Hydraulic fracturing, “fracking” of gas wells, is new to the Northeast. In this process millions of gallons of water and chemicals are injected into a horizontally drilled well shaft under pressure to break up the rock formations and release gas.
Taylor wrote in an e-mail: “We have the gas and oil industry perched on the edge of their seats, ready to come in and frack the heck out of the shale beneath us. They claim it’s safe and no water contamination has occurred from fracking. They are promising landowners lots of money from leasing, and many jobs. But there is strong evidence to the contrary on all those points.”
Yvonne and others, worried about potential long-term damage to the environment resulting from the short-term shale gas gold rush, have organized into dozens of grassroots groups in southern New York and Pennsylvania. Organizations like River Keeper, Gas Drilling Awareness for Cortland County and the Tompkins County Planning Department are issuing warnings about heavy truck traffic and ruined roads, the potential for lower local property tax revenues, permanent pollution of drinking water wells, and clear-running trout streams being sucked dry or contaminated by well drillers.
What happened elsewhere?
Their concerns appear to be well founded, as illustrated by events in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas, and Wyoming where shale gas drilling has been underway for years. Last winter the mayor of Dish, Texas, Calvin Tillman, traveled at his own expense to Upstate New York to speak to groups about his town’s experiences with gas drillers. His small town is home to 11 natural gas compressor stations and miles of pipelines. Residents deal every day with noise pollution, air pollution and respiratory ailments caused by gas leaks and vapors. His message to the Finger Lakes area is “Take your time and do it right.”
While efforts to put a moratorium on fracking for shale gas are underway in New York State, there is still tremendous pressure to get the gas as fast as it can be gotten. The amounts of money involved are staggering – New York State could realize gas well royalties of up to a billion dollars each year. However, some say that the costs of cleanup, road repair, reduced property value, water treatment and other long-term remediation are likely to eat up that revenue.
Keeping watch over water
Not everyone is willing to risk losing clean water and air. New York City lobbied successfully for stricter case-by-case well-drilling permits for gas wells within the Catskills watershed, the source of its unfiltered supply. Syracuse received a similar level of protection for Skaneateles Lake. (The New York State Department of Health has jurisdiction over unfiltered public water supplies, and so can override DEC gas-well regulations.) The rest of us don’t have the same increased oversight of our public water supplies and private drinking water wells, which has prompted a number of counties, towns and cities to issue resolutions calling for a moratorium on shale gas drilling and fracking. The “tacit admission” of problems implied by the increased regulation of drilling in New York City’s water supply has energized those opposed to the current regulatory regime and the gas rush may be slowing a bit for now.
Shale gas fracking uses a lot of water, so concern centers on pollution of that water. We really don’t know a lot about the actual geology and science of fracking and what happens after it’s been done. However, some experts suggest that when the shales are fractured to release gas deep below the surface, some of the cracks in the rock intersect with faults. The natural faults allow gas and or chemical-laced frack fluid to travel. Sometimes gas and chemicals can travel for miles to reach an aquifer near the surface to pollute a well or surface-water stream or river. In Bainbridge, Ohio, a few years ago, gas seeped into a basement of a house, where it collected and exploded. While no one can prove the source of the gas, a well nearby had been hydrofracked and the incident fits the pattern of similar effects. In January 2009, a water well exploded in Dimock, Pennsylvania, because of methane intrusion. At least eight other wells were found to be contaminated from gas wells drilled nearby.
What do they do with frack water?
The Marcellus shale is a “tight” shale and the same characteristics that make it reluctant to yield its gas also cause it to retain much of the polluted water used in the fracking process. Ideally the polluted water would be recovered and processed to remove radionuclides and chemicals and then reused. Currently, such processing is not yet widely available in our area. To dispose of frack water out West, it is injected into a deep storage well drilled in a stable impermeable rock formation. Very few wells for disposal of contaminants exist in the Northeast. In Pennsylvania, the used water is being treated by municipal sewage treatment plants, which are not equipped to handle brines, fracking chemicals and radioactivity.
Leaving the fluid in place deep underground raises enough questions to justify a moratorium on it in New York State, say many people. In May, Tompkins County passed its own gas drilling resolution. It called on the governor and the legislature of the State of New York “to ban hydrofracking pending further independent scientific assessments to determine the risks, greenhouse gas emissions, and social and economic costs associated with the practice.” Onondaga and Cortland County have also called for a moratorium.
Appropriate environmental safeguards
In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act that contains a loophole removing much of the federal government’s authority to monitor and regulate hydraulic fracturing’s impact on the environment. By default, that responsibility fell to the states with their limited resources and abilities to inspect and monitor the thousands of new wells being drilled. New York, according to the independent journalism project Pro Publica, had just 19 inspectors to monitor 13,684 gas wells in 2008. The number of wells being drilled and the need for inspections is expected to increase dramatically as hydraulic fracturing begins. According to Pro Publica, in Pennsylvania gas wells are visited once every 10 years by inspectors.
Legislation has been introduced in congress to close the shale gas regulatory loophole. The federal legislation called the FRAC act (S 1215 and HR 2766) to restore regulatory authority had been sitting in committee for over a year. In June 2010, legislation calling for a one-year moratorium on fracking within New York State had gotten through committee in Albany, but had not yet been passed.
With appropriate environmental safeguards, natural gas from Upstate New York wells could be a “bridge” to a more sustainable energy policy. But monitoring, proper cleanup and containment of spills and fracking chemicals are essential. Though the individual environmental impacts of a single well might seem manageable, the cumulative impacts of thousands of wells, plus the associated traffic and other industry associated with them, and the potential pollution of groundwater are worth careful thought and oversight. Going slow, as advised by others who have watched their own ranches, cities and farms impacted seems prudent. Perhaps some areas should just be off limits.
Since Life in the Finger Lakes first ran an article last summer on drilling for shale gas, we’ve learned quite a lot about this particular area of energy policy. Much of it comes from nearby Pennsylvania, where hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells has been underway for a couple of years.
by Susan Peterson Gateley