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Op-ed column: What we know about hydrofracking for gas is unnerving

Op-ed column: What we know about hydrofracking for gas is unnerving

I wasn’t cut out for this. By “this” I mean the dreary outpouring of information, misinformation and

I wasn’t cut out for this.

By “this” I mean the dreary outpouring of information, misinformation and disinformation around the subject of drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale. That’s the sedimentary rock laid down in the Middle Devonian Age, 3.5 million years ago. It is black, and rich in organic matter, and in natural gas. It’s the black shale underlying much of New York’s Southern Tier. Now I learn that the Utica Shale might also hold natural gas, and that will put our upstate counties right in the gas exploration rush.

In my search for information, I have encountered phrases such as “tight gas,” “slick water,” “black shale”, “gas play” and other terms of art to describe these vast reservoirs. (I’m writing a poem about tight gas, by the way.) I’ve learned the difference between conventional gas drilling and the high-pressure fracturing of the sub-surface shale formations to release the gas. This new technology involves millions of gallons of water injected under high pressure into horizontal wells thousands of feet below the surface.

I cannot say I have an in-depth understanding of the technical issues involved, but I have been acquiring a great deal of knowledge about these issues from reading reliable sources of information.

One of these sources is the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which issues permits for gas and oil well drilling in the state. In 1992, the DEC determined that oil and gas well drilling did not constitute an environmental hazard and so issued a Generic Environmental Impact Statement which governs all such drilling, and which does not require site specific environmental assessments or inspections.

This is conventional drilling, by the way, vertical drilling that does sometimes use water under pressure to fracture rock. But not in the massive volume required by the new technology of horizontal, high-volume hydraulic fracturing of shale rock to release the gas trapped in the rock. Because of this new technology, DEC was asked by the governor to develop a Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, which was released Sept. 30 in draft form.

Potential problems

This draft SGEIS is 809 pages long. I have been reading it on-line, chapter to chapter. The development of the supplement is an acknowledgment that hydrofracking — which uses millions of gallons of water per well, which injects hazardous chemicals along with this water under great pressure into the well, and which then has to store the contaminated water thrown back up from the well — does present some potentially serious environmental problems. These are, in no particular order:

-- aquifer contamination.

-- drinking water well explosions.

-- air pollution from the industrial process.

-- need to store huge quantities of industrial waste water.

-- need to acquire millions of gallons of water per well.

-- seismic occurrences resulting from the very high pressure used to “frack” the shale.

I cannot evaluate an analysis of stream water flow, but I can, as an English major, read long, complicated documents that have longer documents historically preceding them, such as the 1992 GEIS on oil and gas drilling, and the scoping documents for this current draft SGEIS.

I can also read the statements regarding horizontal hydrofracking by extremely responsible organizations, such as the non-profit investigative journalism group ProPublica, the non-profit Riverkeeper, committed to keeping the Hudson River clean and New York City water safe. I can read the 80-page preliminary study on horizontal hydrofracking in the New York City watershed, commissioned by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and written by a firm of engineers.

All of these voices, and many others, are raised in protest against the use of hydrofracking in the watershed that delivers unfiltered drinking water to 9 million people downstate, half the state’s population.

Watershed hazards

The watershed that supplies New York City’s water west of the Hudson is the Catskill and Delaware watershed, an area roughly 1,560 square miles, or 1 million acres, and home to approximately 60,000 people. All surface water and stormwater runoff within this watershed drains into large reservoirs and travels via gravity through tunnels and aqueducts to the taps of 1 million upstate consumers and 8 million New York City residents. This system delivers 1.5 billion gallons daily, water so pure it does not need to be filtered.

The environmental problems associated with high-pressure hydrofracking of shale beds for natural gas could very well result in contamination of the watershed, especially on a cumulative basis. These hazards have been experienced in other states, quite recently in Dimock, Pa., a small town just over the New York-Pennsylvania border. Cabot Oil, after three spills of hydrofracking water, has had to shut down fracking operations in Dimock, where streams and wells have been contaminated.

Read Riverkeeper’s reports (on line) for other states’ experiences with high-pressure fracturing of shale rock. Read the New York City DEP’s commissioned report on line at ProPublica for an extensive survey of incidents in other states using this technology. This report, although a preliminary one, is unambiguous. “Nearly every activity associated with natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale has the potential to impact NYC source water quality to some degree, although some impacts are more likely and have already proven to be problematic in other states.”

Hydrofracking of shale rock, however, is not an upstate-downstate issue, although some would say “not in my watershed.” It turns out to be an international issue, much to my surprise. But then why should I be surprised? I was in Spain when Russia’s Gasprom, which owns the pipeline that sends Russian natural gas to western Europe, turned off the spigot in the Ukraine, causing natural gas shortages throughout western Europe.

Italian and Norwegian oil engineers and geologists have arrived in Texas, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania to learn how to extract gas from black shale.

According to The New York Times, companies are leasing huge tracts of land across Europe for exploration. The hope is to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas. According to the Times, this will change the “geopolitics of natural gas.”

NYC report

Back at home, with our own geopolitics, I am looking at the New York City DEP consultants’ preliminary report. The most worrisome statement in this report is a footnote on page 87 that reads: “no comprehensive studies have been identified that evaluate the potential for hydraulic fracturing operations to allow contaminant migration from deeper formations into fresh water aquifers.”

The level of ignorance surrounding high-pressure hydraulic fracturing of black shale is frightening. The technology is new; it has a history of a little more than three years.

There are no studies, therefore, of the cumulative impact of high-pressure drilling of horizontal wells. There are no studies of the cumulative impact on a watershed of the use and re-use of millions of gallons of chemically treated water.

Reading about drilling for natural gas in black shale is a far cry from my usual literary interests, but I will persevere in my quest for knowledge about this technology and industry. And industry it is.

Descriptions of hydrofracking operations in Pennsylvania, and photographs of well sites, remind me of nothing less than a five-acre construction site, with trucks, huge tankers, derricks, cement pads, containment ponds and roads bulldozed into the well site to accommodate all the traffic.

Public hearings

I look forward to the public hearings scheduled for the DSGEIS. DEC, which originally had stated that only written comments would be accepted, finally relented under pressure and last week scheduled four public hearings around the state, including one in New York City. The public comment period, however, will be only 60 days, ending on Nov. 30.

The full report from the engineering firm commissioned to evaluate the impact of hydrofracking on the New York City watershed isn’t due until December. Wouldn’t it be smarter on DEC’s part to extend the public comment another 30 to 60 days, in order to give a full and fair hearing to all parties on this complex issue? The gas will still be there.

Patricia O’Reilly Rush lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

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