MURDOCK: Fracking is greener than critics claim

On the ground in natural-gas country

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WILLIAMSPORT, Pa.

The only thing deeper than a natural-gas well is the ignorance of the anti-fracking crowd.

Fracking — formally called hydraulic fracturing — involves briefly pumping water, sand and chemicals into shale formations far below Earth’s surface and the aquifers that irrigate crops and quench human thirst. This process cracks these rocks and liberates the gas within. Though employed for decades with seemingly no verified contamination of groundwater, anti-fracking activists behave as though this technology were invented specifically to poison Americans.

“Fracking makes all water dirty,” declares a poster that Yoko Ono recently exhibited at a Manhattan carpet store. According to another: “Pretty soon there will be no more water to drink.”

Matt Damon’s 2012 film “Promised Land” dramatizes fracking’s supposed dangers by showing a toy farm devoured by flames.

In contrast to this hyperventilation, former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in May 2011, “I’m not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.”

Frackophobes would be astonished to see how much Anadarko Petroleum Corp., America’s third-largest natural-gas producer, obsesses over the environment in its Marcellus Shale operations. Anadarko and the American Petroleum Institute discussed these practices during a late-June fact-finding tour they hosted for journalists here.

Before drilling, Anadarko identifies flora and fauna near production sites. In Pennsylvania, it uses outdoor cameras to determine which animals traverse the area. This helps Anadarko work with landowners to restore their property, post-production, or enhance it with vegetation that will attract desired species.

A large pond on a small hill belonging to the Elbow Fish & Game Club temporarily holds production-related water for an adjacent development site. After 50 to 100 days of drilling and well construction, and two to five days of fracking, about six to 12 wells quietly will begin to collect natural gas from this field. At that point, the soil excavated for the pond will be removed from storage and returned from whence it came. Anadarko will plant local grasses and flowers, and the place will look largely untouched as the wells yield gas for 20 to 40 years.

A few minutes away by car, several wells are being fracked on acreage owned by a farmer named Landon. A thick felt and rubber pad, surrounded by a large berm, prevents potential spills from contaminating Landon’s soil.

“We collect rainwater that falls on the pad,” says a production worker named, fittingly, Anthony Waters. “It’s pumped down the well, not put onto land.”

Fracking the Marcellus Shale happens some 6,000 feet underground. That is about 5,000 feet below groundwater supplies. Drills and pipes penetrate aquifers, but they are encased in multiple layers of steel and concrete designed to separate drinking water from fracking fluids (which are 99 percent water and sand and only 1 percent chemicals).

An old-fashioned well was like a vertical straw that sucked up gas just from the bottom tip. Horizontal wells start from one small spot at the surface and then fan out far underground. They then draw in gas as though through small holes in vacuum hoses laid flat on the floor. Multiple wells drilled through a limited space on the surface lighten impact on land and habitat, as well as truck traffic.

Rather than peddle ill-informed nonsense about fracking, Yoko Ono and company should learn what Anadarko is doing and encourage other producers to adopt its standards as best practices. If another company is cleaner and safer, challenge Anadarko and its competitors to learn that producer’s lessons.

Unlike Pennsylvania, New York state is sitting on its adjacent portion of the Marcellus Shale and studying its collective navel. The Empire State and the rest of the United States should harness fracking’s surprisingly clean technology and develop this country’s bountiful natural-gas reserves.

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