The Newest Gold Rush: The Frenzy for Natural Gas Threatens New York's Water
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In an age of diminishing resources, the discovery of an untapped oil or natural gas reserve can stir messianic visions. Salvation is to be found in tar sands and what were once prohibitively expensive methods of extracting crude oil or natural gas from the earth. ‘Drill, baby, drill,' 21st century scripture in some quarters of the United States, reflects the sort of devil may care attitude that, remarkably, in an age of scarcity still drives much of our energy policy.
Last summer, when oil was fetching $140 a barrel and the price of natural gas reached record highs hundreds of landmen descended on the Catskills and Poconos in New York and Pennsylvania. They crisscrossed the Delaware basin holding meetings with local residents in an attempt to persuade them to lease their land. They want what's underneath that land -- trillions of cubic feet of natural gas trapped in the Marcellus Shale, a formation that stretches from Ohio to New York and runs through West Virginia and Pennsylvania. There were tales of deception, of fraud, and of large sums promised. The frenzy has been described as a modern day gold rush.
In New York, even though the drilling hasn't begun, the battle lines have been drawn. Environmental organizations have been forced to play catch up; to educate the public about a drilling process that has not been widely used in this part of the country; and to argue against drilling, at a time of unparalleled economic distress and budget shortfalls, in what may be the largest natural gas reservoir in the nation. And they're also up against the oil and gas companies. "We've never seen the circus come to town before," says Bruce Ferguson, a member of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy who lives in Sullivan County.
As the landmen made their rounds, the New York State legislature passed a bill (A10526), at the eleventh hour on the final day of the legislative session, that made it easier to issue permits for horizontal drilling by establishing uniform standards for well spacing and effectively streamlining the process. The Governor, in a press release, said that the new legislation would "lead to greater administrative efficiency, result in more effective recovery of oil and natural gas, and reduce unnecessary land disturbance." Previously, public hearings for each well and a more cumbersome permitting process would have been required for horizontal drilling, significantly slowing down the potential number of wells that could be exploited.
According to a summary of the bill, "The vast majority of proposals that are expected for oil wells and horizontal wells would not conform to current statewide spacing sizes, and would therefore require notice, public comment and possibly a hearing on an individual well basis. With hundreds of such wells likely to be proposed in the near future, the potential burden on the DEC and the industry would be substantial, with no commensurate benefit in ensuring that the policy objectives of ECL S23-0301 are met [italics added]."
The environmental community and even some legislators were caught off guard. "We in the environmental community didn't wake up until very close to the vote," says Kate Sinding a Senior Attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
Many had been told that the bill would not pass, that it needed work, and that there was nothing to worry about. About a month before the bill passed, State Assembly Member Aileen Gunther (who voted against the measure), in a letter to one of her constituents said that, "My understanding from Mr. Parment [the bill's sponsor] is that the bill is not in its final form and will, in all likelihood, not be voted on this session."
Queens assemblywoman Toby Ann Stavisky told WNYC Radio that she and most of her colleagues learned of the DEC sponsored bill just hours before they were asked to vote on it.
"Why didn't I have more information was my first reaction because it's very detailed scientific language. What's going to happen to the environment, to the air quality, noise pollution, what about pipelines?"
Information it seems has been in short supply. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have not exactly been the subject of dinner table conversations until very recently (on the East Coast anyway). And the industry would like to keep it that way. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a controversial method of capturing natural gas by injecting a long list of chemicals and millions of gallons of water and sand at high pressure into the ground to break open or fracture the bedrock. The prized gas is released from the shale and then recovered.
The chemicals used in the process, developed by Halliburton in the 1950s, are considered an industry trade secret and have not been fully disclosed. Some of the known additives include hydrochloric acid, nitrogen, biocides, surfactants, friction reducers, benzene and other hazardous chemicals. It is believed that fracking fluids have contaminated water supplies in Alabama, Arkansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming -- all places where hydraulic fracturing has been widely used. In Pennsylvania, where drilling in the Marcellus Shale began last year, there have been numerous reports of contaminated wells.
"If these chemicals reach our drinking water supply," the City's Council on Environmental Protection wrote in a briefing paper, "they can potentially have significant adverse health effects." A small part of the Marcellus Shale lies within the New York City watershed, which supplies water to more than fourteen million people in New York City, upstate New York, Philadelphia and northern New Jersey, the largest unfiltered drinking water supply in the United States.
Since the spacing bill was passed, environmental organizations have moved quickly to make sure that if drilling begins -- and there are few who think it will be stopped altogether -- it is done with strict regulatory oversight and adherence to the highest environmental standards.
Catskill Mountain Keeper, an environmental organization in Youngsville, NY, and seven other groups, national and local, drafted a letter to Governor Paterson calling on him to "institute a moratorium on all new gas drilling permits" until an environmental impact statement is completed. They met soon after with the Governor's office and the DEC and, groups that until then had been working largely on their own started to come together.
A compromise was reached and when the governor signed the bill he also required the DEC to issue a Scope Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) that responds to concerns of citizens and environmental organizations (the final document will likely be released this summer). It was an important reprieve and, combined with a steep drop in the price of natural gas and oil and evidence of contaminated wells in nearby Pennsylvania, there is hope that the rush to drill has been tempered, at least for now.
"One thing that's happened," says Wes Gillingham, Program Director of Catskill Mountain Keeper, "is that this whole issue has awakened people to the complexity of hydro fracking and the whole issue of regulatory oversight and whether it's adequate or not. And to the basic question of whether it can be done safely at all."
Or as Ferguson puts it, "You cannot pick up a local paper up here now and not see something about it."
Local environmental organizations see their role as primarily raising public awareness. Most don't have the money or resources to file lawsuits and will rely on the bigger players -- the NRDC, Sierra Club and others -- to take legal action if necessary.
"I think our feeling really is that education is the key here," says Ferguson. "We don't have the resources to stop this either legally or financially or any other way. But we certainly can inform people of what's at stake, which is huge because many people don't understand what a bad outcome could be."
In the end, when the state begins to issue permits the choice will largely be up to individual landowners. It is not clear exactly how many leases have been singed thus far but some estimates are as high as 100,000. In the town of Hancock ("the gateway to the Delaware river") over 20,000 acres have been leased. And even though gas prices have plummeted, landmen are still canvassing the region.
"Given the industries druthers," Gillingham says, "they'd have a checkerboard across the whole landscape, which would industrialize the whole area." Gillingham learned of the Marcellus Shale just over a year ago when a geologist told him to google "Marcellus Shale Play." At that time it was only industry insiders and speculators who were talking about the issue. Google it today and you'll still turn up sites trumpeting the "Next Great Gas Play" or the "hottest natural gas play in North America." The industry is on the march. But the environmental community is ready to meet them head on.
"All the environmental groups are on the same page," says Samara Swanston legal counsel for the New York City Committee on Environmental Protection. "We cannot afford to let New York City's water be threatened by greedy gas drillers. This is a very serious matter and I don't think that anybody who rubber stamps this will get away unscathed."