Natural Gas Spill Leaks Drilling Fluid Into Pennsylvanian Waterways

Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling TowerPhoto: Ruhrfisch

One year after the BP Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an explosion in Pennsylvania, which took place on April 21, 2011, released thousands of gallons of chemical-laced drilling fluid into nearby waterways.

Due to accessibility, affordability and improved technology, natural gas has become a major player in the energy market and is a cornerstone in President Obama’s energy policy. Natural gas is often cited as a climate-friendly alternative energy source that can wean us off dirtier fossil fuels and provide time for the development of renewable energy such as wind and solar.

And the United States sits on top of several large natural gas reserves. The Marcellus Shale that runs under several eastern states may be the world’s second largest gas field. It is estimated that there is between 1.9 and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are in the Marcellus Shale, enough to meet U.S. energy needs for years to come. And advances in drilling technology have revolutionized the U.S. energy market, making it feasible to tap into the Marcellus Shale.

Natural gas buried-pipeline markerPhoto: Stanley Howe

Hydraulic fracturing, frequently referred to as fracking, blasts shale rock with high pressure water, sand and chemicals deep underground to release the natural gas. However, this method is not without its risks.

Fracking has not been thoroughly investigated. Currently fracking is exempt from the 2005 Safe Water Drinking Act due to a legal loophole. The natural gas industry does not have to disclose the chemical used, although scientists have identified several toxins and carcinogens such as hydrochloric acid, diesel fuel (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene), formaldehyde, arsenic and chromates in the mixture. The water used in fracking turns into a salty brine prone to bacterial growth and is often contaminated with heavy metals. While some of the water is reusable, most is sent on to water treatment facilities where it frequently results in compromised drinking water.

Marcellus shale protestPhoto: Marcellus Protest

Almost exactly one year after the first anniversary of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and on the eve of Earth Day, a failure at a well in Pennsylvania spilled thousands of gallons of briny water into the environment over a two-day period, across fields and into waterways. According to the well owners, Chesapeake Energy, the well was soon plugged and damages were posted as minimal.

This incident also occurred while many were still reading about fallout from the Fukushima incident in Japan. The Japanese accident highlighted many of the positives in natural gas. However this recent spill only highlights the problems we face due to our addiction to cheap and plentiful energy.