Wednesday, August 19, 2015
George McKinney: Don’t discount opportunities in STEM education
By George McKinney
I read last week’s op-ed by Julian Martin (Brainwashing at the Clay Center) with emotions that started at bemused annoyance and quickly shifted to total unbelief that such a diatribe was written by a teacher.
Ignoring the ad-hominem attack on Lloyd Jackson and the staff of the Clay center, I would like to ask how much Mr. Martin knows about the gas industry and the process of fracturing a formation to increase production. It seems that many people have been convinced that the purpose of fracking is to pollute the wells of people living nearby to gas production. In fact, this is the farthest thing from the intent: consider the geology and physics of the situation. Historically, gas has been produced from fairly porous sandstone formations, which may lie from a few hundred to 1,000 or 2,000 feet below ground. The new gas fields that are being tapped are generally in the Marcellus and Utica shales, a formation that is not as porous and typically is about a mile below ground. The difference is like trying to get water out of a sponge versus trying to get it out of a wet piece of wood — tighter formations are less productive. So, gas producers first drill horizontally along the formation, then inject water to crack and open up multiple paths for gas to flow out to the well bore.
Now, ask why the gas is in this formation to begin with. It has been capped and kept from flowing up and out to the earth’s surface by a relatively solid layer of stone, typically limestone. If there were significant cracks in the cap rock, the gas would have escaped over the eons (similar to what happened to create the gas seep near Belle, called “Burning Springs.”
When fracturing the well, producers have a great interest in NOT cracking this cap formation — gas is money, and allowing gas to escape would be equivalent to opening the drawer of the cash register in the middle of a hurricane — NOT profitable.
Does this happen? Of course, accidents happen and no technology is perfect. In these cases the gas companies have a legal and moral obligation to “make well” the injured parties.
But let us consider the more realistic condition for rural water wells, most of which are 100 to 300 feet deep. These wells are also frequently in close proximity to a home which has a septic system. Now, if I have a leach bed for a septic tank and a water well which is 100 to 300 feet distant, which am I more likely to have for contamination — the source which is a few hundred feet away, or one which is a mile away?
apart from the facts of fracturing, Mr. Martin then wheels to an attack on teaching students technical subjects (STEM education). He appears to have an antagonism and contempt for those who rely on this branch of education to earn their living. As a one-time graduate of West Virginia Institute of Technology and a lifetime technical/engineering worker, I feel that I have been enabled and challenged by the industry where I work — not enslaved as Mr. Martin appears to feel that STEM students are.
But following this attack on educating our young people in fields where there is a need, we see a bewailing that the gas industry is bringing in workers from out of state to do the work that our people have not been trained for. Yes, industries are bringing in workers, because there are no skilled workers that can be hired locally. I am currently working as an advisor to a consortium of several of our West Virginia colleges, including Pierpont College, Northern and Bridgemont. We are developing curriculum for training high school graduates and ex-coalfield workers in the areas needed by the gas industry, and are beginning to have graduates and/or co-op student placements. These people will be gainfully employed, in very well paying positions with good expectations for job security.
Finally, I would invite Mr. Martin to visit some of the sites and industries which he is decrying — go to a well site and see several acres of land which has been disturbed, then visit it two years later and see it growing crops or trees. Now, go to a mountaintop removal or strip mine site, and compare the thousands of acres of leveled ground and buried streams, now and 20 years in the future. But also, go to the small towns and businesses in the Northern part of our state. Drive from Jane Lew over toward Moundsville. See the towns that had been decaying after the death of the steel industry in Weirton and Wheeling. See these towns coming back to life, workers in the restaurants and motels, homes where unemployed men are now repairing the house and have a new truck in the driveway. And finally, talk to one of these workers. Tell him that he should not be working, repairing his home, buying a car or truck, and sending his children to school with a full meal or allowance. Tell him that he should be studying stage arts, classical literature or advanced ethnobotany. Tell him that his children do not need mechanical, technical or physical “hard sciences” to live off welfare. Perhaps he will simply roll on the ground laughing rather than picking up the “board of education” to give you a lesson.
George McKinney is director of compression at EnSite USA in Hurricane.