Friday, April 27, 2012

Anticipating the future of shale gas development in NY Dispatches from the field where science meets politics

I’ve been reporting on shale gas for four years now. A trip through upstate New York this week reinforced the notion we are still in the early stages of a story that is gaining steam nationally, even as low natural gas prices have, for now, dampened the industry push to open New York for shale gas drilling.

I visited the University of Rochester (New York) and Hobart William and Smith (in Geneva, New York) as part of a book tour for the debut of Under the Surface. Academia is a fertile place for ideas, of course, and I encountered plenty of them growing forth in all directions regarding the impact and future of shale as development. In Rochester, I met with professor Karen Berger and her colleagues from the department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. In Geneva, I met with Lisa Cleckner, director of the Finger Lakes Institute, and professor Beth Kinne and other faculty at Hobart William and Smith. I also met with members of the community who attended my respective talks at each school. This trip gave me a great feel for the complementary relationship between schools and community in cultivating ideas. Here are a few thoughts from my notebook.

On the question of the cumulative impact of shale gas drilling on water quality locally and regionally: Any attempts to quantify that will be fruitless without a lot of field work prior to the industry’s arrival. Much of the stuff that poses concerns about water quality are naturally occurring in the ground, including metals, salts, methane, and radio active isotopes. Fresh water aquifers, lakes, and streams tend to have some of these elements, but they become a problem when drilling creates conduits for non-potable elements to travel from gas baring zones and layers below the aquifer, where they tend to be more concentrated. There is little argument that drilling can agitate ground water conditions. But without a comprehensive and reliable baseline to set a given sample in the context of the broader natural history of a given spot, it’s hard to prove what is caused by industry and what is not. Ideally, communities will be able to chart the chemistry of their water resources with field tests, and by searching historical records to create a data set that serves as a baseline, against which future changes can be measured. But mobilizing the resources to do this is a monumental task. Geneva and the Seneca Lake region is beginning to do this, with the help of the Finger Lakes Institute, by recruiting students and teachers who can contribute to the science through class projects.

Regarding public health: The needs of a given community in the midst of a drilling boom, and the science available to address those needs, do not always match up. This doesn’t just happen. It takes planning and funding. A good example is the EPA investigation of water quality in a gas field in Dimock, Pennsylvania. The EPA is offering residents hundreds of pages of analytical results, but nobody to interpret them. As one researcher told me, “People see a list of compounds and values next to them, and it’s very unsettling. What does it mean?” The results do tell residents that – at the time the samples were collected – the water was deemed potable, with some exceptions. But without a working knowledge of the ever-changing dynamics of the entire water system, the results have limited value in charting long-term changes in the water system that signal health risks over time.

On the geology of the Marcellus in northern Pennsylvania and the Southern Tier of New York: Public knowledge of the comprehensive geological picture, and various subtleties that may lead to an abundance of methane migration problems in one area but not another, is scarce. Companies spend a lot of money getting a competitive advantage through seismic surveys and other means, and they are not inclined to share that information. The lack of a detailed public understanding and mapping of “thrust faults” in northern Pennsylvania and the Southern Tier of New York is one example. Thrust faults are breaks in the bedrock where one section overrides the other, allowing a greater chance for interplay between geological zones, which can be aggravated by drlling.

I also met with community members who brought different perspectives to the table. Where the academicians by nature and training are interested in the questions and process – pulling everything apart and looking at it critically -- local residents tend to be interested in the answers and affirmation of their concerns and views. Who do we believe in following the conflicting scientific and economic evaluations of the risks and rewards of the industry? How will drilling affect my land, my health, my economic status, or the nature of my community?

In short, this trip brought me to the crossroads of science and politics, which is the very place that policy is born. We hear a lot of talk about science-based decision making. But lets face it. Scientists don’t make policy. Politicians do. You can take heart in this fact if you have faith in our system (which I do). Politicians, while drawing fire from skeptics, do not work blindly. And you can bet they are gauging the mood of voters during an election year. This includes special interests, of course. But special interests are diluted by the intense grass roots influence on the discussion taking place at town halls, city councils, homesteads, and the Ivory Tower.

Friday, April 20, 2012

EPA: No need for action after latest Dimock water tests Resident declines replacement for water with high arsenic

The EPA found water quality from 16 homes in Dimock to require “no further action” after the latest round of sampling to assess the impact of shale gas development on water supplies in the area.

After finding elevated levels of arsenic in one well, the agency offered an alternate water supply to a resident who declined the offer, according to an EAP report released this afternoon.

The tests results released this afternoon included data of the third set of samples taken from 61 homes this year. Test from about 14 more homes are pending.

A set of results released April 6 found traces of elevated levels of sodium, methane, arsenic, chromium, and lithium in 71 samples from 20 different wells that were at or near “action levels,” which are flags for further analysis. But to date, none of the test results, which include some water supplies that have been taken off line, have warranted immediate action in the agency’s assessment. The EPA is continuing to supply water to four homes that have previously tested positive for pollution at levels that have raised health concerns.

Setting record straight on factors in Dunkard Creek fish kill: Mine discharge, H2O withdrawals, dumping, foreign algae

In the summer of 2009, the debate over the merits of shale gas development was briefly cast in the context of an ecological disaster at Dunkard Creek, a pristine and thriving freshwater fishery winding across Pennsylvania’s border with West Virginia.

The headwaters of Dunkard Creek come together upstream of Brave, Pennsylvania, a hamlet of 412 people in Greene County. From there, the creek – once teeming with more than 161 aquatic species ranging from freshwater mussels to 3-foot muskellunge -- winds 43 miles to the Monongahela. On September 4, 2009, dead fish began collecting in a pool below the Lower Brave Dam. Over the next week, fish floated to the surface, sank to the bottom, and washed up on the banks along the entire length of the creek. By the end of the month, almost everything in Dunkard Creek was dead. The only exception was an invasive microscopic alga—common in Texas estuaries—that had somehow migrated into the creek and now thrived in its suddenly brackish water.

This fish kill happened to coincide with the initial rush to develop the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania as natural gas prices spiked to record high levels. Drilling companies were drawing down water levels at local tributaries, including Dunkard Creek, with larger tankers. They were also disposing of brine and other waste by hauling it to sewage treatment plants that were unequipped to handle it downstream on the Monongahela River.

Dunkard Creek is one of the many issues explored in my book, Under the Surface.
In a recent review, Bill McKibben cited my depiction of the fish kill as an example of the ecological stakes of shale gas development. Early this month, former DEP Secretary John Hanger criticized McKibben’s characterization as a “false narrative” that contributed to the polarization of the shale gas debate. Hanger’s assessment has been held up by the industry, which insists that Dunkard Creek portrayal comes from skewed and erroneous media reports that unfairly suggest the industry was involved in the disaster.

There has been confusion over the factors that lead to the fish kill in Dunkard Creek, and the gas industry has used this confusion to deflect accountability for its role.

The catalyst for the disaster, according to an assessment from the Pennsylvania state DEP and the federal EPA, was a coal mine operated by Consol Energy that had been granted variances for discharges with high TDS concentrations. TDS (total dissolved solids) is a measurement of chlorides and other elements, which in the summer of 2009 tipped the chemistry of Dunkard Creek beyond its ecological threshold.

Somehow, the industry likes to ignore the fact that in addition to the mine discharge, which had been legally allowed for years, there were instances of illegal dumping by a drilling waste hauler for a period leading up to the fish kill; that low water levels contributed to the impact of the disaster; or that the foreign algae that thrived in the brackish water and robbed oxygen from the freshwater species was indigenous to the same place where the drilling equipment originated -- Texas. Failure to acknowledge any of these facts is the most recent example of the industry’s way of portraying environmental impacts related to full scale shale gas development: If they are not black, they must be white. The Dunkard creek disaster is neither of these, but these aspects are pretty straight forward:

The EPA has determined that a contributing factor was low water levels in the Creek due to the industry’s water withdrawals to supply hydraulic fracturing.

The organism that infected the creek ---Prymnesium Parvum (Golden Algae)---was not a local phenomenon, or a product of the mine discharge, but an import that hitched a ride from a place where it thrived in coastal estuaries. It should be noted here that drill rigs, related equipment and crews are by their natura itinerant, and offer a plausible means for the golden aglea to spread.

In addition to the mine discharge, illegal dumping of drilling wastewater has been identified as a suspect at several locations, including a brine disposal well, called Morris Run. This well had come under scrutiny for lax security and possible environmental problems. In 2009, the EPA fined Consol Energy, the owner of the well, $158,000 for failing to keep gates locked or to properly log the trucks coming and going from the site. This February, Alan Shipman, who hauled waste for the drilling industry, pleaded guilty to 13 of 98 charges that he illegally dumped millions of gallons of wastewater in different Pennsylvania counties over the last six years.
The plea bargain came after authorities accused Shipman of dumping drilling waste into Morris Run, other tributaries of Dunkard Creek, as well as other Pennsylvania watersheds from 2003 to 2009.

I raise these facts now because the history of Dunkard Creek is being written by the industry as something less than it really was. If you examine the story of Dunkard Creek from all relevant sources, as I have, rather than the industry’s obfuscation of the event, you will find a record that shows more at play than simply a discharge from a recalcitrant mine operation, and these other factors are fair points of discussion when looking at the impact of shale gas development. At some point, the industry may realize that the way to build credibility and public favor is to take accountability for problems and work to make improvements, rather than to point the finger at others and throw up a veil of blamelessness.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

UNDER THE SURFACE debuts at Binghamton University

Under the Surface makes its debut in the Binghamton area tomorrow (April 18) at Binghamton University. I’m honored to give a talk at 6:15 p.m. in Lecture Hall 2, hosted by the BU Student Environmental Action Coalition. The theme -- The Future of Shale Gas Development in New York -- looks at the many issues unfolding in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, as well as market conditions, that will influence shale gas development in years to come. I will also offer an overview of the geology of the Marcellus and Utica shale formations extending under the northeast, the contrasting mineral extraction cultures and histories in New York State and Pennsylvania that have shaped events in those states, and analysis of the anti-fracking movement’s influence on current and developing national policy. I will read a few passages from my book, which recounts Marcellus shale development through a narrative featuring various stakeholders in New York and Pennsylvania. The first copies will be available at the event.

The event is open to the public. The Lecuture Hall building is just east of the library, and roughly across from the public parking lot in the middle of campus. CLICK HERE for a map.

As I am now re-entering the fray of this very lively issue, I thought this a good opportunity to share some of my views on several points.

On the state of Journalism: Newspapers have traditionally had to serve the interests of a broad base of readers. The age of social media has essentially broadened public access to the stump in the town square, and this is good. But with the decline of broad reaching newspaper journalism, we are also losing pressure on the media to be fair and comprehensive. Joseph Pulitzer urged journalists to be unafraid to “attack the plutocracy” and expose institutional interests, but he also urged them to be unconnected to any party and to be “drastically independent”. I have been trained in this school of journalism and I generally try to adhere to it.

To activists: You are part of one of the largest grass roots movements in the region’s recent history, and it comes at a decisive time. The anti-fracking movement is an example of the power of free speech to influence government, and a vital balance to concentrated wealth and institutional power of Big Oil.

On Josh Fox. It is necessary to make a distinction between activism and journalism. There is honor in both, and they have traditionally been intertwined, as a free press has always been an agent for reform and even revolution, and editorial comment has long been a vital subset of journalism. But I still feel a distinction is important. Josh Fox’s work is more activism than journalism, and that doesn’t detract from its importance. Although one-sided, Gasland has been hugely influential in defining and galvanizing the anti-fracking movement and provoking fundamental questions yet to be answered, and to provide a balance to the voice of the industry. It’s also a nice piece of cinematography

I consider Under the Surface a work of journalism. Like Fox, I used a narrative approach to the story, and it is sympathetic to those who feel they were mislead about the impacts of drilling. But I took great care to document and explain technical details, set it in the context of history and current events, and to give voices to those on the other side and in the middle of the debate. I still expect the drill-here-drill-now contingent will find it to be critical, and it is, in the spirit of Pulitzer’s doctrine.

To industry: All institutional powers – public or private -- controlling vast wealth and political influence, should be fair targets for public scrutiny and sources of healthy skepticism. This always has been the nature of watchdog journalism. From a PR perspective, industry would fare better acknowledging that this is the way a healthy media works in a free country, rather than characterizing reports of spills, problems, and lack of disclosure as an unwarranted attacks and “negative publicity.”

To fracking supporters and opponents: In fighting for your causes, keep your minds open. Don’t assume that everybody who is not with you is against you. Energy companies are not categorically reckless and uncaring. Activism is not a casting call for obstructionists and hypocrites.

To landowners. Make sure you understand what can happen once you sign a lease. It may be pitched as a partnership, but if you accept a standard lease you are essentially signing away your rights to the land. This means your surface rights, as well as rights to the mineral resources below. Drilling can be done without polluting the water table, but know that water contamination and methane migration are common and relevant risks. No matter what anybody says, the process is not failsafe, regardless of what precautions are taken. Don’t count on state agencies to make things right when they go wrong.

To policy makers: Don’t pretend that committing hundreds of billions of dollars to expand infrastructure and incentives to extract, transport and burn natural gas is really building a bridge to renewable energy. It’s critical to develop a long-term, forward-looking energy policy as opposed to defaulting to the path of least economic resistance. The onshore drilling boom is (once again) waking this country up to the fact that we are dependent on fossil fuels. Now is the time to develop a long-term, forward-looking energy policy. The inertia of developing sustainable energy and the momentum of a fossil fuel economy are strong forces driving us to a limited future.

I hope you can join me tomorrow, or during one of my future talks in the area or in the region, so I can hear your questions and listen to what you have to say.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Home Rule cases are weighty factors in fracking’s future

A ruling today by a Pennsylvania court is the latest in a series of events strengthening the influence of local communities on the outcome of the national debate over hydraulic fracturing and onshore drilling.

Commonwealth Court Senior Judge Keith Quigley issued an injunction on a law passed by the legislature in February that limits the power of municipalities to regulate the gas industry. The provision, Act 13, was scheduled to take effect on Saturday. The judicial stay, issued from Harrisburg, was the product of a challenge by a group of communities -- including South Fayette in Allegheny County; and Peters, Cecil, Mt. Pleasant and Robinson in Washington County – seeking time to argue that Act 13 unconstitutionally takes away local powers.

Cases in New York are now advancing through New York’s judicial system that test the rights of towns to have a say about drilling within their borders. The industry is appealing two separate rulings by state Supreme Court justices favoring the right of towns to ban drilling. On February 24, acting Supreme Court Justice Donald F. Cerio, Jr. ruled in favor of the Town of Middlefield’s ban on hydrofracking. The decision was in response to a claim by Jennifer Huntington, a dairy farmer and president of Cooperstown Holstein Corporation, that the ordinance denied her rights to reap economic benefits of a lease to develop mineral rights on 400 acres. In a separate ruling issued days before the Middlefield decision, Supreme Court justice Phillip R. Rumsey upheld the Town of Dryden’s right to ban mineral extraction. The case stemmed from a complaint filed by Anschutz Exploration Corporation, which argued that state permitting laws regulating oil, gas and mineral extraction superseded local ordinances.

At the heart of the appeal in the Dryden case is the interpretation of a New York law allowing municipalities to zone mining activities that have significant surface impact, such as gravel mines. In 1981, state law was amended to exempt oil and gas from mining activities subject to local regulations. The home rule bills would remove that exemption.

The extraction industry is something of a throwback, with little substantive change in its corporate culture or regulatory tolerance for generations. It has been exempt from both local and national regulations that apply to other business, ranging from zoning to the handling and disposal of hazardous waste. The justification for this: cheap fossil fuel cannot be pulled from the earth with an overabundance of nit–picking inspectors and onerous regulatory burdens.

Local governments are now launching unprecedented challenges to the industry. In Pennsylvania, they are objecting to Act 13’s requirements that drilling, waste pits and pipelines be allowed in residential districts.

As the country faces a new era of environmental and economic challenges, government officials – whether local, state or national -- will ultimately have to make policy to oversee the industry, with the courts likely having the final say. Voters who elect those officials must decide on the merit of using unconventional means – including high volume hydraulic fracturing -- to extract gas and oil from plates of bedrock reaching under communities, including many in upstate New York, that have until now been untouched by mineral extraction. In this regard, choices for voters have traditionally been limited to state representatives who could legislate such matters. Now they might include neighbors or community people who can decide issues in town halls.

Anit-fracking activists see Home Rule as key to thwarting the advancement of unwanted shale gas development – which in their view is a prerequisite to refocusing resources on renewable energy. It’s more difficult for the shale gas industry to exploit the economies of scale that come with exploring and proving large contiguous acreage, and then tying it all together with the infrastructure and pipelines, if entire towns can suddenly decide to ban development.

The industry is fighting hard to maintain the status quo regulatory approach, which leaves permitting to the discretion of state regulators weighing the often incongruous tasks of protecting natural resources on one hand and enabling their commercial exploitation on the other. Leaving permitting decisions that determine the fate of vast holdings to a single bureaucrat in a given state’s oil and gas bureau is an approach the industry likes. As it heads into the 21st century, it will fight to preserve this early 20th Century way of doing business.

Friday, April 6, 2012

EPA finds elevated levels of metals, salts in Dimock wells More study to come but no action required for offline wells

Data from the federal EPA released this afternoon suggests nagging signs of problems with Dimock water possibly related to drilling activities, but nothing that federal officials feel requires “immediate action.”

In 324 pages of lab data released this afternoon, results from 71 samples were highlighted in yellow marker as flags for water with traces of contaminants near or above “action levels.” Action levels do not equal heath threats, according to an EPA policy document. Rather, they “enable EPA to quickly identify the analytical lab data results that warrant further scientific review.” In the case of the Dimock water, some of the samples that showed pollution are not immediate health threats because they have already been taken off line.

The highlighted samples showed elevated levels of sodium, methane, arsenic, chromium, and lithium, all of which are associated with drilling. The results include samples from 20 wells taken in January and February. Results from 30 more homes are still being analyzed. The EPA began the federal investigation in January in the small northern Pennsylvania Town, which has become an iconic of a national controversy over the merits and hazards of an on onshore drilling boom enabled by high volume hydraulic fracturing, a process that allows operators to extract oil and gas from bedrock by injecting it with pressurized chemical solution.

“This set of sampling did not show levels of contaminants that would give EPA reason to take immediate action,” Roy Senaca said in a short email announcing the results. “EPA remains committed to providing Dimock residents with the best available data and information on the quality of drinking water as expeditiously as possible.”

Check back for updates

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

More fracking legislation enters the pipeline in New York No quick resolution forecast for shale gas moratorium

If you’re still wondering when shale gas permitting will begin in New York State, take a deep breath and exhale slowly.

Andrew Cuomo has promised the public that the Department of Environmental Conservation would release a final version of the permitting guidelines – in a document called the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement -- within months. Legislative leaders I spoke with this week have a much different outlook.

This week, Assembly Robert Sweeney told me he would be “a tad surprised” if the DEC released anything before the end of the year. As head of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee and a key legislative liaison with the agency, he’s in a good position to know. Regardless of whatever rules the DEC finalizes, and when, Sweeney and other lawmakers are proposing their own ideas to oversee the industry. In Sweeney’s case, that would be a moratorium that will prevent permitting for at least another year, and a call for the State Department of Health to begin conducting it’s own exhaustive review on the impact of hydraulic fracturing.

“The more time that goes by, the more we find out about hydro-fracking, the more we find out what we don’t know,” he said. “This is something that is critically important to review, and if we are going to err, we are going to err on the side of caution.”

Today Senator Mark Grisanti, Sweeney’s Republican counterpart on the Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee, released a plan calling for five measures for shale gas development to proceed in New York: prohibit public owned treatment works from accepting wastewater associated with natural gas production; ban the use of wastewater for road- and land-spreading; create a program to track oil and gas stronger than the tracking program proposed under the draft SGEIS; strengthen the notification requirements for spills; and create a public geographic information system to chart operations.

Grisanti, from Buffalo, represents an area that includes a city that has a large and vocal anti-fracking constituency. His proposal for restrictions, above and beyond what the DEC has proposed in its most recent draft of the SGEIS, does not include a moratorium or health impact assessment. As an up-and-coming young Republican, Grisanti walks a tricky political line between covering both the traditional pro-business, anti-regulatory party line, and addressing an anti-fracking movement that has become a political force to be reckoned with in his hometown and throughout the state. This proposal is not likely to do either, but it does show the willingness of lawmakers to legislate answers to New York’s pressing shale gas questions independently from the DEC’s stance and the governor’s timeline.