By Grady Hawkins

It’s the new gold rush; the stuff that dreams are made of. Get rich quick natural gas land-leases all across the Marcellus Shale. And there is money to be made. More than enough money to make that petroleum Prince of Darkness, Dick Cheney, smile. The U.S. geological survey estimates a cool trillion dollars to be taken. And it seems all too easy. Just sell the mineral and drilling rights to the smooth talking highest bidder then sit back and cash the checks. Jed Clampett’s dream come true.

On the surface hydraulic fracturing is an economic Godsend for everyone; tax revenue for cash-strapped state and local governments, hundreds of well-paying jobs for families wondering where their next meal might be coming from

Even the patriotic notion of energy independence comes into play. These United States could forever be free from those foreign ‘evil doers’ who wish to destroy our teetering-on-the brink way of life      

But when the drilling begins, the genie is out of the bottle.

Or out of the shale.

The dream turns into a nightmare…

The Marcellus Shale is an enormous, vast layer of rock buried under the Appalachian Mountains from West Virginia through the western half of New York State. The gas deposits are hidden in horizontal layers a mile or more under ground. The presence of extraordinary amounts of gas has been known for decades, but getting it out economically has been the problem. Conventional vertical drilling methods are too inefficient.

But technological improvements, increased demand, higher prices and the fact that gas resources are getting harder to find has changed the financial picture.

Horizontal drilling in concert hydraulic fracturing, now too well known as fracking, has altered the landscape.

The method was pioneered by Halliburton around 1949. A visit to its website will allow anyone to see a slick computer animated movie showing how it works. A drilling rig bores a mile or so straight down until it reaches the shale, then the drilling continues horizontally through the loose rock and shale. Thousands of gallons of water, sand, (and some recently revealed chemicals) are then shot through the pipe at enormous pressure, thus fracturing the layer, and the gas is free to rise to the surface, about half the fracking fluid or waste water returns to the surface as well.   The gas is collected and the waste water disposed. According to the movie, it’s a technological wonder that is safe for the entire eco-structure. All that’s missing are pictures of Bambis and baby ducklings frolicking about the drill rig.

But what composes the chemical cocktail? The gas and oil companies are sorry to say that that information is top secret. If it were allowed to be made public their competitive edge would be compromised. And competition makes for efficiency and low consumer prices. The free market would no longer be free.

However, in an effort to assure the public of their good works, Halliburton cranked out a press release on November 15th claiming that the ingredients were akin to something that is used in food production. Discarded “Freedom fry” oil from McDonald’s perhaps?

Assuming that people enjoy eating boric and hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde, methanol, benzene, and a host of other toxic contaminates, Halliburton is spot on.

In recent congressional testimony, oil and gas companies have admitted that these and other chemicals are included in the mix.

In April of this year officials from Pennsylvania’s D.E.P revealed that fracking fluid is “nasty, nasty, stuff.” This is a far cry from the claims of that same agency a few years back when they quipped

“What do you have to be afraid of; it’s just sand and water.”

Could this be wishful thinking on their part perhaps? There are after all, millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs at stake.

And natural gas is being hailed as the way of the future. It’s clean, cheap, easy, and we have plenty of it right here under our own boots.

The White House has called for an increase in production of shale gas.

And for the land owner the price has skyrocketed. Years ago it was a mere $25 dollars an acre or so. Today he or she can expect to get at least $2,500 for that same acre, plus a piece of the drilling action.

But once the ink is dry on the contract, this deal with the devil becomes all too apparent.

Those thousands of gallons of polluted water rise to the surface, where they are contained by the drilling company in artificial ponds. Here it is allowed to evaporate, but some is trucked off to parts unknown. The water that stays underground contaminates

the aquifers. The most notable  contaminate  is methane gas. More than one housewife has had her tap water catch fire.

Indeed, each fracking well requires thousands of gallons of water to complete the process. And there are thousands of existing wells

and thousands more planned, when the leases are signed. Will the great lakes be up for sale?

These now millions of gallons of water have to be transported. That means trucks, Hundreds of them. Not pick-up trucks but tanker trucks. And they require gas and oil and roads. New roads will have to be built. Thousands of acres will have to be clear cut to make way for them. New pipelines will have to be laid as well.

And what becomes of those thousands of gallons of tainted water? Where does it end up? Recycled and reused? Or for the sake of time, utility and profits simply dumped in any of a hundred isolated streams or watersheds in eastern Pennsylvania or western New York.

Property values have plummeted all across the shale area. Land values crashed as polluted water foils the aquifers and the collateral damage of unchecked and unregulated drilling runs amok.

Families trying to sell out and relocate can’t because no one will buy their homes. They are stuck with worthless homes and upside down mortgages.

What will a Republican dominated and controlled congress do concerning fracking? One doesn’t need a degree in Mining and Engineering to make any predictions.

Hydraulic fracking is an issue that is sure to enter the national debate. There is too much at stake; jobs, water, the environment, billions of dollars, even national security and energy policy.

It also impacts us right here in western New York. What will our own Republican Senate and new governor do? The recent moratorium on new leases and drilling ends in May of next year.

This is just the first in a series of articles we here at the Alt Press and Buffalo independent media will produce. Every one involved will be interviewed. From the man or woman activists to the oil executive to the politicians concerned.

Lines are being drawn in the shale. Political and economic forces getting ready to rumble.

We’ll be in the middle.