To frack or not?

44 French students study issue

BY ROBERT L. BAKER

A group of 44 students from France pose just outside the Procter & Gamble plant in Washington Twp. where they learned how Marcellus gas is being harnessed locally. PHOTO COURTESY/ALEX FRIED

Forty-four high school students from France, including about a dozen staying in homes in the Montrose area, took time out Friday to look at gas drilling in the Marcellus shale.

The teens hail from Arc-et-Senans, a small town in the east of France.

Their interest was to look at hydraulic fracturing, which is presently outlawed in their home country.

Shale gas is located underground across Europe, but environmental concerns over extracting it are widespread. Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” frees natural gas from shale by injecting a well with chemically treated water and sand. Supporters say it can be an economic boon, but critics say it can pollute groundwater.

The students spent the morning just outside a Citrus gas well pad in Washington Township and then went inside the mammoth Procter & Gamble paper products plant to see the potential of how an energy source from beneath their feet was being tapped.

By 11 a.m., they were at the Tunkhannock Public Library where they listened to a parade of speakers who had their own take on what fracturing has meant to the environment.

Rick Fields, Citrus’ on-site drilling manager, started the day by coming onto the students’ bus near Citrus’ well pad #5.

There he explained the gas drilling process starting first with a water-based lubricant and drilling bit that bores 600 feet into the earth.

As the well gets deeper, the crew switches to compressed air to get the solid material out with a rig capable of drilling 30-60 feet an hour depending on the material encountered.

Eventually, it will reach down more than 7,000  feet into the earth to reach the natural gas deposits embedded in the shale.

It is then that hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – takes place on the shale layer to release the natural gas.

After Fields’ presentation the students were transported about a mile to the P&G plant where company spokesman Alex Field gave them a tour of the papermaking operation – where among other products, P&G makes disposible diapers and Charmin toilet tissue.

Fried said it was good to have an interpreter nearby, as he guessed maybe only 80 percent of the students grasped what he was talking about as he was talking.

He said the students asked a few questions ranging from what the company made to whether other P&G plants harness energy like the one in Mehoopany.

Fried explained that of P&G’s more than 150 facilities worldwide it has plants in France, but none require the intense energy that the paper-making process demands.

He explained how the local plant was about to become energy self-sufficient thanks to being able to tap into the Marcellus gas, and he showed the students photos of a compressed natural gas service station nearby used for fueling forklifts and jockey trucks.

Fried said, “I also explained the environmental monitoring we’re doing to verify that groundwater hasn’t been contaminated.”

As for the audience, Fried said it was a first in his seven years as external relations manager to show the plant to a group of foreign exchange students.

“They were well behaved and seemed pretty impressed at what we do here,” he said. “I was pretty impressed by their interest level.”

Gerri Kane of Auburn Twp., Susquehanna County, shares her story Friday about how the ecosystem around her home has been upset by gas drilling activity.

Shifting gears

The students then took a lunch break at the Tunkhannock Library.

Around noon, Gerri Kane of Auburn Twp., Susquehanna County, who was startled four years ago when the gas folks started arriving in droves, said, “You are the future so I am excited that you are here looking at fracking before it happens in your land.”

She acknowledged that every piece of land is different and she doesn’t have it in for the gas companies, but as she held up a jar of cloudy water and then one with sediment in it, Kane said, “There are repercussions.”

She cried as she related personal health issues and one involving an animal.

“We never gave the earth a chance,” she said. “We just stood by.”

“Bonjour,” Jay Sweeney said to polite laughter. “I hope you can keep fracking out of France.”

He explained to the group that he had beeen a Green Party candidate opposing a local politician at one time.

He asked, “Do you know the Green Party? It’s a worldwide movement.”

Interpreter and teacher Martine Beguin, nodded, and spoke in French to the group.

Sweeney said in the fall of 2008, he attended a meeting in Montrose where people were aware of the fracking issued.

“About a dozen people showed up,” he said. “I found that people were aware of the issue but didn’t want to talk about it.”

“You’ve got to talk about it,” he said.

JuleAnn Skinner, who formerly headed up the League of Women Voters in Susquehanna County, said the group organized meetings about the gas issues with business, environmentalists and government agencies.

“They were well attended,” Skinner said with a slight smile as she looked over at her teen-aged daughter Haley, who was observing the visiting students.

“But we were late,” she said. “They were already in the ground and we’ve been playing catch up ever since.”

“If you don’t know already, this is a very divisive issue that breaks up families and divides neighbor against neighbor and community against community, not to mention what it does to the environment,” she said.

“But what about jobs?” one student asked.

Skinner said, “Our Environmental Protection Agency is talking about jobs, too. Why is the EPA talking about jobs? This is about our lives which the government is supposed to be protecting. I advise you to keep it out of France.”

The session ended with a screening of the film “Triple Cut” which co-producer Joshua B. Pribanic was on hand to address.

French high school students Antoine Duguet and Salome Fauvel, along with teacher Annie Perrier speak with former Tunkhannock Area teacher Janet Shaw, right, who helped coordinate a program looking at the pros and cons of fracking. STAFF PHOTO/ROBERT BAKER

It highlighted some ‘real-life’ experiences of people in Bradford and Tioga counties to the west of Tunkhannock, and Pribanic showed a clip of a landowner who owned the surface rights of a parcel of land but someone else the mineral rights.

He had gone away to Philadelphia for business and when he returned found a several acre forest completely leveled and the mineral rights owner putting a containment pond on the ground he owned.

“It was just shockingly crazy,” Pribanic said.

He acknowledged to the students difficulties he’s encountered as a journalist and filmmaker and admonished them to search for the truth.

“You will find it,” he said, “and it won’t always be pretty.”

He shared a quote from the French novelist Emile Zola, “If you bury the truth underground, it will but grow.”

Student Victor Troutter said it was a problem understanding why exactly his country was opposed to fracking, but after listening to the day’s presenters realized “There are no easy solutions.”

Antoine Moreau said, “We must find a middle ground between ecology and gas, but be careful.”

Felicie Bolot said, “We, too, are worried for our future. We must get and stay in front of the issue.”

Arthur Trouttet, Victor’s older brother, acknowledged that his country was not immune to environmental energy issues and noted France’s heavy reliance on nuclear energy – 75 percent compared to 20 percent in U.S. – without knowing how to deal with dangerously radioactive spent fuel rods provided a backdrop to the group’s time in America studying shale gas.

He acknowledged that arming oneself with knowledge was good advice that knew no cutural or language barriers.