A couple of hundred miles away from Boy Genius and his giant robot, in the Marcellus heartland of Williamsport, Pa., is TerrAqua Resource Management, one of the many private firms that have sprung up throughout The Play to do what the local wastewater-treatment plants and municipal authorities aren’t equipped to do and probably shouldn’t be expected to do: treat nasty drilling water so that it can be used again. Trucks pull up, unload their murky liquid cargo, and then fill up on usable water to take back to the next job. Inside, a trio of vast water tanks, chemical vats, some sand filters, and a bunch more engineers make that water reusable. The facility has been up and running for only a couple of years, but millions of gallons of water already have passed through it. The solids get filtered out and disposed of, bacteria get biocided, and everybody makes the department of environmental protection happy by providing a government-certified “beneficial reuse” of drilling water.
Interesting thing: The place doesn’t stink. It’s got a slightly earthy smell to it, like the nursery section at Home Depot, but it doesn’t smell like you’d expect a water-treatment plant to smell.
TerrAqua makes its living from the dirty end of the gas business, and its executives are under no illusions about the industry. There are good eggs — or at least self-interested, large-cap eggs who appreciate how much they have to lose if they get sloppy — and then there are what the locals call the “gassholes,” by which they do not mean to denote the channel down which the pipe goes.
“There’s compliance, and there’s high compliance,” says TerrAqua vice president Marty Muggleton. “There are companies that like to have a lot of extra cushion between where they are and where they have to be, and then there are those who like to get their toes close to the edge. And I think the industry has figured out which one of those you really want to be.”
The one you want to be, everybody from environmental activists to industry insiders says, is a company like Range Resources, a Texas-based firm that owns a big part of The Play south of Pittsburgh, operating out of the hamlet of Canonsburg, Pa., near the West Virginia border. Like practically everybody else in town, they have a bunch of shiny new space in a corporate park that was barely half-populated until the Marcellus began to get going. It’s a busy anthill with a lot of boots and surprisingly few suits. Range is one of the companies that have figured out that there’s so much money coming out of the shale — even with gas down near $2 — that it pays to go above and beyond. Their trucks tear up the roads in Canonsburg, so they build newer and better roads than the ones they found, spending more money on roads than the city itself does. There are a surprising number of speed traps around town, but they aren’t the local Barney Fifes: They’re contractors hired by Range, keeping an eye on the company’s drivers, who get fired for speeding or otherwise behaving in a gassholish fashion. The old days of what they call “Texas-style” gas development are mostly in the past: The billion-dollar boys have a lot of resources to throw at environmental problems and a lot to lose.
“Pennsylvania used to have surface disposal,” says Range’s Matt Pitzarella, “and West Virginia still does. That’s just crazy.” “Surface disposal” means “just dumping it in the river or on the ground.” Pennsylvania, he points out, has a long history of environmental grief related to the energy industry, from acidic mine discharges to thousands of forgotten (and not always well-capped) oil wells dating from back in the days of Colonel Drake, the genius who noticed that farmers drilling water wells kept hitting oil and figured he might as well drill for the oil. Thousands of steel casings were ripped out of wells during World War II, and thousands of miles of waterways in the state have been befouled, mostly by mine discharges. Natural gas is pretty clean at the combustion point, and Range wants to be the firm that shows how clean it can be during the preceding stages. “If anything, the microscope that we as an industry are under has made us more innovative. Some of the tactics they use may be unfair. It’s not fair to paint us all with the same broad brush. But at the same time, it’s not fair for the industry to paint all the environmentalists with the same broad brush, either.” Recycling water rather than discharging it has been a fundamental change for the industry’s environmental impact and, as long as the water is cleaned up enough that it doesn’t muck up the works, it’s all the same to the drillers. “We could frack with peanut butter, if we had enough of it,” Pitzarella says.