Exploring the business of fracking…and how New York is at risk
By Emily Miles
Nobody saw it as a big deal,” John Vandermark said, his voice hardly wavering. “At the time, it was really just a year of college for my daughter.”
John Vandermark owns 175 acres of land in Montrose, a small rural town in northern Pennsylvania. Four years ago, Epsilon Land Services, a middleman land leasing company, leased Vandermark’s property for $50 an acre.
Vandermark didn’t realize it at the time, but it was a big deal. His land falls in the heart of the Marcellus Shale, a geographical region rich with natural gas. Only six months later, a multibillion-dollar corporation, Cabot Oil and Gas, purchased Vandermark’s lease from Epsilon for nearly $5,000 an acre.
Cabot, a company based out of Houston, Texas, plans to use Vandermark’s land to begin drilling for natural gas using a drilling method called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, also known as hydrofracking or fracking. This method involves injecting a high volume of chemically altered water into the earth to extract natural gas. This controversial method of extraction is in widespread use in Pennsylvania and is planned for use in New York, where dozens of oil companies are now racing to lease land and drill wells.
Yet as the fracking boom ensues, environmentalists are voicing serious environmental and health concerns about the practice. Oil companies and the government are beginning to feel the heat of increasing high-profile press coverage and national legislative battles. And amid the upper-level action, local rural communities are struggling to decipher a shockingly new influx of drilling, people and wealth.
Fighting to Regulate
In 2003, the EPA entered into a voluntary memorandum of agreement with the three largest hydraulic fracturing companies—Halliburton, BJ Services and Schlumberger—to eliminate diesel fuel from hydraulic fracturing fluids injected into certain wells located in underground sources of drinking water. Aside from this MOA, there is virtually no federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing.
Although the Safe Drinking Water Act regulates most forms of underground injection in order to protect drinking water sources, in 2005 Congress exempted the practice of hydraulic fracturing from the act, except when the injected fluids contain diesel fuel.
This is referred to as the “Halliburton Loophole.” Oil and gas companies can use additives and chemicals besides diesel fuel in their hydraulic fracturing fluids, but federal regulators have no authority to limit the types and volumes of these substances.
Indeed, oil and gas companies do not need to report to federal regulators what their fracturing fluids contain or where they are used. Since the exemption was enacted, hydraulic fracturing operations have been linked to contaminated drinking water in communities across the country.
National legislation to repeal the exemption has recently been introduced in both the House and Senate. Among other things, this legislation would require public disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids. In June 2009, Reps. Diana DeGette, John Salazar and Maurice Hinchey and Sens. Robert P. Casey Jr. and Chuck Schumer introduced the Fracking Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act. According to EarthWorks, the act is aimed at “closing the ‘Halliburton loophole’ and requiring the oil and gas industry to disclose the chemicals used in drilling projects.”
“In order to maintain the state of our state’s environment, it is everything we need,” said Hinchey of the FRAC Act. Hinchey is still fighting for passage, though he said he’s not against drilling.
“As long as it’s done safely, drilling will only bring benefits to the state of New York,” Hinchey said.
Though this act has yet to pass on a national level, the work of legislators in New York has halted drilling. Currently, corporations have been limited to merely making proposals and leasing land under a moratorium passed on Nov. 29. If passed by Gov. Paterson, the fracking legislation will be in place until May 15.
The Gas Rush
While drilling has yet to begin on Vandermark’s land, there are two wells planned “right next door,” both of which could reach into his property within the year. Vandermark said he welcomes it.
Vandermark said the New York moratorium means “more progress in Pennsylvania,” asserting that Pennsylvania’s drilling culture is thriving amid a modern-day gas rush. Vandermark has seen education, jobs, people and wealth increasing exponentially.
“It’s really a big boom to the area,” Vandermark said. “People don’t realize the amount of money spent here because of drilling.”
Vandermark explained that while only a couple of residents own mineral rights, those people “put all of their money back into the community.” With an influx of money, landowners are able to invest in businesses and outside labor, often offering jobs to community members. Vandermark was hasty to defend this pattern.
“If somebody hits it big with gas, then say they buy a new house. Well, somebody’s gotta build it, right? And the new car he buys? Well that comes from Montrose, too. And the landscaping work, too. It all goes back into the community.”
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the United States is the largest consumer of natural gas in the entire world. Its heavy reliance on the resource began during the industrial revolution and has been steadily increasing ever since.
In recent decades, new technologies have revealed easier and more effective methods of extracting natural gas from the earth, leading to an immediate spike in production. In 2009 alone, the United States added 27 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves, a 13 percent increase from the previous year. This was a staggering success for the energy industry and the US. government.
Even so, fracking, now seen as the most efficient method of natural gas extraction, has recently raised serious environmental and health concerns. Recent enhancements to gas well development technology, specifically fracking, and the proximity of high natural gas demand markets in New York, New Jersey and New England have led to an explosion of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region. However, to most long-time residents of Pennsylvania, the practice has become a cultural entity.
“It’s normal,” Vandermark said. “There’s been drilling around here since before I can remember.”
Vandermark’s land has been in his family since 1944; land leasing, drilling and mineral and oil rights have been part of life since he was a kid. According to John A. Harper of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Topographic and Geologic Survey, natural gas has been drilled in the state for more than 200 years. The first-ever natural gas well was drilled in Fredonia, N.Y. in 1821, and drilling soon spread down the Lake Erie shore. By the beginning of the twentieth century, he said, “Just about every backyard and manufacturing plant [along the Lake Erie shore] in Pennsylvania had at least one gas well that supplied the house with heat and light.”
Water, Water Everywhere
Fracking involves pumping large volumes of high-pressure water underground to create fractures in gas-bearing rock. When the rock formations are fractured, gas is released into the well. However, one innovation introduced with hydraulic fracturing is the addition of certain chemicals and propping materials to hold fractures open.
This method allows more gas to flow into the well than would naturally, so it is especially helpful for “tight” rocks like shale, making it the most practical and growing method used in the Marcellus Shale region.
This new method opened the door to the Marcellus Shale gas basin. Marcellus Shale is found in the Appalachian Plateau, a geographical region that stretches from New York to Tennessee, and has recently become the largest gas play in the country. Out of the six active gas shale basins in the United States, Marcellus is by far the largest and most productive. The region spans an area of 95,000 square miles—more than double the area of the remaining five shale regions combined—and produces at an astonishing rate of 3,100 cubic feet of gas per well per day.
According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, the natural gas resources in this region are estimated to offer 168 to 516 trillion cubic feet. To put this in perspective, New York state uses about 1.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year. The abundance of gas available in the region has started a gold rush of sorts in the American oil and gas industry.
Connecting the Chemicals
In the past five years, dozens of corporations based in Texas, Oklahoma and Wyoming have moved across the country to begin drilling in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Meanwhile, environmentalists have questioned the consequences of fracking because of evidence of water supply contamination and improper disposal of wastewater.
The hydraulic fracturing fluid typically contains compounds added to the water to make the process more effective. These may include a friction reducer to enable the movement of water; a biocide to prevent the growth of bacteria that would damage the well piping or clog the fractures; a gel to carry the proppant chemicals into the fractures; and various other agents to ensure that the proppant chemicals stay in the fractures and to prevent corrosion of the pipes in the well.
On a fracking site in Dimock, Penn., a sign stated that peak day consumptive water use was at 3.575 million gallons a day. According to the New York DEC, the department is still in the process of “assessing the chemical makeup of these additives and will ensure that all necessary safeguards and best practices are followed.”
Injecting the chemicals in or near sources of drinking water has proven to create contamination risks, and these fluids could also be a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act if they contain diesel fuel. The drilling companies offered information but neglected to include information on the disposal processes of their fracturing fluids and whether this is being done in an environmentally safe manner.
In late Oct. 2009, the House of Representatives agreed to include a statement in the Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill and the report for fiscal year 2010 urging the EPA to reassess the impact of fracking on water supplies.
However, according to Greg Oberley, an EPA groundwater specialist working in the western drilling states, the EPA currently plays no role in the monitoring of the environmental impacts of the process. In an interview with ProPublica in 2009, Oberley said, “We absolutely do not look at fracking under the Safe Water Drinking Act. It’s not done.”
So if the EPA is not looking at fracking, who is? The industry has developed such advanced technological processes that it is too complicated to even begin to test the fluids used. While many have tried, seeing as there is no legislation to enforce it, testing of fracking fluids is nearly impossible and often results in little agreement or acknowledgement from the industry.
Extreme cases of water contamination and waste spills have been reported in Dimock, the town bordering Vandermark’s property. More than a dozen spills have occurred in the past two years under Cabot’s leases. In the winter of 2008, drinking water in several homes was reported to contain methane and dangerous metals. In the spring of that year, the company was fined for other spills, including an 800-gallon diesel spill from a truck overturning.
In the fall of 2009, Cabot made national news: The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Conservation reported a series of spills over the course of two days in September. Due to faulty pipelines, 8,000 gallons of dangerous drilling fluids were spilled in the Dimock area. Since the incident, state and national regulatory agencies have moved Cabot into an area of necessary consideration.
Regardless of the accidents, some residents are unconvinced of the safety issues.
Vandermark, having experienced no side effects yet, still has faith in the practice. “I’m not really concerned with the water source,” Vandermark said, though he said he expected problems.
A major concern currently being raised in Montrose is that of leaking methane gas. The gas becomes extremely dangerous when it evaporates out of the water and into homes, where it can become flammable. It can also suffocate those who breathe it. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as the concentration of gas increases it can first cause headaches, then nausea, brain damage and eventually death.
In 2007, the ATSDR released a report on the chemical benzene, found in gasoline and diesel fuels, which is often added to fracking water. Benzene is listed as highly flammable and is “associated with leukemia, especially acute myelogenic leukemia.” Specific cases of leukemia have been cited in Western states where drilling has occurred for a decade or more.
“Whenever you have humans and machinery involved there’s gonna be problems,” Vandermark said, “But, are they gonna do the best they can to keep it clean? Yes, I think they will.”
A Clean Call for New York?
More and more often, reports of fracking malpractice are leaking to the surface, igniting fear in landowners and environmentalists alike. Activist organizations and local communities are beginning to take heed of environmentalists’ warnings and by questiong fracking on a large scale.
As the days pass for Gov. Paterson to sign the moratorium on drilling, New York is coming closer and closer to entering a red zone of fracking with the potential to threaten water, people and the environment.
Yet, amid the chaos and dispute, Vandermark is content in waiting.
“Change is pretty much a fact of life. I mean, things change,” Vandermark said plainly. “It may not always be good, but it always happens.”
Emily Miles is a sophomore journalism major who wants to stop you from going in for the drill. E-mail her at [email protected].