Battalions of Halliburton clones may soon be tearing up the Catskills to get at stubborn seams of trapped ‘natural’ gas
As fossil fuel resources within the planet dwindle from extreme over-mining, we are being presented with a frightening prospect for the near future. Like a benzene-crazed junkie wielding a poison-tipped dagger, the gas drilling industry is poised to lunge wildly at the western flank of this region, part of an ancient Appalachian fossil formation called the Marcellus Shale deposit. Drilling has already begun, fouling large swathes of land and groundwater in the hunt for what is estimated by a Fredonia State College professor to be more than 500 trillion cubic feet of CH4 methane, the highly combustible gaseous remains of our marine ancestors, trapped in tiny crevices in the ancient rock.
In New York State, all the dying and desperate fossil fuel cabal needs is the go-ahead from a fractious and self-defeating state government that last fall rushed through a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that seemed to ignore concerns about the contamination of New York City’s watershed. According to Celeste Katz of the New York Daily News, insiders say the EIS “was rocketed through the process thanks to pressure from high up in the Paterson administration. [The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)]’s mining division sent its 804-page draft to all the other divisions on a Thursday and Friday, and asked for comments by Monday.” Still the state DEC managed to put the drilling on hold temporarily, and is currently wading through more than 14,000 comments on both sides of the issue in anticipation of making a decision on the rules drillers will have to abide by. Meanwhile the industry’s high-paid lobbyists are pushing hard for the unfettered expansion of drilling in the state, because the gluttonous U.S. market is literally drying up and prices are expected to rise through the roof.
Drillers stand to make trillions in relatively easy, risk-free profit while potentially contaminating much of the watershed beneath the Allegheny Plateau and the western Catskills. The contamination will come as a major side effect of “hydrofracking,” or hydro-fracturing, a blunt-force technique that uses copious amounts of water, sand, untested chemicals and drilling mud to fracture the deep shale deposits and eke out the natural gas trapped within them.
The process is a chemically tainted catastrophe-in-waiting for regional water aquifers and natural habitats. Scientists and local landowners fear that thousands of small water sources, including many subterranean aquifers in New York State, will be tapped to support the drilling industry, legally or illegally. The concern is that lots of small withdrawals will have a large impact. The water supply needed for drilling a single “frack event” can be up to one to two million gallons of water, and a horizontal well can use more than twice that amount. That’s right, it would be the local environment in which the drilling takes place that would supply the water, causing water shortages and potential full-scale contaminations to local aquifers and habitats for humans and animals. The number of potential “frack event” sites in the New York Marcellus shale is in the thousands; leasing applications are on an exponential rise, and the plan for expansion could very well thrash and contaminate much of the state’s watershed. Yet the most disturbing consequence of hydro-fracking is not the quantity of the watershed left behind, but the quality of the water.
According to the federal Department of Environmental Protection (EPA), the one consistent problem that accompanies “frack event” sites is surface spillage and the resultant contamination. The byproduct of this drilling technique is called “produced water.” According to the EPA, produced water is an industrial waste product that is among the most hazardous substances attributable to the fossil fuels industry.
There is a double whammy with produced water: the drilling process introduces into the environment toxic chemicals like diesel fuel, methanol, hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde, cadmium, arsenic, and heavy metals such as mercury, copper and lead; not to mention hydrocarbons and hydrogen sulfide. In addition we have to be prepared for the release of radioactive materials from within the Marcellus shale. There are many more chemicals used in the drilling process that are undisclosed to the public and environmental institutions due to the out-of-date regulations regarding natural gas drilling and the industry’s position that these chemicals are trade secrets. Sorry boys, not this time. These regulations need to be updated and in place immediately.
As of now the situation is stacked in favor of the energy companies. Thanks to Dick Cheney and the Bush administration’s energy policy in 2005, the gas and oil industry is currently exempt from environmental laws that were put in place to protect the public — laws that if heeded would most certainly have shut this industry down. This egregious dereliction of responsibility is called the “Halliburton loophole,” and allows the toxic, rapacious campaign of gas and oil drilling companies to flourish unchecked.
Drilling proponents also point to the economic “benefits” outweighing petty environmental concerns. Indeed, the act of paying landowners handsomely for leasing rights looks attractive in a dragging economy, particularly to the Tea Party faction.
The state will also benefit from the taxable income on all sides of the project — and let’s face it, New York is broke. The state has cut funding to the very organization that would be in charge of the oversight of these “frack event” sites. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Region 3 office in New Paltz doesn’t even have the staff to sort through the citizen comments of the proposed drilling plans; how can they be expected to monitor and uphold the regulations for protection against environmental impact? Oh wait, that’s right, there are no strict updated regulations in place for natural gas drilling. The companies are not required to disclose all the chemicals they use in the process, which should absolutely, in a sane universe, be 100 percent public knowledge. This is our local habitat, our environment, and we deserve to know what is going into it.
Of course, we also have to be aware of the potential emergence of produced water and deposited elements within the Marcellus shale that are harmful to the human body and to the environment. According to the Shale Gas Report written by Lisa Sumi for the Oil & Gas Accountability Project, which focused on the Marcellus shale:
“Subsurface formations may contain low levels of radioactive materials such as uranium and thorium and their daughter products, radium 226 and radium 228. Shale may contain radioactive elements. For example, in Ohio, naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) typically appears in trace amounts throughout the state. In Ohio, radioactive material is found not only within shale, but also within glacially deposited granitic and metamorphic rocks. Other Devonian-age shale has enough radioactive material to have been considered as potential low-grade resources of uranium 88 The Marcellus is considered to be ‘highly radioactive’ shale.”
As everyone who doesn’t live under a rock knows these days, spills are an all-too-frequent consequence of the environmentally unfriendly fossil fuels drilling industry. Directly on the heels of the BP oil disaster, this new wave of drilling in our corner of the country has already pissed toxic industrial waste all over the landscape in Pennsylvania. According to Anya Litvak of the Pittsburgh Business Times:
“On June 3, a blowout at a Marcellus Shale well owned by EOG Resources spewed at least 35,000 gallons of wastewater for 16 hours. EOG, formerly known as Enron Oil & Gas Co., was subsequently banned from drilling and stimulating wells until [Pennsylvania] state Department of Environmental Protection investigators give it approval to resume.”
So already in this young drilling bonanza we’ve seen the potential for catastrophe in a local environment from a single well. What will happen when we have thousands of wells pin-cushioning New York State? The answer is simple: we will undoubtedly have more spills, and more toxic industrial waste will be spewed into our environment that will make its way into our water supply. It should be re-emphasized that the company responsible for the Pennsylvania disaster is EOG, formerly Enron. Let me be clear folks, they have only changed their corporate brand; they still look, smell, and taste the same. Even when not being blasted all over the map in a blowout, the “produced water,” as it is so lovingly called by the industry, is a major issue: only 60 percent of the water is returned from each well, meaning 40 percent of the chemically-enhanced industrial waste is seeping into the ground. As for the produced water that does get collected, the noxious stew is placed in an open-air evaporation pit, allowing all those toxic chemicals to be introduced into the air.
In my opinion this is the most pressing issue facing our state at this moment. We may be broke, education may failing, and people may be unhealthy with little option for health care outside of the emergency room, but if we set the precedent for environmental regulation of this industry or acquire an outright ban of their activities, it will be a major victory for the real change this country needs to experience in order to be a republic of, for, and by the people. Corporatism can no longer be allowed to rule our nation. The one characteristic large corporations all seem to share is that they lie, cheat, and steal to further their growth; they are concerned with the bottom line, not environmental impacts that have occurred and will again. The push for alternative fuels is on and it needs support, from you the local citizenry, and from a state and federal government that must pull their grime-ridden hands from the corporate cookie jar. We must not be hesitant or cynical; we must push our demands to the forefront and be heard. Local community and environmental welfare are more important than corporate profits.
Look at what industrial corporate manufacturing has given us in terms of our food and energy supplies. The factory food industry has given us a sickeningly tainted food supply loaded with chemicals and additives that are not currently required to be on labels so the public can be informed about what they are eating. All the while, we see commercials and print ads with images of the family farm producing “home-style” goodness for you to eat. The reality behind the image is one of unprecedented filth and vileness, which is chemically “cleaned” before it goes to market. The energy supply industry has lobbied Congress with tens, if not hundreds of millions, of dollars to suppress alternative fuel production and continue to expand their rape of the environment. The game may be rigged and the chips stacked against us, but we cannot let this go on; we can change the scenario through community action by all of us standing up and protesting, signing petitions, and making calls to the local political leaders urging them to halt the drilling until we have a complete, independent review of all the environmental impacts that have already resulted and could possibly result from this process. The opposition seems to believe that any intrusion into the earth’s crust or waiting evaporation pit full of highly toxic industrial waste water is an isolated event within the biosphere, carrying acceptable risks that can be mitigated and fixed by some other toxic process we don’t need to come into our lives.
I will remind them that the natural order of the biosphere is symbiotic harmony that is connected across the spectrum, involving a multitude of interwoven relationships that all have an effect on one another. There is potential for massive harm to our natural groundwater supply, which will then affect the entire ecosystem. Water is life’s most abundant component, and every living thing will be affected by its contamination. I urge you to follow this issue, do some research on it, and know the environmental facts about hydro-fracturing. I urge the state of New York to demand no less of this industry, and to check every fact from every previous contaminating event under their watch. The public demands to be informed.We cannot be ignored, nor will we be the guinea pigs for untested chemicals introduced into our environment. Give us the information first, and then we’ll talk.
Such were the demands from a group of concerned citizens that attended a gathering in front of the state Department of Environmental Conservation Region 3 office in New Paltz on Tuesday, June 15. The questions we have are valid and painfully needed. There are more and more of us asking them.
DEC gatherings like this happened across the state, with support from local environmental groups like Clearwater. The speakers were well-versed on the issue and laid out the problems effectively. The major issue they are having is with the environmental impact statement (EIS) that the DEC issued last fall, which has been determined to be “fatally flawed and highly inadequate to deal with the impacts of hydro-fracturing.” The primary concern, other than toxic industrial wastewater, is that the EIS document contained no comprehensive water consumption analysis for the inevitable millions of gallons of water that will be needed for all of the drill sites. Again, there is no estimate as to the impact to human or wildlife communities as a result of the water consumption! This is something we need to know. What happens to the highly toxic produced water? Where is it deposited or transported to? What are the chemicals used in the process that are hidden behind the corporate veil of “trade secrets?” I repeat: These are the things we need to know. The information on this is not a hot topic in the media for a reason. I believe when people discover the facts they will stand up against this, but when opinions are plugged into mainstream television they are difficult to reach. Follow this issue and tell your friends. I will continue to explore every twist and turn it takes in the coming months — someone has to.
The limited quality and capability of the local media to get this story out to the public, along with the deafening silence from mainstream corporate media, means that in the meantime people are busy being distracted by those same sensationalist corporate media manipulators, the F.allacious O.rating X.enophobes and the C.ertified N.itwit N.etwork, along with ABC, CBS, NBC and other pawns of industry. Combined they are a hydra-headed Frankenstein monster that willfully manufactures public opinion. Because, let’s face it, that is their game now. Nonetheless, a group of citizens managed to buck the tide, gathering to make the DEC aware of growing public concern over regulation and oversight of the drilling sites. The group leader called Governor Paterson’s office to make our collective voice heard. The very courteous assistant to the governor listened intently while making note of our concerns for the boss. Calls went out to Albany from all over the state, both to the Governor’s office and to the DEC, which is aware we are out here. The capability to monitor and oversee all aspects of drilling and disposal of wastewater, while being vastly under-funded, is the crucial issue being exploited by the fossil fuel industry at this very moment. We do not have to allow it to happen. We can make communities important again, learn to conserve and live locally within our means. We can change the way business is done, in New York State and the United States. Become the change you want to see.
(Editor’s note: ‘Jane Doe’ is the freely chosen pseudonym for a pretty well known individual who leads a double life.)
Reprinted from the Hudson Valley Chronicle, volume 3, no. 2.