Hydrofracking Roundup

Posted June 9, 2011

Here are some recent developments and perspectives regarding the hydrofracking debate in New York State. The Chamber hopes the NYS Senate rejects this latest one-year moratorium proposal; let’s let the very capable DEC finish its job, so we can begin to capture the many benefits that safe and responsible gas drilling can generate.

Assembly OKs hydrofracking moratorium
– Jon Campbell, The Star-Gazette: http://www.stargazette.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2011106060358

Report: Lift of fracking ban would generate $11.4B for N.Y. by 2020
– Jon Campbell, The Star-Gazette: http://www.stargazette.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2011106070361

Stop freaking about fracking: It's possible to drill safely for natural gas
By Bill Hammond, Staff Writer, New York Daily News, 5/31/11

The news a few years ago that upstate New York is sitting on billions of dollars worth of natural gas should have been cause for celebration.

Previously out-of-reach pockets of precious fuel - stored in a huge underground rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale - could now be affordably tapped, thanks to cutting-edge drilling techniques.

Great! We could burn less coal, crank out less smog, pay less money to Middle East potentates - and create a passel of jobs, to boot. Right here in the U.S. of A.

But no. First, we had to freak out about fracking.

It started with horror stories about drilling-related pollution in other states. A documentary showed a guy setting fire to the stuff coming out of his kitchen tap. Movie star Mark Ruffalo - who lives in Sullivan County - warned New Yorkers about "the attack that's taking place on their water."

Before long, millions had rallied to the anti-fracking cause - with many demanding an outright ban on all drilling, especially in the vast areas that supply drinking water to New York City and Syracuse.

How depressing.

Is this what America has come to in the 21st century? Are we so terrified of technology and distrustful of business that we'd rather just let a hugely valuable resource sit underground, going to waste?

Or can we calm down long enough to analyze this for what it is: an engineering and regulatory challenge to be solved, not an ideological crusade to be won or lost.

What we need is more rational, pragmatic voices like that of Stuart Gruskin, who was executive deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environment Conservation from 2007 through 2010.

"The fact that bad things happened in other places doesn't mean bad things are going to happen in New York," Gruskin says. "In fact, New York has deliberately taken a position of, 'Think first and drill later.'"

Fracking, short for "hydraulic fracturing," is a drilling method in which water is pumped at high pressure into a well to crack the surrounding shale, which releases gas.

The industry has downplayed the known hazards of drilling, he says, while the anti-fracking forces have mischaracterized the risk. Now a private consultant with no ties to drilling, Gruskin is free to speak frankly - and clear up the many misconceptions about fracking.

First, he notes, it's not really a new technology. In fact, there are some 14,000 fracked wells operating in New York today - many in aquifers used for drinking water - with no catastrophic effect.

But the newer wells would go many times deeper, as much as a mile or more down, then a mile or more horizontally. They also require much more water - millions of gallons per well. This is why the DEC is proceeding cautiously.

Second, the biggest danger is not from fracturing itself, which usually happens too deep to affect the water table. What can cause trouble is faulty design and construction of well shafts near the surface. Another significant risk is mishandling of fracking fluid, which contains toxic additives, before and after it's injected.

Third - contrary to what you may have heard - fracking is by no means unregulated, at least not in New York. In fact, New York has some of the tightest regulations in the country - and they're bound to get tighter after the DEC finishes a painstaking analysis. Plus a fracking moratorium imposed by former Gov. David Paterson continues through June - which Gov. Cuomo may now extend because of an accident in Pennsylvania.

Fourth, flammable faucets don't necessarily have anything to do with drilling. Natural gas is natural - and can and does leach into ground water on its own.

Gruskin is no industry shill. He stops short of endorsing fracking in New York until all the facts are in. But unlike most people in this debate, he has no monetary motive or ideological ax to grind. And he trusts the experts and professionals at his former agency to do the right thing - and thinks other New Yorkers should, too.

"Everyone's got to take a deep breath and say, 'Let's get back to facts and science,'" he says. "And that's what DEC is in the process of doing. Everyone who's out there shouting and screaming should let DEC finish the job."

He's right. Environmentalists especially should respect the process. They are, after all, the side that believes in strong government regulation. They need to tone down the "no fracking way" rhetoric and help the DEC make New York a showcase for safe, responsible gas drilling.

‘Fracking’, with care, holds key to energy future
By USA Today Editorial Board, 6/7/11

Little more than a decade ago, the United States was running so low on natural gas that companies were making plans to cover the shortfall with imports of liquefied natural gas. Today, though, the marine terminals built to dock huge LNG ships in Texas, Louisiana and Maryland are being converted to ship gas out, not just bring it in.

This remarkable reversal of fortune is the result of a dramatic boom in a drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," which uses high-pressure water mixed with chemicals and sand to crack open shale formations. This technique has brought a surprising amount of new gas production from states as disparate as Texas, North Dakota and Pennsylvania — enough combined with conventional supplies to last perhaps 100 years at current consumption rates.

That's game-changing, wildly underdiscussed news. Gas now meets only about a quarter of the nation's energy needs, much of it for home heating and industrial use. But if estimates of shale gas reserves are correct — and they seem to just get bigger — gas could begin to displace oil as a fuel for vehicles and might even help unseat coal as the nation's dominant fuel for generating electricity. Price pressures would ease; dependence on unstable supplies of foreign oil could decline.

But, as with other energy sources, there's a catch, and it's a big one. Fracking has caused some serious problems in many of the places where it has been used over the past several years, enough to threaten its promising future.

Cracking open dense rock formations to extract oil and gas requires enormous amounts of water, as much as 5 million gallons for a single well. That can strain local water resources and create serious problems if the wastewater that comes back to the surface isn't carefully handled.

There have been incidents in which wastewater laden with chemicals and radioactivity from formations thousands of feet below the surface leaked onto adjacent properties, severely damaging them. Companies have disposed of wastewater at sewage treatment plants that might not have been able to remove all the fracking chemicals.

There's also a furious battle going on between the industry on one side, and homeowners and environmentalists on the other, over whether the fracking process has contaminated drinking water supplies.

The industry says there's no documented case of that happening, and in fact it seems highly unlikely for fracking fluids to have migrated upward from shale formations thousands of feet below the surface to pollute water aquifers that are usually just hundreds of feet below ground.

But is it possible that fracking fluids have escaped into water supplies from poorly contained wellbores, inexpertly lined pits next to drilling rigs, or accidental discharges? At the request of Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency is trying to settle the issue with a study. Initial results are due next year.

Almost as damaging for the industry is rising anger from property owners in rural areas invaded by intensive drilling activity. Thanks to permissive regulations, drillers can put their rigs and fluid pits just a few hundred feet or less from property lines, subjecting residents to the 24/7 cacophony of a drilling rig or the repellent smells that waft from open pits of chemical-laden water.

To their credit, the best companies are working to minimize these problems, by recycling fracking fluid instead of disposing of it, for example, and by using closed systems with tanks instead of open pits. Some states have tightened regulations in response to public complaints. New York has imposed a moratorium on fracking while it writes tougher regulations.

But state regulators — who are the primary enforcers when it comes to drilling — have often been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of drilling activity, and states vary in how aggressively they ride herd on an industry that has its share of bad actors.

The nation badly needs shale gas and oil, but getting it requires that drillers and regulators find a way to enforce best practices that minimize the impact on property owners and the environment. Industry, environmentalists and regulators would do well to expand efforts to devise a model set of fracking regulations that states could adopt.

Drilling will never been entirely safe, clean or quiet, but it can and should be safer, cleaner and quieter. The alternative is a justifiable backlash that would make it difficult for the nation to take advantage of a crucial new resource.

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