Ban Hydraulic Fracturing in New York Now
Mark Millett – Geology, Melanie Koerth – Environmental Science, James Sullivan – Environmental Science, Charles Lambert – Environmental Science
NATSCI 397A Professional Writing
Nine million New York City residents suddenly begin to feel sick. Some experience paralysis of the arms and legs, some get nauseous, some have convulsions, and others die. Mass hysteria ensues because no one can determine what is causing so many people to become ill. After the loss of numerous lives and billions of dollars, it is finally determined that contaminated drinking water is the culprit. Although this may seem like a scenario out of a science fiction novel, the possibility is real if hydrofracking is allowed in the state of New York.
According to Mooney (2011), hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) is a process that has been used since the 1940s, and involves pumping water, a mixture of toxic chemicals, and sand into the ground at high pressure. The injection causes the ground to crack, which allows the natural gas found within the rock to flow through the cracks, into the well, and back to the surface to be trapped and sold. He claims that this method has been combined with horizontal drilling, which allows companies to drill thousands of feet in a direction parallel to the Earth’s surface (Mooney, 2011, pp. 80-85). Using this process to exploit the vast reserve of natural gas beneath the state of New York is currently being considered. A recent study performed in 2013 by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research states that Western New York sits on top of a rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale. According to the report, this formation holds approximately 489 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
Currently, nearly nine millions residents in New York City rely on the Catskill-Delaware watersheds for drinking water. These watersheds are found on the northeast corner of the Marcellus shale formation, and supply drinking water that is so clean it does not require filtration. Incidents in places such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas have demonstrated that hydrofracking can lead to high levels of methane, toluene, barium, and benzene in drinking water. Due to the many dangers associated with hydraulic fracturing, it is clear that if it were allowed in New York, millions of residents would be put at risk. Because of this risk, it is necessary for the people of New York to work together to ensure that a law is passed that bans hydraulic fracking entirely.
Companies drilling for natural gas begin by concocting a trade secret recipe for the water and sand injected into the shale to lubricate extraction of the gas. Companies are not required by law to reveal their ingredients, however, some chemicals known to be used are harmless like coffee grounds, and others have been determined to be human carcinogens by the Clean Water Act. The water can also be contaminated by dissolved methane or brine after coming in contact with shale pores. (Chameides, 2013, Watewater Complicaton). Once the process of drilling is complete, the wastewater from hydraulic fracturing is contaminated by salts, heavy metals, and radioactive compounds and is very difficult to treat. Children are especially susceptible to side effects of exposure because of their under developed bodies, but even adults experience health complications
Once a contaminant has been exposed to groundwater, diffusion makes the particle extremely mobile and can easily migrate to drinking water supplies and sensitive ecosystems. A common route of contaminants is through leaching of nearby aquifers and mixing of either the brine water from the shale or a combination of brine and injection fluid. Injection shatters the rock in an unpredictable arrangement, and some of fractures can connect multiple groundwater resources, allowing contaminants to be transferred between them. These contaminates alter the delicate chemical balance of freshwater resources, which need to remain within tight parameters in order to support living organisms.
Contamination can also occur through faulty cementing, leaching of sludge from landfills, and inadequate filtration practices. Faulty cementing is the most common source of contamination, and by industry’s definition it is not part of fracking (Mooney, 2011). On the way down, any well has to pass through the near-surface layers that contain groundwater, and it could also pass through unknown pockets of gas. Drillers fill the gap between the gas pipe and the wall of the hole with concrete so that buoyant gas cannot rise up along the outside of the pipe and possibly seep into groundwater. A casing failure might also allow the chemical flowback water, propelled by the pressure released when the shale is cracked, to leak out.
When flowback water escapes, it leaks out into the groundwater surrounding the well. Water with high levels of dissolved methane, which can be classified as a toxin, also gets into the water table and drinking wells. In an ideal situation the concrete casings could be made so they would not leak, but “Although many regulations govern well cementing and although industry has strived to improve its practices, the problem may not be fully fixable. ‘A significant percentage of cement jobs will fail,’ Ingraffea says. ‘It will always be that way. It just goes with the territory’” (Mooney, 2011)
If wastewater does not escape or leak then it can be reused, injected into confined bedrock, or treated and filtered. Pennsylvania reuses 70% of the flow back from drillings, but that still leaves millions of gallons of water that needs to be disposed of. In his online National Geographic article, Bill Chameides sarcastically states that, “the injection process has the inconvenient habit of causing an earthquake every now and again” (Chameides, 2013, para.9). Because injection displaces bedrock, earthquakes have been recorded in many inland locations that had not experienced earthquakes previously. Buildings, infrastructure, and public safety are extremely vulnerable in areas that have not been fortified to withstand seismic activity, which is why storage by injection is an extremely risky way to dispose of the waste water. If the water cannot be hid away then it must be treated and filtered. Unfortunately, existing municipal treatment plants do not have the capacity to effectively remove the heavy metals and radioactive material that can be present, and plants designed for traditional oil extraction are not making the cut in accordance with the Clean Water Act.
Chameides (2013) cites a study from 2013 that sampled sediment downstream of Josephine Brine Treatment Facility in western Pennsylvania. The authors reported radium levels were two hundred times greater than background samples, and they recorded the presence of chloride and bromide compounds, which are carcinogenic when present together. Another study by Jackson et al. (2013), of the same watershed, found of 141 drinking water well samples, 82% of wells had methane contamination, and homes within 1 kilometer of gas wells had 6 times greater concentrations of methane. Jackson et al. (2013) concluded trace methane leaks were caused by steel well casing leaks or weaknesses in cement sealing in-between the casting and rock(Robert, 2013, Results and Discussion).
Unfortunately, water treatment plants designed for conventional oil industry waste water do not have the capability to sufficiently remove the radioactive and heavy metal contaminants. In addition to the inability to remove radioactive compounds, public sewage treatment plants accepting waste water are not required to test the water leaving their plants for radioactivity. The Ian Urbina (2011) of the New York Times reported that treatment plants are required to test water leaving their plant only once every six or nine years; only drinking-water facilities are federally required to test for radioactivity. After the review of 65 public sewage plants upstream of drinking-water facilities, Urbina (2011) found that the plants had not tested for radioactivity since 2008 and were accepting water with radioactivity levels more that 2,122 times higher than the drinking standard. Regulators have insisted that the levels are not dangerous because of dilution before the water reaches drinking water plants but federal and industry research has not supported those claims (Urbina, 2011, Little Testing for Radioactivity). Leigh Krietsch Boerner (2013) cited a study done by the University of Pittsburgh in her article for Chemical and Engineering News and concluded that radioactivity levels downstream of public treatment facilities had dropped after the plant stopped accepting fracking waste. The EPA standard for barium is 2 mg/L; downstream of the Green County plant, barium concentrations fell from 5.99 to 0.14 mg/L when fracking waste was no longer accepted by the plant (Boerner, 2013, para. 5-6). Further testing of water used directly as drinking water needs to be conducted to provide stronger correlations between contamination levels and fracking waste water. Even low concentrations can be dangerous because long term consumption can lead to chronic illness and children and individuals with suppressed immune systems are especially susceptible to impacts from contamination.
The monitoring of fracking sites is not only an issue during its operational lifespan, but also far after they have been shut down and abandoned. Abandoned gas wells are known to leak due to the deterioration of well casings, allowing for “depleted rock formations to repressurize with oil, gas and brines” (Bishop, 2013, p. 106), and it is estimated that well bores lose integrity 50 years after abandonment if left unmaintained (Bishop, 2013). If hydraulic fracturing was to be allowed in the state of New York, the already compromised regulatory system for monitoring and plugging old drilling sites would not be able to adequately maintain the integrity of all abandoned wells. Ronald E. Bishop (2013) claims that the state’s regulatory agencies already have issues accounting for the growing number of abandoned drilling sites, and their efforts to enforce well plugging laws have not kept pace with the number of oil and gas wells that need to be plugged. He (Bisop, 2013) states that in 1994 “of 48,000 abandoned oil and gas wells, 13,000 were plugged and approximately 35,000 were not” (p. 105), and the percentage of unplugged wells is only increasing with time (Bishop, 2013). According to Bishop (2013) The state agency tasked with tracking and plugging abandoned wells, the Bureau of Oil and Gas Permitting and Management (BOGPM), would have a bigger problem on their hands if hydraulic fracturing were to be allowed because shale gas projects typically are short-lived compared to oil and gas wells in conventional deposits.
Although the dangers of hydraulic fracturing are clear, the proponents argue that this process will bring significant economic benefits along with job growth. A report titled “The Economic Effects of Hydrofracturing on Local Economies: A Comparison of New York and Pennsylvania”, written by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in 2013, suggests that if this process was allowed, the income of residents in 28 counties that lie above the Marcellus Shale could increase by fifteen percent or more over a four year period. Additionally, the report used Pennsylvania, a state which currently allows hydrofracturing, to estimate the addition of between fifteen thousand and eighteen thousand jobs in southwestern New York counties alone, if drilling of the Marcellus Shale was allowed.
It seems that there is little question as to whether allowing hydrofracturing would bring a short term economic benefit to the residents of New York. The key point regarding this subject is that it is only short term, and the long-term costs will inevitably outweigh the immediate gains. Eaton (2013) cites that the residents of New York currently spend a combined amount of 53 million dollars a year to maintain a clean water supply. If hydrofracturing was allowed and led to water contamination, a system that filtered the water supplying to NYC would cost billions of dollars (Bryant, Veith, Kleinman, Gburek, 2008).
Not only would the addition of water filtration systems negate the financial gains of hydrofracturing, but the potential negative impacts on the health of local individuals would also lead to additional costs. As cited in Eaton’s (2012) article, the most prevalent public health risk related to air-quality in Colorado is the exposure to hydrocarbon carcinogens that have become airborne in areas within 0.8 Km of gas wells (McKenzie, Witter, Newman, Adgate, 2012). Additional health risks due to hydrofracturing considered in Timothy Eaton’s (2013) article include exposure to airborne particulates, degradation of water quality, light pollution, and industrial noise coming from drilling sites and stations with compressors (Colorado School of Public Health, 2011)(Lauver, 2012).
Aside from probable health risks, the negative impact on the environment would result in losses that cannot be evaluated in terms of finance. Eaton (2013) discusses the possibility of losing forest and agricultural landscape adjacent to the New York City water supply. It is projected that as many as 3.5 wells per Km2 will be built in some areas, and each well is likely to have a footprint about 2.8 ha. He states that each well will require up to 6600 truck access trips. Roads and operation sites will require the use of a compacted gravel substrate, which according to the article written by Eaton (2013), will lead to increase in the potential for stormwater runoff and erosion (Hazen and Sawyer, 2003).
A second argument made by supporters of hydrofracking in New York claim that this process will make accessible a significant amount of natural gas to locals and provide an eco-friendly fuel source that will lower the use of greenhouse gas contributors such as coal. According to Eaton (2013), when compared, burning coal does release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than burning natural gas at the point of combustion. Burning coal adds more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than other fossil fuels (U.S. Department of Energy, 2004), but this fact can be misleading because additional aspects need to be considered. According to Howarth, Santoro, Ingraffea (2011), and Shindell et al. (2009), who were cited in Eaton’s (2013) article, methane is the main component found in natural gas, and methane is a worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. He states that drilling for and transporting natural gas leads to many greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. One of the main processes that this occurs is through the emission of methane from the wellhead, both during, and after the drilling process has taken place (Eaton, 2013, pp.158-169).
The only way to completely avoid risks of hydraulic fracturing is by banning the practice in the state, and the most effective way of doing so is by creating and passing a law through state legislature. Attempts at banning fracking on a town level have seen success in the towns of Dryden and Middlefield, the legality of which has been upheld by state courts, but these decisions will likely be further appealed by gas exploration companies (Gruza, 2012). There is also currently a moratorium on fracking in the state of New York, instituted by former Governor Patterson and continued by Governer Andrew Cuomo, in place until the completion of a Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) issued by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (Rinfret, Cook, & Pautz, 2014). The New York DEC is not allowed to finalize its SGEIS until a study on the potential impacts of fracking on drinking water resources is completed by the U.S. EPA (Rinfret, Cook, & Pautz, 2014). The EPA (2011) states that the scope of the study does not include “air impacts, ecological effects, seismic risks, specific health impacts, public safety, and occupational risks” (p. 81) and it is noted that combining results of those potential studies would provide a more complete view of the potential impacts and risks of hydraulic fracturing on human health and the environment (Environmental Protection Agency, 2011). The moratorium on fracking will likely be lifted upon completion of an SGEIS that does not take into account the full scope of health and environmental risks of the practice unless the citizens of New York put pressure on state legislators to write and pass a complete ban into law. This law would not be subject to whims of future Governors, and would protect New York citizens from the inadequacy of a burdened regulatory system.
Over the course of human history, failing to prioritize long term goals over short term gains has led to more costly plans in order to correct those mistakes. Hydraulic fracturing is another chance to take a proactive approach to save future generations from cleaning up the mess left behind from contamination and increased greenhouse gas emissions. Although increasing production of natural gas extraction produces jobs, employment of a few thousand civilians does not stimulate the economy enough to outweigh the cost of contamination. If this industry is allowed to continue lives are literally at stake and the most effective route of conservation is the ban of extraction of natural gas by hydraulic fracturing. Many are compelled to believe that we need natural gas to wean this nation off fossil fuels, but extraction only throws gasoline on an already burning Earth.
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