Economy and Society

Fracking in the Finger Lakes

The expansion of natural gas drilling in the Finger Lakes region of New York State poses a significant threat to vital water, land and air resources. Large scale, widespread drilling operations would permanently alter the landscape and cultural heritage of the region. The drilling and extraction processes, known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, are currently under review by the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). In the near future, DEC is expected to finalize regulations for the fracking industry and to begin processing new permit applications, amid plenty of controversy. Public comments on the proposed regulations, and accompanying Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, can be submitted to DEC through December 12, 2011.

Proponents of fracking assume that an inevitable economic boom will sweep through the region as soon as the first new wells are permitted. While some property owners have already entered into lucrative leases to their underground mineral rights, many others are being left out of the leasing bonanza, by choice or by chance. This is a map of Finger Lakes properties with gas leases (in pink):

The map does not indicate the number of new wells that could be sited in the region, but it is obvious that the gas industry anticipates a huge expansion of drilling in the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes. While a gas lease does not equal gas drilling, it is a necessary precursor.

Multi-well pad and horizontal drilling technologies enable a single well pad to produce gas across numerous surrounding leases. Beyond the 2-3 acre drilling sites, fracking requires an extensive network of pipelines, compressor stations and trucking routes. All of these fracking components pose distinct threats to human health and the environment in the region.

There are numerous documented examples of well water contamination from fracking operations. The issue is not the injection of fracking fluids deep underground. It is what happens to those toxic fluids once they are used up and pumped back to the surface. There have been reported instances of large quantities of untreated fracking fluids being discharged directly into streams. This blatantly illegal activity has led to some of the first fracking enforcement cases in Pennsylvania and other states.

In many instances, used fracking fluid is stored in crudely constructed surface retention ponds. These ponds are poorly designed — a thin layer of supposedly impervious material is the only barrier between the toxic waste and groundwater resources. As with any sanitary landfill, the “impervious” liner will inevitably deteriorate and leak, allowing the waste to leach directly into the ground where it may contaminate drinking water supplies. At some wastewater ponds, the evaporation process is accelerated by spraying the fluid into the air, creating a fine toxic mist that can be inhaled or re-deposited on nearby land. Contamination from leaking wastewater storage ponds poses a serious threat to public health. This primitive practice of storing spent fracking wastes in open air lagoons, which are subject to leaks, should be banned altogether. Instead, all wastewater must be recycled, or properly treated and disposed of.

Some companies are starting to use technologies to recycle the fluid, but many sites do not yet have this capability. Fracking fluid recycling should be a required practice under New York law (through regulation, permitting, etc.). When the fluid can no longer be recycled back into the process, it must be properly treated for safe disposal. This must be an essential regulatory requirement — it goes to the heart of the Clean Water Act’s goal of restoring and maintaining the chemical and biological integrity of our water. However, today nearly all municipal wastewater treatment plants in New York State are incapable of treating fracking wastewater to remove the toxic chemicals and radioactive isotopes. Municipalities simply do not have the huge sums of money needed to upgrade their treatment facilities. But these upgrades are necessary to responsibly address the fracking wastewater problem — they are necessary to prevent the significant degradation of water quality that would occur if inadequately treated fracking waste were discharged into local water bodies. Wastewater treatment costs should not be borne directly by the public, and in the current economic climate, they cannot be. Instead, the price of natural gas should reflect these costs, allowing the public (or “the market”) to weigh energy choices more rationally. Fracking should not be permitted in New York unless, and until, treatment capability and capacity are available.

The air quality impacts of fracking are also significant, but often overlooked. Some wells are causing remote areas in the western U.S. to flunk national ambient air quality standards for smog — areas where air quality was never before an issue. In addition to smog formation around well sites, many volatile organic compounds and other air toxins such as benzene are emitted from well pads and compressor stations. Some residents in Colorado have reported serious health issues associated with acute exposure to benzene and other hazardous air pollutants emitted from fracking operations. Modern leak detection and repair (LDAR) requirements should apply to well pads, compressor stations and along pipelines.

Natural gas is mostly methane, a potent greenhouse gas (GHG). It must be efficiently captured, or in other words, prevented from escaping from wells into the atmosphere. Flaring (burning off) excess gas converts the methane into carbon dioxide — this should only be permitted in rare circumstances. However, wells in the Bakken formation in North Dakota are routinely flaring up to 30 percent of the natural gas product, needlessly creating significant emissions of GHG. With natural gas prices so low due to an over-supplied market, gas companies are really after the much more valuable oil that is also mined from the fracking wells.

Clearly, this industry has raced ahead in a haphazard, irresponsible manner, trying to get as much gas out of the ground before comprehensive regulations are put in place. This is not the way to go. There is currently no reason to promote a rapid expansion of gas drilling in the Finger Lakes region right now. Given the record low prices of natural gas, the vastly over-supplied market does not need any new wells right now. We have plenty of time to continue to study and evaluate environmental impacts, and to craft common sense regulations that fully protect public health, before bringing the boom to the rolling vineyards of the Finger Lakes.

  • Michael Corey

    According to the American Petroleum Institute (API), hydraulic fracturing is regulated and has been in use since the 1940s in more than 1 million wells in the United States. Is the API information inaccurate or perhaps misleading? Are there good statistics on how many of these operations have had major environmental problems, the extent of them, and any remediation efforts that may have taken place? Are there any good statistics on how many of the current hydraulic fluid recovery systems are likely to fail and what the consequences are likely to be?

  • Erick Ihlenburg

    Hydraulic fracturing technology was patented by Halliburton in the 1940s. It has been in use since then, and many states have regulations for drilling operations. But the technology has changed a lot since then, and there is legitimate concern that state regulations are not adequate to protect human health and the environment, in light of more recent information and experience. More stringent regulatory requirements are often not enforced.

    Fracking technology has advanced considerably since it was first introduced. Perhaps the two most significant developments are mulit-well drilling pads (allowing for multiple wells to be drilled at a single drilling pad), and horizontal drilling (the well runs horizontally through the target formation, greatly increasing the amount of gas that may be produced from a well). Compared to conventional vertical wells, horizontal drilling requires much more fracking fluid in order to produce gas. 3-8 million gallons of fracking solution is necessary to open a single well, and that well may be re-fracked 10 or more times throughout its lifespan. Therefore, the quantity of fracking watse is far greater in horizontal drilling applications.

    As for regulation of hydro-fracking, I do not believe the current regulatory frameworks are adequate. In 2005, Congress specifically exempted fracking wells from the Safe Drinking Water Act, in what many refer to as the “Halliburton loophole.” Currently there are no federal regulations that apply to the various fracking processes, although EPA has proposed air quality standards and has committed to propose requirements for treating wastewater. In the meantime, we have a patchwork of state and local regulations that are not comprehensive and that are rarely enforced. States are playing catch-up with evolving industry practices, and lack adequate resources, information or political will to ensure that communities are protected.

    There is data that documents the numerous environmental impacts of fracking, but I’m not sure if any of it has been subjected to statistical analyses. EPA is in the middle of a large study that is expected to be finalized in 2014. NYSDEC just released its revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, which may be the most comprehensive assessment of fracking currently available. It’s over 1,500 pages long, and is accompanied by a 250 page socio-economic study. I haven’t been able to read all of it yet, but there is definitely some useful information there.

  • Michael Corey

    Thank you for the additional information. I’ve read a number of newspaper and magazine articles about hydraulic fracking. Only recently have I tried to understand the technology. Most of the articles dealt with what takes place underground. Few deal with the spent fracking fluids which appear to be more problematic than the extraction process itself.

  • Erick Ihlenburg

    Update: NY DEC has extended the public comment period to the close of business on January 11, 2012.

  • R.Unasi

    I guess the only issue we should be worried about is , spill over of fracturing chemicals spilling into the underground watershed or surface waterways. Most companies do not disclose the chemicals they use with water and sand to aid fracturing process. I think this regulation needs to be overturned to allow companies to disclose chemicals used (they say it is technology secret or some thing along that line). R. Unasi