FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Battle Over New York’s Marcellus Shale

In an age of diminishing resources, the discovery of an untapped oil or natural gas reserve can stir messianic visions. Salvation is to be found in tar sands and what were once prohibitively expensive methods of extracting crude oil or natural gas from the earth. ‘Drill, baby, drill,’ 21st century scripture in some quarters of the United States, reflects the sort of devil may care attitude that, remarkably, in an age of scarcity still drives much of our energy policy.

Last summer, when oil was fetching $140 a barrel and the price of natural gas reached record highs hundreds of landmen descended on the Catskills and Poconos in New York and Pennsylvania. They crisscrossed the Delaware basin holding meetings with local residents in an attempt to persuade them to lease their land. They want what’s underneath that land—trillions of cubic feet of natural gas trapped in the Marcellus Shale, a formation that stretches from Ohio to New York and runs through West Virginia and Pennsylvania. There were tales of deception, of fraud, and of large sums promised. The frenzy has been described as a modern day gold rush.

In New York, even though the drilling hasn’t begun, the battle lines have been drawn. Environmental organizations have been forced to play catch up; to educate the public about a drilling process that has not been widely used in this part of the country; and to argue against drilling, at a time of unparalleled economic distress and budget shortfalls, in what may be the largest natural gas reservoir in the nation. And they’re also up against the oil and gas companies. “We’ve never seen the circus come to town before,” says Bruce Ferguson, a member of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy who lives in Sullivan County.

As the landmen made their rounds, the New York State legislature passed a bill (A10526), at the eleventh hour on the final day of the legislative session, that made it easier to issue permits for horizontal drilling by establishing uniform standards for well spacing and effectively streamlining the process. The Governor, in a press release, said that the new legislation would “lead to greater administrative efficiency, result in more effective recovery of oil and natural gas, and reduce unnecessary land disturbance.” Previously, public hearings for each well and a more cumbersome permitting process would have been required for horizontal drilling, significantly slowing down the potential number of wells that could be exploited.

According to a summary of the bill, “The vast majority of proposals that are expected for oil wells and horizontal wells would not conform to current statewide spacing sizes, and would therefore require notice, public comment and possibly a hearing on an individual well basis. With hundreds of such wells likely to be proposed in the near future, the potential burden on the DEC and the industry would be substantial, with no commensurate benefit in ensuring that the policy objectives of ECL S23-0301 are met. [italics added]”

The environmental community and even some legislators were caught off guard. “We in the environmental community didn’t wake up until very close to the vote,” says Kate Sinding a Senior Attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Many had been told that the bill would not pass, that it needed work, and that there was nothing to worry about. About a month before the bill passed, State Assembly Member Aileen Gunther (who voted against the measure), in a letter to one of her constituents said that, “My understanding from Mr. Parment [the bill’s sponsor] is that the bill is not in its final form and will, in all likelihood, not be voted on this session.”

Queens assemblywoman Toby Ann Stavisky told WNYC Radio that she and most of her colleagues learned of the DEC sponsored bill just hours before they were asked to vote on it.

“Why didn’t I have more information was my first reaction because it’s very detailed scientific language. What’s going to happen to the environment, to the air quality, noise pollution, what about pipelines?”

Information it seems has been in short supply. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have not exactly been the subject of dinner table conversations until very recently (on the East Coast anyway). And the industry would like to keep it that way. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a controversial method of capturing natural gas by injecting a long list of chemicals and millions of gallons of water and sand at high pressure into the ground to break open or fracture the bedrock. The prized gas is released from the shale and then recovered.

The chemicals used in the process, developed by Halliburton in the 1950s, are considered an industry trade secret and have not been fully disclosed. Some of the known additives include hydrochloric acid, nitrogen, biocides, surfactants, friction reducers, benzene and other hazardous chemicals. It is believed that fracking fluids have contaminated water supplies in Alabama, Arkansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming–all places where hydraulic fracturing has been widely used. In Pennsylvania, where drilling in the Marcellus Shale began last year, there have been numerous reports of contaminated wells.

“If these chemicals reach our drinking water supply,” the City’s Council on Environmental Protection wrote in a briefing paper, “they can potentially have significant adverse health effects.” A small part of the Marcellus Shale lies within the New York City watershed, which supplies water to more than fourteen million people in New York City, upstate New York, Philadelphia and northern New Jersey, the largest unfiltered drinking water supply in the United States.

Since the spacing bill was passed, environmental organizations have moved quickly to make sure that if drilling begins—and there are few who think it will be stopped al together—it is done with strict regulatory oversight and adherence to the highest environmental standards. Catskill Mountain Keeper, an environmental organization in Youngsville, NY, and seven other groups, national and local, drafted a letter to Governor Paterson calling on him to “institute a moratorium on all new gas drilling permits” until an environmental impact statement is completed. They met soon after with the Governor’s office and the DEC and, groups that until then had been working largely on their own, started to come together.

A compromise was reached and when the governor signed the bill he also required the DEC to issue a Scope Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) that responds to concerns of citizens and environmental organizations (the document will likely be released this summer). It was an important reprieve and, combined with a steep drop in the price of natural gas and oil and evidence of contaminated wells in nearby Pennsylvania, there is hope that the rush to drill has been tempered at least for now.

“One thing that’s happened,” says Wes Gillingham, Program Director of Catskill Mountain Keeper, “is that this whole issue has awakened people to the complexity of hydro fracking and the whole issue of regulatory oversight and whether it’s adequate or not. And to the basic question of whether it can be done safely at all.”

Or as Ferguson puts it, “You cannot pick up a local paper up here now and not see something about it.”

Local environmental organizations see their role as primarily raising public awareness. Most don’t have the money or resources to file lawsuits and will rely on the bigger players–the NRDC, Sierra Club and others–to take legal action if necessary.

“I think our feeling really is that education is the key here,” says Ferguson. “We don’t have the resources to stop this either legally or financially or any other way. But we certainly can inform people of what’s at stake, which is huge because many people don’t understand what a bad outcome could be.”

In the end, when the state begins to issue permits the choice will largely be up to individual landowners. It is not clear exactly how many leases have been singed thus far but some estimates are as high as 100,000. In the town of Hancock (“the gateway to the Delaware river”) over 20,000 acres have been leased. And even though gas prices have plummeted, landmen are still canvassing the region.

“Given the industries druthers,” Gillingham says, “they’d have a checkerboard across the whole landscape, which would industrialize the whole area.” Gillingham learned of the Marcellus Shale just over a year ago when a geologist told him to google “Marcellus Shale Play.” At that time it was only industry insiders and speculators who were talking about the issue. Google it today and you’ll still turn up sites trumpeting the “Next Great Gas Play” or the “hottest natural gas play in North America.” The industry is on the march. But the environmental community is ready to meet them head on.

“All the environmental groups are on the same page,” says Samara Swanston legal counsel for the New York City Committee on Environmental Protection. “We cannot afford to let New York City’s water be threatened by greedy gas drillers. This is a very serious matter and I don’t think that anybody who rubber stamps this will get away unscathed.”

ADAM FEDERMAN can be reached at: adamfederman@gmail.com

This article originally ran on Earth Island’s EnvironmentaList blog.

 

More articles by:

Adam Federman is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal.He is the recipient of a Polk Grant for Investigative Reporting, a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, and a Russia Fulbright Fellowship. You can find more of his work at adamfederman.com.

Weekend Edition
December 14, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
A Tale of Two Cities
Peter Linebaugh
The Significance of The Common Wind
Bruce E. Levine
The Ketamine Chorus: NYT Trumpets New Anti-Suicide Drug
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Fathers and Sons, Bushes and Bin Ladens
Kathy Deacon
Coffee, Social Stratification and the Retail Sector in a Small Maritime Village
Nick Pemberton
Praise For America’s Second Leading Intellectual
Robert Hunziker
The Yellow Vest Insurgency – What’s Next?
Patrick Cockburn
The Yemeni Dead: Six Times Higher Than Previously Reported
Nick Alexandrov
George H. W. Bush: Another Eulogy
Brian Cloughley
Principles and Morality Versus Cash and Profit? No Contest
Michael F. Duggan
Climate Change and the Limits of Reason
Victor Grossman
Sighs of Relief in Germany
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Robert Fantina
What Does Beto Have Against the Palestinians?
Richard Falk – Daniel Falcone
Sartre, Said, Chomsky and the Meaning of the Public Intellectual
Andrew Glikson
Crimes Against the Earth
Robert Fisk
The Parasitic Relationship Between Power and the American Media
Stephen Cooper
When Will Journalism Grapple With the Ethics of Interviewing Mentally Ill Arrestees?
Jill Richardson
A War on Science, Morals and Law
Ron Jacobs
A Propagandist of Privatization
Evaggelos Vallianatos
It’s Not Easy Being Greek
Nomi Prins 
The Inequality Gap on a Planet Growing More Extreme
John W. Whitehead
Know Your Rights or You Will Lose Them
David Swanson
The Abolition of War Requires New Thoughts, Words, and Actions
J.P. Linstroth
Primates Are Us
Bill Willers
The War Against Cash
Jonah Raskin
Doris Lessing: What’s There to Celebrate?
Ralph Nader
Are the New Congressional Progressives Real? Use These Yardsticks to Find Out
Binoy Kampmark
William Blum: Anti-Imperial Advocate
Medea Benjamin – Alice Slater
Green New Deal Advocates Should Address Militarism
John Feffer
Review: Season 2 of Trump Presidency
Rich Whitney
General Motors’ Factories Should Not Be Closed. They Should Be Turned Over to the Workers
Christopher Brauchli
Deported for Christmas
Kerri Kennedy
This Holiday Season, I’m Standing With Migrants
Mel Gurtov
Weaponizing Humanitarian Aid
Thomas Knapp
Lame Duck Shutdown Theater Time: Pride Goeth Before a Wall?
George Wuerthner
The Thrill Bike Threat to the Elkhorn Mountains
Nyla Ali Khan
A Woman’s Selfhood and Her Ability to Act in the Public Domain: Resilience of Nadia Murad
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
On the Killing of an Ash Tree
Graham Peebles
Britain’s Homeless Crisis
Louis Proyect
America: a Breeding Ground for Maladjustment
Steve Carlson
A Hell of a Time
Dan Corjescu
America and The Last Ship
Jeffrey St. Clair
Booked Up: the 25 Best Books of 2018
David Yearsley
Bikini by Rita, Voice by Anita
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail