Tuesday, April 26, 2011

An Economic Perspective

During the April 1-2 Environmental Law Conference up at Cornell, professor of city and regional planning Susan Christopherson provided some economic perspective to the Marcellus Shale discussion. "Drilling affects everything in a community," she said, listing topics from traffic to housing to community health.

“There are so many uncertainties,” Christopherson said. “We don’t know what all the risks are, or who will bear them.” What we do know is that the roads will be heavily impacted by the increased traffic.

Shale drilling is driven by the market. The industry is debt-driven and looking for commercially viable wells and that will determine where they drill and how long they remain in a locality. Like the financial services, shale drilling is “a speculative bubble,” Christopherson said, “but one with serious environmental consequences.”

Drilling impacts are driven by the pace and scale of development. “We should plan for a short-term intensive boom/bust cycle, as well as the impact of building an infrastructure to get their [gas] product to market,” Christopherson said. She said municipal and state officials need to think beyond the well pad and consider cumulative impacts of industrialized drilling activity.

“There will be increased public safety costs,” Christopherson said, pointing to the correlation between the need for more police and shale gas drilling. Other community impacts include increased costs for health and education services, and increased demand on public administrative services such as permitting and zoning officers, and an increased need for environmental remediation and monitoring.

Communities that don’t experience drilling may still feel the impacts. Ithaca will see increased truck traffic, and Watkins Glen is already seeing development of an industrial site for storing liquefied gas and petroleum products. There will be more, she said: pipelines, man camps, water withdrawal sites, compressor stations, truck depots, rail spurs and “trucks, trucks, trucks!”

The big question: are we prepared for the bust? “It will surely come,” Christopherson warned, “because once the gas is gone, it is gone.” And the rural areas will be the ones hardest hit by the boom/bust cycle. The increased housing costs will push out traditional residents; the demand for truck drivers will push the cost of milk production higher as farmers compete with gas companies for drivers.

Resource extraction works against diversity in local economies, driving out small businesses that do not cater to the gas industry. Tourism, in particular, depends on availability of lodging and restaurants. There will be increased economic inequality, Christopherson said.

But communities can take steps to minimize these cumulative impacts. The most important thing, Christopherson said, is to slow the pace of development. That will allow communities to absorb and spread out the impacts. Communities also need to cooperate with each other. Christopherson also challenged the state to take the lead by establishing policy that regulates and monitors the gas industry. The state needs more transparency, too, regarding where drilling happens and when and where spills and incidents occur.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Another Earth Day, Another Blowout

Last year it was a BP rig in the Gulf of Mexico. This year it was a Chesapeake well in Bradford County, PA. April 20 is becoming a dangerous time for people living in the drill zone; let's hope it doesn't become an annual tradition.

photo by Frank Finan
Late Tuesday night a well near Canton, PA blew out during a fracking operation. Thousands of gallons of frack fluid poured out of the well, across a farmer's field and into Towanda Creek, which eventually spills into the Susquehanna River. The PA Department of Environmental Protection wasn't notified until the wee hours of Wednesday morning (April 20) and no one bothered to notify the cattle - or the farmer - until later in the day, though a crew did put up some barbed-wire fence in a hurry. Still, there's no telling cattle to stay away from the salty toxic waste....

Farming in the drill zone is tough. Just ask Carol French and Carolyn Knapp, two Bradford County dairy farmers who recently traveled to Brooktondale to talk about the rural impacts of industrialized drilling. One farmer had to sell his cattle after drillers sited a well behind the barn, cutting off access to his fields. His return on the drilling investment: $400/month in royalties and contaminated water.

Then there's the matter of forking over a few more pennies per hundredweight so the milk haulers won't bail out to drive trucks for the gas companies. And it's not just PA - NY dairy farmers are being hit by the added expense as well. And sawdust .... French says that with drillers buying up all the local supplies of sawdust (they mix it with drill cuttings before sending them to a landfill) she's resorted to grinding feed for bedding.

"Industrialized drilling affects everything," Knapp said.The shale shale play is huge and, gas companies point out, they expect to be producing gas for the next 30 to 50 years. Given the impacts on agriculture, both women wonder how long they can keep on farming.

"Not a day goes by that we don't discuss when we'll have to leave the farm," Knapp said. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

DEP to Drillers: Stop Sending Waste Fluid to Wastewater Treatment Plants

Today acting Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary Michael Krancer called on all Marcellus Shale drilling operators to stop delivering waste fluids to the wastewater treatment facilities that currently accept it. He gives them one month – until May 19 – to honor this request.

The reason? Right now the wastewater treatment facilities that are accepting drilling wastes are grandfathered in under special provisions of last year’s Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) regulations. But “conditions have changed since implementation of the TDS regulations,” Krancer said. He pointed to more scientific data, improved technology and “increased voluntary wastewater recycling by industry” as reasons for no longer needing to dispose of drilling wastes through the public treatment facilities.

Twice in his remarks to the press Krancer alluded to the previous administration’s choice to allow wastewater treatment plants that had historically accepted drilling wastewater to continue to accept it, as long as they did not increase their input load of wastewater.

But more than half of those facilities are up for permit renewal. “Now is the time to take action to end this practice,” Krancer told the press.

The 2010 revised regulations require publicly owned treatment works and centralized waste treatment facilities to treat new or increased discharges of TDS to more stringent standards. Removing TDS from water also removes bromides.

Recent surface water sampling has found elevated levels of bromide in rivers in the Western portion of the state, where the majority of natural gas drilling is taking place. Bromide, itself non-toxic, turns into a combination of potentially unsafe compounds called Total Trihalomethanes once it is combined with chlorine for disinfection at water treatment facilities.

“There are several possible sources for bromide other than shale drilling wastewater,” Krancer said. He believes that if wastewater treatment plants stop accepting drilling waste the bromide concentrations would “quickly and significantly decrease.”

You can read the DEP press release here.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Gas Drilling, Sustainability, Energy Policy

More than 500 scientists, environmental attorneys, gas industry representatives and others, some from as far as Colorado and Texas, participated in the Cornell Environmental Law Society’s energy conference held April 1 – 2. This year’s conference focused on gas drilling, sustainability and energy policy.

Ben Tettlebuam, second-year law student and conference organizer, opened the conference by asking that people from all sides of the issue look for common ground - or at least listen to what each other has to say in a respectful manner. During a pre-conference discussion with some of the speakers it became clear that finding common ground could be more difficult than anticipated.

Too often the issue is presented as a choice between gas and coal, said Bill Podulka. Podulka, who chairs Residents Opposing Unsafe Shale-gas Extraction (ROUSE), would like to see the conversation about drilling expanded.  In the ten or twenty or even thirty years it takes to fully develop the Marcellus shale, we could be developing renewable energy sources, he says.

Bill Podulka, ROUSE chairman
“There is a misperception that these technologies aren’t ready,” Podulka said. He noted that off-the-shelf technologies exist for wind and solar that, if implemented now, could provide up to 15 percent of this country’s energy needs.

“The problem is where the capital comes from. Right now the money is being invested in gas,” Podulka said. “Government investment in alternatives would buy us a healthier society.”

“I categorically deny that” interjected Michael Joy, an attorney who represents and promotes gas industry interests through the Independent Oil and Gas Association of NY (IOGA-NY). Gas, he stressed, needs to be part of whatever “energy suite” policy makers consider. Renewables might potentially contribute 2 to 10 percent of energy needs, but the big stumbling block is lack of storage.

Norse Energy Vice President Dennis Holbrook seconded that, explaining that as attractive as renewable energy looks, it just isn’t reliable enough for companies to add to their energy portfolios. Battery storage is the problem, he said. Even with government subsidies it will take decades before those energy sources become reliable. Holbrook admitted that his company is heavily invested in gas, drilling into the Herkimer sandstone beneath Madison and Chenango counties. “But we’re not drilling for Marcellus,” he said. “And we’re not fracking.”  

One of the overarching issues throughout the conference was the impact of drilling on land use. Cornell engineering professor Tony Ingraffea noted that while NY has a long history of drilling, the industrialized nature of unconventional drilling is significant. “The first 1,000 high-volume hydro-fracked wells will consume more water than all the previous wells drilled in the state,” he said.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Compressor Station Video

At the recent Cornell Environmental Law Society conference on "Gas Drilling, Sustainability and Energy Policy" it was made very clear that "fracking" is only part of the equation. Along with the drilling and exponential increase in truck traffic, communities will see a lot of infrastructure development. That means pipelines and compressor stations.

If you don't have compressors in your area, here's a video tour to acquaint you.
Thanks to videographer Scott Cannon for posting this video on You Tube. If the video doesn't work, you can link to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ww2Dpw7dEHQ&feature=youtu.be

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Gas Money & Policy

No two ways about it: the guy with the most money gets heard in Albany (or Harrisburg or DC or….) and now Common Cause/NY has the numbers to prove it. On Thursday, Common Cause released a new report showing that gas industry and special interest groups outspent environmental groups by 4 to one on issues relating to drilling and hydrofracking. Those lobbying against the moratorium bills shelled out $2.87 million, while those supporting the NY moratorium spent around $725,650.

“This underscores the need for the public to monitor the states; decision-making process,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY. Furthermore, she added, “it raises serious questions about our elected officials’ ability to remain independent and impartial.”

Common Cause decided to focus their study on the lobbying efforts aimed at the two bills calling for a moratorium on fracking. Over the past couple years they have noted a “precipitous rise in industry lobbying”. Chesapeake Appalachia, the nation’s second largest producer of gas, was the biggest advocate of fracking, spending $1.1 million last year. By comparison the largest environmental group, Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment, spent $159,230 last year.

Not only does the gas industry have vast resources at their disposal, they focus their spending on gas extraction legislation. In contrast, the environmental groups lobby on a diversity of issues. So the voice of the Lorax pretty much gets drowned out by the heavy trucks of the industry.

from Common Cause/NY
Industry lobbying by the numbers
Money spent by just four groups: Chesapeake, Fortuna, the Williams companies and IOGA-NY)
  • 2005 – just over $200,000
  • 2006 – just under $200,000
  • 2007 – just under $200,000
  • 2008 – just under $400,000
  • 2009 – about $1.2 million
  • 2010 – about $1.5 million
from Common Cause/NY
A couple years ago Assemblyman Gary Finch (Dist. 123) dropped in on a citizen discussion of gas at the Spencer Grange. Although the citizens seemed to know enough to discuss such things as “closed-loop systems” and the costs versus benefits of various compulsory integration options, it was imminently clear that our elected official was not up to speed on the issue. He had barely cracked open the book and was still negotiating the table of contents…

But that hadn’t stopped him from opening his door to gas industry lobbyists. Apparently our elected official forgot exactly who was shelling out hard-earned sheckles (we’re not rich, here) to pay his salary, for he said: the gas industry lobbyists are in Albany every day. If you want your voices heard, you need to come to Albany too. (Gary – remind us why we are paying you to “represent” us?)  
Our state’s policies regarding hydrofracking and industrialized drilling will have a profound impact on our future. How do we ensure that they keep the people’s interest at heart?

Monday, April 4, 2011

Is "Environmentally Friendly Drilling" an Oxymoron?

There’s a growing list of technologies that gas drilling companies could implement to reduce their impact on the environment: using closed loop systems instead of frack pits, drilling multiple wells per site, using biodegradable fracking chemicals, and using valves to capture fugitive methane instead of venting, flaring or allowing it to leak into the atmosphere.

But does “lowering environmental impact” automatically make a technology “green”? Does it make it “environmentally friendly”? Dr. Richard Haut, founder and senior research scientist at Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC), thinks so, and he recently visited Cornell to promote his ideas.

“Industry has already adopted safety as a core value,” Haut said. So why can’t industry adopt “environmentally friendly drilling” as a core value, he asks?

Probably because, as Haut put it in the very next breath, extracting energy requires trade-offs. Still, drilling companies should consider such issues as land use, biodiversity fragmentation and ways to protect water sources, Haut said. He listed a number of specific problems that drillers need to face: water withdrawal during droughts, coastal issues, and impacts of urban drilling on noise and air quality.

As far as Haut is concerned, drilling is coming and the only question is how to minimize the damage. Right now about 50 percent of all wells drilled into shale, tight gas and coal-bed methane formations use hydro-fracking, he says. In 2035 that number will rise to 75 percent.

In the context of industrialized gas drilling, Haut says, “environmentally friendly” has come to mean “developing energy resources in a manner that minimizes impact on the environment”. And he thinks one way to help industry get there is to institute an “Environmental Friendly Scorecard”. Imagine something similar to the required nutrition labels found on packages of chips and the sides of cereal boxes – or the scorecard for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification developed by the US Green Building Council.

Drillers using Haut’s scorecard could gain points by reducing impacts in six areas: air, water, well site, waste management, biodiversity and habitat, and social structure. To get water credits, a driller would have to file an acceptable storm water management plan, conduct integrity testing of cement casings, increase setbacks from streams and water sources (though Haut didn’t specify any distances) and reduce their water use.

Haut’s use of “environmentally friendly drilling” to describe the reduced impacts of an industrialized activity that is, by it’s nature, anything but “environmentally friendly” left some people seeing any color but green.

“To say that drilling companies just have to “do it right” is an admission that the thousands of shale gas wells already made, and those underway now, are not being “done right”, says Cornell engineering professor Tony Ingraffea.

And that EFD scorecard? “Just a way to “greenwash” gas extraction,” says activist Hilary Acton.

You can read about Haut's ideas at his website.