Monday, July 2, 2012

Shale gas debate grows more urgent in New York state The Sky is Pink, raise profile of issues

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s attempt to turn down the heat on the shale gas controversy has only made it hotter.

Last month, Cuomo told Albany’s WGDJ-AM he intended to release the state’s final policy on permitting shale gas wells (the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement) when the legislature is not in session, and he reiterated his plan to allow drilling in towns that favor it while banning it in places where it is opposed.

“I think it’s actually better that we do it when the Legislature is not here, because I don’t want a political discussion,” Cuomo said. “You have enough emotion around this issue already. You have emotion on both sides; you have emotion that is at such a level in some ways it’s governing the conversation. I want to get the conversation back to facts and logic and science and information, and reduce the temperature of the conversation… ”

Instead, he has provoked an urgent and intense rally by national and statewide activists against fracking, advancing New York’s profile as the centerpiece of a national anti-fracking movement. Josh Fox, producer of the academy award nominated film Gasland, recently threw his weight into the debate with the release of an exclusive short film called The Sky is Pink. Gasland, which aired on HBO in 2010, made the image of flaming tap water iconic of the debate over shale gas development. Like Gasland, The Sky is Pink employs the edgy and wry cinematic style popularized by Michael Moore to deliver the following message to the New York governor, and the people who voted him into office: methane migration is persistent, scientifically documented hazard that the industry continually tries to deny.

Fox’s also delivered that message to Andrew Revkin, author of Dot.Earth, the New York Times blog dealing with global environmental issues. Revkin embraces the role of a voice of reason within the environmental movement who relishes solutions as well as problems. Last month, he wrote a post supporting Cuomo’s idea to begin permitting gas wells according to the preferences of local governments as “a wise, measured approach even setting political considerations aside.”

Last week, Fox attacked Revkin’s endorsement of the governor’s plan. Fox and other activists argue that fracking – the essential aspect to produce gas and oil reserves from rock using pressured chemical solutions injected into the ground– is unsafe anywhere.
Fox wrote on Dot.Earth:

“If the New York Department of Environmental Conservation is so confident that the process protects the environment, why not put the first 100 wells in the New York City watershed? Or truck the first 1,000 truckloads of ‘treated’ waste to the reservoir in Central Park? Or perhaps put the first gas refinery and compressor station in Scarsdale or Westchester? Why put it out in an economically depressed area with very little political clout?”

Revkin featured Fox’s criticism in a June 28 post, which he gamely titled ‘Gasland’ Filmmaker Takes on Cuomo and ‘Dot.FlatEarth’. Revkin promised to study the documents that Fox provided supporting The Sky is Pink and respond in a subsequent post.

Meanwhile, Fox has been under fire himself for the technical relevance of shots in Gasland of Mike Markham lighting his tap water on fire – a phenomenon the industry and sometimes regulators claim is not related to gas wells, but a “naturally occurring” phenomenon that predates drilling. Fox’s presentation of this is fair game – journalists must be diligent about the accuracy and fairness of their methods -- and there is debate about the source of methane in Markham’s well, as well as whether Fox is more talented filmmaker than journalist. But I can tell you that the basic thesis of his film – that methane migration from gas wells is a significant and sometimes disastrous byproduct of drilling that the industry tries to dismiss – is sound.

I have examined and reported the results of this while covering the Marcellus Shale development in New York and Pennsylvania for Gannett, and later while writing Under the Surface, Fracking Fortunes and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale. In 2004, Pennsylvania DEP records documented the collection of gas in the basement of the Harper residence, near several gas wells in Jefferson County about 80 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. On March 5, the furnace kicked on, and the explosion leveled the house and killed Charles Harper, his wife Dorothy, and their grandson, Baelee. In July 2008, an explosion killed a resident of Marion Township, Pa., who tried to light a candle in the bathroom. The Pennsylvania DEP’s record of the event—one paragraph long—states that the agency “became aware” of the problem after the fatality, which it linked to gas migrating into the septic system from an old gas well with deteriorated casing.

In September, 2009, the DEP presented its compilation of known cases related to gas wells to the Pennsylvania state’s Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board, a group of state government– appointed industry representatives that advises the agency on technical and policy matters. According to the briefing, methane migration from gas drilling, had “caused or contributed to” at least six explosions that killed four people and injured three others over the course of the decade preceding full-scale Marcellus development. The threat of explosions had forced 20 families from their homes, sometimes for months. At least 25 other families have had to deal with the shut-off of utility service or the installation of venting systems in their homes. At least 60 water wells (including three municipal supplies) had been contaminated.

In New York State, William T. Boria, a water resources specialist at the Chautauqua County Health Department, knew of these kinds of problems, and was frustrated by the state DEC’s unwillingness to track them. Regulators typically passed the problem off on “naturally occurring” problems with little or no checking. Boria reported his agency received more than 140 complaints related to water pollution or gas migration associated with a boom in nearby conventional drilling operations (prior to shale gas development). In a 2004 memo summarizing the issue, he concluded “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 methane migration, brine pollution, and at least one in which a home had to be evacuated after the water well exploded. “A representative I spoke with from the Division of Minerals (of the DEC) insists that the potential for drinking water contamination by oil and gas drilling is almost non-existent,” Boria wrote in his memo to a party whose name was redacted. “However, this department has investigated numerous complaints of potential contamination problems resulting from oil and gas drilling.”

Science as well as common sense tells us that drilling opens up new pathways for industrial scale migration of gas moving from deep places where its concentrated under high pressure to shallow, water bearing zones. The probability of this kind of methane migration is a function of the number of holes drilled through aquifers into gas bearing zones (both biogenic and thermogenic) and the reliability of cement casing designed to seal off aquifers from the resulting rush of methane to the surface. Filling the space around the outside of the well bore is an imperfect process subject to both human error and unseen and unexpected geological inconsistencies. Tony Ingraffea, a fracturing mechanics engineer at Cornell University with decades of industry experience, cites industry figures (-- figures also used by Fox-- ) that show six percent of new well casings are faulty, and the rate of failure goes up as wells age. Orphan wells, abandoned by industry when their economic utility is served, are a notorious problem in Pennsylvania.

I’m concerned by industry’s blunt attempts to shirk accountability for any of this -- (The industry-funded movie Truthland being the latest example). Accordingly, I favor aggressive reporting on industry’s persistent and successful insistence on exemptions from disclosure requirements – notably the Safe Drinking Water Act and state and federal hazardous waste laws. These exceptions serve as cover for the notion that drilling and fracking are blameless for methane migration or any other problems. It’s impossible to build an accessible and centralized database to track drilling and fracking problems in the oil and gas industry without reliable reporting standards and enforcement like those that apply to other industries. In short, with no reporting, there is no tracking. With no tracking, quantifying impacts on health and environment is complicated. When there is a problem, the burden of proof rests with landowners, and absence of data denies citizens an important tool for meeting that burden. As Fox points out, it becomes a “he-said-she-said” argument, and the industry has a voice – in both courts and the public domain -- that is much louder and more influential than that of the average citizen.

In my mind, the debate should not be about whether drilling causes flaming faucets and explosions that are already a matter of record (even with all the reporting gaps). The public needs to get beyond this argument to judge whether the merits of full-scale natural gas development over the next generation will outweigh the drawbacks. We are aware of the benefits as spelled out by industry proponents – cheap fuel, energy independence, jobs, an alternative to dirty coal. Now we need a complete and honest discussion about the impacts of shale gas development on environment and health. How to deal with methane migration is an overriding question. It’s one thing to have a property owner willingly and knowingly accept manageable risks associated with gas drilling on his property. It’s another to have an uninformed neighboring party suffer the consequences. How to deal with wastewater is another. It’s hard to determine future impacts when we don’t have the tools to comprehensively and conclusively gauge current and past problems. So that brings us back to transparency and disclosure. That’s where it must start.

For generations the American public (myself included) has been the most voracious consumer of energy on the planet, and we have enabled the industry to develop as it has. We are happy to enjoy the comforts of cheap abundant fossil fuel (made cheaper by lack of regulation) as long as we don’t have to look too closely from where it comes. Good reporting compels us to look. From there, we can move the conversation forward.

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