Guest column/Studies underscore safety of shale development

Prospects for Ohio’s underground economy have never looked better.

I’m referring to the growing economy centered 8,000 to 10,000 feet below ground in Eastern Ohio. That’s where Ohio’s portion of the Marcellus and Utica shale formations makes us part of one of the nation’s biggest natural gas deposits.

In fact, industry analysis ranks Ohio and the other states in the shale region as the third largest source of natural gas in North America. We’re moving up to challenge western Canada for the No. 2 spot, while Texas remains No. 1.

What’s often called the natural gas “boom” is driving the expansion of the U.S. energy sector, which is in turn a major driver of America’s continuing economic recovery. According to a study recently released by the Progressive Policy Institute, the energy sector invested more in the U.S. economy in 2012 than any other sector – more than $56 billion. This level of investment – in addition to the enormous tax bills paid by oil and gas producers – has helped to pull our economy out of the doldrums and push Ohio and the nation toward a more prosperous future.

But it’s more than a shot in the arm for the economy. In many ways it’s an answer to America’s long-standing energy problems, especially when it comes to providing the power to run our manufacturing plants.

This expansion was made possible by advances in state-of-the-art drilling techniques combined with the technology of hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” a technique that’s been around since the late 1940s.

The new drilling technique, known generally as horizontal drilling, allows energy companies to drill down vertically to a point a few hundred feet above the shale and then turn the borehole to the horizontal over a distance of 500 feet or so.

The horizontal section of the borehole is generally drilled out 5,000 to 7,000 feet, contacting a much larger portion of the shale where the rich deposits of natural gas, natural gas liquids and oil are located. Once the wellbore is properly cased and cemented, the horizontal section is systematically perforated and fracked. This is done by injecting a highly pressurized stream of water, sand and additives into the perforated sections of the well to create a fracture or vertical crack in the shale. Note that the fracture does not extend thousands of feet back to the surface or the shallow formations that contain fresh water aquifers.

Unfortunately, fracking has become the target of additional intense but unfounded criticism. Detractors have advanced the myth that methane gas released during the fracking process does more environmental harm than airborne pollutants from coal burning industrial sites. Fortunately, a new study conducted jointly by the University of Texas at Austin and funded by the Environmental Defense Fund should put the methane leakage fantasy to bed.

The peer-reviewed UT/EDF study is the most thorough ever done on shale gas and methane leakage and it conclusively proves that 99 percent of escaping methane from shale drilling is captured by state-of-the-art containment technology.

Results from painstaking inspections of 190 drilling sites and reams of data not only disprove the claim that fracking rivals coal as a pollutant, it demonstrates that fracking barely releases any methane into the atmosphere at all.

These results should not be surprising to objective observers familiar with shale drilling science.

The anti-fracking lobbyists who press the methane pollution arguments rationalize their criticism with a discredited 2011 study that relied on 2007 data, which is a lifetime ago in the rapidly moving world of natural gas extraction technology.

Natural gas is environmentally clean compared to coal. It’s also inexpensive and abundant within the borders of the U.S. The drastic expansion in natural gas production has helped our country surpass Russia as the world’s largest producer of oil and gas. If our lawmakers can prioritize policy that fosters continued expansion through sensible tax and regulatory structures, there’s no telling just how much brighter our future will grow.

Ohio is just beginning to feel the benefits of drilling and fracking operations in the Marcellus and Utica. Natural gas produced here is also a natural partner with the budding manufacturing revival that has been strengthening our economy and creating jobs.

At the turn of the last century, Ohio was the top oil producing state in America. Given the abundance of gas in the Marcellus and Utica shales, we can move into this new century as a leader in natural gas production as well.

(Chase is a professor and chair of the department of petroleum engineering and geology at Marietta College.)