Monday, November 28, 2011

Fracking in New York

Last year, New York placed a moratorium on drilling in the Marcellus Shale while it assessed the effects of fracking. New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on drilling was released almost three months ago and recommends that drilling be permitted, but with conditions. The comment period ends on December 12, 2011 and most likely the ban on hydro fracking in New York will end with it despite several groups’ attempts to extend the comment period three more months.

The EIS places restrictions on drillers to address groundwater concerns. EIS mandates that drillers must not drill within a certain distance of watersheds or aquifers and more stringent well construction standards be met. These recommendations are in line with the recommendations issued by the Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board this past spring. The report had a rational approach to regulation recommending disclosure, testing, evaluation and modification of regulation and practices based on the information and data obtained. The report is to some extent a collection of the best regulatory framework among the states and covers little new ground overlooking some of the significant questions. This was a subcommittee at the Department of Energy that reports to the Secretary of Energy. However, EPA will be the regulatory agency and is currently engaged in a multi-year study of hydraulic fracturing. There is not enough data to fully understand the full impacts of fracking.

There is tremendous pressure to lift the moratorium on fracking. A large swath of New York sits atop the Marcellus Shale, which is the third-largest natural gas field currently known in the world. The Marcellus Shale alone is estimated to be 500-trillion-cubic-feet of gas reserve. This resource could heat our homes for a generation or more, and power our electrical generating plants, even fuel cars either directly or through plug in hybrids. The possible impacts to our economy and environment are far reaching. The potential risks are also far reaching.

Our ability to recover natural gas buried a mile or more beneath the earth has increased. Advances in horizontal drilling which allows a vertically drilled well to turn and run thousands of feet laterally through the earth combined with advances in hydraulic fracking, the pumping of millions of gallons of chemicals and water into shale at high pressure have increased our ability to recover natural gas from shale. Hydraulic fracking is a technology that was unknown 60 years ago and advances in the past 15 years have made it possible to economically access this gas. Our knowledge of the impacts from fracking has lagged behind our ability to access the gas.

In hydraulic fracking on average 2-3 million gallons of chemicals and water is pumped into the shale formation at 9,000 pounds per square inch and literally cracks the shale or breaks open existing cracks and allows the trapped natural gas to flow. While geologists and engineers believe that there is little risk that the fracking “water,” a mix chemicals and water, will somehow infiltrate groundwater reserves though a fissure created by the fracking there are other routes of contamination and impact. It is believed that the intervening layers of rock would prevent a fissure from extending thousands of feet to the water table; there are other risks in how we build wells and fracture the shale that the EIS attempts to address.

There have been documented cases of seepage into drinking water wells through improperly sealed or abandoned drilling wells. An ongoing monitoring and data collection program needs to be part of the permitting process. Potential impacts to our water supply from hydraulic fracking needs to be studied over time and regulations modified to better protect our water supplies and natural resources as fracking expands in the region. Drilling requires large amounts of water to create a circulating mud that cools the bit and carries the rock cuttings out of the borehole. After drilling, the shale formation is then stimulated by hydraulic fracking, using up to 3 million gallons of water.

Data needs to be gathered on the impact to water resources of supplying water for the construction of thousands of wells per year. For gas to flow out of the shale, nearly all of the water injected into the well during fracking must be recovered and disposed of. Though less than 0.5% by volume, the proprietary chemicals can account for 15,000 gallons in the waste from a hydro fracking job. The chemicals serve to increases the viscosity of the water to a gel-like consistency so that it can carry the propping agent (typically sand) into the fractures to hold them open so that the gas can flow. Determining the proper methods for the safe disposal of the large quantities of this fracking fluid that may also contain contaminants from the geological formation including brines, heavy metals, radionuclides and organic contaminants and monitoring the impact from this disposal must also be done. The impact of so much waste water on our water resources must be measured and monitored. Finally, care must be taken to avoid degradation of watersheds and streams from the industry itself as large quantities of heavy equipment and supplies are moved on rural roads and placed on concrete pads. The watersheds must be monitored and permitting should not exceed our ability to monitor the impacts.

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