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Thursday, September 09, 2010

Has the Susquehanna River been broken?

If you haven't been following this story, you should be.  Even if it doesn't directly apply to you right now, in time it will.

Some background:  Much of Pennsylvania, and New York, and other parts of the northeast, sits on top of what is called the "Marcellus Shale Play", a large reservoir of natural gas located in a layer of shale deep underground.  Until recently there was no way to access this natural gas in a way that made economic sense - that is, that didn't cost more than the value of the gas extracted.  Then everyone's favorite engineering firm and recipient of government wartime largesse, Halliburton, developed a way of extracting this gas that involved "hydraulic fracturing", or "fracking" for short:  water mixed with a toxic brew of chemicals is forced deep underground into the layers where the natural gas (and associated ancient seawater) is trapped, shattering the entombing layer and liberating the gas.  This practice removes billions of gallons of water from the surface of the planet and entombs them, theoretically, for all eternity deep underground.  In addition to the natural gas it also results in the liberation of the associated ancient seawater (much as in oil drilling) and the by-production of lots of contaminated water and mud.  Oh, and it also fractures those previously impermeable geological layers that once held this gas, deep below the level of the water table and other everyday stuff.

Every once in a while amazing coincidences happen.  Every once in a while the well water of someone living near one of these fracking sites begins to cloud up, or become bubbly, or fill with sediment.  Every once in a while the lid blows off a water well near one of these places.  Every once in a while the drinking water suddenly shows levels of arsenic, or shower water begins to irritate skin to the point where showers are no longer an option.

Every once in a while the water coming out of a well turns flammable because of all the natural gas that has suddenly gotten into it.

Now, the oil and gas companies will tell you that this has nothing to do with them.  They'll tell you that the water in these places has always been flammable, or full of arsenic, or has always caused skin irritations.  People just haven't noticed it before.  Mass hysteria, maybe, or people seeking to cash in on poor innocent oil and gas companies with deep pockets.

(Or maybe, as is their latest push, these are all lies being touted by environmental extremists.  Terrorists.  People the FBI should be keeping a close eye on.)

The Susquehanna River itself has begin to bubble with methane gas near one fracking area.

Gas Bubbling from the Susquehanna River
Methane Madness: Paradise Lost
Chesapeake's Ocmulgee
Susquehanna Methane Bubbling

Now, we shouldn't jump to conclusions about this.  Maybe this is just another remarkable coincidence.  Maybe this has nothing to do with fracking operations, or the contention that there are vast stores of natural gas beneath the Susquehanna itself.

Or maybe hydraulic fracturing operations have opened up fractures beneath the Susquehanna itself, resulting in a liberation of natural gas - and anything else that gets injected into the "impermeable" layers where this gas is trapped - directly into the river.  Maybe this has been going on throughout the areas where fracking operations have been taking place, but unless it contaminates a well or a river, we're less likely to notice natural gas seeping out of places where it's never seeped before.

Has the Susquehanna River been broken?  Are fracking operations permanently contaminating it, and any other places where they are taking place? 

We think of fossil fuels as our most vital natural resource.  They are not.  Breathable air and drinkable, usable water are.  Is it too late to salvage these resources?  Are they being contaminated forever?

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