If you can say one thing definitive about the controversial subject of drilling brines in Pennsylvania, it is that it is indefinite.
Adding to the quandary about whether the byproducts of deep shale gas extraction are hazardous, whether they are streaming through the state's waterways at dangerous levels, where, exactly they come from, and how they should be handled in an environmentally friendly manner, is the most recent inconclusive study by a Duke University team.
The team looked at trends in bromide concentrations in both the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, which as geography students, we learned converge to form the Ohio River at Pittsburgh.
Bromides, the very salty substances that are the primary component of drilling brines, rose, peaked and then declined in the Monongahela roughly along the same time line as an increase in shale extraction and then a request by the state that drillers stop taking the material to industrial treatment plants. However, levels remain elevated in the Allegheny, despite being covered by the same state edict.
Once again, both sides of the Marcellus Shale public safety issue have some conflicting data on which to argue.
There seems to be no question that drillers are doing a better job of reining in their produced fluids today than they did a few years ago. The Marcellus boom caught both drillers and environmental agencies unprepared to handle the technical aspects and the facilities to handle potential problems. Now, four years later, the technology curve has advanced and state and federal agencies are gradually getting a better handle on how to ameliorate potential hazards.
The answer is certainly not to abandon the production of deep shale gas, but to tap this valuable national asset in the safest possible manner.
The arguments will continue, just as they continue over other energy generation methods.
However, we believe that whatever problems are associated with deep shale gas production they can and will be overcome with the cooperation of the scientific community, drillers and regulators.
While producers are wary of meddling by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, they should also remember that it was the federal government that championed and helped to finance the development of horizontal drilling and fracturing that makes deep shale gas production profitable. Beginning in 1975 and continuing over two decades, the federal government, through the Department of Energy, pumped more than $100 million into research and development of the process that is now earning producers billions. And that was in addition to the tax breaks for early development.
Uncle Sam is not always the enemy; he is, at times, a valuable partner.