You’ve probably seen the “No Fracking Way” signs around town and heard about hydrofracking here and there, but what exactly is hydrofracking? For those of you who don’t know, hydrofracking is a method of drilling in shale deposits underground. Natural gas accounts for 24% of New York State’s energy supply, and New York has very large underground shale deposits, such as the Marcellus Shale and the Utica Shale that are believed to hold large amounts of natural gas. Over geologic time, shale fractures naturally, creating small veins that can trap gas. Oil companies have been granted permits for small-scale drilling in New York in the past, but the legislature is currently reviewing draft legislations to allow larger scale drilling. Hydrofracking is the most commercially viable method of extracting natural gas, but it differs from traditional gas extraction in several important ways. When wells are drilled into the ground to collect gas or oil, they are typically only drilled vertically. With hydrofracking, the wellbore is rotated horizontally to capture more gas trapped in the shale, so it cuts into more fractures in the ground and more trapped compounds, in addition to natural gas, can be released. Hydrofracking also uses 50 times more fluid than horizontal drilling to access the faults, so it generates far more wastewater than regular drilling.
I attended a symposium the other day at the Environmental Law Society Energy Conference put on by Cornell Law School where six panelists spoke about their perspectives on hydrofracking and answered questions from the audience. Lou Alstadt, former vice president of Mobil Oil, believes that the activities of many oil companies is woefully unregulated. Walter Hang, President of Ithaca-based company Toxics Targeting, also believed that there were not adequate regulations in place to mitigate the impacts of fracking on the environment and public health. Michael Joy, a lawyer from Biltekoff and Joy lawfirm, and Dennis Holbrook, Vice President of Norse Energy, voiced support for the oil and gas industry and stated that they believe there is a lot of misinformation about the negative impacts of fracking and hypocrisy on the part of environmental groups. Mary Oswald, a researcher at Cornell, and Helen Slashay, a local attorney, said that gas leases are carefully drafted, but that the natural gas industry is exempted from many federal environmental statutes, and so it is important for local governments to draft best management plans and try to protect people and the environment from hydrofrackign harms.
One issue they addressed was if agricultural practices and hydrofracking can co-exist. Lou Alstadt stated that in Pennsylvania, 25% of farmers gave up farming to collect royalties from oil companies drilling in their fields. Unfortunately, this can fragment land and decrease soil fertility, making it less commercially viable for people to farm in the future. He emphasized that there is a need for companies to meet with farmers or landowners one on one to decide on a plan that could be right for them.
Another question posed was what the actual effects of hydrofracking on humans and the environment are. Michael Joy and Dennis Holbrook stated their beliefs that a lot of the information about negative impacts of hydrofracking was overstated or incorrect. The other speakers, however, emphasized that these impacts were very real and had already been encountered in Pennsylvania, where hydrofracking has been conducted on a larger scale. Due to the high volume of water needed for fracking, it produces massive quantities of wastewater with dissolved chemicals, toxic and volatile compounds, and even radioactive isotopes, which are a physical component of shale. These compounds are difficult to treat in most standard public wastewater treatment systems and can create huge problems when people use the water or it runs off into rivers. Mary Oswald also discussed the results of her study on the impacts of fracking on animal health. She said that in Pennsylvania there have been huge problems with wastewater from surface fracking leaking into pastures and groundwater sources. She said some of this wastewater has been spread on roads, causing dogs, cows, and other animals to die or lose their reproductive capabilities within several days. Some of these animals that are slaughtered end up as food and we ingest some of these toxins when we eat them.
One person asked how hydrofracking techniques could be improved to minimize environmental hazards or spills. Lou Alstadt stated that a lot of the problems with fracking occur when wells are under pressure, and there is a need to concentrate impacts in one place by the well to have fewer roads and pipelines so it is easier to manage impacts. He also believes there needs to be increased financial accountability for gas companies when problems occur. Walter Hang also voiced concern that state safety standards need to be improved to prevent these hazards from occurring.
A final question asked how companies that wish to conduct hydrofracking have been exempted from legislation. Michael Joy and Dennis Holbrook emphasized the fact that oil companies have to obtain permits to drill each well from various government agencies. However, Helen Slashay stated that there is not a good permit system in place for hydrofracking, and that we need to adopt a site-specific permitting system based on the geology of an area rather than have statewide regulations, in case an area has particularly high levels of toxic compounds in the shale. She also discussed how natural gas drilling was exempted from underground injection regulations in the Safe Drinking Water Act as part of the “Halliburton loophole” that was passed under the 2005 Energy Policy Act. The Halliburton Loophole is so-called because Dick Cheney was the former CEO of Halliburton, a company that does a lot of hydrofracking.
Based on the panel and what I have learned about the topic, I think hydrofracking sounds like a pretty bad idea in general. There is wide public dissent against fracking in New York State, and the Governor issued an Executive Order banning hydrofracking until July 1st, 2011. Based on the impacts of hydrofracking, I’m hoping that the public’s voice will be heard, and hydrofracking will continue to be banned in the future.