Monday, November 16, 2015

Can You Hear the People Speak?

The people of Candor value their small town atmosphere. On a sunny day you can walk around the Village in less than an hour – including pauses to enjoy the views of the river, listen to birds, or stop by the farmer’s market to buy locally grown produce and locally crafted wares. It’s the sort of town where “children are cherished and raised to be good citizens, where businesses are responsible to their neighborhoods, where government is responsive to its citizenry and where neighbors strive to maintain the civility that a rural life requires.”

It is the sort of town that seeks to balance a “logical and efficient use” of natural resources with the desire to protect open space, historical sites, agricultural soils, and the aquifer which supplies everyone with fresh water.

At least it was until last week. On November 10 the town board voted to radically change wording of the proposed update to the Town Comprehensive Plan, the document that will guide development for the next decade or so. Prior to the board meeting, town supervisor Bob Riggs called the chairman of the planning board Art Cacciola into his office and insisted that language in the comprehensive plan be changed to specifically include development of oil and gas resources and, in particular, express support for the technology of fracking.

Cacciola explained that the plan needs to be generic and not that specific, as no one knows what technology will be available in the future. He also explained that the plan did not specifically name any natural resources, as advised by the Executive Director of the NY Planning Federation. Furthermore, Cacciola said, “the Executive Director said we should not include anything in the plan which is currently illegal, such as fracking.”

Apparently the town supervisor is as immune to common sense and sound advice as he is to comments from the public. That evening, after inserting his own language into the Comprehensive Plan, Riggs asked the town board to approve the newer, frackier version supporting gas extraction. [He also told Cacciola that he’d no longer be chairman of the planning board and asked for his resignation. Cacciola declined and intends to serve out his term.]

Later in the evening Riggs used the new, fracked-up version of the Comprehensive Plan to justify approval of a resolution supporting the industrialized drilling and LPG fracking of a well in the town of Barton.

Just as happened at the October town board meeting, a majority of the people who showed up to comment were against the gas-fracking resolution. “It was clear that the public comments were just for show,” said one person (who asked not to be identified). “They knew they were going to vote for the resolution.”

“My biggest concern,” said the Candor resident, “is the vast amount of scientific evidence that this activity (industrialized gas drilling and fracking) is dangerous to human health and the environment. Our town board is not seriously considering that evidence. I feel that we’re being railroaded by people who have made up their minds and are not willing to look at new research.”

And herein lies the problem. Many of those who spoke against the fracking resolution are the same age as the children of the town board members. They are the young people who are buying homes and farms in town, who are coming back to raise families of their own. They want a safe, healthy place for their children to grow up, like the town they knew. And no one is listening to them.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Abandoned Wells are NOT a sign of "Responsible Gas Drilling"

One of the arguments from the pro-drilling faction in my town and surrounding region is that "gas drillers are good neighbors". If you are on the receiving end of lease money, it may seem that way - even if you have to put up with the inconvenience of a wellpad on your best pasture or some contamination in your water supply. They're certainly good neighbors if you're a truck driver or run a gravel mining operation. And I know some hard-working people have earned good money working for them.

An abandoned, unplugged well in PA
But when the going gets tough, some of these drilling companies cut and run - leaving thousands of abandoned wells that need to be plugged. And who picks up the bill? We do. The taxpayers. We pay the cost of plugging wells long after the drillers have pocketed their profits.

So what's the problem with these wells? If they are not properly plugged, they provide pathways for methane to travel into the atmosphere, adding greenhouse gases to an already growing climate catastrophe. They also provide pathways for chemicals and methane to flow from a current well into groundwater or drinking water wells.

This is the problem:
graphic from NPR article  

There are thousands of abandoned and unplugged wells, and drillers - and state regulators - don't know where they are. Back in 2012, the PA Department of Environmental Protection estimated there were about 200,000 abandoned wells - and that was before companies started drilling in the Marcellus.

This isn't just a Marcellus Shale problem; Alberta faces a growing number of abandoned wells. When the price of oil or gas declines, the companies just walk away - leaving the government to clean up after them. Alberta does have an "orphaned well" fund that helps cover the cost but - especially with deeper wells - remediating a site can cost up to $1 million and take 10 years. Responsible drillers don't do that to their neighbors.

Wyoming is facing the same problem, now that the gas boom is going bust. They've got more than 4,000 methane-bed gas wells to locate and plug - because the companies who drilled the wells up and left.  Granted, coalbed-methane wells are shallow, and only cost around $10,000 apiece to plug - but that adds up to $30 million - and, say regulators, the newer wells are deeper and cost tens of thousands more to plug. Once again, corporations pocket the profit and leave the public with the cleaning tab. Responsible drillers don't do that to their neighbors.

Despite evidence that drilling contributes to impacts to public health, including low birth weights premature births, and increased hospitalizations of people living near drilling sites; decreased  air quality (even if you live hundreds of miles away from the actual drilling site), potential human-induced seismic activity, and decreased water quality, the Candor town board is convinced that "everyone" in town wants to be fracked. They fully intend to pass a resolution supporting gas-fracking at their November 10 board meeting.

The proposed well isn't in our town, one board  member pointedly told someone during a previous meeting, so why are we all upset? (Maybe because air and water contamination don't respect town boundaries?) On the other hand, the proposed well isn't in our town, so why is our town board so headstrong adamant about passing this resolution? Could it have something to do with the old-boy network? Or the fact that our town supervisor traveled to Harrisburg, PA a couple days ago to meet with Pennsylvania lawmakers about how our town can secede from NY?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

New Study shows Methane from Fracking Sites can flow to Abandoned Wells

USGS photo/ public domain ~ Fracking site on Marcellus Shale in PA

Last week the University of Vermont released a new study showing that methane from active fracking sites can escape through faults that connect to preexisting, abandoned oils and gas wells. The study, to be published in Water Resources Research on October 20, showed that methane release measured at abandoned wells near fracking sites can be significant but did not investigate how the process occurs.

In August, the EPA proposed measures that would cut methane and VOC emissions from the oil and natural gas industry and clarify permitting requirements. These regulations would help combat climate change, reduce air pollution that harms public health, and clarify Clean Air Act permitting requirements for the oil and natural gas industry, says EPA.

Since then, the industry has been hotly debating the proposed regulations on limiting release of methane during fracking operations. That debate, says James Montague, an environmental engineering doctoral student at the University of Vermont who co-wrote the paper, “needs to take into account the system that fracking operations are frequently part of, which includes a network of abandoned wells that can effectively pipeline methane to the surface.”

The researchers studied an area in New York state underlain by the Marcellus Shale formation, which had been fracked until a ban went into effect in the state in the summer of 2015. They used a mathematical model to predict the likelihood that the hydraulically induced fractures of a randomly placed new well would connect to an existing wellbore, putting that probability between .03 percent and 3 percent.

Since then, industry-sponsored information published vastly increased assumptions about the area impacted by a set of six to eight fracking wells known as a well pad - to two square miles -- increasing the probabilities cited in the paper by a factor of 10 or more.

Not all abandoned wells provide a pathway to surface for methane. But given the large number of abandoned wells, even a small percentage can potentially pose an environmental risk. You can read their abstract here.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Health Professionals Release Compendium of Studies on Risks of Fracking

Here's a great resource for someone who wants a list of health studies related to unconventional drilling. A few days ago the Concerned Health Professionals of NY and the Physicians for Social Responsibility released their third edition of the Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking (Unconventional Gas and Oil Extraction).

 "The Compendium," say the authors, "succinctly summarizes key studies and other findings relevant to the ongoing public debate about unconventional methods of oil and gas extraction." It will be useful for people who want to "grasp the scope of the information about both public health and safety concerns and the economic realities of fracking that frame these concerns." For those who want to delve deeper, there are plenty of references to reviews, studies, and articles. Readers wanting more can dive into this fully searchable citation database of peer-reviewed journal articles pertaining to shale gas and oil extraction housed over at PSE Healthy Energy.

The report highlights health risks ranging from air and water pollution as well as risks associate with a newly emerging problem: leakage of methane and other toxic gases from compressors, pipelines, and other infrastructure.

In a letter to NY governor Andrew Cuomo and NY Dept. of Health commissioner Howard A. Zucker, the authors of the study note that more than 100 new peer-reviewed studies on the impacts of drilling and fracking have been published since New York’s high volume fracking ban was announced in December 2014.

They state that the evidence compiled in their report makes clear that residents of New York (and other places) are at risk from gas infrastructure projects. "As with hydrofracking, the evidence available to date confirms that New York’s DOH and DEC were right to note the potential for harmful air impacts, environmental impacts, and other risks from infrastructure," they write. "Compressor stations and pipelines are both major sources of air pollutants, including benzene and formaldehyde, that create serious health risks for those living nearby while offering little or no offsetting economic benefits."

Compressor stations in particular, are pretty much permanent facilities that pollute the air 24 hours a day with emissions and noise.  The health professionals cite particular concerns over a maintenance procedure known as "blowdown", which can last for hours, releasing plumes of gas into the air. These have been associated with short term effects such as nosebleeds, burning eyes and throat, skin irritation, and headache, and the health professionals are concerned about long-term effects such as asthma, heart disease, neurological effects and cancers.

The authors of the Compendium noted, in their comments to the press, that "the pace at which new studies and information are emerging has rapidly accelerated in the past year and a half: in the first few months of 2014, more studies were published on the health effects of fracking than in 2011 and 2012 combined." More than 80 percent of the available studies on the impacts of shale gas development have been published since January 2013, they say. In 2014, 192 peer-reviewed studies on the impacts of fracking were published, and in the first six months of 2015, another 103 studies appeared. "Given the rapidly expanding body of evidence related to the harms and risks of unconventional oil and gas extraction, we plan to continue revising and updating the Compendium approximately every six months," say the authors, noting that the studies cited in this third edition are current through July 31 of this year.

So, who funds this Compendium project? No one. The group states that the Compendium is written "utilizing the benefit of the experience and expertise of numerous health professionals and scientists who have been involved in this issue for years."

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Gas Fracking Resolution Provides Opportunity for Civic Involvement

In a previous blog I mention that my little town, famous for being the "small town in mass society" is hopping on the bandwagon to support gas-fracking. In their August meeting they proposed adoption of a  resolution to support a private corporation in another town to drill a well and frack it with highly explosive propane. (You can read all about how they were spoon-fed that resolution by a representative of the party the resolution benefits - all on that earlier blog).

I am not the only one who thinks this move to adopt a pro-fracking resolution smacks of politicking. Others do, too - and on Tuesday October 13, they plan to submit a letter to the town board telling why they are not only fed up with this political nonsense, but also enumerating the ways that fracking with gas will NOT solve the issues of health, safety, contamination, etc that the "pro-gas-frac" contingent wants us to believe. (note: update 10/12 re: Van Etten does NOT pass this resolution. see below)

After years of scientific study, the DEC determined that high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing is not healthy to children and other living things. They back that up with a report released by the NY State Dept. of Health.

"LPG/ propane gel fracturing warrants the same extensive review before our community condones the use of technology," say the citizens. Propane/LPG fracking isn't the "safe and proven technology" that our town board would like it to be. The People would prefer that our town board remain neutral until DEC has a chance to study the matter, and then comment at the appropriate time, and within their given expertise.

Furthermore, our town already has a "pro-drilling" resolution on tap. And this particular resolution isn't so much about pro-drilling as it is about supporting a group in another town to do something that may or may not be allowed.


While the surface talk is all about how gas-fracking is "green" or "more environmentally friendly", remember that the decision to ban HVHF was not just based on the use of mass quantities of water, but also on:
IF you live in Candor, and you would like to sign on to the letter that asks the town board to NOT pass the resolution, you may contact beccarodomskybish[at]gmail[dot]com.

UPDATE: It sounds like one local community is passing on the resolution. Last Thursday the Van Etten town board voted to NOT approve this same resolution. A Van Etten resident who attended that meeting gives her town board credit, saying that they "asked to hear from residents before they voted," and that they decided to NOT pass the resolution "citing unwillingness to stir up the divisiveness of the 2012 election."