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No Fracking Way!by Jamaine Bell

There’s a big battle brewing in New York State, pitting the natural gas industry and money-crunched landowners on one side with environmentalists and concerned citizens on the other. The focus of the battle: the leasing of gas wells using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is commonly called, in New York. With the recent release of the documentary Gasland, that battle has grown louder, as more New Yorkers have become aware of the potential environmental dangers associated with fracking for natural gas.

Up to this point, the gas industry and our government have touted natural gas as a “clean energy” source, in that natural gas burns cleaner than other fuel sources, and therefore releases less pollution into our atmosphere. That idea may have been more or less true when natural gas was relatively easy to obtain; however, with our energy needs increasing dramatically at the same time that our supplies are dwindling, energy companies are exploring drilling in gas reservoirs that are very difficult to extract, and are engineering large-scale and environmentally risky methods of obtaining them.

So, why the sudden interest in New York for gas extraction? In two words—the Marcellus Shale—one of the largest natural gas deposits in the United States. The Marcellus Shale lies embedded in rock a mile deep under six states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia. It connects with another large shale formation, called the Devonian Shale, which runs under Ohio down through Kentucky and Tennessee. Experts claim that the Marcellus Shale could hold as much as 400 trillion gallons of natural gas, which is 20 times the current output of natural gas in the US.

The gas industry has known about the Marcellus Shale for quite a while, but did not have the means to extract the gas until recently, the difficulty being that the gas is trapped in porous rock at depths much deeper than in traditional gas wells. In order to release the gas, the rock must be “fractured”, or broken up, thus the use of hydraulic fracturing, a process that injects massive amounts of water, along with sand and other fluids, at a high enough pressure to break up the rock and release the gas.

The gas industry likes to make the point that hydraulic fracturing has been used in gas extraction since the 1940’s, when the method was invented by Halliburton. However, as Nadia Steinzor of Earthworks, an environmental minerals-extraction watchdog group, recently told me, “This is not your grandmother’s hydrofracking.” The older methods used tens of thousands of gallons of water per frack incident. The newer, more intensive methods use 3 to 9 million gallons of water per frack incident. With estimates of adding 1,500 to 2,500 new wells per year to New York State, the gallons of water that would be needed to sustain the industry is in the trillions, with additional trillions of gallons added to the industry’s needs each year.

Another important difference is that the newer methods involve horizontal drilling, which exposes more land to irreversible damage. The last, and perhaps most damaging in the eyes of the environmentalists, is the use of almost 600 chemicals in the fracking process, many of them known to be carcinogenic or toxic. The industry does not have to disclose what chemicals are used due to a 2005 law passed by Congress, dubbed the “Halliburton Loophole,” a reference to the influence on the passage of the bill by then-Vice President Dick Cheney. This law exempts hydrofracking from regulation by the EPA, leaving no federal oversight in the industry, and allows the gas companies to claim that the chemicals used are proprietary information and do not have to be disclosed.

New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey has recently proposed legislation to close the “Halliburton Loophole” and force the gas companies to disclose the chemicals that are used in the fracking process. The bill would also restore the EPA’s enforcement of the Safe Water Drinking Act over the industry. That bill, known as the “Frac Act” (sic), is currently being debated in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. A similar act has been introduced in the Senate, by New York Senator Chuck Schumer.

With no federal oversight of the gas industries operations, the states are left to put together and implement their own oversight plans.

New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation released a Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (September 2009) as its plan for overseeing hydraulic fracturing in the state. However, many environmental organizations including Earthworks, the Environmental Advocates of New York, and Clearwater, have come out hard against the plan, stating that it is too small in scope and does not take into account many important environmental issues, such as a plan for water withdrawal from the communities to use in the process (with each well using up to 9 million gallons of water), where and how the waste water will be treated, non-disclosure of the fracking fluids, lack of preparedness in case of a spill or accident, and lack of resources and staff to fully oversee the industry in the state.

Katherine Nadeau, from the Environmental Advocates of New York, gives some details into the potential issues, “These wastes are incredibly salty and dangerous because all of our municipal plants discharge into the waterways. If you are putting incredibly salty water, which is five to six times as salty as seawater, into fresh water ecosystems, the results can be tragic. So, we don’t have treatment plants that can remove these salts and we don’t have plants that can remove the chemicals in any meaningful way. We don’t have plants that can deal with the naturally occurring radioactive elements that come out with these wastes. And we don’t have the oversight for water withdrawals at the capacity that they are talking about in many parts of the state. There are a couple of exceptions to that—there are some areas where there is oversight of water withdrawals. But in more than a one third of the state, there is none.”

Since the development of the newer process of high-volume horizontal drilling, many states have moved quickly to allow hydrofracking of gas and are in full swing of development. According to the website, Frackaction.com, there are now over 52,000 frack wells in Pennsylvania. In New York, estimates vary as to how many new well leases will be allowed, with moderate estimates varying from 1,500 to 2,500 new wells a year. However, Nadia Steinzor, of Earthworks, told a group of activists at a Frack Action rally in June about her experience working in the Barnett Shale in Texas, “where in the ‘80s, when hydrofracking and gas drilling began, it was just a few wells. Ten years later, it was a few hundred wells; today there are 11,000. The landscape in those areas has been changed forever.”

And then, of course, there are the inevitable mishaps, blowouts, toxic frack water releases, and well and ground water contaminations. These are not just hypothetical problems. Since hydrofracking has become a widespread practice—31 states now allow high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing—numerous catastrophes, large and small, have been recorded, from individual well contaminations to the recent release of millions of gallons of contaminated frack water into a local watershed in Pennsylvania.

The fact that gas leasing in the New York City watershed is not off the table has many in New York City fighting for a moratorium on hydrofracking leases until an EPA study releases its first comprehensive national study sometime in 2011 or 2012. New York City’s 9 million residents get their water from the upstate area and it is so pure that it does not need to be filtered. A release of toxic chemicals in the water supplying the city would be a disaster of incredible magnitude.

While some folks are aware and involved with the issues and plans for hydrofracking in the New York, the use of this type of drilling and its risks are largely unknown in the state. Josh Fox, the director of Gasland (see this month’s Roll feature), hopes to educate people about the issue and its effect on their land and water. The gas industry has, for its part, set up several websites and issued press releases “debunking” the film’s claims. However, the gas industry’s track record for complete disclosure has not...been good. Katherine Nadeau, asserts that the companies are misrepresenting the scale and impact to the landowners, while dangling big dollar contracts to lure them into leases. Given that small-scale hydrofracking wells have been in use in New York for decades, many landowners may be lead to believe that the new technique will match the same scale as the older wells.

So why the big rush to drill, given the potential dangers to local water supplies and the environment? In short: Money. Many of the counties that stand to lure the most in gas drilling are also some of the most economically challenged. Gas leases mean money, lots of it in some cases, and the promise of jobs. Thus the battle: those that want to have immediate financial gains versus those that would protect the environment and the drinking water of millions of people.

Our state legislature is also divided on the issue. Many in both the state assembly and senate have submitted bills for a moratorium on drilling until the EPA’s study is released, as well as for stricter regulations and oversight of the drilling if and when it is allowed. Demonstrations for and against hydrofracking gas leases have been held across the state, while the New York Department of Environmental Conservation is poised to allow new gas drilling by the end of the year.

With gas prices at a low, and with the potential for environmental disaster on a massive scale, the call for a drilling moratorium is a sensible and sane plan. The sanest plan, of course, would be to move our resources away from ever deeper and more dangerous drilling in the earth for fossil fuels with the potential of planetary consequences (as also exhibited recently in the Gulf of Mexico), and instead direct those efforts towards building a renewable energy infrastructure, which would also bring money and jobs to the state.

But with the gas companies standing at the door with their wallets open, it will be hard for some to see the long-term sense in that. Easy dollars versus a planet that will continue to support us: this is the choice of our age. We need to take the time to make the right one.



For more about this subject, visit www.earthworksaction.org, www.eany.org (Environmental Advocates of New York), www.frackaction.com.

Collages by Christy Rupp.



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