Fracking is back in the news again, and in a big way. On July 1, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration, released its recommendations regarding the controversial natural gas extraction technique. Amidst the din of statewide protests, the agency supported fracking in most of the state’s portion of the Marcellus Shale Formation, with notable exclusions around watersheds supplying New York City and Syracuse with their drinking water. Environmental groups hopeful for a ban on fracking–a method drilling where large volumes of water, mixed with sand and chemicals are pumped deep underground to release tiny natural gas bubbles embedded in shale deposits–responded to DEC’s 736-page proposal with alarm. A coalition of 47 food, water, and environmental organizations has already racked up more than 20,000 signatures on an anti-fracking petition sent to Gov. Cuomo’s office. New Jersey and North Carolina enacted similar bans, but in New York, many are supportive of the industry as a potential fix for the state’s weak economy.
An investigative report published late last month by the New York Times questioned the economic potential of hydraulic fracturing, further galvanizing New York State’s opposition coalition. However, Forbes Magazine pointed out that a number of the emails leaked to the Times dated back to 2009, when shale gas production accounted for 1 percent of the nation’s natural gas production. Most sources now agree that it has burgeoned to 25 percent over the past few years. Economic factors aside, concern about the safety of gas drilling is high in the wake of fairly recent fracking accidents across state lines in Pennsylvania.
DEC’s move to open New York’s slice of Marcellus Shale–a huge shale deposit underlying five states–to drilling is viewed as tricky by some and outright perilous by others, but from what is known about the document so far, it lays out strict controls on the industry. In addition to the prohibition on fracking in New York City and Syracuse’s watersheds, DEC’s propopsal recommends that drilling hydraulic fracturing wells be allowed only on private land. It also called for a 500-foot buffer around primary aquifers, and a ban on fracking permits for drilling sites proposed within 500 feet of a private water well, within 2,000 feet of a public drinking water reservoir or well, or on a 100-year floodplain. The document also recommended prohibiting drilling on state lands such as parks and wildlife management areas.
But that’s not the end of the story. DEC Commisioner Joseph Martens told the Binghamton (N.Y.) Star-Gazette that he anticipated lawsuits from the industry over the state’s imposition of state and municipal land use ordinances over energy companies.
“New York law makes it clear that municipalities are preempted from regulating any aspect of oil and gas development in New York State, except for issues pertaining to roads and the right to impose real property taxes,” responded Tom West, an oil and gas attorney who represents Chesapeake Energy, LLC and a number of other gas companies, in an email. “Accordingly, it remains our position that municipalities do not have the authority to regulate natural gas development through local zoning.”
It will still be several months before DEC’s proposal becomes codified into law, after the conclusion of a 60-day public comment period on the document scheduled to begin in August. West said that his clients are eager to begin drilling before state gas leases expire, meaning they would have to pay to renew the leases, but drilling won’t begin before the state legislature finishes ironing out the kinks in the regulatory framework. That is not likely to happen before next year.
The evidence presented by a variety of economic experts suggests that fracking New York’s shale could be a boon for the state’s ailing economy. Others, such as energy analyst Michael Aylward, are sticking to their “fracking juice may not be worth the squeeze” guns. As far as its potential impacts on water quality and supply go, the jury isn’t quite out yet on fracking. The Times has been criticized for using two-year-old emails in its economic analysis of fracking, and rightly so, but taken at face value, the messages sent back and forth between U.S. Energy Information Administration officials suggest that the euphoric frenzy created by a potentially lucrative energy source may sometimes eclipse common sense. That’s not scientific data by any means, but it lends credibility to cooling our heels to check, double check, and triple check that the process is safe before we give it the green light.
West’s clients say they’re drilling too far below groundwater aquifers to make an impact, but well casing integrity and wastewater disposal are still concerns. As far as the millions of gallons of tainted water left deep underground go, contaminant plume migration tracking is a science still in its infancy. Mark Kram, a hydrologist specializing in groundwater pollution monitoring and remediation, said that there are proven risks. Some are from faulty well seals, but a recent study indicate that there’s more to it than that. The industry claims that only half a percent of frack fluid contains chemicals, but that still amounts to ten or so thousand gallons of potentially toxic chemicals being pumped into the ground throughout the life of each well. There are already 14,000 wells in New York, and more than 80,000 in Pennsylvania. Without knowing how those substances will disperse once injected deep into the dynamic, not all that well understood layers below the Earth’s surface, it’s difficult to determine what the impacts will be. Industry supporters also assert that no solid connections have been made between fracking and health problems near gas wells. Evidence supporting such correlations may be shaky, but there are many coincidences that bear further investigation. On the off chance that there are health and safety impacts, it seems like it would be better to make sure before ratcheting up an industry of scale that could take decades to clean up after its long gone. For more than 100 years, oil companies in New York City drained waste oil into Newtown Creek without really knowing what the effects would be. Today, we’re still cleaning up the mess. Health problems abound. Whether or not state regulators are willing to take the same kind of chances Upstate remains to be seen.