"Under the Surface" by Tom Wilber

Photo by James Pitarresi
August 21, 2012

People who live in the Southern Tier and Central New York  have never faced an issue like extracting natural gas from the Marcellus shale formation, even though the resource has been there some 4,000 feet under the surface, locked in rock since time immemorial.  The indigenous people knew of "burning springs" and the medicinal qualities of petroleum.  The first commercially productive gas well lit up the village of Fredonia, on Lake Erie south of Buffalo, in 1825.  But oil and gas was only marginal to the development of upstate New York, which flourished from agriculture, industry and tourism, its natural beauty cherished by residents and visitors alike.

Recent years have seen an economic decline in upstate New York with times especially hard for many farmers.  At the same time, rising energy demands and the desire for cleaner energy sources have brought interest back to the gasfields that run from the foothills of the Adirondacks through Pennsylvania to West Virginia and Ohio.  With good natural flow the Trenton Black River play (TBR) was successfully developed in the final years of the 20th century, the best wells concentrated around Steuben, Chemung and Chautauqua Counties.  Output from these wells was enhanced by newly-developed horizontal drilling techniques that could draw gas from a wider area.

But the Trenton Black River play is dwarfed by the discovery of Marcellus Shale and a gas "fairway" believed to be the second largest in the world.  Unlike the earlier wells, however, shale gas needs to be forced out of the rock by hydraulic fracturing -- known commonly as "fracking" -- and that requires the injection of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure.  Anyone in New York concerned about what such activity could do to the local landscape and the potential to affect air, water and rural life only needs to go a few miles into Pennsylvania.  While some wells are now safely sending gas into the pipelines, in many places there has been pollution of local water sources (a result of either fracking or the general disturbance to the land tied to drilling activities) and the concomitant presence of heavy road traffic and industrial activity.

Tom Wilber has been on this story ever since the nation's oil and gas companies started to take an interest in the Marcellus.  As he points out in his book "Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale", the frackable fields are in proximity to "other gas-rich geological formations and under the infrastructure of a burgeoning natural gas distribution system to major metropolitan markets inthe northeast."   Wilber's book opens with a stroll with Terry Engelder, the Penn State profesor of geosciences who first measured the extent of the Marcellus. Engelder has estimated that there's about 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas obtainable from the Marcellus.  Soon residents of northern Pennsylvania were getting visits from 'landmen" trying to convince them to sign over their mineral rights.  Meanwhile, back in New York communities were being torn by local attempts to forbid fracking as well as moves statewide to create the Empire State's first policies on natural gas extraction.  This growth of natural gas exploration came at a time when the world was beginning to be concerned about the human race's "carbon footprint" and the need for new, clean (and, if possible, economical) energy sources. 

It is true that hydraulic fracturing has been employed for decades to stimulate conventional wells.  It is also true that the volumes for each well were relatively small and that conventional gas extraction was a secondary component to the overall energy outlook behind oil and coal. Stimulation for conventional formations typically required less than 100,000 gallons of fluid per well -- one-thirtieth to one-fiftieth the amount required for a shale gas well; and some reservoirs, including certain shallow formations and sandstones in New York and Pennsylvania, were produced without hyrdraulic fracturing.  But full-scale shale gas development changed these dynamics by increasing both the number of wells in any given region and the quantity of fluid required to stimulate each well.   -- from "Under the Surface"

Tom Wilber, a resident of Endicott, began covering the Marcellus Shale issue as a business and environmental reporter for the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin and other Gannett newspapers.  Tom holds a BA degree from the University of Rochester and an MA in print journalism from Syracuse University Newhouse School.  He has taught journalism courses at Binghamton University and Broome Community College. "Under the Surface" is his first book.

Guests: 
Tom Wilber