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Op-ed column: Getting that gas out of the ground, part 1

Op-ed column: Getting that gas out of the ground, part 1

The natural gas that is resident in all of New York state’s shales is not going anywhere, much less
Op-ed column: Getting that gas out of the ground, part 1
Forest Byrd/For The Sunday Gazette
Photographer: Forest Byrd/For The Sunday Gazette

In April, Assemblyman Steven Englebright introduced a bill (10490-A) calling for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in New York state until after the federal Environmental Protection Agency completes a two-year study on the impact on public health and water quality.

The EPA study is, in fact, long overdue, since former Vice President Dick Cheney got the process exempted from the Clean Water Act several years ago.

Why did he do that? Well, his being the former head of Halliburton probably has something to do with it.

The Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York maintains that hydrofracking, or hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, is safe and would help create jobs and improve the state’s dire economy. “This is an unnecessary bill that would add further delays while New York’s economy continues to fail and industry jobs leave New York for other states,” said Brad Gill, executive director of the association.

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“The EPA has already concluded, on more than one occasion, that hydraulic fracturing — a 60-year-old technology — is safe. What’s more, 14,000 wells have already been ‘fracked’ in New York over the past 60 years without a single case of water contamination.”

This is the same EPA that hasn’t been allowed to regulate these latest technological innovations over the past five years.

First of all, the natural gas that is resident in all of New York state’s shales is not going anywhere, much less to other states. If and when New York promulgates regulations sufficient to ensure the protection of everyone’s drinking water, there may or may not be plenty of employment opportunities, which are currently going to other states.

As time goes on, more and more negative reports are emerging from those other states, which allowed this type of exploitation to proceed without sufficient regulatory safeguards.

Negative reports

Do our supplies of fresh water need to be risked for the sake of a quick payback? The price of natural gas on the market is still too low to make shale exploitation worth the effort, or so we’ve been told, by $2 to $3 per million BTU. It needs to be around $7 per million BTU, and it has only been in the high $3 to mid $4 range for the past two months.

The suggestion that dramatic employment opportunities are being lost, or postponed, is also a curious — if not a preposterous — one.

That some new employment of New York residents might occur is not in dispute. The question is, how many and what kind?

Most of the workers on these drilling operations are from out of state; many are transients who have raised levels of crime and drug abuse in the communities where they temporarily reside. Some observers describe them this way: “They work hard and they play hard.” They move from site to site and send most of their money back home to the states where their families live.

While they may, temporarily, spend money in our backyards on food, lodging and, for some, on alcohol and illegal drugs, are they merely displacing other people, such as tourists? The heavy truck traffic places an extraordinary burden on our roads and both the trucks and the drilling rigs produce an additional burden of air, noise and visual pollution that our area does not currently suffer from.

Does everyone realize that the Marcellus shale covers about the southeastern half of Albany County and that the deeper Utica shale extends even farther north and east than the Marcellus does, covering much of the greater Capital Region? In Texas, they brag about drilling on children’s playgrounds and in the middle of cities.

Mr. Gill points out that hydrofracking has been used in drilling over 14,000 wells in New York state over the past 60 years. Well, yes, but not horizontal drilling.

More area affected

A much larger fracturing footprint and retrieval is accomplished by applying this process horizontally, in parallel patterns, enabling five to nine wells per pad per square mile to extract natural gas from the better part of that whole square mile (640 acres) from about a five- to 10-acre surface footprint, once the initial drilling is completed.

This newer horizontal application disturbs a greater area and consumes and contaminates much greater amounts of water with “proprietary” chemicals than the wells drilled only vertically.

One of the things that is not often mentioned is that this is not a one-shot deal, as the fracturing and injection process is done from the outer reaches of the horizontal shafts back toward the central vertical bores.

I believe this requires additional water, sand and chemicals with each progressive — or regressive — stage of fracking; some of which is retrieved. This can happen over the course of several years. At a reported 2 million to 9 million gallons of water per well, with the proprietary chemicals making up between 0.5 percent and 1 percent of the slurry, which amounts to 10,000 to 90,000 gallons of chemicals per well. At 8 pounds per gallon, that would be 80,000 to 720,000 pounds of chemicals; at five to nine wells per pad site, that would be 400,000 to 6.48 million pounds of chemicals per pad site.

Doesn’t sound that trivial anymore, does it?

Have there been accidents and failures of the cement casings that are supposed to protect our drinking water and leakages from “containment” ponds of flowback?

Well, yes.

Are they the result, specifically, of the fracturing per se?

Well perhaps not, but they would not have happened at all if the fracturing had never occurred. So who wants to play Russian Roulette and bet that their property isn’t going to be the one to three in a hundred that has their well ruined?

Priority for water

According to state conservation law, the best and highest use of the state’s water is for human consumption. In theory, every other utilization is subordinate to that overriding imperative, and with good reason.

Haven’t we had enough pollution from industries, rampant and indiscriminate development, and agricultural operations, or do we really want or need more contamination? Water, especially sub-surface, is a funny thing. It doesn’t clean itself up very quickly or easily, if at all. And geology is not a consistent thing either; there are fault lines out there and we do experience seismic disturbances — like the Canadian earthquake felt in this area Wednesday — even though they are not usually as dramatic as in, say, Haiti, Chile or California.

Yes, natural gas may well be 45 percent cleaner than coal and 30 percent cleaner than petroleum, and there is a vast domestic resource of it, but if New York City and Skaneateles/Syracuse have a right to have their water supplies protected, what about the rest of us?

Cooperstown gets its water from Otsego Lake and other municipalities rely on lakes or reservoirs. And there are a bunch of us out here who rely on wells. I guess the rest of us just don’t count for much, eh?

Let’s see, if my reading of the maps is correct, the Alcove Reservoir, which supplies Albany’s water, happens to sit right on top of the both Marcellus and Utica shales. Pennsylvania is getting $6.15 million by allowing hydrofracking to occur on either side of, and underneath, 1,500 acres of a seven-mile stretch of the Susquehanna River. I wonder how the folks downriver feel about that?

Pennsylvania also got $128.5 million for leasing the mineral rights under 32,000 acres of their state forests. The ones who have the potential to suffer the worst consequences are the ones least likely to benefit from the financial windfall that those leasing their properties hope to realize. Just ask the folks down in Dimock, Pa.

Nervous skepticism

Just because New York is proposing more stringent regulations than any other state does not mean that they are stringent enough. The DEC doesn’t have the manpower to adequately inspect and monitor the thousands of wells that are proposed.

Are a lot of us nervous and skeptical out here in the Southern Tier? You bet we are. Anybody want to buy what may well become some very cheap land, once the extraction starts and after it is concluded, leaving heaven knows what behind?

Some of us, after the many sad experiences that we have witnessed, are urging the Precautionary Principle and we ask the question, what’s the rush? Won’t it only be even more valuable in the future than it is now?

In the meantime, let’s develop the best and strongest measures possible to ensure that our water supplies are not at risk and that our countryside is not despoiled. Let’s encourage the industry to come up with better solutions and answers to address our suspicions, fears and concerns.

Thomas A. Pritchard lives in Hartwick and is on the steering committee of Sustainable Otsego and co-chairman of the Capital Region Energy Forum.

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