NYS Waits a Decision on Fracking

Kent GardnerOn Jan. 3, the Gannett News Service Albany Bureau reported on a draft environmental impact statement from 2012 on high-volume hydrofracking (http://goo.gl/F2bjy). The state Department of Environmental Conservation assessment concludes that “by implementing the proposed mitigation measures identified and required in this (report), the department expects that human chemical exposures during normal HVHF operations will be prevented or reduced below levels of significant health concern. Thus adverse impacts on human health are not expected from routine HVHF operations. When spills or accidents occur, the department has identified numerous additional mitigation measures … so that significant exposures to people and resources on which they rely are unlikely.”

DEC officials told Gannett that these findings were preliminary and did not constitute “final DEC policy.” Fair enough-this is a draft.

Yet these findings are consistent with the text of a briefing paper on high-volume hydrofracking from the Environmental Defense Fund, which concludes: “In short, natural gas could be a win-win benefiting both the economy and the environment-if we do it the right way. The right way means putting tough rules and mandatory environmental safeguards in place that protect communities and reduce methane pollution.” See http://goo.gl/NbiUP.

After two decades of fracking in the Barnett Shale in Texas, many-including the EDF-conclude that the environmental risk is manageable. And we know that trading natural gas for coal is very good for the environment. As the EDF briefing paper states, “There is no question that domestic unconventional gas supplies are leading to coal-fired power plants being retired.”

Thus I believe that New York, after developing rigorous and enforceable regulations, should permit high-volume hydrofracking wherever the geology of the state makes it commercially viable. Yes, a finite number of water wells may be contaminated, but the very nature of the gas deposits (small pockets, thousands of feet below freshwater aquifers) makes widespread effects unlikely. The highly visible nature of the drilling process makes the activity much easier to regulate than, say, securities fraud or food safety.

That’s my opinion–and I don’t expect to convince anyone to change theirs in this brief column. Given the likely benefits and our ability to minimize risk, I find the extent and vigor of the opposition surprising. Why does public opinion in Texas, Pennsylvania and West Virginia embrace natural gas drilling while the opposition in New York is so vigorous?

Clearly, we disagree on the facts. From where I sit, opponents have unrealistic expectations about the alternatives to fossil fuels. With current technology, alternative energy is deeply subsidized. Barring a miraculous breakthrough, the cost gap with natural gas won’t be closed for many years, possibly decades.

A related belief is that the cost differential imposed on consumers by a fracking ban would be modest, temporary and affordable. I recognize that many of fracking’s opponents would gladly pay twice as much as they do now to heat their homes, run their tablet computers and drive their cars. That’s a choice that the state’s less well-off residents would be unlikely to embrace, however. And the impact is broader than the direct cost of energy. The energy cost differential would find its way into the price of everything from food to manufactures. Moreover, a U.S. ban on high-volume hydrofracking would shift the balance of trade to foreign suppliers with lower
energy costs.

Falling U.S. energy prices are one reason that industrial jobs are coming back to America. Natural gas also serves as a feedstock for a number of manufacturing processes, including plastics, fertilizer and pharmaceuticals.

The impact of much of the opposition literature comes from exposing people to gritty images of fracking: for example, the famous “flaming faucet,” which is neither new nor necessarily tied to high-volume hydrofracking; and the towering drilling rigs, which are replaced with modest collections of pipes when the wells begin producing. But grit is hardly confined to fracking; the energy business is dirty, noisy and often dangerous. Texans, Pennsylvanians and West Virginians may be quicker to embrace fracking because they have personal knowledge of the alternatives: Oil rigs have long been part of the landscape in the “oil patch” of Texas and Oklahoma. Coal mining remains active in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

We want the light switch to work but would rather someone else live near the power plant or wind farm, or work in the coal mine or on the oil rig. (Might intimate knowledge of the energy business spur more conservation, just as the ranks of vegetarians might grow if we had to kill the pig that yields our bacon?)

The issue crosses many fault lines of American society and politics. But the existence of these massive gas stocks and of a proven extraction technology is a game changer. Since the oil shocks of the 1970s, our national psyche has grown accustomed to expecting increasing energy scarcity and permanent enslavement to foreign energy suppliers. In a typically vivid expression, The Economist declares that “the shale-gas revolution in America has been as sudden and startling as a supertanker performing a handbrake turn.” (If you don’t know what a “handbrake turn” is, ask a young male for a demonstration.)

The International Energy Agency just published its annual World Energy Outlook and concludes that “the extraordinary growth in oil and natural gas output in the United States will mean a sea-change in global energy flows. (In the) WEO’s central scenario, the United States becomes a net exporter of natural gas by 2020 and is almost self-sufficient in energy, in net terms, by 2035.”

Large and newly accessible stocks of natural gas have dramatically changed the competitive position of the United States. Depending on our response, New York could share the benefits. The politics are even more toxic than the opponents regard fracking to be, however. Although I’ve concluded that the facts justify fracking’s approval, Gov. Andrew Cuomo must balance the science with the politics as he and his staff arrive at a regulatory decision.


15 Comments

  1. Michael Rizzo Says:

    What is interesting as well is that the most stringent opposition to fracking is coming from places where fracking itself will not happen. This is one of those environmental issues that is “easily” handled with traditional political-economic tools, and things like global cooperation and international carbon carbon taxes are not required to deal with the potential negative social costs from fracking activity – from potential groundwater contamination, to air pollution from the fracking and trucking activity to the small micro-quakes that may result, these are all very local.

    It seems that the folks living in places where fracking WILL happen are in favor of it. And vice versa. For example, I was at a Perinton Town meeting recently and a supervisor assured all in attendance that Perinton would never allow fracking. Ever.

    Well, that’s nice, but fracking would never be attractive up here for a variety of reasons.

    Or take a trip to the Bluff at Keuka Lake. No one is proposing to frack beneath Keuka Lake (though it CAN be done safely), yet there are miles of road/house signs with the No Frack logo. And that is happening even as the lake often closes due to micro-bacteria and other contamination from farm runoff, right in their backyard, that they strongly support keeping there.

    Puzzling and frustrating.

    Good piece.

  2. Rose Ericson Says:

    Well-done! Thanks …

  3. David Kluge Says:

    I did not see any reference to the chemicals used in the fracking process.

    What are the chemicals used for fracking? Have they been identified and tested by CDC or the U.S. Public Health Service?

  4. Kimberly Danforth Says:

    Dangerous fracking chemicals are kept secret.

    Why? Intensive lobbying from former V.P. Dick Cheney gave us the “Halliburton Loophole,” making oil and gas activities exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Air Act.

    Nevertheless, independent analysts have identified 41 known chemicals–among the most highly toxic, radioactive, carcinogenic and corrosive that exist on this planet.

    Have a look at the studies. Links can be found through Food & Water Watch, a non-governmental group which focuses on corporate and government accountability relating to food, water, and fishing (www.foodandwaterwatch.org.

    Regarding economic gains and energy self sufficiency, the shale gas rush is a mirage. Distant energy companies do not buy from local businesses and out-of-staters fill short-term jobs. Renewable energy is the only bridge that arrives at an acceptable destination–one that leaves a world fit to live in by your (our) great, great grandchildren.

  5. Kent Gardner Says:

    No disagreement that this loophole is shameful–but NYS has all the regulatory power it needs to protect water quality. And I think that the evidence from Pennsylvania and W. Virginia indicates that the economic effects are very real indeed. Given the nature of the gas deposits, the drilling (and accompanying job creation) will continue into the future.

  6. Dick Beers, SR Says:

    While there is no mention of either chemicals used, or the disposal of the same in this article, I believe that these issues can be safely addressed.
    My own opinion is that the new generation Luddites who oppose Fracking under any conditions are just as wrong as the peasants who through their shoes into the looms in the 1700s.
    I think that the wealth of energy that will be produced by this process will have a profound effect for the better on all of us as energy is the absolute crucial element of a modern society.

  7. Candace Plants Says:

    The solution to our energy needs is in accessing our gas/oil resources, which we know to exist. Under the regulatory oversight of NYS and the limited viable harvesting areas, fracking makes good sense.

  8. Aaron Hilger Says:

    Very good piece Kent. I believe New York has all of the regulatory tools it needs to regulate fracking and keep everyone safe. We also have the benefit of learning from the experiences of PA, West Virgina, and Texas. Opposition to fracking is centered in vocal environmental groups and in groups that are based in areas which will never have fracking. The opponents don’t want to read factual pieces or have calm discussions about how one might move forward. They have irrational views of both the energy markets and the economy. It is unfortunate when emotion leads to irrational policy outcomes. Hopefully we can get enough people moving in the right direction to allow fracking. We need to create jobs in communities that really need them. Doing the same thing over and over again certainly will not improve the upstate economy.

  9. Lou Kash Says:

    Fracking is an important subject for both the environment and the economy. It’s distressing to see it discussed through simplistic slogans and irrational zeal. That said, I generally favor fracking but have several concerns. Chemicals used should be published (as almost all agree). Fracking uses a lot of water; origin of water and disposal and/or treatment should be part of the discussion and regulation. The rights of people who live in the cities and towns where fracking is likely to be performed should also be part of the discussion: Should municipalities be able to ban fracking,or not? Should there be legal requirements for leases and sales contracts regarding mineral rights that protect the landholder, or is current law enough? Finally, I would like to see a short statement in plain English (not bureaucratic legalese) of regulations that make sense for all to consider. Fracking is not a mirage; it is likely to bring important benefits in terms of energy independence, reduction in prices of fuels and in use of fossil fuels, employment (even if not in the area fracked) and lease or contract payments to those whose land is fracked. Risk is inherent in living, nothing is certain, we need to do our best and get on with it.

  10. Kurt Saffian Says:

    Well, all you fracking supporters writing in with your bold statements of confidence in the safety of the process should ask yourselves a few simple questions before committing yourself to the potential poisoning of our fresh water resources.
    1. Do you prefer fresh water or cheap heat?
    2. Would you drink a glass of water from a well in Pennsylvania which is outside the fracking industry-determined safety zone of 1000 feet? Would you drink it from the well where the entire family there have become ill with disease usually associated with poisoning. The governor of Pennsylvania did not drink the water from a home he declared to have safe water from fracking. Why not? He said he was not thirsty.
    3. Why would Halliburton need an exemption from the Clean Water Act if the process is safe?
    4. Why are the chemical components of the fluid not readily disclosed? (Industry standard answer: they are proprietary mixtures.) Ok, but even proprietary mixtures used in other industry like mine – semiconductors – must disclose by Federal law what is in it through an MSDS “Material Safety Data Sheet”. But not the fracking industry. Why?
    By the way, the materials have been tested by independent labs and shown to have hundreds of chemical components dozens of which are on the list of known carcinogens, teratogens, radioactivity, corrosive or otherwise poisonous.
    5. Why has the EPA or FDA not insisted on testing the fracking fluids? Could it be lack of interest or lack of controversy in the public arena? Or does it counter the wishes of the very powerful and motivated gas /oil industry?
    6. Why does the industry feel it necessary to use heavy advertising to sway public opinion their way? Same thing BP did after the Gulf of Mexico disaster happened that was everyone was assured would never happen. And Chernobyl, And Fukushima, and Three Mile Island and the Alaska pipeline leaks and … point is : industry energy disasters DO happen and lots of people die or get sick or get negatively affected.
    7. Wouldn’t it be prudent to first prove that the fracking fluids don’t get into the water rather than the hand-waving arguments that are proffered as assurance? For example: 1.” The gas is thousands of feet below the aquafir so how can it possibly get mixed up?” Ok, but the explosives used before the injection of the poisonous chemical fluid is felt on the surface for miles so there is clearly a large volume of earth being disturbed. 2. As shown in those deceptive TV ads: “We protect our water with thick American steel pipes!” How patriotic and shameful to use the American brand for deception. But what the cartoon does not show is that at the bottom of the thick steel pipe is no steel at all because that is where the explosives then the fracking chemicals are introduced into the earth. They seemed to neglect that detail in the diagrams on TV. Why? Did the artist not see that part of the process diagram? Or did they forget that detail? Or is it plain deception?

    So, you be the judge of my irrationality as one writer here accuses anti-frackers. And I must comment, the entry from Lou Kash is really reflective of the typical smugness of the fracking supporters. His last sentence says it the way the industry wants to hear it from the people at risk: “Risk is inherent in living, nothing is certain, we need to do our best and get on with it.” But are we doing our best here going along with a process that is not characterized, with ample anectodal evidence of problems for water, with chemical analysis proving the materials are unsafe?
    I prefer to go slowly, carefully, do the science first and tell the businessmen to go home and wait. That would be prudent.

  11. Lou Kash Says:

    Kurt Saffian’s comment pretty well illustrates my point about irrational zeal (including the devices of setting up false choices and bogeymen) damaging civil public discourse. So does his personal invective, which took my words out of context. In a democracy resolution of conflict requires civil discourse as well as negotiation and compromise; in the absence of those things we get polarization and nothing gets done, which is why we are where we are today.

    I thought the gist of my comment was clear: get it right (“do our best”) and get it done. On the whole, fracking offers substantial benefits, as Kent Gardner outlines. Getting it right means identifying and airing all legitimate concerns, including the ones I raised as well as drinking water quality on which Mr. Saffian seems to focus, plus a host of others. What’s the point of going on about Halliburton or the energy industry (unless to demonize them), or what happened in Pennsylvania, or a litany of previous disasters (unless to frighten people), as long as New York State learns from them and produces good regulations? This is why I suggested “a short statement in plain English…of regulations that make sense for all to consider”. (If you’ve ever read bureaucratic draft regulations you know they are incomprehensible to follow and understand, and in themselves are an obstacle to public discourse.)

    Getting it done means studying the issues thoroughly but not endlessly, and then voting yea or nay on a set of regs that attempt to address the issues. Endless studies usually constitute a strategy of last resort employed by die hard opponents of something they cannot hope to defeat by an up or down vote. The fact is that some risk is inherent in any action. I favor understanding the risks, outlining measures to protect against them, and establishing serious penalties to compensate those harmed by violation of the protective measures. And, because a deadline is usually necessary to get anything done, I favor doing so in the next year or less.

    What’s not “prudent” about all this?

    So I ask Mr. Saffian: Are you absolutely opposed to all fracking on the ground that the risks cannot be adequately identified, or, if they can be, that they cannot be adequately regulated? If you are that’s fine, just say so. If you’re not, let’s talk.

  12. Kurt Saffian Says:

    Lou, thank you for the reply and your clarifications of what you mean. You did not address my questions which again nicely illustrates the obfuscation which envelopes this topic.
    No, I don’t absolutely oppose fracking. I oppose fracking before the science is done completely and accurately without political and industrial conflicts of interest. Honestly, how can anyone consider the analysis even started if we are not told what is in the fracking fluid. Is that irrational? Zealous?
    And, just to be clear, I have no desire to turn this little blog into a personal debate forum so I will not respond again. I think we know where the other stands on this topic.

  13. Reginald Neale Says:

    This piece quotes the Environmental Defense Fund, with the implication that it represents the activist community. According to the Huffington Post, EDF received six million dollars from Bloomberg Philanthropies to advocate for fracking.

    Big energy keeps trying to sweet-talk us with full-page newspaper puff pieces, instead of taking steps that would demonstrate a real intent to be accountable. Drillers could, for example, not only agree to disclose the composition of their fracking fluids, but require individual fracking wells to add tracer compounds, so that when the inevitable accidents occur, responsibility could be unequivocally assigned. Also, they could post substantial bonds against contamination. Of course, once contaminated, no amount of money can remediate public water sources, but at least that would give drillers some incentive to exercise reasonable care; and if the industry’s rosy pronouncements about safety are actually true, their bond money would not be at risk.

    Supporters of fracking appear to have a great deal more trust in government and industry than I do. Several commentators use the word “irrational.” My own experience and my reading of history both suggest that it’s not at all irrational to believe that the energy industry will screw us if they can. And so far, they can.

  14. Geoff Withers Says:

    I hope that proponents and opponents alike would agree that the current technological advances in energy resource extraction is developing to the point where, eventually, there will be nowhere left to explore (other than some other galaxy, perhaps). We might be able to extend the date when the well runs dry, but someday it will. The most prudent thing to do, beyond protecting the earth and the population as much as possible while we muddle through this, is begin to invest in a long-term sustainable solution. Unfortunately, the most likely scenarion will not offer the large profits that resource extraction does today, so “bidness” interests will continue to control the discussions in the public square. Hopefully, this will not continue so long as to make a public investment solution impossible.

    s/The Optimist

  15. Kent Gardner Says:

    I think that the time horizon matters a great deal. The kind of investment that is prudent if the time frame is 10 years is very different than if the time frame is 50 years. I think we can reasonably predict the available alternative energy sources within a decade. Over five decades, however, it seems likely that something else will emerge–many think that a breakthrough is fusion is likely, others that direct solar conversion is ripe for a breakthrough. Unless we decide that we’re not going to use shale gas, then we’ve got 50+ years.

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