The Drill’s About to Drop In New York, New Ways to Find Oil and Gas Pose Serious Environmental Threats

Marcellus Shale
Pennsylvania’s Monongahela River could face contamination from untreated liquid mine waste. © Ronjamin

While climate change has been a driving force in speeding the development of renewable energy sources, it has also given new life to the search for “better” fossil fuels. Natural gas had been a fuel source on the decline, but the amount of proven domestic natural gas reserves has been steadily climbing for the last decade. This is almost exclusively due to advances in horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing—otherwise known as fracking. When fracking, a hole is drilled to a certain depth, and the drill eventually turns a full 90 degrees. Water and sand are then pumped down at high pressure, used to fracture the rocks and prop the crack so it remains open.

The Marcellus Shale, a rock formation underneath a large portion of the northern Appalachian plateau, contains the vast majority of the oil and gas reserves discovered in recent years, and fracking may soon expand dramatically in New York. Governor Patterson signed a law in July 2008 that Katherine Nadeau, the water and natural resources program associate for Environmental Advocates of New York, called “a game changer,” allowing the shale to be mined more efficiently and with greater freedom.

In October, Anthony Hay, the director of the Institute for Comparative and Environmental Toxicology at Cornell, testified before the New York State Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation regarding the draft Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on fracking. He was extremely concerned about potential endocrine disruptors in recovered water, as well as a chemical, benzene, used to induce cancer in lab animals. The companies had not disclosed that benzene was included in their additives, and it was not a naturally occurring compound in the region.

The lack of disclosure stems from the fact that fracking fluid is unregulated, so companies have no obligation to release the contents of their additives. In the 2005 energy bill, Vice President Dick Cheney aided the passage of a law that exempted fracking from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation, the so-called “Halliburton Loophole.” While the industry contends that only .5% of the fracking fluid consists of additives, even small wells will generate at least 5,000 gallons of this unregulated toxic fluid. With roughly 2,000 wells per year to be installed in New York, according to one industry estimate quoted in the EIS, 10,000,000 new gallons of this waste could be expected each year this law is in place. The risks to surface- and ground-water from accidental spills, leaching from storage ponds and aquifer contamination is significant. And properly handled wastewater may prove an even greater threat.

Deborah Goldberg, a managing attorney with Earthjustice, notes that “The EIS proposes that municipal wastewater treatment plants can handle the gas waste, even though the treatment plants were not designed for this sort of thing, and the state infrastructure can’t handle the current wastewater volume. The drilling companies should provide a contract that specifies a waste treatment facility has agreed to take their waste before any permits are approved.” She mentioned a recent proposal in Pennsylvania that would allow a treatment plant to ignore dissolved solids—essentially allowing untreated wastes to flow directly into the Monongahela River, since there were far more area mines than the local plant could handle.

Unlike Pennsylvania and Ohio, New York has a state environmental quality review act (SEQR) which “requires the sponsoring or approving governmental body to identify and mitigate the significant environmental impacts of the activity it is proposing or permitting.” If the SEQR were enforced, Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council says, “New York residents have the opportunity to set the gold standard for this sort of drilling, and make sure that these companies are being held to the sorts of standards not being used in Pennsylvania and Ohio.” Regarding the EIS, she says, “There was a complete failure to do an analysis of cumulative impacts…The EIS basically says that we can’t predict the development of the industry [but] the law says that you need to predict a worst-case scenario when there is too much doubt—which the EIS refuses to do.”

Nadeau laments the fact that “the state may be sacrificing its greatest natural resource” for quick cash. She emphasizes that even with exceptional regulation, the risks are especially dire since “the Division of Mineral Resources, which is responsible for regulating the state’s mining permits, has only 17 employees.”

Many people are concerned that the desire for domestic oil and gas supplies—and the accompanying royalties—are distracting people from the risk fracking poses to drinking water and the last major wild places in the East. They argue that a properly carried out EIS, an enforced SEQR, and a well staffed Division of Mineral Resources would greatly aid efforts to protect New York’s greatest resource—its water.