[Note: Links added with information about the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, "ORSANCO" on August 10, 2010.]
Here’s a conundrum to perplex you: If New York Governor Andrew Cuomo traded the moratorium prohibiting hydraulic fracturing in order to get the gay marriage, marriage equality bill through the legislature would that be a good or a bad thing?
No one is saying that we know that Governor Cuomo did engage in such a horse trade, we only know what we know and what we don’t know. We know that in the final weeks of the Albany legislative session there was a lot of backroom bargaining going on, that marriage equality was a priority needing votes and that we don’t know what was traded to get it.
Passage of Marriage Equality Followed By Announcement of Cuomo Fracking Plan
Marriage equality passed on Friday night, June 24, 2011, literally at (or in) the eleventh hour (about 10:30 PM.). Thursday, afternoon, June 30, 2011, in a statement released by the State Department of Environmental Conservation the Cuomo administration announced plans to lift the New York State moratorium on hydraulic fracturing that was effectively in place.
Any possible connection? One was legislative action, the other was action of the executive branch. Thus, the likelihood of a link is diminished: Any horse trading also could have been and was perhaps more likely for other legislation going through at the legislative close. But the possibility of this legislative for executive action can’t be absolutely precluded. Perhaps we are in need of a local New York State Julian Assange franchise given how little actual knowledge we have about the Albany backroom deals that go into passage of legislation.
Legislation is Said To Be Passed For the Right Reasons
The New York Times ran a long article about how the marriage equality legislation was passed. (See: Behind N.Y. Gay Marriage, an Unlikely Mix of Forces, by Michael Barbaro, June 25, 2011.) It never mentioned any trade-offs being part of the passage of the bill though it described Governor Cuomo’s efforts to peel off the few additional senators for the support needed to pass the bill with one lobbyist referring to Cuomo’s pulling rabbits out of the hat.
The Times article attributes most of the success in the bill’s passage to a well run lobbying campaign. It describes almost everything relating to the changing of the votes of those politicians whose votes were changed in terms of those legislators coming around to the right choice for the right moral reasons. That’s familiar: Don’t politicians when they finally vote whatever way they do invariably cite the right reasons for their votes? This is not to say the Times article isn’t convincing about the senators involved having very real feelings for the moral issues, particularly when it described the personal turmoil respecting the issue of gay relationships within the household of Senator Carl Kruger.
Skelos Step-Aside Followed By Skelos Thanks on Fracking
It doesn’t appear that any of the senatorial votes that were swung over to support the bill (Republicans James S. Alesi, from suburban Rochester, Stephen M. Saland, from Poughkeepsie, Mark J. Grisanti, from Buffalo and Democrats Carl Kruger, Brooklyn, Shirley L. Huntley, of Queens, and Joseph P. Addabbo Jr., Queens) were themselves supporters of hydrofracking. But, the Time article describes how lack of active opposition by Senate majority leader Dean G. Skelos was essential to peeling off the needed Republican senators and avoiding the vote being blocked entirely, something Skelos could easily have done:
Many of the Republicans wanted to avoid ever taking a vote on the issue — a simple strategy to carry out. As the majority party in the Senate, they could block any bill from reaching the floor.Skelos’s support for hydrofracking was evident in another Times article when, six days after the gay rights vote, the Cuomo administration announced its plans to end the moratorium:
“Safe drilling for natural gas has the potential to create thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars in economic investment,” the Senate majority leader, Dean G. Skelos, said in a statement.(See: Cuomo Will Seek to Lift Ban on Hydraulic Fracturing, by Danny Hakim and Nicholas Confessore, June 30, 2011.)
Though it is conceptually possible to envision a possible link, that link cannot be more than speculative. Still the rigor of speculation is probably a necessary regular exercise for diligent voters in New York State given that transparency won’t provide answers. Considering the possible backroom trades is important, even if what was gained is so wonderful and coveted that it inspires reluctance to know its cost.
Let’s for a minute hypothetically assume a link between the lifting of the hydrofracking moratorium and gay marriage. By doing so we get to ask whether it would have been a good or a bad thing if Governor Cuomo had traded the moratorium in order to get the marriage equality bill through the legislature.
The answer would have to be put in the elucidating perspective of changes occurring over time with some of that time, as we shall see in a moment, being geologic time. Gay marriage passed because the public is inexorably, increasingly supporting marriage equality for gays by wider and wider margins. It was no longer a question of whether it would happen but when it would happen. Those who opposed it were on the wrong side of history, doomed to be poorly regarded by posterity. It also means that a Republican Senate defeat of gay marriage this year, like last year, would have assured the return of the issue in annual bloody battles that were increasingly unflattering to those resisting the inevitable.
There was, of course, value to passing the bill now as opposed to later. The exuberant elation at the gay parade this year is not to be underappreciated. Couples who are able to marry this year rather than in a future year will have the meaningfulness of a marriage all that time they get to spend together. It is also good that New York be a national leader.
Discrimination Against the Gay Community
And passage of the legislation allows everyone to proceed on to the next important battles. For instance, when same-sex couples in New York get married they, like everyone else will now be entitled to have their partners be made beneficiaries of their health insurance at work. But, because of the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA) the value of that health insurance, perhaps $12,000 a year, will be treated by the IRS as additional income that the partners will have to pay federal taxes on. That is entirely unfair because it is not what happens when heterosexual couples get married. Similarly, perpetuating inequalities make gay divorce and its prospect more complicated and different from heterosexual unions in many ways: i.e. in only some states can you get a gay divorce, and alimony (which is likely to be legally ordered when you succeed) won’t be deductible under IRS rules thus making prenuptial agreement more important for gay couples.
From Andrew Cuomo’s perspective, passage of the bill allows him to have a big win looking to the future. As relayed to the Times, that win reflects what “is at the heart of leadership and progressive government.”
History and Mega-History
Nevertheless, it is to be considered that the inexorable advance of this particular moment in human history means that if Mr. Cuomo’s assistance means this moment came a bit sooner in time, it is not as if it wasn’t in the broader scheme of things imminent.
By contrast, the toxic chemicals that will get pumped into the ground when hydrofacking occurs will be left underground with an altered geology to poison the environment in virtual perpetuity. We do not know how long the potential for these toxins and released radiation to poison the water supply will last but we must think of it in terms of geologic time. It is not just the perilous experiment of pumping poisons underground to waft through an environment made newly unstable: The fossil fuels liberated while incurring such risks and costs were, prior to their liberation, sequestered underground, for eons. In the case of the Marcellus Shale deposits from which carbon and other chemicals will be released in New York, for four hundred million years.
Four hundred million years: That’s how long those carbons were inert and not contributing to warming of the environment. We are talking about a span of epochs going back to the time of the first leafless plants, to around the time when (actually even before) the first fish developing limbs were beginning to come out on land. Gingko trees, the oldest known trees, appeared 300 million years ago; we are talking 100 million years before that. We are speaking of a time about one hundred and fifty million years before dinosaurs appeared and two hundred million years before the mass extinctions that led to their period of dominance of the earth. It is a span over epochs that encompasses extraordinary climate change.
Ravaging the Environment: Symptoms of Economic Stagnation
Fossil fuel industry extractors are, as previously addressed by Noticing New York, essentially the `buggy whip manufacturers of tomorrow’s generation.’ They represent a futureless industry that is not worth investing our societal resources in. Jane Jacobs in her “Economy of Cities” offered a compatible insight: She suggests (p. 117) that the most ruthless depredations of the environment occur “where people exploit too narrow a range of resources too heavily and too monotonously for too long,” without repair or developing alternatives. And this, she asserts is symptomatic of “stagnating and stagnant economies.” In other words, it represents dead-end folly.
Says Jacobs, looking back over the entire history of mankind for her evidence (p. 118):
. . Once a society has developed its economy appreciably, and thus has increased its population appreciably too, any serious stagnation becomes appallingly destructive to the environment. Common sequels in the past have been deforestation, complete destruction of wild life, loss of soil fertility and lowering of water tables.A Tailored Plan?
Cuomo’s plan to eliminate the moratorium is tailored but it is not clear how much that tailoring legitimately addresses concerns. According to the DEC reports the now-to-be-permitted fracking: “would be prohibited in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, including a buffer zone” so the absolute lunacy of sacrificing the watersheds for these two major New York State cities might be avoided (though there are still concerns). Similarly, the hydrofracking would be prohibited within aquifers (“primary” ones) or right next to them, as in “within 500 feet.” 500 feet is not very far at all. It is less than half the length of a typical east-west running block in Manhattan and is short of the very short length of two north-south running blocks. Meanwhile, the deep drilling associated with hydrofracking is accessing and setting off explosions formations multiple thousands of feet underground. And after they go down they frequently go sideways (“high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing”)!
Geology.com says: “Throughout most of its extent, the Marcellus is nearly a mile or more below the surface.” Wikipedia says that hydrofracking generally accesses formations 5,000-20,000 feet down.
(Image from geology.com Fractures from explosions can radiate for as much as 1500 to 1800 feet. 16 wells may spread of from one drilling pad location.)
The idea that effects on the water supplies for New York City and Syracuse might be avoided is good but the state has other major population centers as well.
In reporting locally about the plans to end the moratorium BuffaloNews.com noted that “Drilling opponents have argued that the large amounts of water and potentially harmful chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing could pose a threat to drinking water supplies” without providing any analysis as to the likelihood that the fracking activities could pose particular problems for the water in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls area but one reader commented on the site: “They are not going to drill around the Syracuse and NYC watershed areas. I guess their water is more important.” Another responded by pointing out that as all New York State residents live in the 17 watersheds across the state we:
. . . we all live downstream of possible pollution.The Buffalo City Council voted, albeit perhaps somewhat symbolically, to ban fracking within the city.
What's good for NY City and Syracuse watersheds should apply to all of our watersheds. All NY state residents deserve the same level of protection from water pollution that can harm people as well as the plants and animals on our farms and in the wild. Water is life.
If shale-gas drilling is a threat to NY City water, it is a threat to the water of all NY state residents. If drilling is prohibited in one NY watershed, it must be prohibited in all watersheds.
The City of Rochester’s top-ranked drinking water comes from a small underground basin underneath and surrounding the city of Rochester, replenished by rainfall and potentially subject to contaminants if not properly husbanded but it is north of, and probably not downstream of, where fracking might occur.
Albany, the capitol, boasts that it is proud of the taste of its drinking water which comes from the surface water Alcove Reservoir, located on the Hannacroix Creek in the Town of Coeymans, augmented by the The Basic Creek Reservoir, in the town of Westerlo. Each is southwest and not too far from Albany, not near the Marcellus Shale areas targeted for hydrofracking. Our legislators' drinking water may be safe but if they allow hydrofracking in New York State we may need to be worried about the Kool-Aid they are drinking.
Other Major NYS Population Centers
Other major population centers in New York include Utica-Rome, Binghamton, Kingston, Glens Falls, Ithaca, Elmira. Those that likely need to be most concerned in terms of their proximity to the Marcellus Shale are Binghamton, Kingston, Ithaca and Mark Twain’s Elmira. Kingston gets its water from the Mink Hollow stream and Copper Lake Reservoir (in Woodstock) which is under the jurisdiction of the Catskill State Park.
It is estimated that the Cuomo plan would permit drilling in 80-85% of the Marcellus Shale territory in New York State. The formation itself covers a substantial portion of the state but far more of New York would be affected, particularly with a flow of contaminants down through the Finer Lakes and surrounding area into Lake Ontario.
(Above, a map of of major NYS drainage basins from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.)
But aside from New York State population centers, a lot else, including other states' major population centers is downstream. New York, a water-rich state, provides source waters for many of the major Eastern seaboard rivers, mostly from the areas being eyed for Marcellus Shale drilling. It wouldn’t be just the eastern seaboard: New York’s Lake Chautauqua constitutes the northeasternmost headwater of the Mississippi River flowing down to it via the Allegheny (from areas surprisingly close to Lake Erie) to the Monongahela River (going by Pittsburgh which dips into it for drinking water) then to the Ohio River, then to the Mississippi through Louisiana and New Orleans, emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. New York would now be sending contaminated water all along this course.
In theory there would be no drilling that would affect waters feeding into the Hudson River or the Mohawk River that feeds into the Hudson from the Syracuse area. Probably the Passaic River, struggling to recover from pollution in the downstream areas of New Jersey, would not be affected. That together with the little bit of New York territory feeding into the Connecticut’s Housatonic River would comprise the unaffected rivers in the eastern seaboard (so long as drilling within NYC and Syracuse watersheds was kept off limits).
(Delaware River Basin from State of New Jersey)
(Above, the Susquehanna River basin)
Affected rivers on the eastern seaboard would be:
• The Delaware River, the longest undammed river east of the Mississippi, which flows down to Philadelphia, Trenton, NJ, Camden, Wilmington, Delaware and then Delaware Bay between New Jersey and Delaware with its outflow hugging extended lengths of their coasts along the bay. According to the Delaware Riverkeeper site five percent of the U.S. population, over 15 million people, [including Philadelphia] relies on the Delaware River for their drinking water supply.New York State and Governor Cuomo are not the only ones who have a say about the ways these waters are used or abused. For instance, the Delaware River Basin Commission, created in 1961 by an intergovernmental compact with New York State (including New York City), New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the federal government is supposed to oversee planning, conservation, utilization, development, management, and control of the water resources of the Delaware River Basin. Similarly the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, created in 1970, is supposed to oversee that basin. The Allegheny basin would presumably be covered by the Ohio River Basin Commission but that commission is apparently administratively inactive (deactivated by President Reagan) and in the place thereof there is the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission ("ORSANCO") which while it has a staff is criticized as being of lessor stature in its activities than a true commission even though its stated purposes include control and abataement of pollution. The Great Lakes were so terrifically polluted that a Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was created by treaty between Canada and the United States. The agreement is now undergoing review pursuant to a provision calling for such review as problems were solved or new problems recognized.
• The Susquehanna River (and the Chumung River leading into it), the longest river on the East Coast and perhaps the second oldest river system in the world, which goes down through Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to meet the sea in Maryland in Chesapeake Bay (the largest estuary in the United States) 30 miles from Baltimore, Maryland. In times of need, like this year’s drought, the Susquehanna provides drinking water for Baltimore. This year it provided more of its drinking water than in any year other than 1966 and the city has plans to increase the amount it can draw by another third over current capacity. The Susquehanna is also a backup source of water for Harrisburg, which last drew from it in 2000. And it is not just New York State that might be sending poisons downstream. Including the territory of other states, 72% of the Susquehanna River Basin is underlaid by the Marcellus Shale.
• The Saint Lawrence Seaway drains all the Great Lakes plus lake Champlain (which in turn drains Lake George), including Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. While water pollution from the Marcellus Shale drilling would mostly be headed south as already described above, some of it would head north as areas from the Niagara River pours into lake Erie and the Seneca Oneida drainage basin area draining the Finger Lakes and surrounding areas that drain into Lake Ontario. Obviously, other states and Canada surround those lakes.
Fracking Pollution Basics
What is the pollution that winds up flowing around in the newly unstable underground environment or flows downstream because it is leaching out or being disposed of as the drilling industry’s “produced water,” the fraction of the dirty, poisoned water that is extracted out of the ground rather than being allowed to remain there?
It is a cocktail that includes known and unknown carcinogens, heavy metals and salts. It also includes radioactive pollution. A great deal of radium winds up coming out of the ground much of it in the produced water that then needs to be disposed of somehow.
Radon on the Radar?
(Mapping of DOH radon data)
It doesn’t seem like that long ago that everyone was concerned about radon contamination in homes around the country. It was affecting the real estate market and became standard procedure in certain areas for home to be tested. Radon, a colorless, odorless gas that seeps up from the soil through cracks in a homes concrete floor or foundations and, according to the Federal EPA, is second only to cigarette smoking as a cause of lung cancer. It is also sometimes present in tap water. (See: Calls of Concern Deluge Radon Experts, By Michael deCourcy Hinds, September 14, 1988 and House Sale Affected By Radon, By JosephF. Sulivan, October 7, 1990) It is stunning to think that we should now be undertaking to produce radon contamination and radium pollution (radon’s parent element) as a byproduct of hydrofracking.
Here is some of what the New York State Department of Health has posted about radon:
1. What is radon and where does it come from?Radon and Radium
Radon is a radioactive noble gas that comes from the decay of radium in the soil. Radium is also a daughter or progeny nuclide of uranium (the entire decay chain). Radon is a colorless, odorless, invisible gas . . .
Radon is constantly being generated by the radium in rocks, soil, water and materials derived from rocks and soils, such as certain building materials. Radium is a decay product of uranium which is naturally occurring in the soils and rocks of the earth's crust. . . . The radon concentration in a home is dependant on the type of soil the home is built on. Cracks, openings and various penetrations in the building foundation will provide the pathway for the radon in the soil to enter the home. . . .
Radon can also be dissolved in ground water and can be introduced into the indoor air through the aeration of well water during its use in washing machines, showers, etc. . .
2. What are the health effects of radon?
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has identified radon as the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. Many homes contain radon concentrations that are high enough to give their occupants lifetime exposures that could increase their risk of developing lung cancer. . . .The risk associated with this exposure is thought to increase linearly with increasing radon concentration, so the higher the average radon level is in a house, and the longer the exposure period, the greater the risk to the occupants.
. . .When testing indicates that the radon level in the lowest primary living area of the home is above this action level, the NYS DOH recommends that the homeowner take appropriate corrective action.
The constant exposure to radon is dangerous but radon itself has a short life. But hydrofracking releases radium, which constantly decays to generate the radon. The radon-generating radium has a radioactive half life of 1601 years, meaning that it is long term pollution. And the radium comes from the decay of uranium with a 4.5 billion year half life. In 2009 ProPublica disclosed NYS Department of Conservation information that the wastewater produced by fracking contained levels of radon that were “as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink” and that the NYS Department of Health viewed this as a concern in a “confidential letter” to fracking industry insiders.- - Why should a letter to the industry on this subject be confidential rather than public informtaion? (See: Is New York’s Marcellus Shale Too Hot to Handle? by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, Nov. 9, 2009)
(Above from the New York Times interactive site)
The ProPublica story pointed out that the very long-lasting polluting radium “accumulates in plants and vegetables” and that geologists say “radioactivity levels can vary across the Marcellus, but the tests taken so far suggest the amount of radioactive material measured in New York is far higher than in many other places.” Once radium enters the human body it can cause cancer.
The calculative effect of the long-lasting waste over time is something to ponder: The accumulation as fracking levels increase, the accumulation as the effects continue to leach out and the accumulation of the hazards brought above ground over time.
The article details the practical problems of disposing of the radioactivity, pointing out that in most other states the waste would be pumped underground again but that in New York there is no licensing for that so the plan is to the deposit the waste into the rivers providing drinking water. Theoretically, the waste was to be sent through treatment plant to remove the radioactive waste. But New York likely doesn’t have any treatment plants capable of handling the radiation. Also if the radioactive material is filtered out the result is a sludge that is so highly radioactive that there are only a few specific landfills in the country to which it can be sent.
The ProPublica article goes into more detail about the difficulty of assessing the danger to various segments of the public. . . and the regulatory agencies downplaying of ultimate possible risk.
Fish That Can't Be Eaten
The risk for this particular contaminant is probably significant. The New York Times obtained a “confidential study by the drilling industry” (done by the American Petroleum Institute in 1990) that says the dilution of the wastes would not eliminate health risks and that there would be “a potential increased risk of cancer among people who often eat fish from waters where drilling waste is discharged.” However, one of the lead authors of the study told the Times that “the bioaccumulation factors and ingestion rates we used were based on data collected in the Gulf of Mexico.” The Time pointed out that there it would be “far more diluted than in rivers.”
We can’t eat fish from the Hudson River because General Electric dumped perhaps 1.3 million pounds of PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls) into the river from 1947 to 1977. In contradiction to the potential damage from fracking that pollution: 1.) was stopped, 2.) was stoppable, 3.) can eventually be cleaned up and removed from the environment, at great but less expense 4.) is slowly being cleaned up, and 5.) constitutes a shorter term (and perhaps lesser) pollution problem.
It is sad that New York, which has always been a water rich state with the Hudson, Lake George, Lake Champlain, the Finger Lakes and then all Finger Lakes and Lake Onondaga that were connected connected to the Great lakes and the Hudson by the Erie Canal would impoverish itself heritage this way.
What will the effect be when waste is in the rivers, Delaware or Chesapeake Bays?
Without any adequate answers the industry has more or less ignored the issue. According to the Times drillers trucked at least half of their waste to public sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania in 2008 and 2009 with some being sent to other states, (but possibly the same river systems) including New York and West Virginia. This was done without the waste being tested for radiation or with the plants being equipped to deal with any such contamination was there. The water doesn’t get tested later on before it is drunk either. (See: Drilling Down: Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers, By Ian Urbina, February 26, 2011.)
Dumped Into the Rivers
It’s not just the radiation: According to the Times:
Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.The carcinogens like benzene are a concern, but other elements in the poisonous mixtures being dumped are a threat to public drinking water in other ways.
Threatening the Drinking Water
The same Times article reported this problem with the high level of salts being dumped into the water supply:
But some plants were taking such large amounts of waste with high salt levels in 2008 that downstream utilities started complaining that the river water was eating away at their machines.And here is another problem with the salts dumped into the water. This spring (as reported in the Observer-Reporter of Washington, PA on April 9, 2011), the Carmichaels Municipal Authority issued a boil water advisory after a plant inspection indicated algae and organic materials were likely passing through its treatment plant filter. The parasitic diseases of giardia and cryptosporidium were a concern. Algae and organic material problems were up because the plant had reduced its pre-chlorine treatment of the water. Why had it done that? Because the disinfectant chlorine was reacting with the increased and very high level of bromide salts (suspected and almost certainly coming from gas drilling wastewater) to form a dangerous level of trihalomethanes, linked to various types of cancer. Alternatives being considered and actually used in some systems involve the use of chloramine systems, but according to the Observer-Reporter article is expensive “and can cause lead and copper to leach from old pipes.” And copper in drinking water is also considered a containment when it leaches.
Vivid Example of a No-win Choice
Parasitic diseases, carcinogenic trihalomethanes or cooper leaching?: Rarely are examples of “picking your poison” so vivid. And that is aside from the aforementioned givens of carcinogenic benzene and radioactive radium contamination.
In the article Dan Bailey, president of the Carmichaels Municipal Authority, betting on his his suspicions that the bromide was in the river because gas companies dumped their waste water upstream without removing it, complained that the Pennsylvania State Department of Environmental Protection was “letting drillers dump that water into wastewater plants that don't test it before they dump it into the river,” and that the DEP was “not regulating what they are dumping into the river.”
Government Denial on Behalf of gas Industry
The Pennsylvania DEP, an executive agency accountable to the Pennsylvania governor* (currently Republican Tom Corbet), is supportive of the gas industry, and DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh denied industry responsibility for the high bromide levels in the water informing the reporter that “no permitted facilities discharging oil and gas wastewater are located upstream of the Carmichaels authority's intake.”
(* The secretary heading the department, currently Michael Krancer, is nominated by the governor and confirmed by the senate. The Department has a “Radon Division Hotline.” Interestingly Secretary Krancer recently put a very tight leash on field inspectors and department regional directors, limiting their ability to issue Notice of Violations to the gas drilling industry.)
Contradicted Shortly Afterward?
Notwithstanding DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh’s prophylactic disavowal of the industry’s responsibility for the high bromide levels in the April 9th article, by April 20th it was being reported that DEP Secretary Krancer, “citing potentially unsafe drinking water” was calling for “companies drilling in the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation to stop taking wastewater to 15 treatment plants by May 19” notwithstanding that Krancer appears to be a supporter of the industry. Krancer said in a released statement:
While there are several possible sources for bromide other than shale drilling wastewater, we believe that if operators would stop giving wastewater to facilities that continue to accept it under the special provision, bromide concentrations would quickly and significantly decrease.(See: Pa. acts to block drill water treatment: In other major gas-drilling states, drilling wastewater is largely injected underground, April 20, 2011, by Marc Levy, Associated Press.)
Partially Coordinated Admissions?
Release of the Secretary Krancer’s statement was likely coordinated with the gas industry group which, on the same day, reportedly provided the statement that “it now believes drilling wastewater is partly at fault for rising levels of bromide being found in Pittsburgh-area rivers.”
It is interesting to note the coordination between the industry and the secretary’s statement to convey the notion that the industry was only “partly” and not entirely responsible for the advent of the new problem.
Blowout Blows it Out
As unflattering as the April 20th statements were they may have been the least necessary to placate the public given that the day before, on April 19th, a blowout at a Pennsylvania gas drilling site operated by Chesapeake Energy Corp. in Leroy Township, Pa., released thousands of gallons of salty, chemical-laced produced water into fields and a stream (feeding into the Susquehanna), forcing the evacuation of seven neighboring families and contaminating three residential wells. Blowouts in the industry happen at the rate of about one per thousand. So far with 2,600 wells initiated Pennsylvania has had two. Each drilling pad has multiple wells meaning the likelihood of a blowout on a pad with 16 wells is greater.
As for spokeswoman Gresh’s observation that there were “no permitted facilities” discharging oil and gas wastewater upstream of the Carmichaels Authority's intake, the answer to that may be simply that the dumping of the waste was illegal and unpermitted. This has also been reported, although the following ProPublica story concerns secret illegal disposal of 200,000 gallons of brine in an old oil well (not in a river) only about a mile from a neighboring residential water well: Gas Drillers Plead Guilty to Felony Dumping Violations, by Sabrina Shankman, ProPublica, Feb. 22, 2010. The 200,000 gallons identified as part of this illegal dumping constituted only about 16% of the 1.2 million gallons it is estimated a typical well might need to dispose of. The press release for Cuomo’s plan to end the moratorium reassuringly promised that the fracking that would be permitted would be “state of the art.” This may be the “state of the art.”
One might expect that river basin commissions ought to be concerned with all this pollution in drinking water since that is part of the purposes they describe themselves to be existing for. Nevertheless they seem to be ignoring the issue. They are however involved in another very related issue over which they are exercising control, related as in one thing follows as surely the night the day: Before all this water gets dumped in the drinking supply the gas companies have to get their hands on it in the first place, and we are talking truly vast quantities to the extent that just removing water is an environmental issue.
The gas companies are asking the river basin commissions for permission to appropriate truly huge quantities of water from the environment. They are only just getting started and as permits from the commissions may last for five years and then be renewed the effects will again be cumulative.
River Basin Commissions Scoped Out
Probably most of you, before you found yourselves reading this post, had never heard of a river basin commission. Suffice it to say that long before you had ever heard of such commissions the gas companies had scoped out the territory and strategized the cooption of these potential regulators.
They probably concluded the primary purposes for doing so were twofold, because:
1.) the commissions probably can say no to and regulate to prevent unfairly huge removals of the water the companies want to force underground at super-high pressures, andWhat this strategy means when it comes to an administratively inactive or lessor commission such as the Ohio River Basin Commission (/ORSANCO?) is anybody’s guess. Another lurking conundrum would be that while the concepts of riparian rights may mean that you can become entitled to use water related to land by acquiring land, you normally have to do it in a manner that does not cause significant harm to others. Generally that concept is thought of in terms of the harm that is caused by water’s use or removal. Can that concept be extended harm that is caused not by the water’s removal but, as herein, because its removal, ipso facto, means that it will almost certainly be replaced into the system as pollution?
2.) commission approvals once won can offer the gas companies a way to colorably claim that the have a legal ownership right to the water they are so removing, which given the unprecedentedly large amounts of water that they are carting away for offsite use is quite likely not the case. Bringing the commissions into existence did not alter the preexisting underlying riparian (water ownership) rights of those in the vicinity. If the companies are carting away water they don’t have a legal right to then it is theft, so they have an interest in doing everything they can do to inculcate the impression of official imprimatur. One could analogize their aspirations in this regard to the private developers who seek to co-opt government officials so as to wrest control of property away from other private owners through eminent domain abuse.
ExxonMobile Request Before Delaware River Basin Commission
The Delaware River Basin Commission has before it a request from XTO Energy (ExxonMobile) to take 0.25 million gallons of water per day from Oquaga Creek, a trout stream that flows to the West Branch of the Delaware River in Broome and Delaware. Only a single application, the Exxon application is just the tip of the iceberg for what is to come. The commission was originally supposed to vote on the application at its May 11th meeting. There was substantial public comment at that meeting and even more at an ensuring meeting in June. The action was deferred and was scheduled for its September 21st meeting. It has now been indefinitely postponed at New York State’s request while New York prepares an environmental review. The commission, however, does propose to vote to adopt pending regulations about fracking on September 21st.
New York State Attorney General's Lawsuit Concerning the Delaware River Basin Commission
One reason for the indefinite postponement may be a lawsuit brought by New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. Schneiderman may be undertaking his lawsuit as a crowd-pleaser for his constituency. We shall see how earnestly he seeks to actually win it, but the theory of it is that if the government officials involved in overseeing the Delaware River basin are not going to do their job of protecting that environment he, at least, is going to sue them to require that they follow the environmental review laws they are required to follow. (See: New York Sues Over a Drilling Rules Plan, By Mireya Navarro, May 31, 2011.) (Attorney General Schneiderman is also the one now suing the federal government over the discriminatory nature of the “Defense of Marriage Act.”)
Schneiderman’s lawsuit says that the Delaware River Basin Commission should not be adopting regulations to permit fracking before the federal government has complied with the National Environmental Policy Act by first doing an environmental assessment of the effects of fracking. The United State’s is a signatory to the DRBC’s creation, the Army Corps of Engineers is on its board and the DRBC can be considered a form of quasi federal agency, all reason why a federal environmental impact statement would be required. In fact, the DRBC used to do them. New York is on the board, which is one reason a New York State environmental impact statement should be required under SEQRA (the State Environmental Quality Review Act, sometimes known as “Little NEPA.”) Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey have never passed this kind of law requiring assessment of environmental effects before taking actions affecting the environment.
Schneiderman in his lawsuit is suing a laundry list of federal agencies over the lack of the environmental review. His complaint describes the yet-to-be-considered effects of fracking on New York City’s water supply and the effects on air quality of all New York Sate regions downwind of the Marcellus Shale. We have yet to get to air pollution aspects of gas drilling. If you consider what parts of the state lie over the Marcellus Shale formation, what parts are downstream of it and what parts are downwind of it the entire state of New York will be environmentally affected by the drilling the Cuomo plan proposes to permit.
The complaint filed by Schneiderman can be found here. Schneiderman might not have to be suing these federal agencies were it not for President Obama’s support for hydraulic fracturing. Does Obama believe that fracking is desirable or is he pre-shrinking his negotiating position to “compromise” with Republicans who, if they had their druthers, would like to eliminate virtually all environmental legislation?
More Lawsuits For the NYS Attorney General to File?
Schneiderman may want to give some thought to ginning up another lawsuit, or two or three, because much the same thing is going on with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. Similar things are going on in the Ohio River basin but there is no full-fledged commission considered to be active there. A lawsuit might also be considered with respect to what is going on regarding the Great Lakes.
A Lot of Water
According to its Director of Communications, Susan Obleski, as of mid-June the Susquehanna River Basin Commission has approved withdrawals from the Susquehanna River Basin of 98 million gallons a day. (That certainly puts the initial 0.25 million requested by Exxon from the Delaware River basin in perspective.) The withdrawals are predominantly of surface water although some underground water is being taken. The figure does not include water that the companies take from the public water systems, which they take without such permits. It also doesn't mean that the approved amount is currently being withdrawn. Not accounting for what is withdrawn from public water systems that amount is currently less. The 98 million gallons per day withdrawal approval figure is good for five years.
Current fracking technology, involving a number of factors (like “slick water” cocktails) that make it possible did not coalesce so as to permit what the industry is now undertaking until 2007. The minimum expected gas fracking wells to be drilled in Pennsylvania are expected to be at least 100,000. So far, only 2.6% of that number or 2,600 have been initiated.
The 98 million gallons per day (mgd) figure so far approved amounts to a 30 acre lake ten feet deep every day, or 10,950 acres of lake a year, 54,750 acres of lake or 86 square miles over the next five years. That’s the equivalent of 64 central parks, which itself contains a substantial reservoir. It is just shy of double the surface area of New York’s Lake George, the 32 mile length of which once constituted a major navigational waterway for those traveling up to Canada from the New York City.
(A view of a small portion of Lake George- not the widest part- taken about midway up, close to Sabbath Day Point, looking down south toward the Narrows.)
But in addition to the 98 mgd figure and the additional public system waters the gas companies are also trucking in more water from the Ohio River basin.
(Above, image on an interactive SRBC site with data about fracking activity. Bear in mind that this is just the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, not the adjacent Ohio, Delaware, Niagara or Finger Lakes basins, each drilling pad will be multiple wells, perhaps 16 wells, the above represents initiation of only 2.6% of the minimum only activity planned for Pennsylvania and reflects the moratorium that has so far been present in New York. Below, also from the SRBC's site a map showing just pad locations.- Click to enlarge)
Plus Water Diversions From Ohio River Basin
As discussed in this March 10, 2011 letter from the Allegheny Defense Project commenting to the General Counsel of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission a Federal Register notice disclosed that the Commission is considering approving “diversions” of water by two oil and gas companies, Pennsylvania General Energy (PGE) and Ultra Resources, from the Ohio River basin into the Susquehanna River basin. Those two requested diversions are in the aggregate amount of 1.67 million gallons of water per day. Currently requested diversions from the Ohio River basin into the Susquehanna River basin now being objected to by the Allegheny Defense Project now total 2.17 million gallons a day.
The 2.17 million gallons a day covered by just a few basin transfer requests is equivalent to a 30-acre lake, 10-feet deep every 46 days, almost eight such lakes a year or 39, almost 40 lakes over five years. The figure also provides a glimmer of insight respecting how much water is being used in the Ohio River basin where apparently no one is stopping the industry from withdrawing water. That is something the Allegheny Defense Project is seeking to do. The Allegheny Defense Project is essentially accusing the companies of rustling water from Ohio River basin owners (which includes owners along the Allegheny). The glimmer of insight is because the 2.17 million gallons a day is a small slice of a larger picture.
Though it might not be immediately apparent, the reason the industry is diverting water, shunting it over from one river basin to the other, is this- - The water is not coming directly from the Ohio River and not supposed to actually go into the Susquehanna. Instead, in what is viewed as a conservation measure it is “flowback water” going from gas well drilling pads in the Ohio River to be reused for more fracking at nearby gas drilling pads in the Susquehanna basin. Each gas pad can be and typically is the location for multiple wells, perhaps 12-16. (If the water were going directly from river to river the SRBC would be concerned about invasive species. For instance, to mention just two, Lake Chautauqua feeding into the Ohio system is struggling with invasive species such as Eurasian Milfoil and Zebra Mussels. Another reason this is not a concern is that it is unlikely that organisms could be in the chemical “flowback water” environment.)
According to Ms. Obleski the SRBC considers that by approving the interbasin transfers it is "incentivizing" a plan for minimizing pollution through "reuse" of this water for fracking, which will also benefit the environment by cutting down on the truck traffic involved in moving so much water around. The flowback water amounts to 8% of the water originally pumped into a fracking well. "Flowback water" is an industry term for what is essentially early “produced water.” If the water comes back up soon enough it is considered “flowback water” instead of “produced water.” If it gets expelled back up from the gas well within the first 30 days after being pumped down it is “flowback water.” A gas pad's wells will continue to produce water after that (for decades). After the first 30 days it is “produced water.” Is there a reason for making this distinction?: Early on the water returned from the well is closer to the original cocktail being pumped down and has less of the indigenous additions the ground site naturally mixes in with it.
If the flowback water amounts to only about 8% of what is pumped into the ground into the Ohio River basin wells then the 2.17 million gallons a day transfer represents a fraction of 27.125 million gallons a day pumped into the ground to begin with. That’s not 39 or 40 lakes worth, it’s 487 to 500 lakes worth, 15,000 acres of water. That’s not everything going on in the Ohio River basin, that’s only wells on the border of the Susquehanna River basin close to other wells across the border, only where such water use has been chosen probably where the Susquehanna River basin are closer than other wells within the Ohio River basin of which there must be many.
Water to Be Disposed of and Unaccounted For
80% of the water pumped underground generally remains underground. The rest must be disposed of. While perhaps up to 8% may get pumped underground again in this fashion leaving 12% in the form of the most polluted produced water to be otherwise disposed of.
According to the New York Times, in Pennsylvania:
At least 50 million additional gallons of wastewater is unaccounted for, according to state records.(See: Drilling Down:Wastewater Recycling No Cure-All in Gas Process, By Ian Urbina, March 1, 2011.)
The fate of more of the wastewater is unknown because of industry lobbying. In 2009, when regulators tried to strengthen oversight of the industry’s methods for disposing of its waste, the Marcellus Shale Coalition staunchly opposed the effort.
That article which reports on how radioactive waste is being sold to the industry to salt road for melting snow also makes this point:
If drillers were to lose the exemption from federal law that allowed their waste not to be considered hazardous, they would probably be forced, at great expense, to start more rigorously testing the waste for toxicity.Hearings and Silent Irony
They might also have to do what most other industries do: ship any sludge or salts that are high in radioactivity to Idaho or Washington State, where there are some of the only landfills in the country permitted to accept such waste.
The SRBC is holding hearings on August 2 and August 4 to:
explain and receive public comments on proposed regulatory revisions, most of which regard the approval of natural gas projects, addition of new definitions, renewals of expiring approvals, restructuring of water source approvals and incorporation of certain policies and practices into regulation.Perhaps ironically the first of those two hearing will be held in the “Rachel Carson State Office Building.” Rachel Carson is famous for “Silent Spring,” a book about man’s insensate degradation of the environment with environmental poisons that is considered to have inspired, among other things, creation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Radon Under Homes?
Radium is flowing downstream as a result of the waste being dumped into the rivers, but earlier we considered the problem the region already has with radon, produced by radium, flowing up through cracks in the earth into people’s homes. Is it possible that fracking will result in more radon contamination of area homes or shifts in the patterns of where such contamination will be found? It would seem wise that a home previously tested for radon should be tested again after any fracking has occurred in the vicinity. It isn’t a coincidence that radon accumulation problems occur more frequently above the Marcellus Shale formation.
(Another mapping of DOH data)
(Above Marcellus Shale map)
When Noticing New York first wrote about hydraulic fracturing it was to mention “Gasland,” the Josh Fox documentary famous for its footage of the flaming ignitable tap water that resulted after fracking in the vicinity of people’s homes. In writing about “Gasland” Noticing New York pointed out both the industry rebuttals and what seemed to be their apparent quibbling, dissembling inadequacy. The industry “rebuttals” are now thoroughly addressed (including the fact that they are apparently merely eyewash put together by a PR firm posing as a nonexistent industry organization, “Energy-in-Depth”) in a document put together by Mr. Fox titled “Affirming Gasland” which is a valuable read standing on its own.
“Gasland” is a copious catalogue of problems with hydraulic fracturing but at no time does it deal with radiation, radium or radon. Nevertheless, “Affirming Gasland” has some points relevant to the question of what reaches the surface. Says Energy-in-Depth the industry’s PR firm as it quibbles with Gasland:
The subsurface formations that undergo fracture stimulation reside thousands and thousands of feet below formations that carry potable water. These strata are separated by millions of tons of impermeable rock, and in some cases, more than two miles of it.By this logic the industry’s official line is that the natural gas doesn’t travel up from these depths to make tap water ignitable as a result of fracking. By the same token we might expect the industry to assert that radon won’t travel up from those same levels where there is deep uranium and radium. Josh Fox’s response (with useful hyperlinks in the original document) as to whether gas gets up into the aquifers so much closer to the surface:
That target layers of fracking are far below underground drinking water sources was never contested by Gasland. We don't know why fracking chemicals and fugitive natural gas are getting into water supplies, we just know that they are. Again, there has never been a thorough nationwide investigation by a highly qualified government agency. But that is beginning to change. The nine major fracking companies are currently being investigated by the U.S. Congress. The EPA has been examining water contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming for the past year and is now scoping a major two-year study of HF at the behest of Congress.“Affirming Gasland” concludes with a supplemental extended reading section that includes an article from ProPublica and the Denver Post that addresses the subject of the migration of gas in greater detail: Colorado Study Links Methane in Water to Drilling, by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, April 22, 2009.
The article, among other things mentions a house near Cleveland, Ohio, that exploded in 2007 as a result of gas seeped into its water well because of nearby hydraulic fracturing well operation. Scientists can’t yet determine which particular gas wells cause aquifer contamination closer to the surface or how exactly the gas reached the water, but based on their ability to match the methane in the water (using isotopic signatures, essentially molecular fingerprints) to the methane in the deep rock layers being drilled into have been able to pont with “more clarity than ever before that a system of interconnected natural fractures and faults could stretch from deep underground gas layers to the surface.”
According to Judith Jordan, an oil and gas liaison for Garfield County who has worked as a hydrogeologist with DuPont and as a lawyer with Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection:
It is highly unlikely that methane would have migrated through natural faults and fractures and coincidentally arrived in domestic wells at the same time oil and gas development started, after having been down there ...for over 65 million years.Fracking releases gas and creates new underground fractures but once released the gas may be getting to the surface via natural faults and fractures existing in the underground formations that preexisted the fracking disruptions. Alternatively, the gas contamination could be coming up through “weakness somewhere along the well's structure” or by the combination of both. So much for the industry claim of being “separated by millions of tons of impermeable rock.”
The article points out that the gas can suffocate those who breathe it, cause headaches, then nausea, brain damage and death.
Gas in the water supply often comes from leaks in the wells. According to industry figures reviewed by Cornell Professor Anthony Ingraffea about 5% of new wells leak while 50% will eventually leak. Once they leak, they leak forever.
Radon Moving Around Like Gas? An Earthshaking Answer
Should the concurrent traveling up of radon coming from the same deep down places be a concern was well? The quick answer would appear to be yes. Radon is often in such gas itself, so much so that pipes carrying gas sometimes become radioactive as a result.
It should not be denied that fracking is highly disruptive of the underground environment and its stability in highly unpredictable ways. After hydrofacking began in the vicinity Arkansas’s Faulkner County a swarm of unexplained earthquakes (including the largest earthquake in Arkansas in 35 years) began along a previously unknown fault line. Since they began in September 2010, there have been 843 earthquakes, close to about three earthquakes a day on average. (Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's Earthquake Ballad, Heard on All Things Considered, July 8, 2011, Michele Norris.)
Interviewing Scott Ausbrooks, the geohazard supervisor with the Arkansas Geological Survey, and Dr. Steve Horton, a seismologist and a research scientist at the Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis, the NPR All Things Considered coverage of this story made the points that the injection wells are proximal to the clusters of earthquakes, with “ninety-eight percent of those earthquakes that have happened since 2009 have been within five kilometers of three specific injection wells.” according to Horton and Mr. Ausbrooks, pointing out that the “injection wells went online just a couple of months prior to all these earthquakes happening.”
For some of the NNY calculations above were made borrowing from Scott Ausbrooks' observation in the NPR story that 100 million gallon is equivalent to a 30-acre lake, 10-feet deep with the “weight of that water's probably in excess of a billion pounds.”
The companies that operate the wells in the Faulkner County earthquake swarm region refused to grant interviews for the NPR story “but a spokesman for one of them responded in an email that the earthquakes are a, quote, `natural event.’”
The substantial underground disruptions caused by fracking don’t always cause earthquakes but for more evidence that they sometimes do there was an earlier NPR story about similar multiple and first-ever earthquakes in a Texas town near Forth Worth: Is Drilling To Blame For Texas Quakes? by Wade Goodwyn, June 30, 2009
Radon Contamination Not So Bad
Whether the underground disruptions associated with fracking potentially leads to reshuffling and/or increase in the amount, where, when and how of radon contamination for homes is probably a matter that can be debated. At the moment it doesn’t appear that anyone is raising the subject for debate, so who knows how that debate would play out. In the end, radon contamination is not such a serious and insurmountable problem. All one has to do is: 1.) notice the radon problem, 2.) have an expert in to evaluate it, and 3.) spend some money, perhaps $2,000 on venting to eliminate it from the home. It should be done correctly so as to minimize a consequential financial loss through the loss of the home’s heat/air conditioning.
Significant Problem of Air Pollution
We have not talked about the problem of all the other air pollution caused by the wells which poses more significant problems.
“Gasland” covered the problems of the poisonous air pollution which can cause human beings living nearby to suffer neuropathies, deadened senses of smell and taste, and even brain damage.
The New York Times has a more recent video that covers much the same territory, people needing to move away from their homes because of the poisonous contaminated air from poorly monitored industry emissions, people who are experiencing “classic” expected symptoms and negative side effects from hazardous volatile organic compounds (including cancerous benzene): headaches, diarrhea, nose bleeds, muscle spasms. They complain of smelly air that you can “taste.” Fog and smog are a problem but also dead livestock, and livestock offspring dying after premature birth. (See: Natural Gas and Polluted Air: Garfield County is at the heart of Colorado's natural gas gold rush. Residents there complain of air quality problems.)
Ozone is part of the fracking air pollution problem (now even in winter overlaid on other sources of ground level ozone): What Will Fracking Do to Your Food Supply? The controversial gas-drilling practice is tainting water. Your food might be next, by Barry Estabrook May 18, 2011. People and plants even in sparsely populated rural areas are at risk according to that article:
And it's not just his [cattle] herd that's vulnerable; all the plant life on his property would also be in danger. According to Jaffe, ozone is more lethal to crops than all other airborne pollutants combined, and of all crops, few are more susceptible to it than clover, a nutrient-rich feed that is critical to his method of sustainable cattle raising. While ozone is normally associated with automobile exhaust, fracking generates so much of it that Sublette Country, Wyo., has ozone levels as high as Los Angeles. This, despite the fact that it has fewer than 9,000 residents spread out over an area the size of Connecticut. What it does have is gas wells.According to the EPA:
Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. "Bad" ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.All these problems may be exacerbated by the salt pollution which can cause high blood pressure in humans and can cause grazing land to switch over to salt-tolerant grasses that are indigestible to livestock.
Healthy people also experience difficulty breathing when exposed to ozone pollution. . . . Millions of Americans live in areas where the national ozone health standards are exceeded.
Ground-level or "bad" ozone also damages vegetation and ecosystems. It leads to reduced agricultural crop and commercial forest yields, reduced growth and survivability of tree seedlings, and increased susceptibility to diseases, pests and other stresses such as harsh weather. In the United States alone, ground-level ozone is responsible for an estimated $500 million in reduced crop production each year. Ground-level ozone also damages the foliage of trees and other plants, affecting the landscape of cities, national parks and forests, and recreation areas.
Reviewing then, fracking causes all the following problems affecting human, animal and plant health:
• Water pollution (lasting for decades or more), poisoning both:Not mentioned above is all the visual pollution and pollution associated with a massive amount of trucking of water.• underground aquifers essential for drinking water, and• Massive quantities of water usurpation and removal that degrade the environment.
• rivers and streams supplying drinking water, among other things inhibiting the ability to continue the proper sort of water treatment that previously protected the public.
• Radiation poisoning in the form of released radium and radon, particularly in the water and also for homes over and around the shale formations. (Lasting for thousands of years or more)
• Earthquakes and instability of the land and underlying geological formations.
• Significant poisonous air pollution.
• The release of a multitude of carcinogens.
• Greenhouse gas pollution that will pollute by permanently releasing into atmosphere fossil fuel carbon that was safely sequestered from causing climate change for 400 million years.
Despite all of the above get ready to hear the Cuomo plan subjecting all of New York State to the consequences of several or more of the above forms of pollution promoted as a “compromise” constituting a “win” for environmentalists.
Will this characterization be tolerated? Where are the big, powerful environmental groups on this?
I was considering whether there are any “astroturf” groups that have been formed to support the Cuomo compromise as a win for environmentalists. The answer appears to be `no,’ and the reason for that is that they are not needed. Many of the big important environmental groups are not fighting hydraulic fracturing as they should be. To understand why that might be, you probably want to acquaint yourself with the work of Johann Hari who has written about how big business had co-opted the environmental movement to “greenwash” that which should not be considered green. (See: In the Nation: The Wrong Kind of Green By Johann Hari, March 4, 2010 and an interview on The Leonard Lopate Show, The Wrong Kind of Green, Friday, April 02, 2010.)
Too many of the coopted big environmental groups are buying the industry line that fracked gas is an important “transitional fuel,” cleaner than other fuels like coal and necessary for the U.S to move away from its dependence on foreign oil. (Keep an eye out for people reflexively indoctrinated to use the industry’s “bridge fuel” term.) Gas fracking promoters like T. Boone Pickens have even been seeking government subsidies for the industry on this basis. As such those environmental groups are viewing this as a back-burner matter that must take second place to opposition to such things as the hilltop removal mining of coal.
Environmental groups that accepted the notion that gas is a “clean” energy source likely did so before they knew about fracking or had any facts about it. Not long ago, before fracking, gas could more easily be thought of as a much cleaner fuel. About 15 years ago a superabundance of gas was produced, not by fracking but as a byproduct of conventional drilling of oil, so much so that an overabundance of gas, for a while, drove prices down. That gas was easily obtained and clean to burn (even if it did have a greenhouse effect). Not so with fracking. Fracking is dirty. Again, the new fracking technologies were only put together in 2007, so the new fracking technology still being experimented with has not been around long enough to receive much evaluation.
Gas Isn't a Clean Fuel
The question of whether gas or fracked gas can be considered a clean fuel has been dealt with by Cornell Professor Dr. Anthony Ingraffea. His research in a paper done with fellow Cornell professors Robert Howarth and Renee Santoro concluded that it can’t be. He discussed this along with a number of gas industry promoted myths in a recent May 10, 2011 lecture “Development of Natural Gas from Shales: Some Myths and Realities, May 10, 2011" available on video. That part of the discussion occurs about one hour into the video.
Dr. Ingraffea explains that the kernel of the myth that fracked gas is clean fuel is based on the fact that burning gas produces less of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide than burning coal or oil. However, during production there is much leakage and waste of gas. Some of it is “flared” or burned, which has to be added to the total effect. Much of it simply escapes as methane over its life cycle as it is drilled and transported. Most natural gas is methane. Methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas in its own right. It has substantially more powerful greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide by many multiples but over a somewhat shorter time period because it lasts in the atmosphere as methane for about 10 years. Once carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere it is there, for all practical purposes, permanently. Some companies flare their escaping waste methane to destroy it but Dr. Ingraffea reports that others like Shell have a policy not to. Perhaps Shell feels that flaring provides too conspicuous a reminder of the waste and escaping gas.
Making comparisons is complicated by the fact that the effect of the escaping methane is best evaluated differently over different time horizons but Ingraffea’s conclusion in simplified terms is that gas is not a cleaner fuel than its fossil fuel rivals if considered from the standpoint of a 100 year time horizon and looked at from the standpoint of a 20 year time horizon is 20% worse. Here is New York Times/Greenwire coverage: Shale Gas Isn't Cleaner Than Coal, Cornell Researchers Say, by Mike Soraghan of Greenwire, April 11, 2011. The coverage seems to fall into the trap of “he-said/she-said” reporting, not even treating “Energy-In-Depth” as the mere PR mirage it is.
Nobody On the Government Side To Oversee the Industry
One of Dr. Ingraffea’s criticism of what is going on is that fracking is proceeding, especially in Pensylvania, without a proper regulatory framework in place. Instead what is unfolding is, as he describes it, “execution of a corporate business plan” without any enforcement mechanisms in place.
Shale deposits are sometimes referred to “shale plays,” which is actually a proper and defined geological term. But the term “plays” sounds, instead, like a warning with respect to the industry’s game-playing strategies, sneaking into states by avoiding the truth about the degradation their practices will cause. And too much “play” is also what the industry wants in the regulations that will apply as they experiment with this new technology.
The Cuomo plan promises that the industry will adhere to “state of the art” standards, but who will be watching the drillers to make that true? Preparatory to this new era Governor Patterson ordered that 209 employees from the Department of Environmental Conservation and then fired Environmental Conservation Commissioner Pete Grannis when Grannis sounded an alarm about the ffect of this on the department. (See: DEC commissioner fired after layoff memo leak: Pete Grannis ousted after warning of effects of planned job cuts, by Brian Nearing, Capitol bureau, Thursday, October 21, 2010, Paterson stands alone in firing: Governor's ouster of Pete Grannis as DEC chief called "mugging of Mother Nature", by Brian Nearing, Saturday, October 23, 2010 and Grannis and hydraulic fracturing: Ousted DEC head talks about future of natural gas drilling in America, by Marie C. Baca ProPublica, Friday, November 12, 2010.)
Since that time Governor Cuomo has been reducing the DEC even further. The Alany Times Union coverage speculated on how this interrelates with the contemplated Marcellus Shale drilling. (See: Axe To Fall At DEC (Again), July 7, 2011, Liz Benjamin)
The problems with mass lay-offs off state employees meant to regulate an industry are two sided: 1.) there are no longer enough employees around to the job, and 2.) Many of the employees laid off may be at a loss to do anything other than to go to work for the industry and appear against the state (state ethics rules may be an obstacle they try to get around). In Pennsylvania the fracking industry has been siphoning away senior environmental officials even as those official do their clean water reviews.
Question: If a forest succumbs in the wilderness with no environmental officials to notice is it like it didn’t happen at all? The Times reported that the federal government has suspended a wildlife biologist (on administrative leave pending an internal investigation into “integrity issues”) after he participated in preparing an “observational report” about spotting four dead/drowned polar bears following an aerial survey of bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea in 2004 wherein he estimated the mortality rate among bears caught in a mid-September storm in the open sea. Concurrently, a tracking study on polar bears was put on hold. There are disparate clues about why the suspension was issued but there is a suspicion that reporting drowning polar bears, an indication of climate change, could unwanted reporting. One way to avoid having to fire employees who notice deterioration of the environment is to fire them before they have the chance to observe anything.
Political Horse Trading
At the outset this post noted that one could only speculate whether Governor Cuomo horse traded the moratorium on fracking for the marriage equality bill. Since passage of the bill the Times reported that Cuomo has achieved his “dramatic run of victories” “not by steamrolling the Capitol and its muddled, cagey political culture, but by embracing it in ways few other governors have.” The article says that Cuomo’s succeeded using the old-fashioned style of politics carefully courting Albany’s other lawmakers in private and in secret as he was horse trading with them. (See: Cuomo Triumphs by Courting the Capitol He Ran Against, by Nicholas Confessore, July 6, 2011.)
From the Times story:
In his first six months in office, Mr. Cuomo cloaked the day-to-day workings of government in far more secrecy than did other recent governors.The tabloids, without being specific, also contained innuendo about how deals were being made at the end of session, but what deals about what? Maybe Cuomo traded the hydrofracking moratorium for something else, not the marriage equality bill. Perhaps the on-time budget?
* * *
With few exceptions, Mr. Cuomo did not reveal the fine print of his policy proposals until he had reached a three-way deal with the Legislature to approve them, leaving hidden whatever trades, concessions and compromises he had made.
* * *
Mr. Cuomo could also be unashamedly transactional when he needed to be.
“He gave everyone what they needed,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant, “to give him what he wanted.”
Is it even possible that Cuomo didn’t trade hydrofracking for anything at all, that he actually believes that permitting hydrofracking in New York State would be a good idea? How could he?
Touchstones Respecting the Sell-Off of the Public Realm
My frequent Noticing New York touchstone for politicians, their honorability and what they believe in, particularly when it come to selling off the public realm to private industry interest is the Bruce Ratner mega-monopoly Atlantic Yards debacle in Brooklyn. We are still watching Governor Cuomo carefully in that regard. Mr. Coumo was asked to investigate Atlantic Yards when he was state attorney general. He didn’t. And he took and never returned campaign money from Mr. Ratner. Now the issue of breaking up and finally ending the Ratner mega-monoply artificially created by government will be more clearly before Cuomo as governor given that Justice Marcy Friedman is sending the mega-project back to the state for the environmental review that was surreptitiously sidestepped to get it through in the first instance. What the governor believes in terms of protecting the public from the abuses of private interest run a muck will similarly be seen starkly with respect to Atlantic Yards and hydrofracking. Perhaps each can shed light with respect to the other and Cuomo’s overall philosophy and allegiances.
Once I worried that gay marriage with its strident opponents was being used too effectively as a wedge issue and that it wasn’t worth pursuing it if the cost of doing so would mean that George W. Bush would remain in the office of the presidency or that victories on other significant issues like stopping wars might be lost as a result. Is that inconsistent and somehow contrary to now thinking that because the tide has so clearly turned that gay marriage equality is inevitable and therefore would not be worth trading for the moratorium on hydrofracking? Perhaps. I admit that sometimes my thinking does shift around a bit as I explore ideas.
Notwithstanding, there is posterity and then there is posterity. Those who stood in the way of marriage equality, would no doubt have been viewed harshly by posterity in the relatively near term as having stood against the tide of history. They would likely have been remembered ill for generations. But the devastation that hydraulic fracturing will inflect on the environment will still be experienced long after memories of more human time-scale events have faded.
Mr. Cuomo wants to be president someday. Is it possible that he would become the president best remembered for inflicting such harm on the environment of so much of the country before ever attaining that office? In fact, could he ever even attain that office in the first place when the harm from his actions flow downstream to so many other states who may have recognized the harm by the time he is ready to run? Or does Mr. Cuomo mistakenly envision that the way to run for the office of president to is to cozy up to abusive special interests like the oil and gas fracking industry? Maybe that was the way to run for office in the past . . . . but will it be the way of the future?
(Demonstrator's protesting Cuomo's fracking plan outside the governor's New York City office on July 26, 2011.)
[Note: Links added with information about the Ohio River Valley Sanitation Commission, "ORSANCO" on August 10, 2010. Also, here as as a post script is a link to another recent relevant ProPublica article on yet one more problem aspect of frackcing: Feds Say Major New York Gas Pipeline Poses Safety Risk, by Nicholas Kusnetz, Aug. 5, 2011.]