Tuesday, July 22, 2008

New York’s Gas Rush Poses Environmental Threat

by Abrahm Lustgarten
Pro Publica
July 22, 2008

On May 29 New York state's top environmental officials assured state lawmakers that plans to drill for natural gas near the watershed that supplies New York City's drinking water posed little danger.

A survey of other states had found "not one instance of drinking water contamination" from the water-intensive, horizontal drilling that would take place across New York's southern tier, the officials told lawmakers in Albany.

Reassured, the legislature quickly approved a bill to speed up the permitting process for a huge influx of wells that could bring the state upwards of $1 billion in annual revenue. Gov. David Paterson has until Wednesday to decide whether he will sign the bill, and the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC, says drilling permits could be approved in as little as 12 weeks.

But a joint investigation by ProPublica and New York City public radio station WNYC found that this type of drilling has caused significant environmental harm in other states and could affect the watershed that supplies New York City's drinking water.

In New Mexico, oil and gas drilling that uses waste pits comparable to those planned for New York has already caused toxic chemicals to leach into the water table at some 800 sites. Colorado has reported more than 300 spills affecting its ground water.

DEC officials told ProPublica and WNYC they were not aware of those incidents, even though some of the information could have been found through a rudimentary Internet search. The officials couldn't say for sure how New York would dispose of the millions of gallons of hazardous fluids that are byproducts of this type of drilling, and they learned only recently that the new drilling techniques would pump trace amounts of toxic chemicals into the ground. Four days after one interview, the DEC drafted a letter to the drilling companies, asking for detailed information about the type and amount of chemicals they will use.

With energy prices at record highs -- natural gas prices are twice what they were in January -- difficult-to-reach deposits of oil and gas in the United States are becoming commercially viable. At least nine companies have been locking up leases in New York, Pennsylvania and Appalachian states for drilling rights to the Marcellus Shale, a gas-rich rock layer that dives 7,000 to 9,000 feet beneath the earth's surface. Some geologists predict it could meet the entire nation's natural gas needs for more than two years.

But the extraction of natural resources from sensitive areas creates new problems for individual states, which bear the primary responsibility for protecting their environments. Some have created, or are in the process of creating, new regulations. Others, like New York, are just coming to grips with the potential impact of the drilling boom that may be headed their way.

New York's existing laws have served it well for the most part. Since 1963 the state has permitted more than 13,000 gas wells with few problems.

"When we say we are going to protect the environment, you don't have to trust us, you don't have to believe us," said Val Washington, deputy commissioner of remediation and materials management. "But look at our track record. I think it's pretty good."

However, the Marcellus development will be far more complicated than any previous drilling operations in the state. It will involve deeper, horizontal wells, possibly thousands of them. Each could suck up, and later spit out between 1 million and 5 million gallons of water -- hundreds of times the amount used by a conventional well. That would place a significant burden on New York's watersheds, including those that feed New York City's reservoirs and farmland in Chemung, Tioga, Broome, Delaware and Sullivan Counties.

Some of the regional DEC offices that would oversee the Marcellus wells have no experience with gas drilling at all. Yet New York officials said they see little reason to update their generic 1992 environmental impact statement, which was drafted long before this form of drilling, called horizontal hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking, was feasible on such a large scale.

"There is a little bit of learning curve...and that is where the concern falls," said William Kappel, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Ithaca, N.Y. "The tremendous amounts of water used for these processes -- where are you going to get it and what are you going to do with that?"

DEC officials could not answer those questions. They also acknowledge that they don't track the process drillers use to dispose of "produced water," as the gas and oil industry refers to its waste.

Read more here: www.propublica.org

© Copyright 2008 Pro Publica Inc.

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