In public debate about the future of America’s energy policy, the Northeast region is in contention regarding gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale field.
With this project, an Urban Design Lab collaborative effort – including the Urban Design Program of the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, the Open Space Institute, and numerous civic and not-for-profit organizations – we focused on the Marcellus Shale gas extraction along the Upper Delaware, in the Town of Hancock. Particular attention was placed on the drilling process for the gas extraction – or fracking – when water containing fracking chemicals is inserted at high pressure into the ground in order to facilitate gas retrieval. The process includes potential environmental hazards and while contentious, is devoid of local oversight. To date, just in Hancock, more than twenty-five percent of the town’s land has been leased for gas drilling.
Among the communities of the Upper Delaware, perhaps nothing has been more sacred than the practice of “Home Rule,” with its legal guarantee of local control over land use. Unfortunately, both the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005 and New York State’s Environmental Conservation Law Article 23 altered municipal control by exempting natural gas activities from local oversight. Today, extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, ultimately involving hundreds of cleared sites, miles of rural road impacts and millions of gallons of water, does not even receive the same level of review required by local towns for a single residential dwelling plan, where local, State and Federal criteria must be met regarding well, septic and adjacent wetland.
Natural gas hydraulic fracturing has the capacity to drastically alter lifestyle and landscape in the region. Every day over 8.7 billion gallons of water are consumed in the Delaware River Basin by nearly 16 million people – one out of twenty Americans. Requiring almost a million gallons of water (with chemical additives) per day for each operating well, the impacts to the quantity and quality of water in the Upper Delaware region are clearly at risk, whether simply by diversion, or as a result of contamination. Locally increased truck traffic, air pollution, wastewater treatment needs, and gas distribution pipelines, will burden already-stressed municipal infrastructure, from rural road networks to local fire departments. And the alteration of a once bucolic landscape will affect the community character and the economy of an historic region.
However, natural gas leasing appears to be a viable solution to the many that are suffering in this difficult economic climate. While not clearly a ‘stable’ commodity, revenue from gas leasing and potential income from royalties can offer relief to landowners on the brink of losing their property and their way of life. As such, we are poised at a difficult juncture – to drill or not to drill.
With this study, the UDL and its partners aim to provide an informative contribution for the growing debate in the region with the focus of filling the gaps in local awareness of the comprehensive long-term impacts to the landscape and existing municipal infrastructure. Hopefully the document will be read by politicians and decision-makers who will determine the fate of natural gas extraction in the Upper Delaware Region, as well as by all the citizens whose lives and livelihoods will be most affected by their decisions.
Catskill Mountainkeeper www.catskillmountainkeeper.org
Norcross Wildlife Foundation www.norcrossws.org
Upper Delaware Preservation Coalition www.udpc.net
Delaware Riverkeeper Network www.delawareriverkeeper.org
Hancock and the Marcellus Shale: Visioning the Impacts of Natural Gas Extraction Along the Upper Delaware is available @ The Open Space Institute www.osiny.org
Learn more at our website: www.urbandesignlab.columbia.edu
J. Henry Fair Photography
LightHawk flight resources