The Record-Review – The official newspaper of Bedford and Pound Ridge, New York

 

Marcellus Shale

As comment period ends, drilling may begin this year

By DON HEPPNER

As the end of the public comment period approaches on Jan. 11, drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale could begin in late 2012, according to Brian Sampson, of Unshackle Upstate.

“Our organization was formed in 2006 to unify the business community and taxpayer voices throughout the state,” Mr. Sampson said. “We are a collection of 80 different organizations including chambers of commerce and trade associations. We lobby on behalf of taxpayers and business in the upstate communities to make sure we can have regulations that are affordable and that promote economic development.”

The possibility to provide jobs for New York residents is very real, and drilling in the shale would be very safe, according to Mr. Sampson.

Opponents of natural gas drilling have found an ally in New York State Senator Greg Ball, who said that the drilling could happen this year. Mr. Ball is among those leading the fight for a one-year moratorium that would give necessary time to regulate drilling and ensure accountability on the part of the drilling companies.

In September, the Department of Environmental Conservation released its draft supplemental generic environmental impact statement, which could pave the way to allow drilling in the shale. The study states that horizontal natural gas drilling can be done safely, and that it could provide a much-needed economic boost to the region.

The DEC SGEIS discusses a number of widely publicized incidents involving high-volume hydraulic fracturing operations in Pennsylvania that have caused public concern about the safety and potential adverse impacts. The case studies describe the events and their likely causes, and explain how protective measures currently in place or proposed mitigation measures would minimize the risk of similar events occurring should hydrofracking be permitted in New York.

Mr. Ball said he is not so sure that these incidents could not happen here, and he said that time is needed to enact all the legislation and protections necessary to guard the aquifers against pollutants and protect private property.

The Marcellus Shale, located about 5,000 feet below the earth’s surface, could be a rich source of gas, and recovering that gas could mean jobs. Geologists estimate that the entire Marcellus Shale formation might contain up to 489 trillion cubic feet of natural gas throughout its entire extent. It is not yet known how much gas will be commercially recoverable from drilling in New York State, but putting that total amount of gas into context, all New York State residents and businesses use about 1.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year.

The DEC’s report included a socioeconomic analysis of the impact of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in the upstate region. According to the report, under an average development scenario of 1,652 horizontal and vertical wells per year, New York State would add 53,969 jobs during the peak employment years.

That figure includes direct employment growth in sectors such as mining and construction, as well as indirect growth in other sectors of the economy including retail, hotel and food services.

The DEC’s report states that the jobs created would be long term, since the development of New York’s natural gas resources is a long-term proposition that would be sustained for several decades, according to Mr. Sampson.
Mr. Ball acknowledged the possibility that permitting horizontal drilling in the Marcellus Shale could be economically beneficial, but he is concerned about a supposed boom in employment for New Yorkers.

“In legislation, we should demand that if there is going to be fracking it is going to be properly regulated, and we should demand that a large percentage of the employees hired to drill wells in New York should be New York residents and taxpayers,” he said. “The reason we should demand that New Yorkers are hired is because we have seen in other states an increase in economic activity, but many of the jobs created are for individuals that are imported and not residents of the states, because the industry hasn’t made a commitment to train the local workforce. We would want to change that.”

The environment is a concern for Mr. Ball, since he traveled to Pennsylvania and saw devastation of property created by drilling for gas.

“I have seen property ruined in Pennsylvania where the industry takes advantage of lax regulations and creates havoc in a way that we cannot allow to happen in New York State,” he said.

There is a need for comprehensive and far-reaching legislation to effect protections that are necessary to prevent disaster. “It is going to take some time for the community to come together and the legislative process to put together a bill that will hold the industry accountable in a way that hasn’t been done in any other state,” said Mr. Ball.

He said that some estimates state there are tens of thousands of pieces of property in upstate New York that are being tied down by property owners who are signing documents that they don’t understand.

“We want to address the issue and allow all these leases and contracts to be renegotiated with the proper disclaimers put in place to protect those property owners in a way that we haven’t seen in Pennsylvania,” Mr. Ball said.

He said that there is a loophole in the current New York law that allows gas companies to avoid certain taxes that are charged in Western states. “That is something that should be corrected,” Mr. Ball said. “Then there are a host of regulatory issues that include methods of disposing of well casings to the reimbursement of property values when the gas industry decimates properties.”

He said that there are “a thousand other issues” that need to be dealt with before drilling should be allowed in New York, including reimbursing families who lease their property to gas companies.

“The gas companies drilling in Pennsylvania are only required to reimburse that family for the fair market value according to the tax assessment, after a great deal of litigation,” Mr. Ball said.  

The assessed amount of the property is 30 to 40 percent of the actual value. “I want to demand that the gas companies drilling in New York would be under the ‘if you break it you fix it rule’ and that they pay 150 percent of the actual fair market value.”

Mr. Ball said that he wants to see gas companies forced to accept total liability for any contamination of the environment or a decrease in private property values.

The oil companies often give the reason for contamination as “naturally occurring” and not of their own making to get out of paying for damage done by methane.

The problem, Mr. Ball said, is that the methane is not naturally occurring, but many of the contaminants like strontium and radium are naturally occurring 2,000, 3,000 or 4,000 feet below the earth’s surface and don’t enter the water supply until the fracturing process creates a pathway for contamination.

“The industry will test for a host of chemicals, but they don’t test for the chemicals contained in the fracking fluid,” Mr. Ball said. “So the property owners can’t prove that it was the fracking chemicals that caused damage to the system, and they hide behind the ‘naturally occurring’ argument.”

One way to eliminate the naturally occurring argument would be to make known the chemicals used in fracking and then test for those chemicals. 

Mr. Ball said that he is optimistic about the possibility of holding drilling companies accountable for their actions. “We need to work together to get a bill that lays out extremely stringent regulations even though there seems to be a push to employ fracking as a job creator, but we must come together even if we disagree on some of the laws. We must get regulations in place,” he said. “If we don’t get this right, we are going to see the industry taking advantage of loopholes.”

Mr. Sampson said that drilling can be done safely. “There are two things that play into this,” Mr. Sampson said. “One is that New Yorkers have been hydrofracking for about 60 years, vertically, so horizontal will be a little new to New Yorkers, but given our high environmental standards in New York, we believe that the report that DEC put out is fair and it provides the environmental safeguards that we need.”

Some of the expertise in the gas drilling industry is going to come from out of state. “That will happen until we have New Yorkers that are trained in the latest technologies and advancements, and then they can step in and take on the long-term employment that exists around the wells,” Mr. Sampson said.

The secondary impact of allowing drilling would create jobs and benefit local communities in the area of hotels, restaurants, movie theaters and other business that are a part of the region.

“From our standpoint, New York State can do it right and do it better than the other states,” Mr. Sampson said.

He added that he believes the aquifers will be protected from any pollution, since the drilling that would be done would be far below any aquifer.

“I want to see real job creation for New Yorkers,” Mr. Ball said. “And I want to see a regulatory environment that won’t allow the destruction of private property. Because I have gone and I have seen it and I have talked to farmers and sportsmen, I know firsthand what is going on, and nobody can tell me otherwise. “I wish the governor would take half a day and visit these places in Pennsylvania firsthand. I believe in the genuine goodness of the governor, and I know if he saw the result of fracking firsthand, he would work hard to create the right regulatory environment, and the same thing for the other senators and assemblymen.”

Just as the debate over the Marcellus Shale is heating up, another source of natural gas, the Utica Shale, could continue the debate about hydrofracking and the environment with all the social and economic impacts that could affect the Bedford and Pound Ridge area, since the Utica Shale approaches both Pound Ridge and Bedford.

The Utica Shale is a rock unit located a few thousand feet below the Marcellus Shale. It also has the potential to become an enormous natural gas resource. The Utica Shale is thicker than the Marcellus, it is more geographically extensive and it has already proven its ability to support commercial production.

It is impossible to say at this time how large the Utica Shale resource might be, according to state officials, because it has not been thoroughly evaluated and there is little public information available about its organic content, the thickness of organic-rich intervals and how the Utica will respond to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. However, the results of early testing indicate that the Utica Shale could be a very significant resource.

Residents may provide comments on hydrofracking until Wednesday, Jan. 11. Visit www.dec.ny.gov/energy/46288.html.



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January 6, 2012