Op-Ed

Larry Webster: Meet the new Marcellus mistress

To those who think that Marcellus Shale was a Roman emperor, you are not going deep enough. She is actually the newest mistress of the mountains, destined to become our trophy wife to replace the worn and haggard old carbon we have been married to for 100 years. She is odd as a mistress because she is 380 million years old, give or take a month or two, and she started out as fine mud and plankton and hides out several thousand feet down in the lower reaches of Devonia, our traditional shale.

We got along pretty good with Devonia, but now we face the challenge of a new 380 million-year-old mistress.

You do have to frack her. That's because Marcellus is low in permeability, that is to say her pores are hard to penetrate. The way you do frack her is simple. To hit the M-spot, you drill down about 6,000 feet and then turn off horizontally and go another 4,000 feet, and after you turn you stop eight or ten times and frack, which is short for hydraulic fracturing, a process of pumping millions of gallons of water at pressure high enough to bust up old Marcellus and she then gives off her gas, which burns cleaner than coal.

Minor details and petty concerns are starting to emerge about drilling Marcellus. From one drill site, four or five wells can be drilled, turned off in different directions. Each one of the four or five will require only about 4 million gallons of water and 7 million pounds of sand to be injected into the earth. This water will come from either large dams, from trucks hauling 24-7, pipelines or tapping into whatever is left of the natural water supply of the mountains. Four million gallons of water is about 16 million plastic bottles of Mother Nature. One half of one percent of the water will be chemicals, which is a mere 200,000 gallons of chemicals.

The sand will presumably come from the beach, to be trucked in and pumped into the holes to fill voids caused by fracking. I suspect our forefathers unwittingly sold their sand to mineral buyers, who will now raise it.

A percentage of the water and sand will flow back to the surface, containing salt from inner earth, and it might be radioactive, which means it will be superior in quality to the current natural water in coal country. What will we do with that salty and likely carcinogenic water? Well, some want it put back in the ground, and an ideal place would be old mine works. Then, when there is a blowout of salt-compounded water from a mine, our creek and river bottoms will be as the Great Salt Lake and we can race cars on them.

These wells produce twins: methane, the active ingredient in flatulence, and ethane, which when cracked can make plastic. We will truly be crackers some day, as we look forward to an economy based on selling methane. Friends of Toot. We look forward to low levels of methane in our water and in the air and will find out in the long term if they kill us or not, or just cause birth defects like mountaintop removal does. In other areas where Marcellus has been courted, people report being able to light up their tap water with a match. We will have plenty of nice noisy compression stations throughout our region.

Only where we live could all the above be considered a major environmental and economic breakthrough.

In West Virginia, where Marcellus is more abundant, the oil and gas industry rushed through favorable regulations which lets them do as they please. We need to do that soon.

Larry Webster is a Pikeville lawyer.

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