Maryland’s Got Gas: Part 2. Environmental Concerns and Economics


In my previous post, I offered a quote about the economic value/potential of the Marcellus Formation. A

geology professor at the State University of New York…surprised everyone with estimates that the Marcellus might contain more than 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.” What is the significance (and appeal) of that quantity of gas? If “perhaps 10% of that gas (50 trillion cubic feet) might be recoverable, that volume of natural gas would be enough to supply the entire United States for about two years and have a wellhead value of about one trillion dollars!

How much is one trillion dollars?

The following Wikipedia Link: List of Countries by GDP will put this into perspective as compared to the world ranking of countries by annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP). That sum of economic potential is not inconsequential and cannot be ignored. In my previous post, I also listed some other factors that might make Marcellus important.

  • Natural gas is a “cleaner” fuel and would have more atmospheric benefits than coal or oil.
  • Developing domestic gas reserves would have a beneficial impact on towering trade deficits.
  • Developing domestic reserves could reduce our dependency on foreign energy supplies.
  • Developing domestic reserves would contribute positively to regional employment and business development opportunities in the panhandle of the state.

These are compelling reasons to look hard at these reserves. In fact, the pro’s and con’s of this argument are shared by a few Maryland legislators in this link: Risk of Shale Gas Drilling is Miniscule.

The beauty of debate is that each side can make its argument. There is plenty of debate occurring in real-time around the world about: War. Global Warming. Climate Change. Capitalism. Socialism. Water Rights. Human Rights. Bio-fuel Production. Ocean Fishing. The list is quite long as is the polarity of opinions.

To me, a central issue is most often our interest in “The Present”.

I would like to refer to an earlier post: Who Owns the Rain? to set the stage for the environmental issues to follow. While the focus of this link is on the Kalahari Bushmen and water rights, the author, James Workman, is able to bring the issue of water scarcity in Botswana to the United States. It becomes a debate about water scarcity which is very much at the heart of our present Southwest – and has been since its “development” in the 1800s.

At first, it may seem inconsistent to compare the western water issues with our discussion about Maryland and the Marcellus Formation.

In his publication, The Ecology of Commerce, Paul Hawken provides his view on sustainability.

Sustainability is an economic state where the demands placed upon the environment by people and commerce can be met without reducing the capacity of the environment to provide for future generations. It can also be expressed in the simple terms of an economic golden rule for the restorative economy: Leave the world better than you found it, take no more than you need, try not to harm life or the environment, make amends if you do.

If we begin to consider how the exploitation of Marcellus Shale reserves might impact future sustainability, you might then begin to consider how our short-term view of “The Present” begins to conflict with longer-term sustainability.

Why Marcellus Shale? Let’s begin with these two points from: Marcellus Shale – Appalachian Basin Natural Gas Play, this detail.

  1. The presence of an enormous volume of potentially recoverable gas in the eastern United States has a great economic significance. This will be some of the closest natural gas to the high population areas of New Jersey, New York and New England. This transportation advantage will give Marcellus gas a distinct advantage in the marketplace.
  2. The royalties paid to eligible property owners from a well yielding over one million cubic feet of natural gas per day can be hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. If the Marcellus Shale holds up to the optimistic expectations of some natural gas experts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and West Virginia could temporarily have an enormous boost in income that might be sustained for a few decades.

Now, let’s add a few of the many “supportive” statements from Marcellus Shale Coalition – Newsroom about the controls being given to ensure environmental integrity and project benefits.

  1. Through the responsible development of the Marcellus Shale’s clean-burning energy resources, the natural gas industry is helping to put local veterans to work, a commitment underscored in the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s (MSC) Guiding Principles.
  2. In fact, the “primary disposal place” for this water is no disposal place at all – a function of the fact that Pennsylvania’s natural gas producers on average recycle more than 90 percent of the water that returns to the surface. The rest is delivered to underground injection sites, often in neighboring states, whose location, construction, maintenance and inspection is regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
  3. Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge: The Natural Gas Industry is Committed to Getting ‘It Right’ “We work hard every single day to make sure we’re doing this in a way I would insist on had I been governor,” Ridge said. “We only get one chance to do it right. At the end of the day, we have an extraordinary opportunity to build more miles of rail lines, have more Pennsylvanians employed and invest in Pennsylvania.

With these proclamations, how could the strategic benefits of Marcellus Shale be anything but positive?

In a recent post: The Risks and Rewards of Natural Gas, I offered this comment of concern.

Although cleaner-burning than coal, shale gas still poses a severe threat to environmental security. The drilling method that frees the gas requires the use of a cocktail of toxic chemicals that many fear could contaminate underground sources of drinking water that supply millions of people.

The Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969 was a major event in our awareness of anthropogenic environmental damage. Details from this Retrospective will help to put the significance of this event into historical perspective. That spill will also sound eerily familiar with Deepwater Horizon well “blowout” in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

The problems began on an offshore drilling rig operated by Union Oil called platform Alpha, where pipe was being extracted from a 3,500 foot deep well. As the pressure built up and started to strain the casing on the upper part of the well, an emergency attempt was made to cap it, but this action only succeeded in further increasing the pressure inside the well. The consequence was that under extreme pressure a burst of natural gas blew out all of the drilling mud, split the casing and caused cracks to form in the seafloor surrounding the well. A simple solution to the problem was now impossible; due to the immense pressure involved and the large volume of oil and natural gas being released a “blowout” occurred and the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill was under way.

In another previous post: The Hidden Heart of Karst, I provide another excerpt from a description of Karst groundwater that further raises my suspicions about anyone’s ability to ensure the integrity of the drilling processes.

The quality of the groundwater is dependent upon how we use the land and how well we protect the quality of groundwater recharge. An old adage is that whatever goes up comes down. In karst areas, whatever goes down, comes up–up through a cave, a spring or a well.

It continues.

Their [karst] high vulnerability is further expressed by a very simple concept that is true for many other environments but probably shows its best evidence in karst. It is very easy to damage or destroy natural resources but restoration to a pristine situation is an extremely difficult and commonly impossible, task. Where some degree of remediation is possible, the economic cost is commonly very high.

My next post, Part 3. will offer some conclusions.


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