The Gas Menagerie

Josh Fox’s documentary “Gasland” triggered a groundswell of opposition to fracking, the technology driving America’s gas-drilling boom. Now, as the industry hits back, Fox and other Columbians are digging in.

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2012
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It’s not far-fetched. In high school, Fox performed in rock bands as a drummer, and soon turned to the theater. At seventeen, he directed his first play, Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. (He played Tom.) He majored in theater at Columbia, where he studied with the avant-garde experimental-theater director Anne Bogart and the Shakespeare scholar Edward Tayler. “Every story structure that’s two hours long goes back to Shakespeare,” Fox has said. “When you read Shakespeare in one year, two semesters, when you read every last play and every last sonnet, and you do that with Edward Tayler, boy, you understand dramatic structure after that.”

“So here’s the thing: we’re at this moment of real decision. A lot of politicians are very afraid of the repercussions of taking on oil and gas, but they’re simply on the wrong side of history.”

Now, at Goucher, Fox, his banjo resting on a table behind him in its battered case, speaks not of rock, nor Glass, but of another favorite: cement.

“In the town of Dimock, the first place I visited in the film, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection showed that the problem was with the well casing. The well gets drilled, then they case the outside of it with cement to protect the groundwater. That cement is one inch thick, and has to go thousands and thousands of feet. Anyone ever worked with cement? You might want to learn a little bit: the job market is not so good. I worked a lot with cement as a contractor. Cement! It cracks all the time. Cement doesn’t want to cooperate at all. The industry’s documents show that 6 percent of these cement casings, which protect the groundwater, fail immediately upon drilling. Forty percent of the casings in the Gulf of Mexico are leaking. If you read the presidential report on Deepwater Horizon, what happened? Cement failed, and the whole thing blew up. The gas industry itself — not some independent scientific commission, not the Center for American Progress, not Cornell or Goucher or Columbia, but the gas industry — admits that 50 percent of well casings fail over thirty years. How long does a gas well have to last?”

“Forever,” comes a shout.

“Who said forever? Yes! Forever! We have to protect the groundwater forever because the chemicals will stay down there — forever.”

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow

“We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years, and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy.”
     — President Barack Obama (D), State of the Union address, January 24, 2012

A hundred years isn’t forever, but for a natural-gas supply it seems like an awfully long time. To Fox, packing his bags for Los Angeles, it’s unthinkable: greenhouse oblivion. This bridge to renewable energy is not one that a man wishes to cross.

In 2009, the Penn State geologist Terry Engelder estimated that the Marcellus Shale formation held more than 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The phrase “game changer” was oft heard, and the bridge to the future soared so high and far it vanished into the clouds. Many people saw a panacea for the nation’s economic and geopolitical ills, but to some, these enormous reserves, reachable now through enhanced technologies, seemed to mock that cheap and bountiful energy source blazing faithfully overhead, its rays now warming the inside of Fox’s rental car as he drives into town from LAX and sees, to the east, the pterodactyls bobbing in the hills of the Inglewood Oil Field.

Maybe he’s not so far from home after all.

How long will they hammer the Marcellus? How much gas does it truly hold?

In a classroom in Schermerhorn Hall, two Columbia geoscientists weigh in.

“Some say that in two years it’ll all be gone,” says geophysicist Roger N. Anderson, the Doherty Senior Scholar at Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) and an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “Others say, ‘Just keep fracking it over and over and over again.’ Nobody knows yet.”

Sally Odland, a former industry geologist and the business manager for the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, agrees. “We have no history of production,” she says. “With these new shale gas wells, you get peak production in one or two years, when the pressure is strongest, then a steep fall-off. A few of the older shale plays in Texas and Louisiana, for instance, have done five years of production, so people are predicting, for New York and Pennsylvania, a cumulative production of ten, twenty, fifty years. That’s bullshit. There’s not enough data.”

“The companies are gambling,” says Anderson, who has done work for BP, Chevron, and many other energy companies. “They’ve spent millions in advance. They had to buy the land, do the development, and bring in all the piping.”

“And right now,” says Odland, “because of overproduction, the price of gas is extremely low. Companies are drilling simply to hold position and keep their leases.”

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