10,000 vertical wells used for shale gas extraction. In comparison, Poland has so far only issued a number of permits to search for shale gas, and none for its extraction. A journalist from “Wyborcza” [a Polish daily newspaper] was also on the trip.

Those Left Behind

Pennsylvania is like Poland in miniature. Its area is three times smaller than Poland’s and so is its population. Pennsylvanians enjoy mild “Indian summers” each year – in Poland this type of weather is called “the golden autumn”. Pennsylvania also has access to “sea” (Lake Erie, one of the North American Great Lakes) and mountains. The Appalachians are similar to the Beskid Mountains, though a few times longer. Their gentle summits are covered in trees and divide Pennsylvania in two.

Shale gas is extracted in the north-west of the state. Approximately 2 kilometres underground there is a 300-metre thick layer of sedimentary rock that dates back 400 million years. The Marcellus geological formation takes its name from the New York State village, where it has a distinctive outcrop.

Pennsylvania has a rich tradition of extracting natural resources. The extraction of oil and gas began a long time ago, as did the felling of forests in the Appalachians. The state is famous for coal extraction and the production of steel and timber. At the same time, agriculture still remains the main area of Pennsylvania’s economy (the state is a leader in the production of Christmas trees).

For a number of years, the local landscape has been undergoing a rapid transformation due to shale gas extraction. “If you live in a city, you might not even notice it, unless you have a problem with migrant workers and the prostitution, drugs and increased crime that accompany them,” we are told by local American activists who fight against fracking. “But if you live in the country, or if you love nature, you’ll be horrified.”

This statement is somewhat of an exaggeration – many inhabitants of rural Pennsylvania have benefited financially from shale gas extraction. In the USA, the right to natural resources usually belongs to the owner of the land under which such resources are found. In order to extract shale gas, mining companies must pay both the owner of the land on which they want to place a drilling platform, and the owners of neighbouring land under which they need to construct vertical wells that are several kilometres long.

Consequently, fewer people are left behind than in Poland. Those that are, have for some reason refused to lease their land, or have been overlooked by mining companies.

In Żurawlów, on the other hand, only four famers benefited from leasing a few hectares of their land for drilling (hypothetically, of course, this list of beneficiaries could also include all Polish people who end up using the gas extracted from the land in and around Żurawlów). All other locals could consider themselves to have suffered “damages”, even if Chevron paid its future taxes in their local municipality. In Poland all mineral resources are state-owned.

Water, Pollution and Earthquakes

So what is this “damage” all about?

President Obama speaks of “the shale gas revolution”, which has had a positive impact on the United States (providing cheaper energy and more jobs). But shale gas extraction is not environmentally neutral. Nor is it neutral for the people who live in its vicinity.

The process of fracking (hydraulic fracturing) breaks down shale rocks and frees the methane locked inside them. One of its main risks is the extensive consumption of water involved. Another serious problem is the integrity of the vertical wells.

Between 19 and 95 million litres of water are used to fracture a single well in Pennsylvania. The water is mixed with sand and chemicals in order to limit the friction between rocks and to prevent the development of micro-organisms (mining companies are very reluctant to reveal the exact composition of the mixes they use). Just to give you some kind of comparison, according to the Central Statistical Office of Poland, the domestic water usage for the year 2012 of an average Polish person was less than 30,000 litres.

In the process of fracking, the consumption of drinking water is enormous. The water is transported to wells by hundreds of large trucks that disturb the peace and quiet of local residents (people and animals alike). The trucks also damage local roads and pollute the air. Special reservoirs for both water and waste water are constructed next to drilling platforms, which are usually composed of six wells.

These reservoirs are required because between 15% to 40% of the liquid pumped into a well flows back out of it. The liquid is also often polluted with heavy metals and radioactive elements found underground. Thus, mining companies remove it from drilling sites and either purify it in special plants or pump it back underground into closed wells that were previously used for the extraction of natural resources. The waste water from Pennsylvania is transported to other states, including Ohio and New York.

Recently, a number of scientific papers have been published that document local earthquakes linked either with hydraulic fracturing (in Ohio) or the storing of waste after fracking (in Oklahoma).

More worryingly, some of the fracturing liquid and waste water escape through leaky wells and pollute groundwater used by local communities as a source of drinking water (groundwater can also become polluted during the drilling process, in which water with additives is often used).

A fracking well is insulated with steel and concrete, which is used to construct sealing covers to cap wells. It is here that leaks most often occur. Scientific research has also proved that these sealing covers allow the majority of the escaping methane to pass out.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas – it is much stronger than carbon dioxide. Some scientists have indicated that methane escaping from extraction sites undermines any positive influence on climate that the switch from coal to gas within the American energy sector could have (an argument for burning methane is that in the process two times less CO2 is released into the atmosphere than during the burning of coal).

The Age of Shale Gas

One of these scientists is Anthony Ingraffea, a retired professor of engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. And, incidentally, New York State is an interesting example of an entirely different approach to shale gas (when compared to that of Pennsylvania). Some counties, including Ithaca, have used local development plans to ban shale gas extraction within their territory. A moratorium on wells and fracking is in effect across the entire state. For the time being, New York’s authorities are watching developments in Pennsylvania. However, there are other problems that animate residents of New York State – namely the storage of post-fracking waste water and the presence of gas storerooms in underground workings in old salt mines (the Great Lakes region is one of the world’s major salt-producing regions).

In 2010, Ingraffea co-authored a paper, published in the periodical “Climatic Change”, which was one of the first to compare shale gas and coal in terms of the greenhouse gas emissions caused by their extraction and burning. The paper concluded that over a 20-year period, the effect shale gas has on climate change is at least a fifth worse than that of coal. Over a 100 year-period, the effect these two fossil fuels have is comparable (though methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, it breaks down much more quickly in the atmosphere).

“Shale gas and oil are the last sources of hydrocarbons on Earth,” Prof. Ingraffea explained to our group. “Their extraction is extremely difficult and inefficient. Fracking enables the extraction of only 5% to 10% of the material locked in shale rocks. And then we just burn it and only retrieve 20% to 30% of the energy. Instead, we should use gas and oil for the production of artificial fertilisers or in the petrochemical industry, because this is where they are really needed!”

Prof. Ingraffea believes that by extracting carbohydrates locked inside shale rocks, we give a second life to the primitive technology used for sourcing energy from fossil fuels – a technology which should have died out a long time ago. He claims that because of the shale gas revolution we are not developing modern energy technologies, such as renewables, nor are we investing in energy saving.

When I tell him that Poland produces nearly 90% of its electrical energy from coal and ask him which is worse for the environment, coal or gas, he hesitates for a moment before replying, “coal.”


The town of Williamsport is located in the foothills of the Appalachians and is home to 30,000 people. At the end of the 19th century it underwent rapid development thanks to the timber industry. Today, it has embraced its second youth thanks to fracking.

After we arrived in Williamsport, we noticed quite a few strange-looking characters bearing a strong resemblance to zombies on the town’s streets and in the corridors of our hotel. It turned out they were workers from the numerous drilling platforms in the area. Even though shale gas has created 2,000 jobs in a county inhabited by 120,000 people, only a quarter of them have gone to locals. The rest have been taken by workers from all over the States – they are housed in temporary accommodation, work 12-hour-days seven days a week and go on long breaks home after several weeks of work.

We spoke to one of the workers in a state forest close to Williamsport. Ron Kaler has worked as a drilling rig operator since 1976. He worked for Chevron all over the world until 2007. After that he set up his own business. When we met him, his team was carrying out drilling from one of the forest drilling platforms.

Naturally, the permit for fracking in this location belonged to somebody else. The permit’s owner contracted the levelling of a few hectares of land that had previously been covered by forest to one company. Another company will be responsible for drilling, and yet another will conduct the fracking. The most demanding work lasts about six months. Following this, the gas pushed out of the shale rocks flows on its own for a while. Usually the level of production reaches 50% in the first year. This increases to 90% in the second year. Then the well needs to be re-fractured.

Ron Kaler explained that over the last few decades more and more attention was being paid to the issues of safety and environmental protection.

We asked Kaler where he lived.

“I have a ranch in Montana.” [It is one of the wildest and most beautiful US states.]

We then asked,

“Would you like to have a drilling platform outside your house?”

Kaler didn’t answer this.

The question was anything but unrelated, however. This is what fracking in Pennsylvania looks like: around Williamsport, we saw wells that were located no further than 200m away from residential buildings. State forests were literally cut up with drilling platforms, the roads between them and their related infrastructure (e.g. water works). 20-metre-wide strips of forest are felled in order to make space for gas pipes that run from drilling platforms. Consequently, the hills around Williamsport look as though somebody has built dozens of ski trails on them.

Mistakes and Distortions

We asked each of our interlocutors about what Poland could learn from watching shale gas fracking in the USA.

“Leave the gas in the ground,” warned Prof. Anthony Ingraffea. “The risk related to its extraction is too high.”

“Well, all sources of energy cause pollution,” we were told by John Hanger, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “In some cases it’s lower, in others it’s higher. I myself live in the evacuation zone around Three Mile Island [in 1979 one of the world’s most serious nuclear accidents occurred here].”

“Obviously many mistakes have been made during shale gas extraction in the USA,” agreed Charles Ebinger, director of the Energy Security initiative at the Washington think-tank The Brookings Institution. “The exploitation of shale gas can be linked to many dangers, but they can be kept under control.”

“Pennsylvania is for sure an example of how not to extract shale gas,” I was told by Dr Gavin A. Schmidt, a climatologist and director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

“Just look at what fracking has done to Pennsylvania,” local activists told me, “look at how hard we have to fight for our homes and forests.”

Shale Gas Extraction in Pennsylvania

Since 2005 and the beginning of the American “shale gas revolution”, the Pennsylvanian authorities have issued almost 18,000 permits for drilling wells for the purposes of shale gas extraction (and a small amount of oil extraction).

Mining companies have drilled approx. 8,500 wells.

Each drilling platform takes up several hectares and is usually composed of six wells.

Intensive platform work (terrain levelling, drilling, fracking) takes six months. After that, an installation to send shale gas to a pipeline is built.

50% of a well’s entire production is obtained during its first year of operation.

In the second year 90% is extracted.

After a few years, the well is either closed down or re-fractured.

In 2013 approx. 85 billion cubic metres of shale gas was extracted. Extraction from the Marcellus geological formation is growing all the time. The extraction of gas from other shale formations in the USA is decreasing.

According to estimates from the Polish Geological Institute, Polish shale gas resources most probably amount to 346-768 billion cubic metres.

The article appeared in the Polish daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza on 12.11.2014.

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Polish Geological Institute