What the frack is going on? The debate and impact of converting the NRG plant from coal to natural gas

Wendy Mahnk
Special to The Leader

What the frack is going on?

If NRG’s Dunkirk facility is repowered as a natural gas refinery, the question that will be on many people’s mind is where is the natural gas coming from? More specifically, will it be coming from the controversial hydrofracking processes?

Currently New York State has a moratorium on the issuance of permits for high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF).

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as hydrofracking or fracking, is a practice used during natural gas extraction that dates back to the 1940s. The procedure involves the pumping of water, chemicals and sand slurry into a gas well at tremendously high pressures in order to fracture and prop open shale rock formations. This then stimulates the release of the gas trapped within the rock formation.
This procedure has been at the forefront of issues in states such as Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio due to the large shale deposit known as the Marcellus Formation that straddles the borders of these states.

Previously shale gas extraction was deemed a less productive source of extraction. It was not until the 1980s did shale gas extraction really develop due to the combination of new inventive drilling techniques and the practice of hydraulic fracturing.

Great advancements have been made in drilling technology in the last two decades that have made shale gas a more advantageous energy alternative. New technologies, such as horizontal drilling techniques adopted from deep sea drilling operations in the Gulf of Mexico, are what have really made it a lucrative operation.

Historically natural gas — which has been unobtainable by traditional means (vertical drilling) — is now accessible by horizontal drilling. Traditional vertical wells drill downward, in more or less a straight line, until it reaches the rock formation which is then “fracked” to stimulate the flow of gas in the areas that have been exposed by the drilling.

With Marcellus Shale estimated by the U.S. Geological survey to have 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, shale gas extraction has seemly become a productive and profitable answer to the question of energy independence in the United States; however, this does not come without a price.

This oil and gas renaissance has also brought with it a slew of environmentally detrimental impacts as well. The Marcellus Accountability Project estimates that new wells will use between 130,000 to 580,000 pounds of chemical additives per fracturing compared to the 700 to 2,800 pounds that was used in traditional wells. It is estimated that 16 wells using new horizontal technology will create toxic waste fluid in an amount equivalent to that of 1600 traditional wells using fracturing. 8,000,000 gallons of water will be used per well in horizontal wells compared to 80,000 gallons of water per well used in traditional wells.

Horizontal drilling begins similarly in that horizontal wells are also drilled vertically until the drill reaches the rock formation. It then makes roughly a 90 degree turn in the ground and travels parallel to the surface. This exposes a much larger area of the shale rock formation to the fracking, which in turn increases the amount of gas released from the fracking.

Pennsylvania has dived headfirst into this hydraulic fracturing craze with 6,391 active wells currently according to NPR’s reporting project StateImpact. With the Pennsylvania border being just a stone’s throw away, this leaves even the most unimaginative person to question whether the Dunkirk facility will be using fracked gas if it is retrofitted for natural gas. And, if not at start, would it use fracked gas somewhere in the future if New York State eventually approves fracking?

SUNY Fredonia played a key role in the exchange of information surrounding the Marcellus Shale. Fredonia geology professor and Marcellus Shale expert Dr. Gary Lash, along with his colleagues, Dr. Terry Engelder and George P. Mitchell, were the individuals responsible for the discovery of the massive reserves of natural gas trapped with the Marcellus Shale. Their pioneering research was what had brought shale gas extraction to a global stage.

Lash declined an interview with The Leader.

“I have little to do with the issue of hydraulic fracturing any longer,” he said. “Much of the discussion focuses on non- scientific aspects of the debate for which I have little interest.”

President of Campus Climate Challenge Aaron Reslink explained there are actually a lot of different kinds of natural gas deposits. Scientists make the distinction between conventional and unconventional methods of natural gas extraction.

“Unconventional would be like deep natural gas like shale deposits, which is what you would hydrofrack because it’s so deep, but there is even areas where there are seeps, which are areas where natural gas is coming out of the ground,” Reslink said. “ So drilling is just one method. There are a lot of different methods to get natural gas.”

Reslink shared the belief that if the Dunkirk facility does make the switch to natural gas, people in the community will probably feel a sense of relief. Reslink said, “I think people will be generally happy.”

“People think that it’s cleaner and get a sense of relief like ‘Oh I’m doing something good for the environment or that we’re doing something good here in Dunkirk’ but that’s not really the way I would personally look at it. Natural gas is not really cleaner,” he said.

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