More Views on the Gas Rush and Hydraulic Fracturing
Here are a couple of reactions to my exchange with “Gasland” filmmaker Josh Fox after signals emerged that New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is poised to end a state moratorium on gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing. (In a related development, North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat who does not flatly oppose hydraulic fracturing, on Sunday vetoed a bill championed by state Republicans that she said was insufficiently protective of water supplies and landowners.)
Below you’ll hear from Tom Wilber, the upstate reporter and author of “Under the Surface,” an invaluable new book on the gas rush in the Pennsylvania-New York border region. I find Wilber (and his book) to be the closest thing to ground truth that exists in the hype-cloaked arena. [Wilber's Dot Earth note is adapted from his latest post on his blog Shale Gas Review.]
First here’s Bill Chameides, the blogging dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, who recently toured a wide swath of Pennsylvania gas country by helicopter with other Duke researchers focused on America’s gas rush (slide show here):
Interesting discussion with Josh Fox on the fracking controversy and the merits of natural gas versus coal.
Over the past several months, I completely two relevant fact-finding trips: one to West Virginia to get a firsthand look at surface mining for coal, aka mountaintop removal, and the other to Pennsylvania to get a sense of the impacts of natural gas drilling. Some observations:
1. Fracking has plenty of potential downsides but from the point-of-view of a helicopter the amount of destruction caused by natural gas drilling is minuscule compared to the large-scale devastation from mountain top removal;
2. There are those that say that there is no credible documentation that drilling and fracking have contaminated people’s well water. They’re either intentionally or unknowingly sticking their heads in the sand. I have a hard time believing that all the water problems I heard about during my visit were either coincidence with nothing to do with drilling or were made up by people trying to make a fraudulent buck. It’s clear to me that at least sometimes drilling in Pennsylvania has caused water contamination with disastrous results for families and communities.
3. Is the contamination intrinsic to the fracking process or just mistakes and/or carelessness on the part of drillers? I don’t think we know. We have a lot to learn about fracking. Since natural gas is not going anywhere, why not take the time needed to make sure that the environmental impacts are minimized and that really unacceptable impacts — such as polluting the watershed that serves New York City or the the Delaware River Basin — never happen.
4. People’s lives are being seriously disrupted in Pennsylvania – imagine what your life would be like if you had to carry your drinking water into your home each day by the jug-full. Whether you believe in big government or small government, free markets or regulated markets, what’s right is right. If we’re going to continue to move forward with fracking, there has to be some mechanism for making the people who get run over by the process whole.
Here’s Tom Wilber’s reflection:
Your discussion with Josh Fox over the merits of shale gas development in New York is an important one, and I’m glad you are embracing it. Predictably, Gov. Cuomo’s intention to release the SGEIS [background here] when the legislature is not in session, and his plan to allow drilling in areas that favor it while banning it in places that oppose it, have intensified the debate. This result came despite the governor’s attempt to “reduce the temperature of the conversation” and to avoid “a political discussion.” Fox’s reaction is part of an urgent and intense rally by national and statewide activists fighting Cuomo’s approach, and it has raised New York’s profile as the centerpiece of a national anti-fracking movement.
Policy is where politics meets science. You can’t take science out of sound decision-making. Nor can you eliminate politics. It is, after all, how we govern ourselves.
As you pursue due diligence, I think you will find that Fox’s thesis in “The Sky is Pink” — methane migration is a real and persistent problem the industry continually tries to deny — passes muster. Fox finds himself defending the shot he uses in Gasland of Mike Markham lighting his water on fire – something the industry and often regulators claim is not related to gas wells, but a “naturally occurring” phenomenon that predates drilling.
Of course methane is naturally occurring. Otherwise, operators wouldn’t be drilling for it. And sometimes it does end up in fresh water wells all by itself. It’s hard to determine the source conclusively in all cases, and cases such as Markham’s are clouded by a prevailing lack of disclosure and reporting on the part of both industry and regulators. But science as well as common sense tells us that drilling opens up new pathways for industrial scale migration of gas moving from deep places where its concentrated under high pressure to shallow, water bearing zones. The probability of this kind of methane migration is a function of the number of holes drilled through aquifers into gas bearing zones (both biogenic and thermogenic) and the imperfection of measures to control the upward rush of methane using cement casings to seal off the aquifers – a process that is faulty six percent of the time and more frequently as casings deteriorate with time.
I have examined and reported this while covering the Marcellus Shale development in New York and Pennsylvania for Gannett, and later while writing Under the Surface, Fracking Fortunes and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale. In 2004, Pennsylvania DEP records documented the collection of gas in the basement of the Harper residence, near several gas wells in Jefferson County about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. On March 5, the furnace kicked on, and the explosion leveled the house and killed Charles Harper, his wife Dorothy, and their grandson, Baelee. In July 2008, an explosion killed a resident of Marion Township, Pa., who tried to light a candle in the bathroom. The Pennsylvania DEP’s record of the event—one paragraph long—states that the agency “became aware” of the problem after the fatality, which it linked to gas migrating into the septic system from an old gas well with deteriorated casing. [Here's the report mentioning the incident and a relevant section of Wilber's book.]
In September, 2009, the DEP presented its compilation of known cases related to gas wells to the Pennsylvania state’s Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board, a group of state government– appointed industry representatives that advises the agency on technical and policy matters. According to the briefing, methane migration from gas drilling, had “caused or contributed to” at least six explosions that killed four people and injured three others over the course of the decade preceding full-scale Marcellus development. The threat of explosions had forced 20 families from their homes, sometimes for months. At least 25 other families have had to deal with the shut-off of utility service or the installation of venting systems in their homes. At least 60 water wells (including three municipal supplies) had been contaminated. [Wilber links to related Pennsylvania government report, "Stray Natural Gas Migration Associated with Oil and Gas Wells".]
In New York State, William T. Boria, a water resources specialist at the Chautauqua County Health Department, knew of these kinds of problems, and was frustrated by the state DEC’s unwillingness to track them. Regulators typically passed the problem off on “naturally occurring” problems with little or no checking. Boria reported his agency received more than 140 complaints related to water pollution or gas migration associated with a boom in nearby conventional drilling operations (prior to shale gas development). In a 2004 memo summarizing the issue, he concluded “Those complaints that were recorded are probably just a fraction of the actual problems that occurred.” County health officials tabulated information on 53 of the cases from 1983 to 2008 on a spreadsheet, including methane migration, brine pollution, and at least one in which a home had to be evacuated after the water well exploded. “A representative I spoke with from the Division of Minerals (of the DEC) insists that the potential for drinking water contamination by oil and gas drilling is almost non-existent,” Boria wrote in his memo to a party whose name was redacted. “However, this department has investigated numerous complaints of potential contamination problems resulting from oil and gas drilling.”
The thing that raises my hackles is the industry’s blunt attempts to shirk accountability for any of this — (“Truthland” [link] being the latest example). Accordingly, I favor aggressive reporting on industry’s persistent and successful insistence on exemptions from disclosure requirements – notably the Safe Drinking Water Act and state and federal hazardous waste laws. These exceptions serve as cover for the notion that drilling and fracking are blameless for methane migration or any other problems. It’s impossible to build an accessible and centralized database to track drilling and fracking problems in the oil and gas industry without reliable reporting standards and enforcement like those that apply to other industries. In short, with no reporting, there is no tracking. With no tracking, quantifying impacts on health and environment is complicated. When there is a problem, the burden of proof rests with landowners, and absence of data denies citizens an important tool for meeting that burden. As Fox points out, it becomes a “he-said-she-said” argument, and the industry has a voice – in both courts and the public domain — that is much louder and more influential than that of the average citizen.
In my mind, the debate should not be about whether drilling causes flaming faucets and explosions that are already a matter of record (even with all the reporting gaps). The public needs to get beyond this argument to judge whether the merits of full-scale natural gas development over the next generation will outweigh the drawbacks. We are aware of the benefits as spelled out by industry proponents – cheap fuel, energy independence, jobs, an alternative to dirty coal. Now we need a complete and honest discussion about the impacts of shale gas development on environment and health. How to deal with methane migration is an overriding question. It’s one thing to have a property owner willingly and knowingly accept manageable risks associated with gas drilling on his property. It’s another to have an uninformed neighboring party suffer the consequences. How to deal with wastewater is another. It’s hard to determine future impacts when we don’t have the tools to comprehensively and conclusively gauge current and past problems. So that brings us back to transparency and disclosure. That’s where it must start.
For generations the American public (myself included) has been the most voracious consumer of energy on the planet, and we have enabled the industry to develop as it has. We are happy to enjoy the comforts of cheap abundant fossil fuel (made cheaper by lack of regulation) as long as we don’t have to look too closely from where it comes. Good reporting compels us to look. From there, we can move the conversation forward.