Saturday, July 02, 2011

Paying For A Boom (UPDATE)

I realize a holiday weekend when most people will be busy doing all sorts of other things than read blogs is an odd time to write a complicated, link-heavy post. All the same, it is what is on my mind, which is the usual impetus for doing this. Plus, I get it out of the way early and can enjoy the rest of what will be a hot, muggy day.

Yesterday I read two reports, very different in framing and tone, on a single act of New York's governor, Andrew Cuomo. Let's start with Our Paper Of Record:
The Cuomo administration is seeking to lift what has effectively been a moratorium in New York State on hydraulic fracturing, a controversial technique used to extract natural gas from shale, state environmental regulators said on Thursday.
That's the act subject to two, very different articles. The Times piece continues:
The process would be allowed on private lands, opening New York to one of the fastest-growing — critics would say reckless — areas of the energy industry. It would be banned inside New York City’s sprawling upstate watershed, as well as inside a watershed used by Syracuse, and in underground water sources used by other cities and towns. It would also be banned on state lands, like parks and wildlife preserves.


Hydrofracking has prompted intense protests from some environmental activists, who say it threatens the cleanliness of groundwater. The process involves injecting large volumes of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, deep into the ground to break up rock formations and release natural gas. It is legal in a number of other states, including Pennsylvania.

A primary concern among environmental groups has been the leftover wastewater that can be contaminated with toxic materials buried underground, including naturally occurring radioactive elements, or carcinogens like benzene. Proponents, on the other hand, focus on the potential benefits. Drilling for natural gas has been promoted because it burns more cleanly than coal and can reduce dependence on imported energy sources, and it can also bring jobs to economically battered regions of the state.


The governor telegraphed his position about hydrofracking in a campaign document on energy policy he released last year. It referred to the potential development of the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that stretches from southern New York State to Ohio and West Virginia.

“The economic potential from the Marcellus Shale could provide a badly needed boost to the economy of the Southern Tier and even many environmentalists agree we want to produce more domestic natural gas that reduces the need for environmentally damaging fuel sources such as coal,” his campaign statement said, while adding, “Existing watersheds are sacrosanct, and Andrew Cuomo would not support any drilling that would threaten the state’s major sources of drinking water.”(italics added)
My hometown newspaper covered the same facts - Cuomo's desire to lift the ban of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) - with a headline that seemed to signal a preference for a far more lenient oversight of natural gas exploration:
State may ban gas drilling in watersheds, state land
The story continues in the same vein:
New York environmental officials have proposed a ban on drilling for natural gas with hydraulic fracturing in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds and on all state-owned lands while permitting it on private land only under “rigorous and effective controls” codified into state law.
Rather than discuss opening the possibility for fracking on private lands, the story begins by discussing the limits Cuomo and the state DEC plan to place on the practice.

The "Southern Tier" candidate Cuomo's position paper referred to is the long stretch of rural counties and communities from the NY-PA border just east of Erie, PA to Binghamton, NY and Broome County in the east, where the state border turns southeast along the Delaware River and the descent to New York City. Never hugely economically prosperous, the Southern Tier does have the advantages of gorgeous rolling hills, lakes like Chatauqua, small college towns like Alfred and Olean, and the small cities of Elmira and Corning. The eastern half of the region is the gateway to the Finger Lakes, with its tourist attractions and wineries.

In the middle of this stretch is my hometown, Waverly, NY. It has the unusual distinction for being a pivot point both for the NY-PA border - its existence has always been a bone of contention for the cluster of towns squeezed between the confluence of the Chemung and Susquehanna Rivers - and for the boom that has resulted in the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale for its natural gas reserves. Lifting the ban in New York will open the floodgates in Tioga County and areas to its east and north to the gas companies just as its immediate southern neighbor, Bradford County, PA, has become home to an economic boom the area hasn't known since the days of the railroads.

Back in April, I noted that all the promises of how safe and clean natural gas is, how strict and safe fracking is, ran up against the reality of a huge spill of toxic chemicals outside Canton, PA. At the heart of my own fear regarding Cuomo's proposed ending of a fracking moratorium lies exactly this - the procedure known as fracking involves pumping water filled with a variety of things, including toxic chemicals, deep under ground to break up the shale and release the natural gas trapped in a variety of tiny pockets inside the formations. The problem is, the details regarding the contents of "other stuff" used is considered proprietary information. We don't know exactly what is being pumped underground, until it finds its way in to ground water, and we discover such things as benzene, xylene, and toluene poisoning ground water.

The gas companies understand how the game is played, to be sure. In Bradford County, among other rural counties in northeastern PA, Chief Oil and Gas paid for improvements and repairs on 45 miles of rural roads, buckling under the pressure of the constant flow of heavy equipment. On their website, Chief insists "[s]ocial responsibility is a core value at Chief Oil & Gas", without ever mentioning pouring tons of known carcinogens, neuro-toxins, and other poisons in to the ground. This kind of thing, which should be understood as bribery rather than some corporate do-gooderism, is meant to head off any attempt at user fees and road taxes specifically targeted at the gas companies. Yesterday, an attempt by Democrats in the Pennsylvania State Senate to include impact fees died in Harrisburg. While this may have died, the gas companies know that regulation and taxation will continue to dog them; paying up-front for road repair is good PR, keeps their trucks from needing maintenance, and offers more land in relatively inaccessible areas to gas exploration.

This kind of public pay-off isn't the only thing the gas companies promise. The influx of money and interest from the gas companies, the promised payouts to land owners holding leases, many of which include not just land use and rental fees but also royalties, in an area of the country where "Depression" has defined much of its history seems an obvious way to keep voices of dissent from raising themselves too high.

Then there are jobs. Jobs at the rigs. Jobs in maintenance. Jobs in the front offices of local branches of out-of-state gas companies (many from Texas and Oklahoma and Colorado). And not just those jobs. All the new industry will need all sorts of support services, physical and economic infrastructure from hotels and gyms to restaurants and stores that will cater to new-found money and needs and desires.

Except most of the current jobs directly linked to the gas drilling are going to imported workers, experienced roughnecks from the gas and oil regions of Oklahoma and the Rockies, skilled trades people from home offices, geologists, hydrologists from home offices. . . Even diesel mechanics and truck repair personnel are imported. Why? It takes too long, apparently, to give the necessary training in the skills needed to get the wells up and producing to wait for locals. Much better, much cheaper, much more necessary to use people who know what they're doing.

Yesterday, I had a brief chat with Professor Jordan Kleiman on a mutual Facebook friend's status, and he mentioned an article (.pdf) by Cornell geologist Robert Howarth. Howarth was investigating the claims made by the natural gas industry that it is a "clean" energy, with a far smaller greenhouse gas footprint than coal when used for energy. In fact, even taking methane leakage in coal mining and production in to account, and considering hydraulic fracturing as the main means of natural gas extraction, there is little difference in the alleged "cleanliness" between coal mining (in particular, mountaintop-removal mining) and fracking for natural gas.

There is a problem with Howarth's study, however. The data available to researchers is scant at best. He admits up front that there may well be more comprehensive data available to the industry. If so, they aren't sharing. The gas industry jumped on this admitted limitation - any scientific study with more data is better, more precise, and more reliable - in a statement repudiating Howarth's study.

My own sense is that Howarth may well be correct, but more and better data, more and better and more thorough investigation of the overall impact of natural gas - from extraction through consumption - is needed to get a clearer picture. One thing Howarth's study does, however, is focus attention on the entire process of extracting natural resources and their overall impact on the environment, rather than the focus on the radical differences between burning coal and natural gas.

I have been paying attention to these matters in a somewhat desultory way, from a distance, ever since I learned of the gas boom and what it was doing, and the "more" it was promising to do for the area in which I grew up, where I still have families, and where I have very deep roots. Now that Gov. Cuomo is signalling lifting the ban on fracking in the name of economic benefit, it is important to ask serious questions of the gas industry, as well as local, county, and state officials who see dollar signs in the midst of economic malaise in the rest of the country. Not the least of these questions is what, exactly, is in the water pumped deep underground, beyond what we know from leakages at other sites around the country? Have there been hydrological surveys of underground water movements to judge where chemicals, once introduced, may move and how long such movements may take? Do we know what breaking up the deep substructure underlying such a large region of the country - the Marcellus Shale runs from my old neck of the woods down through Middle Appalachia - will do to the physical stability of the region?

What happens when the gas runs out and the companies and all their employees pack it up for the next hot spot? Will Tioga County and Tompkins County in New York, Bradford and Susquehanna Counties in Pennsylvania resemble parts of Nevada, Arizona, and Colorado that boomed during silver, copper, and iron mining, then died once the minerals disappeared, with tons of toxic waste poisoning the soil and water?

These are the questions. These are my fears. I have nothing against economic development, in particular for a place I love so much. The price, however, seems so steep, and the negative impacts - to the water and soil, to the local and county and state politics, to the global environment - have yet to be studied and understood in any thoroughgoing manner.

UPDATE: Is it possible for hydrofracking to undermine the stability of the surface? Well, it at seems possible, given this story out of Arkansas via Syracuse:
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Two natural gas companies agreed Friday to temporarily cease operations of injection wells in an area of central Arkansas that has seen more than 800 earthquakes during the past six months.

Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy and Clarita Operating of Little Rock said they would comply with the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission’s emergency request to stop all injection activities in Greenbrier- and Guy-area wells used to dispose of wastewater from production. The panel’s next regular meeting is March 29.

Geologists are studying a swarm of recent area quakes, most tiny, in an attempt to determine whether there is a connection between the seismic activity and gas-drilling companies’ work in the Fayetteville Shale formation. A 4.7-magnitude earthquake, the most powerful reported in the state in 35 years, struck near Greenbrier on Sunday night.

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