Cheap, relatively clean, ayatollah-free energy, enormous investments in real capital and infrastructure, thousands of new jobs for blue-collar workers and Ph.D.s alike, Americans engineering something other than financial derivatives — who could not love all that?
Everybody in the Marcellus play is on a first-name basis with Josh Fox, even though few of them have met the young director who with a single fraudulent image in his documentary Gasland — footage of a Colorado man turning on his kitchen sink and setting the tap water on fire — brought into existence a new crusade for the Occupy Whatever set and a new Public Enemy No. 1 for the Luddite Left: gas exploration, specifically the extraction technique of hydraulic fracturing, popularly known as “fracking.”
Fracking works like this: You set up your giant robot and you drill a five-inch-diameter hole down several thousand feet until you hit the gas shale, and then you turn 90 degrees and you drill horizontally through some more shale, until you’ve got all your pipes and rig in place. And then you hit that shale with a high-pressure blast of water and sand, creating millimeter-wide fractures through which the natural gas can escape and make you very, very rich in spite of the fact that you’re spending about a million dollars a week on space-age “matrix” drill bits and squadrons of engineers and a small army of laborers, technicians, truck drivers, machinists, and a pretty-good-sized bill from Hoggfather’s, the local barbecue joint that has added a couple of specialized and custom-outfitted mobile crews just for cooking two massive meals a day for the fracking hands who are far too busy to take off for lunch. (Sure, ExxonMobil is going to be making a killing, but fracking’s biggest boosters may be the local restaurateurs who are cooking with gas while cooking for gas, and are happy to serve workers straight from the field: “No Mud on the Floor, No Cash in the Drawer” says the sign in a local diner.) The water makes the fractures, and the sand keeps them open. There’s some other stuff in that fracking blend, too: biocides, for one thing, not very different from what’s in your swimming pool, to keep bacteria and algae and other gunk from growing in the water and clogging up the works. There are also some friction reducers, because water and sand moving at speed can produce a lot of wear and tear (cf. the Grand Canyon), and the occasional jolt of 7 percent hydrochloric acid solution for boring out holes in the concrete. The mix is 99+ percent water and sand, and the rest of the stuff is mostly run-of-the-mill industrial chemicals (those friction-reducers use a polymer that also is used in children’s toys, for example). Real concerns, but not exactly an insurmountable environmental challenge.
Not only is this happening more than a mile beneath the surface, it’s also happening at a level that is separated from the closest points of the aquifer by a layer of impermeable rock three or four or five Empire State Buildings deep. “We couldn’t frack through that if we were trying to,” says one engineer working the Marcellus. “The idea that we could do so by accident is crazy. Not while we’re fracking with water and sand. Nukes, maybe, but not water and sand.”
So what about that burning water?
The weird true thing is that water has been catching fire for a long time — “long time” here meaning way back into the mists of obscure prehistory and the realm of legend. The temple of the Oracle of Delphi was built on the site of a burning spring said to have been discovered by a bewildered goatherd around 1000 b.c., and sundry antique heathens across the Near East had rituals related to burning bodies of water. The geographically minded among you will appreciate that there are several places in the United States named “Burning Springs,” including prominent ones in such energy-intensive locales as Kentucky and West Virginia. There’s a Burning Springs in New York, too, and 17th-century missionaries wrote in awe about Indians’ setting fire to the waters of Lake Erie and nearby streams. Water wells were catching fire in Pennsylvania as early as the 18th century, well before anybody was fracking for gas.