cows in field

Natural Gas Exploration and its Impact on Organic Agriculture

Added January 19, 2012. The United States east coast has a geological formation called Marcellus Shale; a geological formation named for a rock outcropping near Marcellus, NY and covering some 54,000 square miles. This area spreads over eastern Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and Ohio. Within this formation, there will be "hot spots" of gas productivity, but most areas will not likely be productive. Only significant exploration can determine where the productive areas are.

In order to release the natural gas, the rock trapping the hydrocarbons needs to be porous and the Marcellus Shale is less porous than other types of sedimentary rock formations. Drilling a vertical well into a shale formation only draws the gas from the immediate proximity of the well, so though we have known of this natural gas deposit for years and years, getting to it has been a challenge – that is, until the introduction of a process known today as Hydraulic Fracturing or ‘Fracking’.

What is Hydraulic Fracturing?
Hydraulic fracturing is the process of fracturing rock to stimulate the flow of oil, gas or water from a reservoir. How does the Fracking Process work? Steel casings are placed into a well at depths of 1,000 – 4,000 feet to protect water supplies from being polluted. Cement is then placed in the space between the drilled hole and the end of the first steel casing. This process is continued until the desired depth has been reached. Using horizontal drilling technology, Fracking fluids are pumped into the well at high enough pressure to make the shale rock fracture and for the trapped oil and gas to escape. Each drilling company has a different combination of materials in its Fracking fluid, though over 99% of the fluid is water. To keep the cracks open so that gas or oil can escape, a proppant is used, which is usually small grains of material such as sand. After all this is done, oil and gas is able to flow freely from the well.

Potential problems that organic producers may face from shale gas development:
Natural Gas Exploration can lead to the pollution of streams and stock ponds with methane, road run-off from heavy trucking, drilling fluids, frack water, and flow back. Any of one of these can sicken livestock, pollute the soil with toxins and cause loss of organic certification. Experts suggest that over time most of the toxic underground water will find its way to the surface through fissures, rusted pipes, cracked cement, and conduits of missing and unplugged water and gas wells. Physical impacts include compaction, erosion and fragmentation of agricultural land (fields are too small to farm). Chemical impacts include contamination, radiation and heavy metals.

Resources for Farmers in
Dealing with Gas Companies

Source of information for New York farmers:

Your Lease with Gas Companies Expiring?
How to Protect yourself

Farmers that already have leases with gas companies can protect themselves from being intimidated by gas companies or “out-lawyered.”

If the expiration date of your lease is near, and you decide that a gas lease does not work for you at this time, do not sign and deposit or cash any check sent by the leasing company, and do not allow anyone to pressure you into leasing again. If you decide to let your lease expire, there are actions you need to take to ensure its expiration. For more information and documentation on options and actions available to you, click here.

Force majeure is an equitable concept which originated to allow someone who had an obligation under a contract to be relieved 'temporarily' from that obligation when an event, so tragic, so unexpected, so unforeseen, and uninsurable occurred. Why doesn’t this apply to gas leases? Learn more >