The Marcellus Formation is a Devonian age region of sedimentary rock that is found throughout much of the Appalachian Basin. It is named after one of its distinctive outcroppings which is near the village of Marcellus, NY. This area was first described in literature in the early 19th century and is now divided into several subunits.
The most significant subunit of the group is the Marcellus Shale area. It contains high levels of largely untapped natural gas reserves, making it an attractive location for energy development, domestic consumption, and the export market. Its proximity to the large cities along the east coast of the U.S. would allow it to access high-demand markets without the usual transportation costs associated with this resource.
Marcellus shale also contains high levels of iron ore which are quite valuable to the economic development of the region. Pyrite and uranium have been found in this region as well. Despite the potential value of what is present, the fissile shale erodes easily, which creates unique environmental and civil engineering challenges which would need to be resolved before the natural gas would be useful.
These are the pros and cons of accessing Marcellus shale for energy to consider right now.
List of the Pros of Marcellus Shale
1. Development of this resource could reduce the cost of energy.
When there are more energy resources available to the marketplace, then the final cost for consumers is typically less. It is one of the basic rules in the pursuit of supply and demand. Producers do not earn as much per sale, but they can make up for any losses by increasing the quantity which is available. If households can experience a cheaper expense when trying to heat their homes with local natural gas, then there would be even more money added to the local economy to help other industries grow.
2. It could help businesses owners to make ends meet.
The profit margin for the average small business in the smallest communities in the United States is relatively low. Even if you work in the highly profitable areas of accounting, law, or real estate, the amount of revenues you earn in a rural community are nowhere near what would be possible in a metropolitan center like New York City. Adding the extra revenues from drilling activities and the sale of natural gas could help diners, hardware stores, and all of the other mom-and-pop shops that are in these communities to make ends meet. This addition could ensure their survival through the entire production cycle.
3. There would be a significant boost in related economic activities.
When a community gets to experience an energy development cycle as it would with what is available in Marcellus shale, then there is usually an increase in economic activities on multiple levels. If you owned some of the land that energy developers felt could tap into the reserves below, then there is an excellent chance that royalty checks could be in the mail. Company employees would book rooms in local hotels, dine at restaurants, and offer indirect benefits in numerous other ways. There would even be a boost in local and state sales tax revenues from this activity, helping communities to repair roads or improve their schools.
4. It would allow us to begin using a cleaner natural energy source.
Our world was built on a foundation of coal. We discovered that the energy that it provides us can help us to create power, make steel, and allow us to live a modern lifestyle that we sometimes take for granted. Switching to natural gas, like with what is available at Marcellus shale, would allow us to cut down on the pollution we generate as we take care of our to-do lists every day.
Natural gas emits just 50% of the carbon dioxide when it is burned compared to what coal releases into the atmosphere. Switching to this energy would help us to reduce the national emissions footprint, eliminate some of the chemicals that can lead to acid raid when coal is burned, and help us to continue pushing forward with our modern lifestyle.
5. Burning natural gas would reduce the number of particles that we generate.
Natural gas does not produce particulates that escape into the atmosphere when it is burned. The same could not be said of coal. Nitrogen and sulfur oxides can contribute to numerous health issues, such as asthma, because of the contaminants that are floating in the air. Using the energy resources that are available through Marcellus shale could provide us with enough clean energy that we could begin to improve the quality of the air we breathe immediately, even with the added costs and disadvantages of installing infrastructure in the region.
6. Marcellus shale is an economic jobs generator.
There are over 500,000 new jobs in the United States that exist solely because of our emphasis on accessing shale gas. Approximately 40% of these positions are because of what is available through Marcellus shale. These numbers are impressive, but it also comes with a significant number in wages. The average salary for a worker in this industry is $60,000 per year. That is 50% higher than what the average private wages pay in the state.
7. Fracking activities occur below the groundwater tables.
Natural gas must be extracted from shale, which is a multi-layered sedimentary rock that is easily split through the fracking process. By drilling down to where the energy reserve is located, we can fracture the rock to release the gas. Although there are wastewater concerns which are legitimate with this process through flowback, we access the energy by drilling beneath where the groundwater tables lie. The access point is reinforced with tubing as the drilling occurs to prevent leaks from happening. What threat there is to the local water supply is usually due to surface runoff more than it is a direct underground contamination.
8. Energy developers are required to have emergency preparation plans.
Before energy companies are permitted to begin developing resources through Marcellus shale, they must prove to inspectors that they have anti-contaminant safety data sheets available at each location to ensure that the risk of exposure to harmful agents is minimized. There are emergency preparedness plans that must be present as well before drilling organizations are permitted to begin their activities.
9. The societal benefits that occur may outweigh whatever negatives are present.
Without access to energy, it is not possible to manage our cost of living, heat our homes, or even have electricity that can be used to read content like this. Natural gas from Marcellus shale uses a lower water intensity than even nuclear or oil extraction. Ethanol produced from corn is 1,000 times more water-intense if irrigation is used for the crops. Even though there are some disadvantages to consider, with some of them significant, most people typically find that the overall benefits to society with natural gas access outweigh the subjective issues they face with this resource.
List of the Cons of Marcellus Shale
1. The runoff from the drilling sites could pollute local streams and rivers.
One of the most significant concerns of the Marcellus shale site is what would occur when drilling begins. The erosion and runoff from such activities would increase the nutrient loads in local waterways. There would also be an issue with an increase in sediment that could have radioactive properties thanks to the presence of uranium. Even though we would be tapping into a needed energy resource with the natural gas, the impact on the habitat quality for plants, animals, and humans that live downstream could be devastatingly negative.
2. It could result in a loss of biodiversity in the region.
If the aquatic plants and animals cannot adapt to the changing water conditions that would occur with drilling in Marcellus shale, then the end result would be a reduction of diversity in this local biome. The water chemistry would change significantly when we work to access the natural gas in this formation, which could cause temperatures to rise and oxygen levels to drop simultaneously.
Invasive species who prefer the new conditions could also come into the local streams and rivers, creating further issues in the biome that may be challenging to resolve.
3. There could be issues with drinking water quality after drilling.
Because of the presence of pyrite and uranium in the Marcellus shale region, there are concerns that the radioactivity present could contaminate the local water supply. Even the high levels of iron could be problematic if enough of it got into the groundwater or local reservoirs. There would be various other contaminants to worry about in this situation as well, such as methane.
We would also need to develop an infrastructure of pipelines and roads to access the site, move the natural gas, and create rig movements when necessary. There would be no other way to bring the product to the market without this development. This issue would create another potential problem because it would break up natural wildlife corridors.
4. It could reduce hunting, hiking, and other recreational activities.
The Appalachian region is one of the most beautiful areas of the United States. There is the famous Appalachian Trail, which is the longest hiking-only trail in the world, extending over 2,200 miles in length. Over 2 million people access this area at least once per year, a figure that has remained relatively consistent since it was first opened to the public in 1937. Authorizing drilling operations in the region would disrupt these activities, with even hunting potentially prohibited because of individual proximity to the drilling rigs.
The equipment needed to access the natural gas would also stand tall above the landscape, altering the natural beauty of the region. This issue could reduce the amount of access that people choose to use, which would offset some of the profits that accessing the Marcellus shale region could provide.
5. The economic activities from drilling operations would likely be temporary.
Natural gas is a finite resource. Even though Marcellus shale offers access to a significant reserve, it would eventually dry up. Once this energy movement disappeared, the income from its operations would as well. There may be jobs that can support the economy during development and distribution, but then they would all disappear at the end of this cycle. Businesses which rely on these local dollars would lose most (if not all) of their profits, which could cause them to go out of business.
6. It could cause some communities to lose their identity.
When mining towns begin to grow, history has taught us that they begin to lose their original identity. The focus goes toward the production of local resources that can create economic benefits. Direct and indirect employment opportunities center around these needs. It is not unusual for chain stores and large discount shops to replace the small business owners that were operating in these areas, reducing the average amount that employees earn per hour in the process. Housing developments become dense neighborhoods to support the additional workforce, which then becomes a vacant region once the jobs dry up.
7. Fracking would likely be necessary to access the natural gas.
Almost all forms of shale-based natural gas are found approximately 5,000 feet below the surface of the ground. Energy developers typically use fracking methods to access this resource, which could contain hazardous chemicals that could negative impact the surrounding biome. Although most of the fluids uses are water and sand, National Geographic does state that the brine could be potentially contaminated with heavy metals.
The high levels of water needed to access the natural gas in Marcellus shale could also potentially limit the amount that is available for other uses.
8. It could create noise disruptions for local communities.
Drilling for natural gas might offer several advantages to consider, but it is also important to remember that these activities can be disruptive to local communities. The heightened noise levels can make it challenging to complete some of the necessary tasks of daily living. Additional transportation needs can place more pressure on local roadways, which could increase the expense of repairing them over time. A rise in diesel fumes can cause local air quality levels to deteriorate. Then there are the disruptions of the construction and actual drilling to consider after all of this too.
9. There are no facilities available to treat any runoff issues.
According to reporting from The Pocono Record there are no facilities available in the region to treat the pollutants that are present in flowback when it occurs. It is a different type of wastewater, so local facilities are not equipped to handle the materials that could come in for treatment. That issue is especially problematic considering the potential for uranium in the region, creating radioactivity that could result in downstream contaminants that could be devastating to the entire biome and the communities residing within it.
10. Energy developers take their expenses out of leasing royalties.
Dave Messersmith was a Penn State extension educator in the Marcellus Education Team’s office in Wayne County in 2010. He told community members during a forum then that property owners needed to be wise when considering how much they should lease their land for drilling if the energy companies came knocking on their door. He told them that there was no way to “ballpark” how much someone could receive because the variables of the property and terms would dictate the final check. That process would often include the organizations taking expenses out of what they owed in royalties to reduce the overall amount received from the process.
11. Methane leaks from the fracking process can eliminate the emissions benefits.
Research released by Cornell University suggests that the methane leaks that occur during the fracking process, even when minimal, work to offset the gains that happen by switching to natural gas from coal. That is because the retention effects of this gas are significantly higher than what they are for carbon dioxide. There are leaks that occur in other points of the life cycle as well that could undercut the potential benefits that Marcellus shale offers. It is better to think of natural gas resources as a bridge from coal to renewables more than a complete replacement.
12. It creates a higher risk for earthquakes during the development process.
Researchers studying the number of background earthquakes in the United States observed a rate of 20+ at 3.0 magnitude or greater in the central part of the country in the 1960s. By 2001, when the development of shale gas began growing rapidly, there was a steady increase to 100+ earthquakes per year. In 2011, geologists tracked 188 of them. A 4.7 magnitude quake in Arkansas even caused the state’s oil and gas commission to issue an emergency order to stop all wastewater injection, which created a notable decrease in seismicity. Even months after fracking activities stop, the risks for an earthquake are notably higher than they are historically.
The pros and cons of Marcellus shale offer a positive look to our energy future when we compare the consumption of natural gas to coal. When we compare these requirements to renewable energy resources such as solar or wind, then the benefits can feel like they come up a little short. There are definite short-term gains to consider through drilling and economic development, but it is also essential to point out that many of the advantages are temporary.
Crystal Ayres has served as our editor-in-chief for the last five years. She is a proud veteran, wife and mother. The goal of ConnectUs is to publish compelling content that addresses some of the biggest issues the world faces. If you would like to reach out to contact Crystal, then go here to send her a message.