Former Mobil VP Warns of Fracking by Ellen Cantarow, July 19, 2013, Truthout
Louis Allstadt: The fracking that’s going on right now is the real wake-up call on just what extreme lengths are required to pull oil or gas out of the ground now that most of the conventional reservoirs have been exploited – at least those that are easy to access.
Ellen Cantarow: So could you describe the dangers of this industry?
LA: First of all you have to look at what is conventional oil and gas. That was pretty much anything that was produced until around 2000. It’s basically a process of drilling down through a cap rock, an impervious rock that has trapped oil and gas beneath it – sometimes only gas. If it’s oil, there’s always gas with it. And once you’re into that reservoir – which is really not a void, it’s porous rock – the natural pressure of the gas will push up the gas and oil. Typically you’ll have a well that will keep going 20, 30 years before you have to do something to boost the production through a secondary recovery mechanism. That conventional process is basically what was used from the earliest wells in Pennsylvania through most of the offshore production that exists now, that started in the shallow water in the Gulf of Mexico and gradually moved down into deeper and deeper water. Now what’s happened is that the prospect of finding more of those conventional reservoirs, particularly on land and in the places that have been heavily explored like the US and Europe and the Middle East just is very, very small. And the companies have pretty much acknowledged that. All of them talk about the need to go to either non-conventional shale or tight sand drilling or to go into deeper and deeper waters or to go into really hostile Arctic regions and possibly Antarctic regions.
Methane release: fracking the planet’s future
So when you talked about “the race for what’s left,” that’s what’s going on. Both the horizontal drilling and fracturing have been around for a long time. The industry will tell you this over and over again – they’ve been around for 60 years, things like that. That is correct. What’s different is the volume of fracking fluids and the volume of flow-back that occurs in these wells. It is 50 to 100 times more than what was used in the conventional wells.
The other [difference] is that the rock above the target zone is not necessarily impervious the way it was in the conventional wells. And to me that last point is at least as big as the volume. The industry will tell you that the mile or two between the zone that’s being fracked is not going to let anything come up. But there are already cases where the methane gas has made it up into the aquifers and atmosphere. Sometimes through old well bores, sometimes through natural fissures in the rock. What we don’t know is just how much gas is going to come up over time. It’s a point most people haven’t gotten. It’s not just what’s happening today. We’re opening up channels for the gas to creep up to the surface and into the atmosphere. And methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas in the short term – less than 100 years – than carbon dioxide.
Methane-migration evidence and the DEC
EC: Was there any major turning point that started you thinking about methane migration?
LA: There were many. An example is that one of the appendices of the draft SGEIS [New York Department of Conservation guidelines for the gas industry] that was issued in July 2011, had a section describing an EPA study of the only cases where similar fractures had been unearthed. These were in a coal-mining area. The EPA investigation indicated that the fractures had progressed in unexpected patterns and at greater lengths than expected. In September, when the draft SGEIS was eventually put out for comment, that section had been expunged.
EC: That’s shocking! I know a lot has been discovered about the collusion between New York’s DEC and the industry. Is this one big example?
LA: Yes, it is. To ignore the only direct evidence of fractures, or to remove it from public information, indicates that the industry was trying to hide something. The other point is that in terms of a turning point (in my thinking), here is evidence that the fractures go further and in patterns that were not expected. It showed that fractures could allow methane to reach drinking water aquifers or the atmosphere.
Standing Room Only
A Canadian drilling company started drilling nearby, and that got people’s attention. … And then they started doing some seismic testing in the town of Middlefield. When the seismic took place, [it] spurred a grass-roots anti-fracking group to form almost overnight. It was mostly women. They started going to the town board. I own property in the town, so I went over, talked some. Another nearby town, Otsego, asked me to be on their gas advisory committee. So I did that. Once a month we’d get together. There were some pro-drillers on it, some anti. When it came to the town meetings the town halls hardly ever had anybody come unless they needed a stop sign or some issue like that. And all of a sudden there was standing room only. And it just kind of kept building. Those two Town Boards pretty quickly realized that they had to do something and started thinking about how they could zone it out [using zoning regulations to ban the industry from town limits, a strategy that has since been remarkably successful.] That was in the early days of talking about the possibility that you could indeed zone against drilling.
In the early days I was not sure that a ban was the right thing to do. I was thinking that there probably could be a technical solution, and if you had regulations [written] properly, you might be able to do it. …
More Fracking Consequences
The industry actually has a lot of very smart people working for it. As long as the box that they’re working in is manageable, they can do a very good job. I think that what you’ve got in fracking is ‘How do we work in a box this big,’ narrowly defining the problem, [he holds his hands a foot apart in front of him] when you’re really working in a huge box [he stretches his arms out wide] The real box is as big as the globe and the atmosphere. And they’re not seeing the consequences of moving outside the small box that they’re working in.
EC: So to go back to your earlier comments, what are the future consequences?
LA: 20, 30, 100 years down the road we don’t know how much methane is going to be making its way up. And if you do hundreds of thousands of wells, there’s a good chance you’re going to have a lot of methane coming up, exacerbating global warming. … What you [also] don’t know [is that] when you plug that well, how much is going to find its way to the surface without going up the well bore. And there are lots of good indications that plugging the well doesn’t really work long-term. There’s still some pressure down there even though it’s not enough pressure to be commercially produced. And sooner or later the steel casing there is going to rust out, and the cement sooner or later is going to crumble. We may have better cements now, we may have slightly better techniques of packing the cement and mud into the well bore to close it up, but even if nothing comes up through the fissures in the rock layers above, where it was fracked, those well bores will deteriorate over time. And there is at least one study showing that 100 percent of plugs installed in abandoned wells fail within 100 years and many of them much sooner. [Emphasis added]