To drill or not to drill?

This month, the state Department of Environmental Conservation is expected to complete its proposed regulations for horizontal drilling and hydrofracking — the practice of pumping liquid into the ground at high pressure to loosen up natural gas deposits — in the Marcellus shale rock formation. The regulations could be approved by late summer, following the required 30-day public comment period. That means the temporary moratorium on horizontal drilling would be lifted and construction of hydrofracking wells would likely begin next year.

Hence the timing of a hydrofracking forum at Ulster County Community College on Wednesday, May 25, was propitious. Moderated by Ulster County legislator and Government Operations & Environmental Services Committee chair Brian Shapiro and attended by approximately 150 people, including county legislators Donald Gregorius and Susan Zimet, the event featured presentations by two Ph.D.-holding experts, Ronald E. Bishop, a lecturer in chemistry and biochemistry at SUNY Oneonta and the author of an analysis called “Chemical and Biological Risk Assessment of Natural Gas Extraction in New York,” and Scott Cline, a consulting geologist and petroleum engineer.

According to Cline, in just three short years the oil and gas companies have determined that the Marcellus Shale represents a “vast, low priced source of energy” — possibly the second largest natural gas reserve in the world, combined with the Utica shale. The Marcellus stretches from Tennessee to southern and central New York and extends into northwest Ulster County.


Cline estimated the Marcellus Shale could contain 850 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, representing a 40-year national supply, of which 20 percent, or approximately 160 trillion cubic feet, exists in New York. New York is the nation’s fourth largest user of natural gas and currently imports 95 percent of it. Hydrofracking would transform the state into an exporter, and Cline estimated the state’s removable l60 tcf of natural gas is equivalent to $750 billion. (By way of comparison, the 2011 New York state budget is $132.5 billion.)

Cline said that hydrofracking had many benefits. Not only would landowners enjoy a windfall by leasing their land to the oil and gas companies, but the community as a whole would benefit from the jobs, fatter state and sales tax coffers and reduced property taxes. Specifically, he said a single well in the first year generates $175,000 in taxes and $1 million in local tax revenue over its entire life.

“The tax impact of several hundreds of wells is staggering,” said Cline. “Some communities have eliminated their property taxes with a few hundred wells.” Landowners of the well pads would benefit disproportionately: Cline said mineral owners under the 1,280-acre pad of a well in Pennsylvania are expected to make $20 million in royalties (or possibly double) as well as $5 million in lease payments (with leases calculated at a rate of $15,000 per acre).

Thanks in part to this new supply, the price of natural gas is falling, and as the cleanest of fossil fuels, natural gas is well-positioned to replace dirty-burning coal, Cline said. The large domestic reserve also would enable the U.S. to reduce its dependence on foreign oil—Cline said “eliminate”—and the financial benefits would be “staggering,” with each trillion cubic foot equating to more than $4 billion in revenues.

He said the U.S. was expected to need 20 percent more energy by 2035, a gap that the Marcellus Shale natural gas could fill. Currently, 85 percent of U.S. energy needs are met by fossil fuels, of which gas comprises 23 percent.

Getting it all out

Cline said the industry expected to extract 20 percent of the gas trapped in the rock by horizontal drilling, which exposes as much surface of the rock as possible and quickly transports gas trapped in induced and natural fractures to the wellbore. The richest deposits are buried in the rock thousands of feet from the surface, which millions of years ago was an inland sea. Drilling at a depth of 3,000 feet or more is also necessary because it creates the pressure needed to extract the gas.

“We can access 24 to 60 million square feet of the surface area by injecting 5 million gallons of fluid and five million gallons of sand,” he said, noting that a 2,000-foot horizontal well with 10 150-foot fractures exposes 153,207 feet of rock surface. The Marcellus fractures naturally on a northwest to southeast axis, and the well bore is drilled perpendicularly to the fractures, he noted.

Cline noted that the Marcellus is not uniform and not all areas are developable. Rock that is ideal for drilling not only is located several thousand feet below the surface, but also has an organic content of 2 percent, “thermal maturity” (meaning it is not “overcooked”), a certain thickness, and brittleness, with natural fractures. Cline displayed a map indicating the optimal areas for drilling in New York state, with a large yellow tongue extended up from Pennsylvania through the southern section of the state and cutting across the northwestern corner of Ulster County into Greene County. The Utica Shale overlaps the western border of Ulster County from north to south but in depths below 3,000 feet, which is not optimum.

Hydrofracking is water-intensive, with a single well requiring between two to eight million gallons. Drilling in New York is particularly attractive to the oil and gas companies because of the state’s abundant water resources, said Cline.

Both Cline and Bishop showed a diagram of a horizontal well (Bishop’s was from the New York State Division of Mining while Cline’s was from the industry.) The diagram showed multiple layers of steel and concrete casings along the upper section of the vertical shaft, designed to prevent gas, oil and chemicals injected into the well and flowing back up the shaft from polluting the aquifer. (The design will be required by the state Division of Mining, Bishop said).

At the deepest levels, below the ground water, the casings are thinner. Bishop noted that while New York requires operators to install a concrete casing the entire length of the vertical shaft of the well, such is not the case in Pennsylvania, where regulations have been particularly lax, contributing to problems with spills and leakage.

A cornucopia of risk

While Cline focused on the benefits of fracking, Bishop, who has studied the chemicals associated with hydrofracking, focused on the potential risks. He said drilling releases a number of substances within the rock that can be harmful to the environment: organic carbon (which is mostly gas), toxic heavy metals, brine (leached from the rock over 300 million years, these salt deposits are twice the salinity of the ocean), radioactive elements,

and hydrogen sulfide, the smelly “sewer gas” consisting of bacteria that typically accompany hydrocarbon reserves.

Bishop said some, but not all, of the shale is radioactive; the amount of radon in the rocks obviously needs to be carefully monitored, although Bishop said the proposed DEC regs don’t require companies to test for radon. The state sets the safe level for hydrogen sulfide at 10 parts per billion, although at 0.5 ppb it is detectable. Because these gases can move quickly through fissures as small as a thousandth of an inch, both radon and hydrogen sulfide are a concern, as are the significant amounts of salt and some heavy metals, said Bishop.

In addition to these hazardous byproducts of the process, the operators inject chemicals into the wells. Approximately 200 chemicals are used, although typically an operator will use from five to 15 chemicals in a single well, including biocides to kill the bacteria, which creates a film that can clog up the works, and corrosion inhibitors to combat the effects of the heat deep within the rock.

Bishop said more than three fourths of these chemicals pose a health hazard if they are brought to the surface in a spill and/or enter the ground water. The most worrisome are barium, lead, arsenic, benzene, 1-butxyethanol, bromide, chromium, hydrogen sulfide (which has caused reproductive problems in livestock), and 4-Nitroquinoline-1-oxide, one of the most potent carcinogens known.


Bishop said some of these chemicals are lethal in miniscule amounts, while others are more harmful if diluted. Some cause respiratory diseases, others are endocrine disruptors, and still others cause infertility and birth defects. Exposure to the chemicals by industry workers have resulted in kidney, heart, liver and even brain damage, said Bishop.

If multiple casings are in place and the operator otherwise adheres to best practices, hydrofracking can be done safely, Bishop said, noting that the industry had an excellent safety record overall. However, his perusal of the existing data shows that “Murphy’s Law happens. Valves erode and break down, tanks leak, trucks crash, liquids are spilled.”  On average, “for every 50 wells drilled, one ground water contamination occurs,” Bishop said. The technique of top-hole drilling with air, in which no biocides are used, can unfortunately bring harmful microbes to the surface, where they can contaminate ground water.

A major concern in New York is the paucity of inspectors, Bishop said. Currently, the DEC has 16 inspectors responsible for the oversight of 13,300 wells, approximately 800 wells per one inspector a year. Furthermore, the DEC is already behind on capping the state’s 57,000 abandoned wells, which date from the early 19th century. “They’re plugging about 200 a year, which is a 280-year backlog,” he said. The EPA estimated in 1992 that one of every six abandoned wells in the U.S. is leaking, so these abandoned wells represent a significant environmental problem.

Besides the threat posed by the chemicals associated with hydrofracking, Bishop said drilling fragments natural habitats, putting wildlife at risk. He showed an aerial view of the Allegheny Forest in Pennsylvania that was laced with roads due to close spacing of the well pads. Erosion from construction of the four-acre well pads also pollutes streams and other waterways with high amounts of sediment, he said.

Yet another problem is the excessive truck traffic that accompanies the construction and operation of the well. Each truck carries from 4,000 to 6,000 gallons of water, which means 1,000 truck trips are required for every well drilled. Reducing the amount of water, and hence the trucks, is possible with recycling of the fluids for repeated use in the well, Bishop said, adding that piping water to the site can also mitigate the problem to some extent.

New York’s better regs

Cline said what happened in the Allegheny Forest would not occur in New York, since he expected the DEC to require one well pad per 1,200 acres. That would be a two-mile separation between well pads. He said each well would resemble a vertical well from the surface, although eight horizontal wells would be connected to the vertical shaft deep within the rock.

The regulations would require ongoing testing of water wells located within 1,000 feet of the proposed gas well and up to 2,000 feet, in cases where there were no wells located closer in. Companies would have to submit a storm water pollution plan as well as be subject to strict design and inspection standards for surface concrete casings of the wells, Cline said.

Permit applicants would have to fully disclose the types of chemicals as well as the amounts they would be using in the well, test the wells before they began extraction, and dispose of flowback fluids in tanks (not pits, as is the practice in Pennsylvania). They would be allowed to “off site central flowback impoundments” but would have to submit a State Environmental Quality Review Assessment for such disposal.

Cline downplayed the industry’s intensive water usage. He said on average each well would require 5 million gallons of water, which would equate to 34 billion gallons in 10 years’ time, after an expected 6,400 wells are drilled in the state. That surely sounds like a lot, but he said it was equivalent to “five hours of St. Lawrence River output to the ocean,” which he said isn’t that much. Cline said the biggest environmental impact of hydrofracking horizontal drilling was “lots of traffic and equipments” at the surface.

The interruption of Cline’s presentation several times by hecklers gave a hint as to where the overwhelming majority of the audience stood on the issue. The presenters were followed by brief remarks by the two county legislators in the audience. Gregorius noted that the legislature had passed a ban on the controversial drilling for all county-owned lands with amazing harmony, while Zimet said the DEC should extend the month-long public comment period to a full year, considering the environmental issues at stake.

Virtually all of the 17 members of the audience that followed up on Shapiro’s invitation to speak blasted hydrofracking, in some cases directing a question to Cline that was clearly rhetorical; the proceedings had more of the flavor of a public hearing than informational forum. (Cline later said he felt the grandstanding was unfortunate and objected to the fact that he wasn’t permitted to respond to all the questions.)

Among the issues related to hydrofracking people addressed and objected to were threats to the state’s water supply; the increased emissions of carbon dioxide caused by extraction of the gas; the investment in fossil-fuel extraction versus development of alternative energies such as solar and wind; the wasteful consumption of natural resources by Americans; the safety risks of natural gas; and the health threat posed by the chemicals.

In response to the comments by one speaker, who expressed concern about the disposal of the waste water from the wells, Cline said that 70 percent of the flowback water could be recycled. Bishop said the proper disposal was in a landfill, mixed with sawdust, for those fluids that can’t be reused.

Asked how 16 DEC inspectors could regulate thousands of proposed wells, Cline said that the DEC needed to take responsibility for proper staffing. He said the fees from the well permits could perhaps pay for additional inspectors. Bishop responded that this was not likely given the state’s budget constraints. He also refuted Cline’s claim that the DEC had a great track record. “They’re not in a position to guarantee very much,” Bishop said.

Bishop noted that New York was unique in issuing its temporary moratorium. He also said he was a friend of ecologist Robert Howarth, author of a recent Cornell study that claimed natural gas obtained through hydrofracking actually has a bigger carbon footprint than coal, due to leakage of methane gas from pipelines, tanks and other facilities. The study concluded that on a 20-year time frame, coal was actually cleaner, Bishop said.


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