What do the great dust bowl, T. Boone Pickens, Texas Law and the Ogallala Aquifer have to do with fracking in New York State?
By Susan Peehl
I first became aware of the energy industry’s intensified interest in drilling for natural gas when I tuned in for the 2008 Presidential Debates. As the program cut to a commercial, on came an 80-year-old man in casual clothes to introduce himself: I’m T. Boone Pickens, but you know me. I did know of him. It was the same T. Boone Pickens I’d read about six years earlier, when he’d secured the permit to pump billions of gallons from the Ogallala Aquifer the mythic body of water I’d first heard of as a child. As my dad had explained to me: A giant underground river, with an Indian name (OH-GA-LA-LA), supplied all of the High Plains states with water for irrigation and wells — including lands that had once been affected by the great dust bowl.
Under Texas law — the law of capture — whatever you can pump from your land is yours, regardless of how it affects your neighbors. Oilman and corporate raider, Pickens was negotiating to pump fast and supply the cities of El Paso and San Antonio with Ogallala water from his panhandle quail hunting grounds. I thought, but what of the farmers in the Midwest? Don’t other states have a say over this? Apparently not: As of this writing, Pickens is negotiating to supply water to Dallas, disregarding even his neighbors in the panhandle. So, while waiting for the deba
te, I stayed tuned to what Pickens had to say. When the candidates talk energy, listen closely. Listen for a plan that actually reduces foreign oil and remember the only way to reduce imports is to use something other than foreign oil to run our cars and trucks.
I caught the next commercial a few weeks later, when Pickens proposed the use of wind turbines as well as natural gas for his plan (which sounded uncharacteristically green, before I realized that the wind corridor would occupy the exact same right-of-way that Pickens has had difficulty obtaining for his water pipeline to Dallas.)
In 2009, I started seeing ads on Metro-North for cheap, natural gas as New York’s solution to the energy crisis. Odd, I
thought, as I’d just written up my report for Cold Spring’s comprehensive plan and was told by Central Hudson that supplying natural gas to the village would be anything but cheap. I went back to my research. Natural gas for our area of New York has to be piped in from Canada, Pennsylvania or Connecticut. It fluctuates, as Central Hudson buys from the market. Why is this? Because what we have underground has, until recently, been considered unobtainable. Two impediments have stood in the way:Ã‚ The first, inadequate technology and the second, legislation.
Amazingly, these two impediments have now been eliminated. Some of the same technological advances that have enabled deep sea drilling by British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico — horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic-fracturing, I’ll explain in a minute — have now made it possible for companies to extract natural gas from the Marcellus shale. Natural gas, formed as the result of decaying plant and animal matter under extreme pressure” extreme, meaning the result of tectonic plate movement — has been locked into Marcellus shale, 5,000 – 8,000 feet under the southern third of our state, since the formation of the continents. Now, there’s a race to burn it up cheaply, which brings me to the second impediment.
Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which, among other things, exempted the gas and oil industries’ technologies and chemical use from the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. What has come to be known as the Halliburton Loophole was the direct result of the closed-door energy task force meetings presided over by Dick Cheney, another oilman and quail hunter from Texas/Wyoming. (He moved during G.W. Bush’s presidential run because the Constitution forbids two people from the same state from running together, a clause — as I learned in high school meant to hinder any one state’s interests from dominating presidential policy. Hmmm.)
Now, while New Jersey is moving to ban natural gas drilling, all that stands in the way of drilling in New York are private landowners and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), which is even now fine-tuning the next draft of its Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement or SGEIS.
Arguments advanced by the natural gas industry for drilling, why they don’t hold water, and arguments against them
Pro: Clean energy. Caveat: Although the claim that natural gas in your home burns more cleanly than say, coal, this doesn’t take into account the filth of obtaining it, which involves drilling horizontally into the Marcellus Shale formation and hydraulically-fracturing or fracking pumping tons of fresh water at high pressure in combination with sand and a toxic brew of chemicals (the contents of which, by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, need never be revealed to the public) to rupture the shale and release the trapped gas.
Con: Toxic brews have been showing up in people’s wells and reservoirs and are affecting people’s health in parts of the country where this technology has been deployed. According to a recent Riverkeeper report:
In the past two years in Pennsylvania, state regulators have found that gas drilling using high-volume hydraulic fracturing has contaminated drinking water, polluted surface waters, polluted air, and contaminated soils. In Ohio inadequate well casing resulted in drinking water contamination and the explosion of a house. In Texas, state regulators found elevated levels of benzene and other toxics in neighborhoods with nearby gas compressors. In Wyoming, EPA has warned residents not to drink the water, and in Colorado, hundreds of spills have been reported as residents continue to investigate localized health impacts they feel are associated with nearby drilling operations.
Pro: Cheap. Natural gas typically costs about half the price of traditional fuels. Caveat: While drilling for natural gas is cheaper than relying on oil from overseas, which involves warring to obtain, the oil and gas industries are also subsidized by our taxes. If other resources were subsidized to that same degree, natural gas would not be cheaper. And where is the guarantee that natural gas won’t simply be exported to the highest bidder, as is oil?
Con: Natural Gas — primarily methane but also other gases — is dangerous and difficult to contain once dislodged. It can seep upward, causing explosions and tainting water supplies. See Josh Fox’s film, Gasland, and you can watch people from around the country set their tap water on fire.
Just last year, Cold Spring had to rely on New York City’s water supply when our own reservoir ran frighteningly low. So what affects New York City’s water can affect ours, and while the Catskill State Park is constitutionally off-limits for vertical drilling, portions of New York’s watershed are located outside of the designated park area, and (just as with pumping the Ogallala in Texas) there is nothing to prevent gas from being obtained horizontally from beneath parks or any other lands. Do we want fracking underneath the watershed?
Pro: Towns are being revitalized by the economic boom. Caveat: While jobs would be great and so would royalties, wouldn’t it also be comforting, progressive even — to think that our work and our booming abundance could be positively linked to our quality of life, our health and our water? And what happens after the boom? Superfund sites?
Con: Competing interests for fresh water and no plan for waste. Where are the 2.4 – 7.8 million gallons of fresh water per fracking going come from? And where are they going to go when roughly only half of the waste remains in the ground while the rest comes back to the surface? As many as 16 wells can be drilled per square mile, and each well can be re-fracked up to 10 times.
Another Con: Ill preparation for accidents and disasters: On April 19, 2011, less than one year after the BP Gulf oil spill, a catastrophic blowout of a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well in Leroy, PA, resulted in a release of thousands of gallons of hydro-fracking fluid, much of which spilled into the nearby Towanda Creek. Of the three companies to request permits, none are from New York and only one has an office in the state. We need only look to our neighbors in Pennsylvania to understand the significance of what that means when there is an explosion or fire. They’ve waited over 10 hours for help from Texas to put out the flames.
Pro: Solution to the energy crisis. Caveat: This is a stopgap measure because, like oil, natural gas cannot be replenished. And what of the risks?
Con: Burning fossil fuels affects our climate. Isn’t it ironic that the more fossil fuels we burn, the more extreme our weather becomes, and the more extreme our weather becomes, the more fossil fuels we need to combat it?
Pro: Economic gains. This argument isn’t being put forward by the industry to all New Yorkers. It’s being directed towards investors, and it’s why I started with the question I did. The companies requesting permits stand to make a lot of money as fast as they can pump. Their interests aren’t tied to the land, or to the water; nor are their interests tied to neighboring lands or parks. Their interests are in exploiting what’s under the ground for the purpose of profit; so it is with their shareholders and so it is with the Wall Street community. In fact, stocks in the natural gas sector are predicted to be the next big investment opportunity.
Guess whose second largest holding in his portfolio is the parent company (Chesapeake Energy) of one of the three companies (Chesapeake Appalachia, LLC, Fortuna Energy, Inc., and Vertical Resources, Inc.) to have requested permits to drill in New York’s Marcellus Shale Formation? Hint.
Caveat: What’s in it for the rest of us to offset our risks? Shall we invest? What of those individuals who would sell their land rights? Would they be informed? Would they be compromised by this economy so that they’d have to sell? Would they even consider their neighbors’ interests and futures?
What do the great dust bowl, T. Boone Pickens, Texas Law and the Ogallala Aquifer have to do with fracking in New York State? T. Boone Pickens and the promotion of drilling as the solution to a crisis, with high-stakes profit margins as the primary motivation. Do we want these interests to rule our water? Do we want to absorb all the risks for certain individuals, a few companies and their shareholders’ benefits? Who really stands to gain from drilling in NY’s Marcellus Shale?
We DO have a say in this. In the month of August, a 60-day comment period will begin for we, the public, to weigh in on what we think about opening up our state to horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing. I intend to make a comment. Will you?
I’ll follow up with information as it’s released, when the comment period begins.
Photos courtesy of U.S. Energy Department