Whoever Dealt It…

Environmentalists always point to the science when it comes to Global Warming.   But it seems the science was selectively sidestepped in Gasland.   Most notably, the Gasland claim that natural gas from deep well fracking operations in Colorado was showing up in drinking water wells of nearby residents.   Its a juicy story, and what environmentalists want to hear, so it must be true.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

If someone drilled a gas well next door, and suddenly my drinking water got all bubbly and stinky, I’d probably draw the same fallacious conclusion: “Its those damn wells!   Now please cut me my check!”   And if you lived in Dimock, PA you’d have been right!   But in the case of the Colorado residents, not so much.

Gasland presents a very simple reality: big Gas, in collusion with state, local, and federal officials, sanction the wholesale rape of the planet.   Sometimes the truth is complicated, even inconvenient. And a complex truth is easily set aside for a simple salacious headline.

In this case the assumption is that methane in the drinking water wells is from the gas wells.   And how would we know?   Methane is methane?   Right?  And they are drilling into huge deposits of high pressure gas.  So where else can it come from?

Methane

Pull My Flagella!

Biogenic methane, methane from biological sources, is almost entirely pure methane.   Bacteria don’t have the necessary genetic machinery ( or interest? ) to create longer lightweight hydrocarbons in any significant quantities.   So you won’t end up with ethane, or propane, from bacteria sources.  Its that easy.     The alkane gases from naturally occurring, bacterial sources will be nearly pure methane.

These biogenic sources include natural and man-made landfills, layers of subsurface sediments with roting organic material in them.  These can be years to tens of thousands of year old, but mostly exist near the surface.   Man-made sources, such as garbage from a landfill, can be distinguished from naturally occurring sources.

Oh, You Old Fart!

Thermogenic methane, aka natural gas, which is produced by fossil sediments in deep rock being roasted over geologic time, is always a mix of alkanes, principally methane, with differing quantities of ethane, propane, and so on.   While some gas wells produce almost entirely methane, there are always an easily detectable quantity of ethane, and other hydrocarbon gases.   So like a fine wine, the bacterial farts and and dino corpses become more complex as they age, being compressed and heated in deep formations.

There are other hallmarks used by forensic geochemists to untangle these mysteries.  A link well worth reading, I assure you.

If gases don’t fit, you must acquit

Had anyone bothered to test the wells of some of these CO homes in the documentary, they would have ( and since have ) discovered that ethane was not present in any quantity that suggest the gas is from a gas well!   The isotopic makeup of the methane present indicated a biogenic source.   Oopsie.

See COGIS reports 200207912 200190138 200191771 and other of the CO based Gasland participants.

Mrs. Peacock in the Conservatory With a Candlestick

Clearly the gas in the 28 Colorado cases, except the original one which was, in fact from a leaky well, is not from a typical deep geologic formation.  Perhaps its just gas from an atypical gas deposit producing  very pure methane.   The drillers could still be to blame.   How do we know bacteria are producing the gas?

Turns out that in one case sulphate and iron loving ( anaerobic bacteria that produce methane and hydrogen sulphide gas ) were cultured from the water bubbling up in the well.   This also explains the sulfur smell from the well, its hydrogen sulphide.

So a stunning victory for basic analytical chemistry: Its not gas from a 400M year old deposit.  Instead they lanced one of mother natures fart factories, a naturally occurring landfill from the last ice age, etc.   Who knows, but obviously a much more recent, near to the surface, organic deposit.

Just the Facts

Environmental causes are best supported by good science, rather than the stuff that makes for “money shots” in a documentary.   Almost any college campus has the equipment to perform these tests, and the expertise to interpret them.   The failing of Gasland is that it occasionally sidestepped its own inconvenient truths.

Only In Pennsylvania?  ( I wish. )

As for poor little Dimock, PA it is certainly, and rightfully Gasland’s poster child and crown jewel.   The science absolutely indicates a geologic source for for gas, ethane and propane as well as isotopic fingerprints leads to this same conclusion.   And it is likely, if not proven,  leaky casings in at least 3 of the Cabot wells are responsible.   ( Slam dunk!   Gasland +2!   Sort of.  )

However there is a history of gas in shallow wells drilled in this area and many places in PA.   The most telling, though is that for some residents, drilling a deeper water well, with a deeper casing returned the wells to safe operation.   But, Dimock is a mess, and a mess that hopefully will be the Gas indistry’s wakeup call.   But its not as unipolar as Gasland makes it seem, for example this letter to the editor ( Note final comment:  was the water bad before Cabot showed up?  ) and others like it.  And to their credit, Cabot has managed to drill or recondition many water wells in the area.  They are no saints, for sure, but they seem to be getting the job done.

The other frustrating aspect to these cases is that in many instaces the well’s were not tested for gas prior to the drilling.   So we have no baaseline for many of the outlying wells miles from the known bad Cabot sites.  Without these baseline tests, it cannot be known if the larger number of water wells with trace gases levels is “normal” or a sign of impending doom.   This is where leadership from the PA DEP in testing water prior to gas drilling so a valid monitoring regime can be established.

The perplexing thing in the Dimock case is the $11.2M money grab to build a water pipeline to service this otherwise small community.   The consensus seems to be “using bottled water sucks, but $11.2 million?”   And when there is a commitment in place to drill safe water wells, one that is costless, and seems to be upheld so far?   How about let Cabot spend their way out of this for the next few years, then spend $11.2M if actually necessary.

Point being, there are countless tens of thousands of gas wells in the US, and tens of thousands where fracking is used to enhance or enable extraction.   That nobody knew about Dimock, PA until last year is a pretty good indicator of the magnitude of the problem, very small.    With a large enough sample, you can always find a dozen gruesome cases to make a point.   But the same is true of anything.   Yet we still drive cars, smoke, eat donuts, and go about the other 99% of the ways we kill the planet.

Environmentalism as Science

If you want to be an environmentalist you need to be a scientist – as its a science.   If you don’t know chemistry, biology, geology – or the rest of the subjects in Sam Cooke’s Wonderful World lyrics, then you don’t have an ability to ask all the right questions, let alone interpret or question the facts.  It also means you make a lousy environmentalist.

Perhaps someone will detect the same hydrocarbon signature in the CO water wells that is being produced in the gas wells.   That would be a stunning validation of this piece of Gasland. That would be great!   But if these sorts of material facts so central to Gasland’s arguments are not true, what about the rest of it?  Like any unipolar documentary, its one sided.  And lets face it, watching evil corporations doing a good job, who wants to see that?

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