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December 11, 2008     Post 11
Great Lakes Gas

As I've written before on the Log, Lake Ontario has played an important role in energy production and policy in our region for many years. It's home to sixteen nuclear plants and a half dozen fossil fuel generators who can't operate without its water. Several Canadian wind farm projects have been proposed for either its shores or for offshore near Main Duck. Now it looks like the Great Lakes are on somebody's radar as a potential source of natural gas from deep beneath the lake bottoms.

photo of methane bubble 'event' from rotting seaweed by Deb Rose summer 08
The great shale gas rush is under way in northern Pennsylvania and southern New York. A few months ago the seismic survey teams were all over the farm fields and pastures south of my old house in Butler. Then one of Sara B's associates called up with a report on the gas rush in northern Pennsylvania where people were getting offers for staggering amounts of money for mineral rights. A couple years ago in the Catskills offers for oil and gas rights were running 80 dollars an acre. Last summer it was more like 2 or 3000 dollars an acre.

While all the news has mostly centered on exploration in the Marcellus shale layer which is south of Lake Ontario, there is also plenty of interest in the Utica shale deposits nearer the lake as well as in rock layers that underlie northern NY and southern Quebec along the St. Lawrence river. The recent credit crunch has slowed the leasing activity down a bit, but active exploration a few miles south of Lake Ontario was ongoing as of two days before this was written.

On November 11, 2008 a 24 page report on drilling for gas and oil in the Great Lakes drawn up by the Congressional Research Service was posted. It focused on the legal issues associated with a current ban on oil and gas drilling under the Lakes and on whether the Federal government had the legal right to over ride individual state regulators. I don't think the folks who worked on that would have been paid for it unless someone somewhere sees possible interest in re-visiting this issue. I guess we all know- laws can be re-written.

Much of the following is from that report which is posted at www.opencrs.com. Canada does allow gas wells in their portion of the lakes. Erie has a bunch of them. Lake Michigan also has a number of gas wells though in recent years no permits have been issued. NY has a ban on directional drilling under the lake.

Shale gas deposits were of little interest until recent technology made it feasible to recover the gas by using hydraulic fracturing and directional drilling. In this process a shaft is sunk 2 or 3000 feet or more beneath the surface then turned to follow the sale layer for several thousand feet. Then water and sand laced with chemicals is pumped in under high pressure to fracture the shale and release trapped gas. The gas along with water contaminated with brine and chemicals then comes up.

Because the well shaft is so far below the lake bottom and the actual well head and drilling pad is set back a good distance from shore (1500 feet is the Michigan requirement) there's little chance of gas or brine from the shaft polluting the water. The contaminated water from the well if stored in ponds can and has in the past polluted ground water and surface water. That drilling water can be treated and cleaned up. There is even a technology that cleans the water right at the well head so it can be re-used at another well. Of course, somebody generally has to require the well driller do this- they're not likely to do it voluntarily.

The downsides of drilling include the well pad footprint, spills of drilling 'fluid' aka water with chemicals, and possible blow outs. The positives include lots and lots of money to the state's treasury and at least some short term jobs. As the CRS report notes the state could use some of that revenue to buy up land or conservation easements to protect environmentally sensitive lake shore areas. Note. “Could”. Not the same as “Would”. Even the actual well drilling operation if 1500 feet from shore would seem to have less impact on scenic vistas for tourism concerns than a 5000 square foot MacMansion perched on the edge of a bluff. Or for that matter a huge wind turbine. And the completed well head and pad probably has a smaller foot print than most big waterfront houses with lavish lawns do.

Those, like this writer, who believe in moving towards a sustainable use of resources will point out that though clean burning and less carbon intensive than coal or oil, natural gas is still a fossil fuel. Burning it releases CO2 and that produces climate change. And though drilling for it is a good deal less disruptive than blowing up mountain tops for coal, it still has some downsides environmentally. It will be interesting to see if the shale gas rush influences the present ban on U.S. directional drilling under the Lakes and how these new gas reserves, if confirmed, will impact further development of zero emissions renewable energy sources. I would sure like to see the impact be positive and not serve as an excuse to continue our reliance on fossil fuels - domestic or foreign.

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