Many times this summer people have looked out their car window at protests in New York City and asked, “Frack?” The controversy at Governor Cuomo’s office yesterday however was over the word: dSGEIS.
Complete, revised dSGEIS that is, (draft supplemental, generic, environmental impact statement). The fate of long awaited and yet long resisted drilling for natural gas in New York State is much determined by this 1100 page document, which was expected to be released yesterday by the New York DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation). Following a preliminary and incomplete draft (released July 8th), the release of this document will initiate a sixty day public commentary period. Public hearing dates are not yet known but the DEC is required to consider written commentary and testimony for the next two months. (Due to Hurricane Irene, the dSGEIS was postponed one week).
A new report was required because according to the preliminary draft, HVHHF (high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing) “raises new, potentially significant, adverse impacts not studied in 1992,” (in the DEC’s original GEIS).
New York has become a battle ground over fracking since 2008 when gas companies offered land lease agreements (compensation) in the tens of thousands of dollars to landowners across the southern tier of western New York. From de facto to official moratoriums, the drilling has been halted due to concerns over water and air contamination provoked by case studies in other states such as Pennsylvania, which have been reported as false by some industry representatives. As many landowners and legislators have regretted the periodic delays for exploiting the methane-rich Marcellus Shale underground, others have advocated for a ban, or for more research and regulations.
The NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), for example, who participated on an advisory panel for the SGEIS was not out in the streets yesterday. “NRDC has not taken a position for a complete ban but won’t support gas drilling anywhere unless we are convinced that there is a regulatory regime in place that will protect the State’s waters, air quality and communities” says representative Eric Goldstein. When asked if NRDC had any insight on the preliminary dSGEIS, he said they are “a long way from endorsing the drilling program in New York State and hope the Cuomo administration will take seriously the comments that will be submitted in this commentary period.”
Likewise, or similarly, New York Senator Greg Ball (R, D-40) has come out vigorously against unsafe drilling, but is not for an all out ban. He’s asked his Republican colleagues to go to Pennsylvania like he has, and witness the potential impacts. Since his visit to Bradford County PA, Ball has spoken to the press at least twice, held a hearing in Katonah NY, and the only item on his web site’s opening page has been about fracking.
Many groups such as those representing the NYC coalition on 3rd Avenue yesterday such as Food and Water Watch, call for a ban and, thus far, the ban movement has claimed victories -permanent or not- in Pittsburgh PA, France, Buffalo NY and most recently in Ulysses NY. In addition the preliminary dSGEIS proposes to ban fracking for at least two years in or within 500 feet of the Syracuse and NYC watersheds, leaving 85% of the Marcellus Shale in New York available for HVHF with more aggressive regulations.
A 2009 report funded by the City indicated that drilling in the NYC watershed, specifically the WOH (West of Hudson) watershed was too risky. In contrast, a new Exxon Mobile commercial acknowledges the concerns of aquifer contamination by stating, “Most wells are over a mile and a half deep so there’s a tremendous amount of protective rock between the fracking operation and the groundwater.” However, the 2009 report states:
“Upward vertical migration through extensive, open fractures or an improperly sealed gas well can allow for the cross-formational migration of groundwater between flow regimes (i.e., shortcircuiting). Such a migration can allow for the discharge of high salinity and gas enriched groundwater directly to the ground surface or into shallower (local or intermediate) flow regimes. Under these conditions, the discharged groundwater could occur at a considerable distance from the corresponding source area and formation.”
The dSGEIS calls for HVHF buffer zones of 500 feet from private water wells (not aquifers) and would allow landowners to waive the buffer. “If you think about it,” comments Ling Tsou of United for Action, “New York City watershed is not filtered and people’s private wells are not filtered either.”
Exxon Mobil says that they use “multiple layers of steal and cement.” The dSGEIS calls for “additional well casing to prevent migration,” specifically “new intermediate casing.” A fact sheet provided by DEC acknowledges that in most cases the third casing already exists. “The vast majority of wells that show gas migration have intermediate casing already,” remarked Tony Ingraffea, a Cornell University professor of engineering at a presentation in Ithaca released by Shale Shock Media on August 1st. The casing has to last “forever” he said, even after wells are plugged.
Some concerns over the fracking process are unique or semi-specific to New York or the Marcellus Shale, such as the relatively high levels of radioactivity in the Marcellus, the capacity to filter waste water in New York’s current treatment plants, and state funding for inspectors. A common critique is that with recent budget cuts, the DEC doesn’t have enough inspectors to regulate each drilling operation. There are currently fourteen inspectors for 13,000 oil and gas wells and an average of 1,600 drilling permits expected per year according to Reuters. The dSGEIS proposes that permits be “limited to what staff can handle.” Lou Allstadt, former Executive Vice President of Mobil Oil Corporation said in his own critique in the presentation in Ithaca that this be made into law. Otherwise, the DEC may bend, he says, to pressures from legislatures anxious to increase revenue from the industry.
Despite all the critiques, the DEC has made significant changes since 2008. It is not their job to ban fracking, but to balance economic opportunities for natural gas exploration in New York State with measures to lessen the impact on the environment. “The draft has some improvements,” said Eric Goldstein of the NRDC. The dSGEIS includes double-layered containers for waste water instead of open air pits, for example, and speaks to alternative frack fluids. Whether or not HVHF is intrinsically dangerous, if we need it regardless, or if Governor Cuomo bans it, one thing is for sure: all across the State, thousands of people will spend their sixty days carefully.