The debate over gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale heats up
By Jacquie Simone
As drilling companies are waiting to push water and chemicals into the ground through hydrofracking, activists are pushing back. Recently, community members have been speaking out against natural gas drilling in Tompkins County, fearing it will negatively affect the environment and possibly change the identity of Ithaca itself.
“Because of our environment, we’re not going to have a life if this happens,” said Ken Zeserson, the planning board chair for the Town of Ulysses.
Residents have an opportunity to voice their opinions regarding gas drilling, since they are now in the middle of the public comments period for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement. This 809-page document, released Sept. 30, explains the potential effects of hydraulic fracturing, a method in which millions of gallons of water and chemicals are pumped into the soil to release natural gas. The public hearing period, during which community members can submit comments to the DEC about the document, ends Dec. 31, an extension from the original deadline of Nov. 30.
Tompkins County is located on the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation stretching from New York to Tennessee that contains the largest natural gas reserves in the United States. The shale is about one mile underground, which previously meant that energy companies could not access the gas through conventional drilling methods. Last year, however, Gov. David Paterson signed a law allowing the shale to be tapped through two technologies called horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking.
Hydrofracking consists of forcing 2 million to 9 million gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals into the shale through a well at high pressure. This pressure fractures, or cracks, the shale and releases the gas trapped within it. About half of the fracking fluid remains in the ground, and the other half comes out of the well and must be disposed of as industrial waste. Each well can be fracked up to ten times.
Gas companies say this is the most efficient way of accessing gas reserves, but environmental and community activists have voiced their concerns about the impact on water supplies and land. The DEC’s preliminary tests show that hydrofracking can produce radioactive wastewater because of the combination of chemicals put in the ground. The Ithaca-based group Toxics Targeting has reported 270 instances of contamination in the last 30 years resulting from gas drilling, based on the state’s environmental data.
“They basically explode stone and turn it into gas, and they do it with chemicals,” Zeserson said. “It comes up later, with toxic materials from the earth that normally occur there and should stay there, like arsenic and radon. It’s a totally different type of drilling.”
In order to drill, energy companies must have property owners sign away their mineral rights through gas leases. Landowners who agree are paid, although the amounts vary from $15 to hundreds of dollars per acre. More than 2,500 gas leases have been signed in Tompkins County.
Zeserson is both a community official and a member of Shaleshock, a grassroots organization that began in Ithaca in August 2008 to raise awareness and opposition to hydrofracking. Shaleshock initially showed DVDs about drilling and held forums, then began to connect with town supervisors. The group currently has an e-mail list of about 120 people and has been focusing on encouraging people to speak out against hydrofracking during the DEC’s public comments period.
“A lot of us are trying to figure out how we comment on this thing intelligently so we can get noticed—the way the DEC comes out with its recommendations and how its work is going to permeate,” said Lisa Wright, who co-founded Shaleshock with Autumn Stoscheck and other community members.
Despite criticisms from Shaleshock and other community members, drilling companies say they consider hydrofracking an efficient, environmentally sound practice. Mark Scheuerman, the manager of government and media relations for the Elmira-based drilling company Fortuna Energy, Inc., said hydrofracking is an efficient method because it minimizes the aesthetic impact of drilling. Eight to 12 wells can be made off a single surface pad, the drilling area, which can range from five to 15 acres. He admitted that drilling requires 40 to 50 days of “intense industrial activity,” but after that time there will only be a small well apparatus visible. He also acknowledged that there have been several instances of hydrofracking negatively impacting the environment in other states, but he said New York’s strict regulations will prevent such problems in Tompkins County.
“We think those are isolated incidents that aren’t representative of the entire industry,” Scheureman said of the contamination of water supplies and other related environmental impacts.
Fortuna owns 23,000 natural gas leases in New York and Pennsylvania and has produced 65 percent to 70 percent of New York’s natural gas since 2002. Scheuerman said the company has had a positive relationship with communities where they operate drills. However, on Nov. 24, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced that Fortuna would have to pay the state $192,500 in a settlement with 312 landowners in the Southern Tier who claimed the company misled them and unfairly coerced them into signing drilling leases.
Scheuerman said natural gas drilling has a positive economic impact on landowners, state and local authorities and local businesses since gas companies pay taxes and service industries often come to drilling communities.
“It’s a terrific economic development opportunity for whatever state or states are able to participate,” Scheuerman said.
Environmental activists disagree and have expressed concerns that drilling companies will not take measures to protect the environment and affected communities. Helen Slottje, an environmental attorney in Tompkins County, criticized the DEC for lacking strict regulations for drilling companies during a Nov. 5 public meeting in Ithaca.
“There are very few ‘musts’ and lots and lots of ‘shoulds’ and the like,” Slottje said. “Which sort of leads to the question of, why have a Generic Environmental Impact Statement in the first place if the idea is to have standard rules and procedures for how you’re going to handle these permits, and then you decide you’re not going to have any standard rules or regulations?”
Scheureman said the DEC document does not provide specific enforcement measures because gas companies already must comply with state and federal laws that regulate wastewater treatment and other areas. He said over a third of Fortuna employees are dedicated to “compliance issues,” such as landowner issues, disposal requirements and well permits.
As the DEC finalizes its regulations for hydrofracking, the gas companies and activists are trying to make their opposing views known. Scheuerman said he thinks the Generic Environmental Impact Statement process is important but has taken too long. Shaleshock and other community members, however, are trying to make the most of the public comments period and held a Nov. 19 rally in the Commons, followed by a public hearing at the State Theater.
“It’s really important for people in our region to become educated about what all these issues are and how it could impact them,” Wright said.
Activists will not know until early next year whether the DEC will listen to their concerns and add stricter regulations on drilling companies. As they try to mobilize the community, they are unsure whether the sounds of their protests will soon be replaced by the sound of gas drilling.
Jacquie Simone is a junior journalism and politics major who is going to frack you up. E-mail her at [email protected].