What happens when gas drilling and organic agriculture collide? This series considers some of the issues. Posts are drawn from a 3-part series originally published in New York Organic News (NOFA-NY) in 2012. Research was supported with a grant from SEJ's Fund for Environmental Journalism.
|Bradford County, PA|
Healthy soil is vital for organic farming, but drilling and related activities can compromise soil health. Four years ago a nursery owner in Texas lost 500 oak seedlings when a pipeline used to transfer brine to an underground injection well leaked. Brine is the salty well waste fluid that flows out of shale after drilling. But there’s more than salt in brine; there’s also benzene, heavy metals and radioactive compounds. XTO Energy, the company responsible for the leak, ended up trucking more than 3,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil to a regulated landfill.
The shale oil rush in North Dakota has brought soil trouble to farmers, too. Like Marcellus, the Bakken shale must be fracked to release the hydrocarbons. Like shale gas wells, fracked oil shale wells produce briney waste fluids that must be hauled to underground injection wells. But recent data shows that a lot of that waste never makes it to regulated disposal sites – it is spilled or dumped along the way. Last year there were 1,000 “accidental releases” of waste fluids and additional unreported releases along the roads. These spills have sterilized acres of farmland. One spill alone covered 24 acres with 2 million gallons of brine. A year after remediation efforts, nothing grows on that land. Not even weeds.
Dimock, PA, famous for water contamination is now facing soil contamination. According to the July 7 Pennsylvania Bulletin, Cabot Oil and Gas will begin remediation efforts at one of their well sites. A study found the soil to be “impacted by VOCs (volatile organic chemicals), SVOCs (semi-volatile organic chemicals), metals, and ethylene glycol due to a release from the reserve pit and a release from the mud shelf.”
Leaking pipelines can impact crops, too. Methane and other hydrocarbons leaking into soil displace air, thus depleting the oxygen. That in turn can change soil pH, and influence the microbial habitat. The result is severe retardation of crop growth, and sometimes early senescence or death.
Air quality is becoming an issue in the gas fields. Rural areas of Wyoming and Utah have measured ozone levels as high as 125 to 140 parts per billion (ppb) – much higher than EPA’s standard of 75 ppb and exceeding the smog levels in Los Angeles. Down in the Texas Barnett shale ozone levels reach 135 ppb, and in Fort Worth gas drilling produces as much ground-level ozone as all the cars and trucks in the city.
Though we don’t have shale gas drilling, NY is not immune. Chautauqua County, home to about 6,000 gas wells, boasts the second highest ozone level in the state. Where is all this ozone coming from? Emissions from drilling pads, truck traffic servicing those pads, and the compressors and other equipment related to drilling. The Clean Air Act regulates ozone, but the oil and gas industry enjoys exemption from those regulations.
Up in the atmosphere ozone is beneficial, protecting the earth from harmful ultraviolet rays. But at ground level it’s a major pollutant, causing more damage to crops than all other air pollutants combined. Each year it’s responsible for an estimated $500 million reduction in crop yields – and that’s just in the United States.
Ozone is created by chemical reactions between nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight. It enters leaves through stomata during normal gas exchange, like oxygen, but is more reactive. It can cause spotting and bleaching of leaves, affecting plant growth, flowering, fruiting and yield. Ozone damage can make some crops unmarketable, as in the case of spotting on spinach leaves.
Grapes are particularly sensitive to ozone, says Art Hunt, owner of Hunt Country Vineyards on the north western shore of Keuka Lake. Before the Clean Air Act went into effect, air pollution caused spots on his leaves. That, in turn, affected vine growth, fruit ripening and yield. Large scale industrialized drilling, he says, could roll back the gains made from clean air regulations.
Ozone can also make crops more susceptible to pathogens and pests and, in the case of clover and other crops, retard root growth. For farmers, high ozone levels may mean lower nutritive value of their forage crops. It may alter how well herbicides work, promote the growth of perennial weeds and create opportunities for invasive species to move in.
Crops sensitive to ozone:
beans (string and snap),
grapes (wine and juice)
melons (cantaloupes and musk melons)
Ozone also affects grains, including wheat and rice, as well as tobacco, soybeans, alfalfa, sorghum and cotton.