Water, Energy and the Ohio River Valley’s New Course

The six-state Ohio River Valley is surging economically, getting environmentally cleaner, and leading the U.S. recovery. My report for the Wilson Center and Circle of Blue explains why. Click here for the full report.

ATHENS, OHIO – Few places in the United States better understand the economically essential and ecologically risky accord between energy and water than this southeast Ohio town.

Athens, where Ohio University was founded in 1804 as a Northwest Territories frontier institution, was once surrounded by dozens of working underground coal mines. Thousands of miners spent much of the 19th and half of the 20th centuries digging long horizontal and vertical shafts that essentially hollowed out most of the rounded hills of the Hocking River Valley. Coal from southeast Ohio fired steel mills and fueled electricity-generating boilers that turned Ohio into an industrial powerhouse.

Then, as now, water was critical to every stage of the mining, processing, shipping, and burning of coal in southeast Ohio, which is at the center of the six-state Ohio River Valley. The ecological consequences of the rugged, unregulated mining before 1950 are manifest in a present day water mess. Water fills the dormant shafts and pours out of the old mines of the Hocking Valley in springs and streams so saturated in trace minerals they are too acidic for aquatic life to survive.

Ohio River tows are transporting more steel and less coal, a sign of big changes in manufacturing and energy development. Photo/Keith Schneider

Natalie Kruse, a hydrogeologist and assistant professor at Ohio University, has distinguished her young academic career through research to develop practices that restrain the acid mine drainage, and restore some streams to conditions that support small fisheries. In that sense, Dr. Kruse is a kind of capstone figure working to clean up the remnant byproduct of Ohio’s first great era of carbon-fueled development.

Dr. Kruse, though, is also emerging here as a prominent researcher helping citizens and state officials gain a clearer understanding of the effects on the state’s freshwater reserves from Ohio’s next chapter of hydrocarbon production. More than a mile beneath east and southeast Ohio, and much of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, lies an astonishing abundance of natural gas embedded in the deep hydrocarbon-rich shales of the Utica and Marcellus geologic formations. In the last five years, over 8,000 deep Marcellus shale gas wells were drilled in Pennsylvania, and 1,700 were drilled in West Virginia. Ohio’s Utica shale gas developers have drilled 367 wells since 2010, when the natural gas boom started in this state.

The sudden surge of natural gas is the most important factor in why federal figures show that coal production and electrical generation fueled by coal, the dirtiest fuel, have declined since 2010 in the Ohio River Valley. Utilities in Ohio and the other states along the 981-mile Ohio River, which stretches from Pittsburgh to Cairo, Illinois, are opening more natural gas-fueled turbines, the newest of which operate with far lower requirements for cooling water, and don’t have fuel piles that pollute waterways. Emissions of climate-changing gases are falling because carbon emissions from burning gas are 40 percent lower than from burning coal.

Marietta, Ohio, on the river’s north shore, is where developers of the Northwest Ordinance, which expanded the nation and outlawed slavery, settled in the late 18th century. Photo/Keith Schneider

The readily apparent and well-documented benefits of the surge in fuel supplies, though, are pitched on the slippery rocks of watery risks. Developers bring the gas to the surface by pumping, at ultra-high pressure, a 4-million to 6-million-gallon mixture of sand, water, and chemicals into each well to fracture the rock and release the fuel. Gas developers build roads, pipelines, and processing infrastructure at heavily wooded drill sites, often in steep terrain. The result is deforestation, erosion, and siltation in mountain streams.

Earlier this month, in support of a Wilson Center-Circle of Blue speaking tour in Beijing, I prepared a paper that updates the findings of our 2010 Choke Point: U.S. report. That project identified the Southwest, Great Plains, and Southeast as the regions at greatest risk of shortages of energy and water. Choke Point: U.S. also reported that access to adequate supplies of water and wastewater treatment were the primary impediments to the shale oil and shale gas production boom overtaking the country.

A special focus of this new paper — available on the Circle of Blue Web site here — is to explore energy production and water supply in Ohio and its neighboring Ohio River Valley states. The development of natural gas and natural gas liquids from deep shale is reshaping long-standing trends in the region’s energy mix, water consumption and treatment patterns, climate emissions, and economy. Moreover, global trends in energy and food supply and water use, especially in China and the Persian Gulf, are dramatically influencing natural gas and oil development, coal consumption, food production, water use, and the economy along the Ohio River Valley.

The six-state region is now a useful laboratory to understand how the convergence of new domestic energy technology, and overseas water, energy and food production patterns form an interlocking web of market signals that affect U.S. state economies and environmental conditions. Growing demand for grain in Asia and the Persian Gulf has produced record-high prices for corn and soybeans in the U.S. over the last five years. Rising demand for grain, and for energy, also prompted higher sales of the planting, harvesting, and construction equipment made by John Deere, International Harvester, and Caterpillar in the Ohio River Valley states.

Asia’s rising demand for coal, to fuel its fast-developing economies, is propping up prices in the Ohio, West Virginia, and Kentucky coal industry, which is exporting more coal than ever before to Europe, and putting pressure on Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia to open a western deepwater port for American coal exports to Asia.

China’s growing demand for liquid fuels keeps oil prices high enough to finance the expensive development of shale oil in the U.S.. Demand from China, and the higher prices international consumers pay for natural gas and natural gas liquids is prompting U.S. shale gas developers to produce enough methane, ethane, and propane to export from the Ohio River Valley states to overseas markets. Congress is debating whether to lift export restraints on natural gas and natural gas liquids, and new export terminals are proposed on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

The expanding markets for natural gas in the U.S., and in global markets, has produced mounting sales in support industries, including the construction of five new steel plants in Ohio since 2011, the first new plants since the 1980s.

The steady expansion of Ohio’s gas fields, along with smaller increases in renewable energy production, is part of a similarly powerful and, to some extent, surprising pivot point transition that is occurring across the United States in the energy and water sectors. America, alone among the world’s big economies, appears to be accomplishing a feat that nobody forecast just three years ago. Simply put, the United States is using less energy, growing its economy, and steadily shifting to cleaner, less water-consuming fuel sources.

For a full copy of the report click here.

Also here at Circle of Blue.

— Keith Schneider

So Much Fracking Wastewater in the Ohio River Valley, Companies Want To Transport It By Barge

The Ohio Valley barge industry wants to transport fracking wastewater, an addition to the mix of minerals, steel, coal, grain, oil and other bulk materials transported on the Ohio River. Here, a barge moves downriver near Wellsville, Ohio. Photo/Keith Schneider

Last month, while nosing around the new Utica shale gas fields of eastern Ohio, I learned that the Obama administration was preparing to consider a proposal from the U.S. Coast Guard that would allow barge operators to transport wastewater from shale gas fracking operations on inland waterways. Earlier this month the Coast Guard delivered the proposal to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Sometime later this year the agency is likely to make the transport plan available for public review.

Regardless of the specifics, the idea that fracking wastewater ought to be considered a bulk commodity — like coal, gasoline, oil, cement, grain, chemicals and steel — reflects the expanding dimensions of the nation’s shale fields and the growing quantity of the contaminated water that the development produces. The river that very plainly will receive most of the attention in frackwater transport is the Ohio and its upriver tributaries, which drain nearly half of Pennsylvania’s watersheds, and most of eastern Ohio’s.

Thousands of deep shale gas wells are being drilled in both regions. Producing natural gas, and more valuable natural gas liquids, involves blasting the shale with millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals and sand under extremely high pressure. Some three million to 10 million gallons go down the well. About 20 percent, according to industry technical reports, comes back up. And it’s nasty stuff — saturated with salts and metals and solids.

Water is the shale gas and shale oil industry’s soft underbelly. The companies knew that well before the fracking revolution started. During the early George W. Bush administration Vice President Dick Cheney convened meetings with industry executives who identified the federal Safe Drinking Water Act as an impediment to a swift start to horizontal drilling/fracking technology they believed would alter the nation’s energy outlook. The administration proposed and Congress quietly enacted waivers to the law that allowed the industry to keep the identities of the fracking chemicals secret and bypass permit requirements.

Citizens, though, took notice all over the country. Reports of leaks, groundwater contamination, and health consequences as a result of exposure to wastewater and drilling operations have become numerous. States have been roused to fill some of the safety gaps that the federal government avoided. Wyoming, Texas, and other states require companies to disclose the ingredients in their fracking fluid. Ohio and Pennsylvania issued tougher standards for constructing wells in an effort to prevent damage to drinking water.

The next big area of water concern is the sheer volume of wastewater. A new wing of the oilfield service industry, spurred by public concern, generated tougher standards that are leading to water recycling in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The competition for water during the deep 2011 and 2012 droughts in the interior prompted similar interest in Texas and Colorado for wastewater recycling. Halliburton, the big oilfield service company, is a leader in developing mobile recycling systems that clean up dirty water to a standard that makes it reusable for new frack jobs.

I crossed the path of a mobile recycling plant that Tervita operates for Chesapeake’s frack jobs in eastern Ohio. The plants save water, and reduce truck traffic. Solids separated from the wastes are said to be transported to local licensed dumps, though the Ohio Department of Natural Resources says it doesn’t track such shipments.

Most fracking wastewater is pumped down the hazardous waste injection wells that operate around the country. As to where fracking wastewater might be heading on barges? Probably not upriver on the Ohio. Two years ago Pennsylvania outlawed treating frack wastewater in public water treatment plants.

— Keith Schneider

Frack Or Not To Frack? That’s Just One Question


At the corner of US 31 and County Line Road in Benzie County, one of the more than 9,000 Antrim Shale natural gas wells drilled in Michigan since the late 1980s. Michigan’s Antrim Shale was among the first natural gas reserves in the U.S. developed from hydrocarbon-bearing shales. Photo/Heather Rousseau

BENZONIA, MI — It’s apparent why a great number of Americans wonder about the risks of fracking and whether states and the federal government ought to shut the technology down. The breakthrough that now enables developers to recover oil and natural gas from hydrocarbon-rich shales 6,000 to 10,000 feet beneath the surface is potentially fraught with danger.

No new technology comes without assorted risks, especially one as environmentally significant and economically powerful as fracking. But along with the risks come benefits. The question is whether the U.S. has the capacity to significantly reduce the threats through regulatory safeguards, or is there one or more aspects of the technology that are so inherently dangerous that fracking should not be allowed at all?

Answering the question involves distinguishing the difference between “potential” and “actual” risks and benefits. On the potential side of the discussion, the risks seem fearsome.

The fracking process blasts millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals down a well at ultra-high pressure to shatter the rock and release the fuel. Anecdotal evidence, and several instances of contamination confirmed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, point to a risk that fracking can contaminate freshwater aquifers much closer to the surface. It’s not clear yet how significant that risk is, though the EPA is studying the issue and preparing to issue a definitive report next year.

Public health authorities in Pennsylvania also are starting to study the consequences of fracking to human health, and are focusing on air pollution. Big diesel engines operate at the well sites, and it takes roughly 2,000 truck trips to transport water, fuel, and equipment to each well. Vehicular collisions, moreover, have taken the lives of dozens of truck drivers and motorists in North Dakota and Pennsylvania.

Fracking takes millions of gallons of water at each well and is leading to confrontations over water supply on the Great Plains and desert Southwest. Disposing wastewater and fluids from the process has led to spills in North Dakota and Wyoming. Pumping the wastes down deep disposal wells also has caused small earthquakes in Ohio, Arkansas, and Texas. The concentration of wells in a region, all tied together by new roads, pipeline corridors, and assorted processing and pumping stations, has significant implications for the uses of land, particularly if the development occurs in a forested area like Michigan.

Other potential risks identified by expert panels as varied as the U.S. General Accounting Office and the Society of Petroleum Engineers include the toxicity of the chemicals used in the process, the level of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) that can escape the well as “fugitive” emissions, and the hazards of the drilling process; in China the shale reserves contain high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, an acutely poisonous gas.

Continue reading “Frack Or Not To Frack? That’s Just One Question”

U.S. Energy Boom: Reprieve and A Reckoning, Says NYT’s Friedman and ModeShift’s Schneider

North Dakota is producing more than 600,000 barrels of oil daily, second most in the U.S. behind Texas. A tanker truck loads oil aboard a tanker train near Williston, ND. Photo by Keith Schneider

Over the weekend Tom Friedman of the New York Times wrote a good piece, Get it Right on Gas, about the short-term promise and potentially long-term economic and environmental peril prompted by the U.S. energy boom. Friedman’s article made quite a few of the same points I made in March in a ModeShift piece, New American Energy Boom: A Reprieve and a Reckoning.

The Reprieve:

Friedman: “The enormous stores of natural gas that have been locked away in shale deposits across America that we’ve now been able to tap into, thanks to breakthroughs in seismic imaging, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” are enabling us to replace much dirtier coal with cleaner gas as the largest source of electricity generation in America. And natural gas may soon be powering cars, trucks and ships as well. This is helping to lower our carbon emissions faster than expected and make us more energy secure. And, if prices stay low, it may enable America to bring back manufacturing that migrated overseas.”

Schneider: “The boom in oil and gas production represents a generation-long economic reprieve for the United States. Almost every  analysis by the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Geological Survey, and by the major oil and gas companies projects that the production trajectory for domestic oil and gas production will steadily increase for 20 years, maybe longer. More than $100 billion annually in capital investments is pouring each year into energy-producing states for exploration and drilling equipment, new pipeline construction, refinery expansions, and for pumps and trucks and transport depots to move fuel to market. Dense pockets of new job growth in oil and gas production, processing, and services have formed in a dozen energy-rich states, helping to lead the U.S. out of the recession.”

The Reckoning:

Friedman: “Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. The good news: It emits only half as much greenhouse gas as coal when combusted and, therefore, contributes only half as much to global warming. The better news: The recent glut has made it inexpensive to deploy. But there is a hidden, long-term, cost: A sustained gas glut could undermine new investments in wind, solar, nuclear and energy efficiency systems — which have zero emissions — and thus keep us addicted to fossil fuels for decades.”

Schneider: “The risks of perpetuating America’s fossil fuel economy are equally momentous, producing a new era of national reckoning. Ample natural gas supplies and low prices are dampening demand for wind, solar, geothermal, and other non-polluting sources of energy.  One result is that clean energy manufacturing plants are closing in the Midwest, Rocky Mountain states, and California. Two solar producers in Michigan, for instance, have shut their doors in the last year.

Public investment in non-fossil fuel innovation is uncertain. It’s not at all clear yet whether Congress will renew the tax credits that expire later this year and that have spurred wind and solar use and manufacturing.

If the U.S. spends another generation in an oil and gas coma, choosing not to pursue alternatives with the fierce commitment to success that propelled the Apollo program to land a man on the moon, it will end up even more economically stretched and politically unstable than it is today.”

See more of my reporting on the U.S. energy boom here.

— Keith Schneider

The U.S. Energy Boom and Ohio in The New York Times


My interest in the Ohio River Valley, as readers of ModeShift well know, is keen. Today, the New York Times published my latest piece about the billions being invested in mineral leasing for oil and gas drilling.

Tomorrow, in the NYT Business section, is another piece I did on Cincinnati’s improved economy and surging riverfront development.

You may recall this article on Owensboro Kentucky’s improved prospects for the NYT late last year.

I did this piece in April on Ohio’s soaring steel industry in the NYT:

And I laid out some of my basic thoughts about what’s happening in the six-state, 981-mile river valley here on ModeShift a few weeks ago:

My clear sense and reporting shows a region critical to the American nation and U.S. economy for 250 years that is recovering fast from two generations of disinvestment and decay. The entire river valley is emerging with a 21st economy that is based on:

1. Out of the box municipal tax increases and other urban investment policies that are improving the region’s biggest downtowns, all of which are growing again with new residents and businesses.

2. Striking gains in the fortunes of the higher education and medical sectors that have turned out to be the largest, or among the largest employers in the big and small cities.

3. Environmental protection and conservation gains that have improved air and water quality and conserved urban riverfronts and wildlands. The Ohio River Valley is impressively beautiful.

4. Global trade in farm commodity and fossil energy markets that have fostered regional booms in agriculture and oil and gas development that look to endure for years because of Asia’s (read China here) steadily rising demand.

I’ll be looking at China’s influence on the Ohio River Valley later this week.

— Keith Schneider