2011 Vol. 3 No. 1 — Spring / Features

King Coal, Big Oil and the Dangerous Allure of Shale

marcellus-pennsylvaniaWill Pennsylvania, Poland and Quebec pay heed to Aristotle’s advice?

This area knows coal. Hard coal. Anthracite. Sustained geological pressures forced Paleozoic peat bogs to transfigure into the black diamonds we know today. It is this anthracite coal that burns hotter, cleaner and longer than softer bituminous coal helping fuel the Industrial Revolution. (Photo: East-to-southeast view, Tiadaghton State Forest, Lycoming County, along PA Route 44. A drilling site (cropped from the image) for Marcellus shale gas now spoils the view. Photo by Nicholas T, used under creative commons license.)

As a result, this area also knows about mining. According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources the state’s coal mines peaked at two crucial world war years: producing 277 million tons in 1918 and 209 million tons in 1944, which are about three time the production of today’s mines. Coal’s profits and potential was understood by both oil and metals manufacturers who began to acquire small coal companies over the past few decades eager to collect these earnings. Even today the U.S. Department of Energy figures that coal generates 40% of the world’s electricity and powers almost 70% of global steel production.

Actually, this model is not too far from the model followed in Europe after WWII. The European Coal and Steel Community also focused on the relationship between coal and iron ore to make steel. Instead of sustained geological pressures, increased commercial partnerships linked national iron and coal industries across the continent into the modernized European Union we known today. In the American version Pennsylvania companies merged iron and coal productions across the state to develop Big Oil and Steel.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources estimates that there are billions of tons of coal in the anthracite fields alone, due to the aptly named Mammoth Vein which runs the length of the middle field. Unfortunately, the moniker ‘hard’ coal also refers to the mining process which is much more difficult than mining bituminous. While soft coal, natural gas and oil lie flat on various strata, anthracite pitches sharp and runs steep due to the geological contortions that strengthened it.


Mining is difficult, dangerous and expensive.

Big Oil and Steel soon learned that King Coal’s empire was not easy to rule and instead shifted production away from the expensive to operate — and well unionized — mines. In subsequent decades central Pennsylvania commerce was devalued and discounted. Western Pennsylvania, with its easy to mine soft coal and oil became known as Steel City producing 95 million tons of steel during WWII as the anthracite coal region faded into history. But the story of the Coal Region is not finished.

While coalfields are miles in width and thousands of feet in depth starting near the surface, oil ‘traps’ must be found hundreds or thousands of feet underground where the petroleum has pooled. Over the years oil companies have developed sophisticated ways to locate these reserves, including ways to stumble on new energy sources such as shale, notably Marcellus shale, a deposit of gas-containing sediments that stretches from New York, throughout the Appalachian region into Ohio, West Virgina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. It is named for Marcellus, New York, where a distinctive outcropping led to the formation’s discovery. Numerous other shale formations have been discovered throughout the world, each being named for a geographic region. Shale is found on strata between oil and coal among the layers of terra firma.

The United States Geological Survey originally estimated 1.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is trapped within the Appalachian Basin of Marcellus Shale which encompasses both the anthracite coal fields as well as the bituminous fields of western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. That number has since increased to 500 trillion cubic feet based on State University of New York research. According to figures from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection there were twenty-seven wells drilled in 2007, 785 in 2009 and 1,386 in 2010. An economically ravaged area has found new hope in the most obvious yet least likely of places: under the earth where it seemed generations dug as deep as corporate America was willing to pay them.

Another area with a deep mining history is the ancestral home for so many from the anthracite coal region: Poland. Like central Pennsylvania this current EU member nation has a motivation for producing natural gas from shale. Poland receives natural gas from Russia’s Gazprom through both Belarusian and Ukrainian pipelines. It places Poland in a precarious relationship with these countries where business is often linked too closely to politics. The mission of the former European Coal and Steel Community resonates in Poland as the country could actually become an exporter of energy, instead of being reliant on old Soviet pipelines. According to estimates from oil and gas research group Wood Mackenzie there could be as much as 48 trillion cubic feet (1.36 trillion cubic meters) of natural gas from shale stretching across northern and central Poland. This figure would certainly change the geopolitics of the region, as shale is doing for many nations and states.

It is underground that Poland may find economic freedom, the same place that Pennsylvania has unearthed new wealth. Yet the poet Virgil comes to mind as he enlightens Dante Alighieri on the geography of Inferno. Citing Nicomachean Ethics and Physics of Aristotle he clarifies that the souls at the lowest depth have ignored or abused natural resources and human activity: the two legitimate sources of wealth in this world. Certainly both Poland and Pennsylvania now begin a new chapter of their energy development, one in which their achievement of Paradiso will rest in how well they manage natural resources and human activity.

In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wisely notes, “If one way be better than another, that you may be sure is Nature’s way.” In the millennia since his time technology has allowed man to harness natural resources with ease. Energy is one such area in which technology has increased society’s ability to generate power from and conform to the environment.

For the anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania that technology was primitive: immigrant miners willing to work dangerous jobs in the dark and mules who were sturdy yet petite enough to work the tunnels. Surface mining was a technological innovation that reduced the number of staff needed on site. However, both forms of mining have major environmental concerns. According to a 2010 report in the journal Science, mountaintop mining has caused numerous environmental problems to ecosystems.


Laws designed to protect the environment, such as the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 are often followed in letter but not spirit. The United Mine Workers of America have often voiced concerns over various coal companies reclaiming surface mine lands with human sewage sludge or spilling waste water into local rivers.

As Pennsylvania expands into Marcellus shale exploration and development the state’s Department of Environmental Protection is watching closely. The extraction method may be drilling wells instead of mining tunnels, but the premise and potential pitfalls are familiar. Wells like mines open a world of potential environmental and health problems. Hydraulic fracturing (called ‘fracking’) breaks the shale, releasing both natural gas as well as other elements. Due to the amount of water, treated with chemicals, used in fracking the Department of Environmental Protection requires every drilling applicant to submit a water plan that would specify where their water would come from in order to monitor the ecosystem.

Volumetric Composition of Fracture Fluid

Source: Compiled Data from Multiple Sources: New York Department of Environmental Conservation

Despite increased monitoring, ‘gas migration’ still occurs as a natural result of fracking. The process of fracking creates a disturbance in the ground which allows gases to migrate to the surface. Similar processes occur in mining as mines are always checked and vented for potentially deadly gasses including methane.

What Aristotle taught his students in antiquity was the Precautionary Principle. This is an approach to policy making that places the burden of proof on companies when they engage in activities that have not yet been scientifically proven as safe. Pennsylvania and other state laws attempt to ‘catch up’ with the technology of shale drilling while entrepreneurs are entrusted with being prudent for their own reputation. It is quite a different political scene across the Atlantic where the Precautionary Principle is already woven into the law of the European Union. This statute has effectively created a deeper level of scrutiny in European nations attempting to explore for natural gas in shale reserves.

The Appalachian Basin of Marcellus Shale that runs from New York to West Virginia isn’t the only gas field under environmental scrutiny. Poland’s Silurian shale gas potential faces two main obstacles, according to Dr. Pawal Poprawa of The Polish Geological Institute: 1) environmental protection and adjusting shale gas exploration to European standards – doing it with negligible environmental impact; and 2) the struggle to make it economic.

Putting the environmental at risk is a price that many residents of Quebec do not seem willing to pay. Canada’s environmentally conscious province has watched methane gas leak into water supplies in Pennsylvania and is not convinced the process of fracking has been perfected. Quebec’s Environment Department has issued several warning notices to the few companies that have started natural gas production in the St. Lawrence Basin. It seems that Quebec is more attune to Francis Bacon’s position from Novum Organun, “We cannot command Nature except by obeying her.”

Yet for less environmentally driven areas Marcellus Shale was only the start of this new mineral rush. Utica Shale, which is a deeper vein than Marcellus and currently being prospected in Quebec, is also found throughout Appalachia. In effect, the gas companies that originally settled in Pennsylvania a few years ago are now increasing production while other companies that sat out the first wave of this rush are now trying to catch up.

Across the Atlantic, Poland faces similar environmental concerns in the form of European Union regulations. Poland’s power plants are fed a steady diet of coal. Cleaner-burning, gas-fired power plants are among the favored solutions to the EU’s expected carbon dioxide emissions regulations. Shale has the potential to help Poland avoid future EU sanctions, but while the air may be cleaner what of the water?

The European Union is currently analyzing shale gas as a potential energy source. Until such rulings are finalized officials in Brussels have made it clear that any extraction in the EU would have to be in line with the bloc’s strict environmental rules.


Vince Chesney
Vincent Chesney has recently been nominated Chair of the Mental Health Services Special Interest Group of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. In addition he serves on the Dementia and Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities National Task Group offering suggestions to the National Alzheimer's Project Act. Chesney continues his work in psychology at Selinsgrove State Center and Luzerne County Community College where he produces a Slavic Performing Arts Fest each year in addition to teaching psychology and social sciences courses. Ever the Renaissance man, he also is a regular contributor to CR, paints Byzantine icons and pysanky.
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *