Utilizing technology that has only recently become available, a study commissioned by Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (DCS) to obtain baseline ambient methane levels in Damascus Township, PA has just been completed (<http://www.damascuscitizensforsustainability.org/2012/11/damascus-baseline/).
The study shows that methane concentrations are currently fairly low and consistent throughout the township. It also includes a graphic illustration of methane concentrations in Damascus compared to a similar venue in Dimock, PA, where of course natural gas drilling has been going on for some time. Concentrations in Dimock look to be at least four times as high.
Of course, since no baseline study was done in Dimock, we have no way of knowing whether the difference in ground-level methane concentrations is due to drilling, or was there to begin with. But that lack of evidence just goes to emphasize how important it is to have studies like this done before drilling commences in any given area. And one of the exciting features of the Damascus study is that it is apparently fairly economical to conduct, meaning that other local towns should probably consider doing so.
That point was further underlined by the conversation last night at the second meeting of the Town of Delaware, NY's natural gas drilling commission. There, it was pointed out that a number of local water well drillers have commented that, in digging wells, they frequently encounter methane. Hence, it might be concluded that the people in PA who are claiming that drilling activity is responsible for high levels of methane in their water might just be looking for a way to make a quick buck.
It was also briefly conceded that, even if there is methane to begin with, drilling activity could make it a lot worse. But the point is that, without having baseline measurements, whether in water or air, of various contaminants related to drilling, there is simply no conclusive and universally persuasive way to prove the impact drilling may or may not have had. It might be interesting if, in addition to trying to come to a conclusion as to whether hydrofracking would be good or bad for the Town of Delaware, the commission would make some recommendations as to precautionary steps, like baseline studies, that the town could take with regard to drilling if indeed it does continue to adopt a welcoming stance. At least that way, residents who do wind up being damaged would have a strong basis for litigation.
And from the climate change point of view, the methane problem is not just local, but global. A study by Cornell's Robert Howarth concluded that shale gas is responsible for 20% more greenhouse gases than coal on a life-cycle basis, despite the fact that burning natural gas emits less carbon dioxide, because of the methane -- a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide -- released during extraction. The study found that up to 7.9% of the methane escapes directly from the wells, leaks from pipelines, or is released in venting and flaring.
I would hope that a number more local municipalities follow the example of Damascus in taking the initiative, where economically feasible, to start taking measurements of the quality of our common resources -- air and aquifers. That quality is perhaps our most valuable asset. Our current economic system unfortunately has not found a way to put a proper monetary value on possessing it -- but that does not mean there will not be a huge monetary cost if we lose it.