I was looking at a map the other day, on the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Web site.
It was a map of a shale formation underlying most of the southern half of our state, most of Pennsylvania, a lot of Ohio.
The shale formation is called the Marcellus shale. It’s not the shale that protrudes over about half of my yard. At least I don’t think so, since our house is built near the old bluestone quarry on Schenectady’s north side. The shale formation’s northern boundary includes the southern half of Albany County.
Why should I care about this shale? Geology in my youth was known as “rocks for jocks” and something we English majors sneered at. I’ve been learning that the shale called Marcellus contains natural gas, which is locked up in the rock. The formation can be very deep into the ground, so deep wells need to be drilled. And, the wells are drilled sideways.
Well, in this age of emerging fossil fuel scarcity, finding new sources of natural gas literally in my backyard (southern Albany County, right?) is great. Good for the economy, good for the price of natural gas, Great for those counties like Broome, Chenango, Chemung, Allegheny, where unemployment is chronically high, and has gotten even higher during this recession.
I lived in Chemung County for almost 12 years and while learning to love every tree, river, mountain, cliff, lake, I knew that eventually we would have to leave. Chemung is that kind of place. 14 percent unemployment, empty stores, a bit out of the way.
Much to my surprise and growing dismay, I’ve been learning that the gas drilling is a dirty business, not the benign win-win issue as it has been presented, even by our own DEC. The technique for getting the natural gas out of the rock is known as hydrofracking or fracking. It uses huge quantities of chemically treated water under pressure to force out the gas. Then the water has to be disposed of. Some of it stays underground, sometimes in wells as deep as 20,000 feet. Some of it comes back up to the surface.
The chemicals in the water are nasty. But because the gas companies have declared them to be proprietary information, they are not obliged to release their names. We know from water testing in states with fracking under way that some of the chemicals are endocrine disruptors, and some are organic chemicals like toluene that, even in small amounts, are dangerous.
The biggest surprise to me has been, however, the fact that this technique, hydrofracking, is exempt from the protection of the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. The exemption is called the “Halliburton loophole” of 2005 and was engineered through the legislative process with the blessing of our former vice president, Dick Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton. (The Energy Policy Act of 2005 was a secret process, if you recall, managed by the vice president.) The hydraulics of our underground sources of drinking water are not well understood, yet over half of the U.S. population gets its drinking water from aquifers. And all of us in Schenectady County get our drinking water from the Great Flats Aquifer, designated a sole source aquifer by the Environmental Protection Agency.
What if the gas drilling companies want to drill in the Catskills? In the Helderbergs? What if they want to buy our water? Where will the waste water be disposed of? Underground storage alarms me more than surface disposition, because we do not know where the contaminated water will travel. Nor do we know what it will contaminate. Aquifers in other states at a distance from the wells have been contaminated as the waste water finds its way through cracks in the rocks.
It seems to me that a reasonable first step is to support congressional efforts to close the Halliburton loophole to the Safe Water Drinking Act.
Doing so would place hydrofracking under a minimal federal standard uniform in all states to prohibit drinking water contamination.
It seems to me that a reasonable next step would be to become well informed on hydrofracking in New York state. A bill has just been introduced in the Assembly, A08748, called the “Brennan Bill.” Among other things, it would prohibit drilling using hydrofracking anywhere in the New York City Watershed, in the southern Catskills. This prohibition is intended to protect the drinking water of New York City!
What about the rest of us?
Hydrofracking is like catnip to our elected officials. Jobs! Money!
How can it be bad for our rural counties? The Brennan Bill requires that gas-drilling companies reveal their proprietary chemicals to DEC, but would allow DEC to keep this information from the public. The bill gives no power to local government, county or town, to control either the chemicals brought into a county or the disposition of the chemical-laden waters. Major criticism of the bill so far is centered on the cozy relationship between DEC and the drilling companies.
“Rocks for jocks”? Hardly. I am learning some hard geological truths in this era of declining fossil fuels, The scramble for extracting oil and gas from the more inaccessible places, such as the Alberta tar sands and the Marcellus shale, has certainly raised my awareness of the geology underlying fossil fuel energy sources.
Environmental devastation follows in the wake of resource extraction, as the stubborn rocks demand more and more intrusive methods before giving up their treasures. The natural gas pumped out of the Marcellus shale will fuel our gas-fired power plants. Maybe, just maybe, we could generate power, lots of it, by other means — wind comes to mind, and hydro.
Leave the gas in the rocks, I say.
Patricia O’Reilly Rush lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.