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Regional Archives The Altamont Enterprise, July 28, 2011

Hydraulic fracturing on course to start next year despite controversy and concerns

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALBANY COUNTY — The southwest half of Albany County sits on the edge of the Marcellus Shale formation, which could yield hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of natural gas, making it the center of debate between those who want to extract it and those who are concerned about the methods used for extraction.

This month, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation released a revised  environmental impact statement that recommends that the controversial hydraulic fracturing method for gas extraction be prohibited in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds and within a third of a mile of other public drinking-water supplies.

New York City and Syracuse have the only unfiltered municipal water supplies in the state, according to the DEC, “and they deserve special protection.”

Hydraulic fracturing is a way to force otherwise trapped gas by injecting water mixed with chemicals and sand at high pressure into wells to fracture the rock.  The sand, or proppant, “holds the fractures open, allowing hydrocarbons to flow into the wellbore after injected fluids are recovered,” the document says.

The Marcellus Shale was formed almost 400 million years ago and extends from West Virginia to New York.  It is buried as deep as 7,000 feet in some parts and near the town of Marcellus, N.Y., for which it is named, it is exposed.  The shale deposit holds pockets of natural gas.

“The New York State Commission on State Asset Maximization recommends that ‘taking into account the significant environmental considerations, the State should study the potential for new private investment in extracting natural gas in the Marcellus Shale on State-owned lands, in addition to development on private lands,’” the DEC’s revised statement says.  A typical well, covering 80 acres, may produce 1 billion to 1-and-a-half billion cubic feet of gas over five years, it says, adding that the price for natural gas is $6 per thousand cubic feet — at least $600 million.

“I think with a value of a trillion dollars, probably it’s not practical to think about talking about how to prevent the development of this deposit,” Lynne Irwin, director of Cornell University’s local roads program in the Department of Biological and Environmental Engineering, said during a lecture he gave in June of 2010.  He estimated that the Marcellus Shale holds 262 trillion cubic feet of retrievable gas worth $1 trillion.  “It’s just too compelling in that regard.  I think we need to look at practical ways of how we’re going to deal with that development rather than trying to make it go away.”

Road corrosion

He went on to detail the potential for wear on local roads from the equipment that is necessary for drilling.

Corrosion of roads is relevant to those in the debate about hydraulic fracturing because the state’s Environmental Conservation Law has a clause that supersedes any local law or ordinance “relating to the regulation of the oil, gas and solution mining industries; but shall not supersede local government jurisdiction over local roads,” according to Section 23 of the law.  Any local law restricting the practice is moot.

In a letter following testimony he had given to the State Assembly about drilling in the Marcellus Shale in 2008, then-commissioner of the DEC Alexander Grannis reiterated the state law and wrote, “Local governments have the same authority over use of local roads by oil and gas operations as for any other road uses, and DEC encourages local governments to use this authority to protect local roads.”

Diesel fuel flowing

At the start of this year, a congressional investigation concluded that oil and gas companies had injected over 32 million gallons of diesel fuel or hydraulic fracturing fluids containing diesel fuel into wells in 19 states between 2005 and 2009.  None of them sought the required permits for the method, which is a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“In 2003, EPA signed a memorandum of agreement with the three largest providers of hydraulic fracturing to eliminate the use of diesel fuel in coalbed methane formations in underground sources of drinking water,” wrote three Representatives earlier this year to Lisa Jackson, administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency.  “Two years later, Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act except when the fracturing fluids contain diesel.  As a result, many assumed that the industry stopped using diesel fuel altogether in hydraulic fracturing.  Our investigation has found that this is not the case.”

The letter goes on to quote from a 2004 report from the EPA that the “‘use of diesel fuel in fracturing fluids poses the greatest threat’ to underground sources of drinking water.  Diesel fuel contains toxic constituents, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes… The Department of Health and Human Services, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and EPA have determined that benzene is a human carcinogen.  Chronic exposure to toluene, ethylbenzene, or xylenes also can damage the central nervous system, liver, and kidneys.”

Water pressure

Assuming 2,462 wells in New York, the DEC estimates the total daily withdrawal of fresh water for hydraulic fracturing would be 10.3 billion gallons.  “This equates to an annual total of about 3.8 trillion gallons,” says a summary of the new draft impact statement.  “Based on this calculation, at peak activity high-volume hydraulic fracturing would result in increased demand for fresh water in New York of 0.24 percent,” it says.

If the water is drawn too heavily from one source, it could affect the levels of the aquifers or lakes, steam flow, and wetlands and the ecosystems that they sustain.

“The primary concern regarding groundwater withdrawal is aquifer depletion that could affect other uses, including nearby public and private water supply wells,” the new draft impact statement says.  “This includes cumulative impacts from numerous groundwater withdrawals and potential aquifer depletion from the incremental increase in withdrawals if groundwater supplies are used for hydraulic fracturing. Aquifer depletion may also result in aquifer compaction which can result in localized ground subsidence,” meaning that the ground sinks.

“The depletion of an aquifer and a corresponding decline in the groundwater level can occur when a well, or wells in an aquifer are pumped at a rate in excess of the recharge rate to the aquifer. Essentially, surface water and groundwater are one continuous resource; therefore, it also is possible that aquifer depletion can occur if an excessive volume of water is removed from a surface water body that recharges an aquifer. Such an action would result in a reduction of recharge which could potentially deplete an aquifer,” although that is not common in New York’s climate, the DEC says.

What’s next?

This roughly 900-page document is about 150 pages longer than the 2009 version, according to Joe Martens, commissioner of the DEC.  Next month, the department plans to add sections to the recommendation from consultants; when that is complete, the 60-day public-comment period will begin.

After the DEC is finished reviewing and responding to comments, Martens said at a press conference this month, it will amend the document and make it final.  He estimated that it will be near the end of this year.

“It is at that point and only at that point that DEC could begin to review permit applications,” Martens said.

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