Monday, March 9, 2015

More to come...


I’m working on non-shale gas assignments through May 2015.

Look for posts here again prior to the release of the updated version Under the Surface, due out in paperback in June from Cornell University Press. The new release will include chapters on the Home Rule movement and other factors that shaped policy in New York, and EPA investigations in Dimock Pennsylvania and elsewhere that sparked a national fight over industry control.

-- Tom Wilber

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

More on the history of New York’s fracking ban

I accepted a recent assignment for the Press & Sun-Bulletin – recounting how fracking was stopped in New York – with feelings of both eagerness and uneasiness.

Eagerness was due to having a chance to recap the history of a story I have been covering for seven years. The uneasiness stemmed from how I would do this in a newspaper-length article on a 48-hour deadline.

The results ran both in abbreviated and longer versions in the Press & Sun-Bulletin, Pressconnects, and this blog. The long version was 3,700 words -- about 10 times the length of a standard newspaper article. But it was still short considering the scope of the subject. By comparison, I needed more than 90,000 words to tell the story more comprehensively in my book, Under the Surface.

The key players that have shaped New York’ story from the onset number well into the hundreds, and I had space to reference perhaps a dozen in the newspaper piece. Not surprisingly, I have heard feedback from people that my story lacked some perspective. As one source put it, the story of the battle has become the battle for the story.

Two readers touched on particular events relating to a bill, signed by Gov. Paterson in 2008, that was the catalyst for events to follow. The bill would make spacing units for the large unconventional Marcellus gas wells conformable with existing state policy — a move that would effectively streamline the permitting process. Without it, shale gas development would get hung-up on an administrative process designed for the much smaller conventional wells.

The bill was the kind of wonkish-policy instrument that few lay people have the appetite for, and one that induces migraines to reporters writing for mainstream audiences. But it was also the sort of under-the-radar document that offers stakeholders who master it a strategic advantage in influencing important decisions. In this case, it was a necessary component for the gas industry to get things moving in New York. While this policy-making was different from the grass roots aspect of the movement that I report on, the bill ended up being a notable reference point and precursor to the anti-fracking movement.

Although the bill passed overwhelmingly, Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo and a small group of her colleagues voted against, she said, to “send a message to Paterson.” At the same time, she added, “local and statewide activists raised red flags about what this bill would do to speed up the process as well. That helped put the brakes on the whole matter.”

Paterson ordered a hold on permitting pending an environmental review when he signed the bill. But the bill had, for the record, a certain symbolic relevance. More importantly, it was a magnet for organizational involvement in state affairs that, by some accounts, was a forerunner of the anti-fracking movement.

Roger Downs, a program director with the Sierra Club, noted that several environmental organizations were among the first to recognize the significance of this spacing bill, and engage and challenge the DEC about what its impact would be.These groups included the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, Catskill Mountainkeeper, Riverkeeper, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Natural Resources Defense Council, Catskill Center for Conservation and Development, The Wilderness Society and Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, Damacus Citizens for Sustainability. (I’m sure I am leaving some out.)

Now, moving on to an altogether different thread of the story, Chip Northrup, the drilling-investor-turned-fractivist, offers another critical aspect of the story’s history: economics.

Northrup writes:

We can summarize why fracking was prohibited in New York with a simple construct – the cost/ benefit ratio – what the environmental risks and economic costs would be to the state and it citizens versus the benefits of shale gas industrialization. Initially, this ratio appeared to tilt very much in favor of fracking – at least in the popular press and in the corridors of power – because the gas industry had grossly overstated the benefits of shale gas development while categorically denying the risks and collateral damage associated with it.

You can read Northrup’s full post here.

I am currently finishing an updated version of Under the Surface, Fracking Fortunes and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale, to be published in paperback by for Cornell University Press next year. This will probably be close to 110,000 words. I would like to think, as the subtitle suggests, it covers a lot of ground and offers a pretty good idea of events that distinguish New York from Pennsylvania and the rest of the nation with the unfolding of the on-shore drilling boom. But there will always be more to report. In that spirit, I encourage readers to pass along any of their own stories or recollections.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

How Fracking Got Stopped in New York

The following is an uncut version of an article I wrote the Press & Sun-Bulletin. The newspaper version, which ran on Dec. 21, 2014, was cut due to space constraints The full version is reprinted here with permisson of the paper.


One of many protests against fracking in Albany
Photo: James Pitarresi
In certain places in New York, Wednesday’s news of the state’s ban on fracking inspired public celebration.

When a manager at GreenStar Natural Foods Market in Ithaca announced the news over a loud speaker, people in the store began applauding, cheering, shouting and hugging. “People had worked for this for so long,” said Dawn Lodor, an assistant manager at the store, which helped organize opposition to shale gas development.

In pro-fracking camps, the news was met with bitterness and disbelief. Dan Fitzsimmons, head of the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York group, listened to the decision from Cuomo’s cabinet meeting in Albany streamed online to his farmhouse in Conklin. His reaction? “It was like a kick on the gut.” His phone started ringing after that with angry members of the coalition who, in Fitzsimmons words, “feel like they’ve been robbed.”

It was no surprise that the news was emotionally charged. But, for people on both sides of the issue, it was an abrupt endpoint of an epic policy fight that began nearly seven years ago.

New York’s shale gas story will be cast in history as one of false starts, near misses, empty promises, and a grass roots movement of the ages. From the beginning, some harbored great expectations for a shale gas boom in the Southern Tier. In the end it was a bust that never got off the ground.

I began learning the full implications of the shale gas story one day in early May, 2008, when several visitors came to the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin newsroom. These sources included Fitzsimmons, long before he was president of the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, and Tim Whitesell, Town of Binghamton Supervisor. At the time, few people knew what fracking was, and most associated “Marcellus” with a small town in Upstate New York.

Sitting with a group of editors in “the pit” a wall-less space in the corner of the news room with a sunken floor and a white board where editors jotted story ideas, our sources informed us that agents representing gas exploration companies  – “landmen” – were seeking mineral rights to the land in the towns of Conklin and Binghamton. The landmen tended to approach people with the largest tracts first. These were often farmers or descendents of farmers, and many of them were duly skeptical, but excited.  What was not to like about the notion of abundant energy that could be safely extracted from beneath the land with deals that could make people rich? That was what the landowners were told, at least, and that’s what they hoped for.

At that time, land leases for mineral rights were not unusual in parts of New York state, especially in places in western New York where operators, mostly small independent outfits, had drilled wells for generations. In places east of Owego, and the Finger Lakes region, these leases rarely lead to development and the leasing money was incidental – maybe $5 or $10 an acre. Now, we were told by Fitzsimmons, that landmen were offering hundreds of dollars per acre, with some reports of $1,000 or more. The Marcellus Shale – a rock formation long-known to hold an abundance of gas that was technologically inaccessible – was their target. (The Marcellus ran at an angle from Marcellus, New York, where it jutted above ground, all the way to West Virginia and parts of Ohio and Maryland, where it was more than a mile deep.)

Southern Tier residents were learning that the first successful wells in the Marcellus –featuring a combination of new techniques -- had spurned a burgeoning gas rush just across the border in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. Unlike the type of conventional drilling western New Yorkers were familiar with – clusters of vertical wells generally contained in a geographically limited area – this shale gas development involved drilling into rock that extended under entire states. Operations would encompass vast regions. It required unconventional technology. Well bores would be oriented horizontally along the vast mantel of Marcellus rock, and then the bores would be injected with pressurized solutions of unknown but effective chemicals to break the rock and free the gas. The scope, scale, and sums of money were seemingly unprecedented.

For the next six-plus years, the story would be told through several hundred articles in Gannett’s Upstate New York newspapers. It would play out one way in New York, and another way in Pennsylvania, with outcomes that reflect each state’s political attitudes and comfort levels with mineral extraction.

As the price of natural gas approached record highs in early 2008, the fervor over gas development spurred ever more aggressive efforts of landmen charged with securing acreage for drilling. They also fostered growing expectations among landowners seeking a deal of a lifetime. The bidding rose from hundreds of dollars per acre to thousands of dollars per acre, and in the newsroom, we heard complaints from landowners who had signed away their land rights without understanding the value of the mineral resources.

With this concern, early stories seized on the efforts of Chris Denton, an Elmira attorney, and members of the New York Farm Bureau, who became important advocates for landowners. They gave presentations to audiences packing school auditoriums and town halls in places where landmen were sent to secure acreage, which at the height of the leasing frenzy in 2008 included a large part of upstate New York.

Many Southern Tier owners saw the approach of the landmen as a Beverly-Hillbillies–moment. But at his presentations, Denton gave a sobering message: Beware of the industry lease. It’s “a complex-business transaction masquerading as a lottery ticket.” A standard lease was worded in a way that gave operators rights to minerals under their land, of course, but it also gave them rights to do whatever they needed above land to get at riches below.

The state’s permitting guidelines –designed for conventional drilling -- were outdated and insufficient to handle shale gas development. This made matters worse. Landowners had to take matters into their own hands by crafting land-use agreements to ensure environmental safeguards. Denton was the first of several attorneys who would begin advising landowners groups on leasing strategies.

MEGA DEAL

The story went from big to bigger on May 11, 2008 with news from Sanford, a town of 2,400 people on the eastern edge of Broome County. Dewey Decker, town Supervisor, headed a group of 300 farmers – controlling some 50,000 acres – who banded together to leverage bargaining power against companies. None of the landowners would sign a lease without a deal that was acceptable to all. With this technique, the Deposit group landed a deal with XTO Energy for $90 million. That figure would soon grow to $110 million with subsequent sign-ons.

The terms included $2,411 per acre for leasing rights for five years and the same amount for the three-year extension. In addition, if prospectors hit gas, the landowners would get 15 percent of the royalties. Without a single well drilled, many of the farmers, including Decker, made more in a single day than they would their entire lives. Mega deals were also being signed in Pennsylvania, and the media coined a new word for farmers like Decker: Shallionaires.

While the job prospects for rig workers in Pennsylvania remained mostly filled by itinerate crews from Texas and West Virginia, there was a surge of new business for lawyers and accountants. My reporting of the Deposit deal stated it this way: “Now, people who had problems paying property taxes suddenly will have ... more tax problems. Income taxes could immediately bite into a third or more of leasing revenues. ‘It's quite a change, and I hope people can handle it,’ Decker said. ‘The lawyers and accountants are going to make out quite well.’ ”

GREAT EXPECATIONS

News of the XTO deal fueled a gold rush mentality in the Southern Tier.

People began reasoning that, if XTO found resources under the land in the Town of Sanford with that kind of value, then other gas companies prospecting in nearby towns along the Pennsylvania Boarder also harbored riches. Lease offers reported in Broome County towns bordering Pennsylvania soared. In some areas along the Millennium Pipeline, where the market produced a premium for ready access to infrastructure, offers rose to $5,000 an acre or more.

XTO was a $13 billion company that would later be bought out by Exxon Mobil, and a far cry from the smaller independent operators that had done business in New York.  People were rightly filled with a sense that they were heading into unfamiliar territory with the Marcellus prospects, and they began crowding town halls and school auditoriums in their quest for information.

Many of the meetings were sponsored by town officials seeking answers from officials from the state Department of Environmental Conservation about how the impacts from shale gas development would be managed in New York. One such meeting, on July 16, 2008 in the municipal building of the town of Chenango, was crowded with farmers, suburbanites and officials from town, county and state governments. They were not necessarily against fracking, but they had plenty of questions. What about public safety concerns, roads, and waste disposal?

Linda Collart, regional supervisor with the Division of Mineral Resources, assured the crowd that there would be little or no impact; the agency had been managing gas development for generations. In her power point presentation, she showed a picture of what shale gas development would look like: A small valve poking from the ground with a lush meadow of wildflowers and grasses in the foreground an a bank of trees in the background. This was a reclaimed natural gas site, she said, and an example of the expected long-term impact from Marcellus development.

In what would become a defining moment in the local history of the shale play, a person from the back of the room stood up and asked her how local emergency responders could prepare for a spill, fire, or explosion when the industry did not fully disclose the complete chemical content and concentrations of fracking fluids.

“We don’t anticipate any significant emergencies,” Collart said. “These things are rare.”

Another person stood up and asked how regulators were preparing for an influx of drilling that would exceed any historical comparison.

Collart responded, “We have been doing fine so far … No problems!”

Collart stood by that line at several meetings, and the more she gave it, the more agitated and skeptical towns folks became.

A meeting in Greene was scheduled the day after I reported Collart’s responses at the Town of Chenango meeting. For this, Governor David Paterson’s office, responding to growing skepticism about the DEC’s ability to manage shale gas, sent Judith Enck, the governor’s top environmental advisor and Stuart Gruskin, executive deputy DEC commissioner.  As with earlier meetings, the questions reflected frustration from the crowd of more than 500 people who felt they were not getting straight answers, but Enck’s response was different than Collart’s.

“The DEC is going back and doing its homework,” she said. “I’m sure you will hold our feet to the fire and make sure it gets done.”

Later, Gruskin told me that the Greene meeting was a “fork in the road.” He explained: “If there was ever any doubt about the significance of all this, going to that meeting made it clear that it was going to be a really big issue in New York,” he said. “We had to make a decision as to how we were going to approach it.”

Within days of the Greene meeting, the state legislature approved a bill, pushed by gas companies and submitted by the DEC, that would make spacing units for the large Marcellus gas wells more uniform – a move that would effectively streamline the permitting process. Without it, shale gas development would get hung-up on an administrative process designed for the much smaller conventional wells. Paterson signed the industry-supported bill. But, with input from Enck and Gruskin, he also declared that permitting could not begin until the agency under took a comprehensive review of its impacts. The document, know as the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (or SGEIS) was born.

At the time, even gas supporters didn’t seem to mind the time out, which they saw as a necessary step to make things move smoothly. “It’s a process in which we will be learning as we move forward,” said state Senator Tom Libous, sponsor of the spacing bill. “We have to make sure the environment is protected. I am pleased so far.” At the time, people expected the review to take a year or less, and shale gas would begin soon in New York.

Before the SGEIS could be finalized, it had to go through a public review process. This standard procedure for public policy would make the document a critical instrument for the anti-fracking movement to delay shale gas until people finally got the answers to the questions raised at public meetings. The more they found out, the more questions they had.

A MOVEMENT BEGINS

The second turning point of the story came with a bang, literally, on New Years Day, 2009 in Dimock, Pennsylvana. An explosion rocked the frozen ground in Norma Fiorentino’s front yard and concrete dust billowed over a gaping hole where her water well was housed. The blast destroyed the well that supplied her trailer on her 7-acre homestead. Though there were no casualties, the incident raised many questions and, eventually, led to state and federal investigations about the safety and viability of shale gas development in Susquehanna County. In months and years that followed, the Pennsylvania state Department of Environmental Protection found that methane was seeping from nearby gas wells drilled by Cabot Oil and Gas into water wells in the area where Norma lived. Cabot responded that methane comes from the ground and factors other than drilling can bring it into contact with water supplies. Cabot denied that its operations caused the problem, and at one point accused the DEP of fabricating the story.

The events in Dimock highlighted a battle over whether fracking was a good thing or a bad thing. At the heart of it was the issue of trust, and who could be believed – industry, government, or neither. The industry, at the time, was standing by a claim that fracking had not contaminated a single water well throughout its history. This motivated journalists, critics, and activists who sensed a bending of the facts and possibly a cover up.

After Norma’s well exploded, Walter Hang, head of an environmental research firm in Ithaca, began searching data bases from the DEC to see if he could find records ot similar incidents in New York State. He uncovered 270 files documenting wastewater spills, well contamination, explosions, methane migration and ecological damage related to gas production in the state since 1979. Those findings were the subject of an article in this paper on Nov. 8, 2009. Continuing his research in 2010, Hang uncovered documents that showed William T. Boria, a water resources specialist at the Chautauqua County Health Department, reported his agency had received more than 140 complaints related to water pollution or gas migration associated with nearby drilling operations. In a 2004 memo summarizing the issue, Boria stated: "Those complaints that were recorded are probably just a fraction of the actual problems that occurred." County health officials tabulated information on 53 of the cases from 1983 to 2008 on a spreadsheet, including one where a home was evacuated after the water well exploded.

The first draft of the SGEIS had been released on September 30, 2009, and by then the anti-fracking movement was becoming a powerful grass-roots phenomenon. The first public hearing on the state’s policy proposal to permit shale gas was held six weeks later at the Chenango Valley High School. It had more the feel of a pep rally than a public hearing.

Lines began forming outside an hour before the doors opened at 5:30 p.m. Some people wore costumes—one was a barrel of toxic waste; another, a gas company executive billionaire with money coming out of his hat. They held signs that read “Don’t Frack on Me” and “You Can’t Drink Gas or Money.”

Drilling supporters were also represented, most visibly by people who wore t-shirts that read “Pass Gas, It’s a Movement.”

Environmental conservation officers wearing ranger’s hats and bearing sidearms stood attentively at various entrances and milled about the lobby as more than 1,000 people filled the auditorium to capacity.

For the next three hours, speakers lined up for a turn at the microphone, where they offered impassioned praise or criticism of the drilling industry and its plans to set up shop in Broome County. The meeting in Broome County was one of four throughout the state, and each drew a large and impassioned response.

In the three-month period allotted for written responses, the agency received more than 14,000 formal comments, and it had to address them all before the plan
could become final. The anti-fracking movement won its first and major victory in stalling a decision on shale gas.

CLOSE CALLS

In the years that followed, those who favored shale gas pressed on in the face of even more delays. With the economy languishing for years following the stock market crash of 2008, landowners kindled hopes of making money with gas leases. In northern Pennsylvania and the Southern Tier of New York, tens of thousands of landowners began organizing into dozens of groups to lease their land. Many were organized through Denton and the Farm Bureau, and Binghamton lawyer Scott Kurkoski.

Continued delays and falling natural gas prices did little to deflate expectations. A  study commissioned by the Broome County government in late 2009 found full-scale Marcellus production could involve up to 4,000 wells, generate $14 billion in local spending, and support between 810 and 1,600 new jobs for a decade.

Although the report lacked an assessment of the social and environmental cost, Broome County government budged $5 million in revenues from the gas rush, before it had even signed a lease. Nathaalie Maxwell, budgeted director at the time cited “conservative” expectations for “a multi-billion industry that has set its sights on Broome County.”

At the time, there was still convincing evidence that major companies were interested in extracting gas from under Broome County. In June, 2009, a coalition headed by Dan Fitzsimmons and represented by Scott Kurkoski, announced a deal with Hess that would generate $66.5 million in lease payments and 20 percent royalties for 19,000 acres of land owned by about 700 people.  The deal failed to close, however, due to differences in how the lease would be structured to control land use. Hess eventually signed a deal with residents in Northern Pennsylvania instead.

FATAL BLOWS

After the Hess deal, political, economic, and social factors continued to erode the chances of shale gas development in New York.

The anti-fracking movement would become galvanized in the summer of 2010, with the premier of Josh Fox’s movie, Gasland, on HBO. Gasland, which was screened in Binghamton and Ithaca, featured a shot of Mike Markham, a resident living near shale gas development in Weld County Colorado, lighting his tap water on fire. The movie, which also featured Norma Fiorentino’s well and other scenes from Dimock, Pennsylvania, became a rallying point for the anti-fracking movement in New York.

The SGEIS was sent back to the drawing board, and when the Cuomo administration issued a revision on September 2010, it was again flooded with comments from well-organized and informed critics that led to another backlog.

In years that followed, New York’s anti-fracking movement blossomed into a celebrity cause, supported by performances, rallies, appearances and speeches by Natalie Merchant, Pete Segeer, Mark Ruffalo, Bobby Kennedy Jr., Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, Josh Fox and others. A group of professionals added credibility to star power. Sandra Steingraber, a noted author, scholar, and ecologist, became a leading figure and motivational speaker. Tony Ingraffea, an engineering professor with vast industry experience, was also a leading influence in the movement and an organizer of Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy.

The fracking debate in New York would extend to both local and federal governments. In 2010, the federal Environmental Protection Agency was directed by Congress to use a portion of its allotted funding for a peer-reviewed study of the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and ground water. The effort -- championed by (now retired) Rep. Maurice Hinchey, at the time chair of the Appropriations Committee -- included a hearing at the Broome County Forum on September 13, 2010. That event drew about 1,500 people from throughout the region. Notably, the EPA hearing was headed by Judith Enck, who had left her job with the DEC to accept appointment as regional director of the EPA. The results of the study are yet to be released.

Yet the biggest defeat for the shale gas industry in New York, prior to Wednesday’s announcement by the Cuomo administration, did not come until late May of this year. That’s when the state’s high court upheld a decision that allowed local governments to control where and if fracking occurred. The concept, know as home rule, was a result of the court’s ruling to uphold fracking bans in the towns of Dryden and Middlefield. Prior to the decision, the state controlled where gas wells went. The Court of Appeals made clear that zoning and land-use restrictions apply, and towns could not proceed without recognizing fracking as an accepted use.  

The decision by the Cuomo administration to ban fracking statewide Wednesday caught everybody by surprise. Hours before it was announced, I was scheduled to cover a town board meeting in Windsor, where officials intended to discuss changes to land use plans to allow fracking. Windsor was one of many towns along the Pennsylvania border going through that process – which was deemed necessary before the state could issue permits. Now, much to the dismay of people like Dan Fitzsimmons, the issue of local control is moot.

Antifracking activists, who were geared up to fight a decision from the governor’s office that would permit fracking, also have to make some adjustments. Dawn Lodor, the manager at GreenStar said the store had commissioned a bus to take fractivists to a rally in Albany in January to protest fracking. They are still going, but now they plan to make it a public celebration.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cuomo’s choice to ban fracking driven by science, politics


Tonight, I was scheduled to cover a town board meeting in Windsor, New York, where officials were going to review a plan to change their zoning to allow fracking. The process for a zoning change promised to be long and contentious, and was necessary in light of a recent court ruling putting the decision of whether and where to drill in the hands of local governments.

Things changed dramatically this afternoon, when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he would ban shale gas development statewide due to unacceptable health risks. Cuomo’s position, backed by a long-awaited report from the state Department of Health, is a departure from his earlier position that he would allow fracking where local governments favored it. Reporters, pundits and the public they serve are still getting their minds around Cuomo’s emphatic decision, which came after more than six years of policy review. While it puts the matter to rest, many questions remain: What are the legal consequences? Do industry lawyers and supporters, who have been beaten at every turn in their efforts to bring shale gas to New York, have another challenge in them? Or is this the end of the line?

Those answers will come soon, but apparently, from my conversations with sources and a press-release from the Joint Landowners Association of New York, not tonight. The news of the hour is that, after a six and a half-year journey, fracking is dead on arrival in New York. Along that line, I share my response to a request by Andrew Revkin, author of New York Times  Dot Earth, for a "what just happened" analysis. (Revkin’s compilation of reaction from many informed sources can be found here.)

Cuomo’s decision is consistent with his progressive politics that got him to where he is now. It's a bold move and I optimistically take it as sincere attempt to overcome the inertial forces of fossil fuel dependency. Success here could add considerably to his legacy. But he has much more to do. The fracking ban needs to be accompanied by practical reforms and initiatives in energy development & consumption. How much longer will New York City residents have to rely on Fuel Oil as their primary source of heat? What about coal burning plants? I have written about the answer to these questions by a group of scientists and professionals that have contributed to the credibility of the anti-fracking movement. I offer that post again here.)

So why did it take six and a half years? Science takes time. Establishing risks of high volume hydraulic fracturing and the new era of on shore drilling it has enabled is especially difficult because shale gas development is relatively new. The industry controls most of the information and has plenty of legal, scientific and political wherewithal to challenge any conclusions that don’t work in its favor.

Science is part of the calculus. But despite what Cuomo would like us to believe, scientists don’t make these kinds of decisions. The full equation is Science + politics = policy. Cuomo finally got tired of being hounded on the issue by his political base. The movement in New York against shale gas was relentless and it was focused on him. At one point, he told Susan Arbetter, host of Capitol Press Room, that it was the most effective political action campaign he had seen. (I will link to that interview as soon as I find it, but I wanted to get this post up right away.) Activists, both institutional and grass roots, promised to step up their efforts if Cuomo allowed even a single well.

The Home Rule decision by the state’s high court in June, and the depressed price of natural gas made a decision politically easier. Cuomo would have a hard time taking the perceived riches of fracking from landowners back when landmen were at their doors with big checks in hand. Nobody is currently seriously looking at shale gas exploration, much less development, in New York with gas prices as low as they are and the encumbrances of Home Rule.

New York has become a showcase for the anti-fracking movement, and Cuomo's decision today has raised the movement's stature nationally. But it’s also important to remember that Cuomo’s decision is the end-point of a process that started 6-plus years ago - before frack was a bad word. As recounted in my book, Under the Surface, the moratorium issued by Governor Patterson in July, 2008 had nothing to do with organized fractivists, who did not appear on the scene until after Josh Fox’s movie Gasland two years later. New York’s moratorium was the direct results of landowners posing reasonable questions in public hearings about how the state was prepared to govern shale gas development. Six and half years later, Cuomo’s actions have provided the answer: it wasn't then, and it isn't now.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Pa. Auditor General finds state’s fracking oversight a fiasco Probe finds lack of inspections, enforcement, transparency

Pennsylvania’s regulation of the shale gas boom has been underfunded, inconsistent and ineffective, according to an investigation by the state’s auditor general released today.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale likened the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s efforts to oversee the industry to “firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose.” He added: “There is no question that DEP needs help and soon to protect clean water.”

The audit, covering a period of 2009 through 2012, was launched by DePasquale immediately after he was sworn in as auditor general in January 2013. It came in the wake of a controversy over whether state investigators obscure or alter the outcome of investigations into drilling’s impact on water supplies by disclosing an incomplete suite of chemical tests. The intention of the probe, according to a letter from DePasquale at the time, is to determine the "adequacy and effectiveness of DEP's monitoring of water quality as potentially impacted by shale gas development activities, including but not limited to systems and procedures for testing, screening, reporting and response to adverse impact such as contamination."

The report was blunt in its findings: the problems related to shale gas development are much deeper and broader than the DEP can presently handle, and they often go unaddressed or left up to industry without adequate follow-up by the agency. The problem is rooted to a wholesale lack of inspections, enforcement and transparency.

Often, according to the report, the agency does nothing about confirmed cases of water pollution tied to drilling problems.  After reviewing a selection of 15 files of water degradation tied to nearby shale gas operations, auditors found the agency issued only one order for the driller to restore or replace the water supply. Instead, the DEP relied on voluntary action by companies to resolve complaints and violations.

“When DEP does not take a formal, documented action against a well operator who has contaminated a water supply, the agency loses credibility as a regulator and is not fully accountable to the public,” DePasquale said. “When DEP has enforcement authority under the law it must exercise that authority routinely, consistently, and transparently. Those gas well operators whose actions cause harm to water supplies should not get an enforcement ‘pass’ just because they have convinced DEP that they will come into compliance with the law or that they negotiated a settlement with the property owner.”

Among other findings:

• The DEP does not post required inspection information on its website. Auditors found errors of more than 25 percent in key data fields, and 76 percent of inspectors’ comments were omitted from the online inspection reporting.  “It is unfathomable to us that for a basic responsibility of DEP -- inspecting oil and gas facilities – little criteria exists for when those inspections should occur,” DePasquale said. “Until DEP updates its out-of-date inspection policies, to include mandated inspections at specific critical drilling stages and during the life of the well, it will be nearly impossible to measure DEP’s performance in conducting this very basic responsibility to protect the environment.”

• The DEP does not use an official and independent system to track shale gas well waste from the well site to disposal.  Instead, the agency relies upon a “disjointed process that includes self-reporting by well operators with no assurances that waste is disposed of properly.”

• With respect to transparency, auditors discovered that accessing DEP data is “a myriad of confusing web links and jargon” that was often incomplete. “We could not determine whether all complaints received by DEP actually were entered into the system. What’s more … it is difficult to figure out exactly how many complaints were received, investigated, and resolved by DEP,” DePasquale said.

Although reports critical of the gas industry and regulators are nothing new, the inspector general’s report is noteworthy because it comes from within an independent arm of state government.

The DEP disagreed with all of eight findings of the audit critical of the agency, but agreed with a majority of the 29 recommendations for improvement.

Auditors encouraged DEP to:

• Issue orders to a well operators who pollute water supplies —even if DEP used the cooperative approach in bringing the operator into compliance or if the operator and the complainant have reached a private agreement;

•· Develop better controls for how complaints are received, tracked, investigated, and resolved;

• Hire additional inspectors to meet the demands placed upon the agency;

• Create and follow policy requirements for timely and frequent inspections;

• Create a functional system to track shale gas waste and be more aggressive in ensuring that the waste data it collects is verified and reliable;

·• Reconfigure the agency website and provide complete and pertinent information in a clear and easily understandable manner.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Global fracking debate: Coming soon to town hall near you Upstate NY localities face fallout from Home Rule decision

Late last month, New York’s high court issued a ruling that put the debate over the merits and risks of shale gas development in the hands of local governments.  The much-anticipated ruling – a monumental victory for grassroots political action -- settled a long-standing question regarding the state’s jurisdictional control over the matter. Yet it raised many other questions about how local governments will respond.

There are towns for drilling and towns against drilling. But much of the fight over where and to what extent shale gas development – including high volume hydraulic fracturing -- will be a part of the New York landscape will play out in towns with no stated policy. Do communities that don’t want fracking need to actively pass a ban? Can communities that want fracking amend zoning laws to encourage it? What happens if they do neither?

These questions are predicated on a pending decision by Governor Andrew Cuomo on whether to allow fracking anywhere in the state. While the outcome of that remains anybody’s guess, we know from Cuomo’s past remarks that he favors a plan to begin issuing shale gas permits in towns with no local bans. These happen to be along the border with Pennsylvania, which also sit over the most viable parts of the Marcellus Shale. This dynamic becomes especially relevant to towns in this area – and there are many of them -- with no comprehensive plan and nothing on the books specific to fracking.

One of these places is Vestal, where dozens of residents against fracking attended a town board meeting this week to urge elected officials to pass a local ban.

The reaction by Town Supervisor John Schaffer, as reported by BinghamtonHomepage.com, was not especially concrete. "Our town code says you can't do it here to begin with, and I've told these people [anti-fracking activists] that over and over and over," Schaffer said. He then added: "We’re aware of the recent Court of Appeals decision regarding home rule. While the decision permits the town to enact legislation that would ban fracking, it does not require us to ban it. According to the town board, we will carefully monitor this issue and will act when and if there’s an incident for us to do so."

(In her blog The Marcellus Effect, Sue Heavenrich covers a similar controversty unfolding in Candor, NY.)

Some legal experts say that towns could – depending on wording and interpretation of local law -- grant variances to gas companies to site wells in areas otherwise zoned against industrial use, which is just what supporters of gas development are hoping for and what opponents dread. Attorney Helen Slottje represented Dryden and Middlefield in their Home Rule victory. In a recent appearance on Capitol Press Room, Slottje pointed out that while the Court of Appeals ruling would make it more difficult for operators to drill in zoned areas, it would still be possible, depending on how a given town reacted to the ruling.

“There are in most zoning codes various exceptions for different uses that could be construed by a court to be like gas drilling sufficient to allow gas drilling to proceed,” she said. “The safest thing for a town to do is to pass a zoning amendment or stand alone law that makes it clear that gas drilling is not permitted in their town.”

Industry lawyer Tom West also raised that possibility. He told host Susan Arbetter his clients would be “implementing a strategy to protect our investments,” but because the nature of the fight had been so tactical – like a chess game where each side was anticipating the other’s moves -- he was “not at liberty to discuss that strategy.”

All this sounds suggestive and inconclusive because it is, at least until the matter is fully deliberated and acted upon at a town board level.

Some activists are already beginning to push the matter. Sue Rapp, a member of Vestal Residents for Safe Energy (VeRSE), characterized Vestal Supervisor Schaffer’s comment that the town would take a wait-and-see approach as “garbled messages not on point ... When examined, his remarks convey nothing of substance on the issue of zoning regs/variances and gas drilling.”

The ambiguity can be maddening or inviting, depending on your stake in the debate, and it has provoked some thoughtful comments from readers on my recent post about fallout from the Court of Appeals decision.

In response to a comment by Mary Sweeney, who pondered whether existing zoning laws would preclude drilling with no stated bans, fracking critic and policy analyst Stan Scobie elaborated on the undisclosed plan that West mentioned on Arbetter’s show. According to Scobie, West is organizing a campaign with certain towns over Marcellus shale zones to create policy – zoning overlays – that would maximize development of the play by creating the legal architecture to override zoning laws. Scobie writes:

Governor Cuomo and the DEC some time ago raised a difficult issue, namely,  fracking would perhaps be OK in those towns who "wish" to be fracked,  but  how would we know which ones they are? To address this the pro-drillers have crafted a "zoning overlay" strategy.
This plan would have each town modify their Comprehensive Plan, if they have one, to be somewhat fracking friendly, and then develop and legislate zoning overlays. These would, if passed, clearly identify the towns and areas in towns where fracking was OK. There would be no "frack me" resolutions passed quietly and quickly at Town Board meetings with zero attendance as seemed to be the case a couple of years ago. 

Scobie’s full response can be viewed here in the comments section.

This week, I asked West in an email whether zoning laws already on the books – those that prohibit industrial operations in residential or other areas -- effectively serve as “bans” to oil and gas. And of if so, can drilling supporters work around them? West responded:

Whether oil and gas activities are considered an industrial use, will be a municipality by municipality determination...  Much of the clarification will come over time.

In other words, much of where drilling is allowed will come down to interpretation of local zoning laws, and that interpretation will be made on a town by town basis by local leaders and their lawyers.

In short, the fight over drilling in New York is far from over. It continues on the state level, where activists like Walter Hang are leading a campaign to pressure Cuomo to withdraw the controversial policy review that is essential for it to go forward. And, pending that outcome, it continues on a local level, where towns will have to either craft policy clarifying how and if their zoning laws apply to gas drilling, or face the prospect of court challenges and the consequences when push comes to shove with money, leases, and passions on the line.

Monday, June 30, 2014

New York’s high court upholds Home Rule bans ... Decision complicates natural gas prospects

It’s settled. There will be no fracking in New York communities such as Dryden and Middlefield – serene and scenic places that have passed rules that find shale gas development incompatible with local land use ordinances.

The three-year battle over jurisdictional control over the industry ended today when the New York Court of Appeals upheld lower court decisions that cedes control over where and if shale gas development can happen from state to local governments. That’s a landmark victory for Home Rule advocates, including residents of more than 170 upstate communities that have passed moratoriums or bans on the controversial process.

But the future of fracking in the Empire state remains more unsettled than ever. All of the communities with fracking bans happen to be outside areas with the strongest prospects for shale gas development. In Southern Tier counties bordering the booming gas fields in northern Pennsylvania, many local governments either support fracking, or have no enforceable policy to prevent it. For every place like Dryden, there is a place like Sanford, a rural community near the Pennsylvania border that sits over 50,0000 acres of the Marcellus Shale, for which XTO Energy – a subsidiary of Exxon Mobile – has paid farmers $110 million just for the chance to test.

Sanford has no land use restriction, and is governed by a town council eager to see  rigs and roughnecks role across the Pennsylvania border and clear pads in the meadows, fields and woodlots of Southern Tier farms. And according to some who have been engaged in the fight since it began with the leasing rush of 2008, the prospect of drilling in these places is more imminent following today’s court ruling.

The court decision in effect provides legal sanction to a plan proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in the summer of 2012 to begin issuing permits on a trial basis in areas where communities and industry favor development. As reported by Danny Hakim of the New York Times in June, 2012: “Cuomo’s administration is now trying to acknowledge the economic needs of the rural upstate area, while also honoring the opposition expressed in some communities, and limiting the ire of environmentalists, who worry that hydrofracking could contaminate groundwater and lead to other hazards.”

Walter Hang, a policy analyst who runs Toxic Targeting, an environmental data firm in Ithaca, said Cuomo’s plan from 2012, combined with today’s court ruling, moves New York state a step closer to fracking in these places. “Today’s decision serves up the Southern Tier on a silver platter to allow shale gas development to begin,” he said. “Sure, it prevents fracking in some areas. But it allows it in the five counties along the Southern Tier where it’s most likely to begin. It’s the classic double-edged sword.”

Cuomo’s plan in 2012 to begin fracking in certain localities but not others drew support for those pinning the promise of economic development on the drilling industry, and drew rallies and protests by anti-frackers, who characterized the fracking trials as “sacrifice zones.” Cuomo has been mostly silent on the issue since then.

Not everybody shares Hang’s outlook. Some anti-fracking activists expect that New York’s ruling will not only discourage shale gas development in New York but will also encourage other municipalities throughout the country to establish land use restrictions. (See comments of Mary Ann Sumner, the Dryden Supervisor who helped organize the ban.)  And Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, called the court decision “one more nail in the coffin” for fracking in the state. Gill’s view, often echoed by other industry supporters, is that drill operators will be less likely to commit capital to area that lacks regulatory uniformity and predictability. There is truth to both of those views, but they overlook the fact that the industry, first and foremost, will follow the geology. Wildcaters, in particular, are likely to seek out niches in unexplored territories, like the Southern Tier of New York.

As with most policy calculations, science and law are fundamental factors, but politics will be the decider.  The Legislature could pass a bill clarifying ambiguous language over the state’s role in extraction operations on which the Home Rule case was built. It’s also possible that the Legislature could ban fracking altogether, although anti-fracking bills passed repeatedly in the Assembly over the years are yet to fly in the Senate.

For now the decision remains firmly in the hands of the governor, who can at anytime enact or withdraw the policy review of fracking, called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement. The 1,000-plus page document is as complicated and bureaucratic as its name suggests,  and it's been on hold for years.  Don’t expect that to happen before election. Rocking the boat on this hypersensitive issue would certainly alienate the governor’s progressive base. But after election-day, he has plenty of politic wiggle room and, with today’s Court of Appeals ruling, a clearer view of the legal landscape.