Plan for Hydro-Fracture Drilling for Unconventional Natural Gas in Upstate New York

New York State is about to approve Hydro-Fracture Drilling permits for Upstate New York in the area of the Marcellus Shale. There is a major concern about the impact on waste water containing many toxic chemicals, including areas near NYC drinking water reserviors.

Here's a slideshow of some of the key images. I'll have more on this as information becomes available. Kudos to WNYC and ProPublica for uncovering this in a great example of investigative journalism.

Here a transcript of one of the reports:

NEW YORK, NY July 22, 2008 —The Marcellus Shale is what industry people call an unconventional play. It’s loaded with natural gas, from Eastern Ohio to the Catskill Mountains. But the gas is very hard to extract. It’s packed tight 7,000 feet deep.

Today, with energy prices at record highs, extracting that gas looks to be affordable, and energy companies and landowners are lining up to reap profits potentially worth billions.

But WNYC has learned in a joint investigation with ProPublica – a non-profit investigative news organization – that New York state regulators have been actively promoting the safety of a practice that has caused environmental damage elsewhere. And they may not be ready to handle the regulatory complexities. WNYC’s Ilya Marritz has the story.

REPORTER: For over a decade, gas companies have been intensively tapping unconventional plays in western states like Colorado. Drill rigs have brought a lot of wealth, but at the same time they’ve dredged up a host of environmental problems – contaminating water supplies and drying up aquifers.

The culprit is a practice called hydraulic fracturing. It’s never been done much in New York. But it’s the only way to get gas out of the Marcellus Shale. Basically the driller blasts the bottom of the well shaft with water, sand, and chemicals, under very high pressure in order to free up the gas. Hydrofracking demands a huge amount of water of water – up to six million gallons per well.

KAPPELL: How are you gonna dispose of that water?

REPORTER: Bill Kappell works for the U.S. Geological Survey. He says there are serious questions that have to be answered,

KAPPELL: It's going to be a learning process. How are you going to treat that water so you can properly dispose of it without despoiling the water resources of New York State?

REPORTER: The US Department of Energy considers the waste water that is produced in gas drilling some of the most toxic of all industrial byproducts. Kappell is particularly concerned about the chemicals used – he doesn’t even know what they are.

KAPPELL: Nothing. They’re proprietary; they’re particular to the company. They don’t have to divulge it.

REPORTER: But in sworn testimony before Congress last fall, environmental health analyst Dr. Theo Colburn – an opponent of drilling - said she was able to obtain a list of one fracking chemicals to be used in Colorado drilling. She says there were 171 substances on the list, and that 92 percent of them had health effects ranging from sinus irritation to reproductive organ damage.

All this has just landed on the desk of Bradley Field, the Director of Mineral Resources and a career employee at the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. It’s his job to consider new applications for drilling permits.

FIELD: Based on what we have in front of us now, we don't expect to see any permits being issued for horizontal Marcellus well until, it could be mid- to late fall.

REPORTER: WNYC and ProPublica found Brad Field and his agency unable to answer many questions. Given that the federal government exempts disclosure of the chemicals used in drilling – will New York State demand disclosure?

FIELD: We'd have to take a look. I can’t say for sure right now.

REPORTER: Why not require full disclosure?

FIELD: Because it would be a departure from how we typically do this. So I just want to make sure that what we ask for is something we can look at and be sure of. So I haven’t really come to terms with that just yet. We’re still in looking into it phase.

REPORTER: Field says a few treatment plants in Pennsylvania would probably take the waste water from drilling. But four private waste treatment plants we spoke with say they are close to capacity already. Could municipal treatment plants also accept waste water?

FIELD: I don't really know right now. I’d say that as this development starts, that that’s an issue that’s going to be addressed. I'm not up on municipal treatment plants in New York, and what they can or cannot take or at what volumes.

REPORTER: If no one except the gas company knows what’s in the fluids, how can the public be sure that even treated waste water is safe?

Following our interview, DEC said it had sent out letters to interested energy companies requesting detailed information about chemical additives. But the agency still has not made it a requirement.

Near the source of the Delaware River in the Catskill Mountains sits the picturesque town of Walton. A few miles to the west, the stream widens into reservoir that holds drinking water for New York City. And 7,000 feet below all of this, there’s natural gas.

One pleasant evening last month, a couple hundred citizens gathered in Walton’s old movie theater. For three hours, they listened as community activists from Western States shared their experiences of gas drilling. A slide projector showed aerial photographs of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. Well pads dotted the landscape right up to the horizon, like dabs of calamine lotion. Longtime resident Jill Morrison told the audience the drills didn’t just extract gas, they spoiled drinking wells.

MORRISON: Now people are dealing with groundwater contamination from the chemicals used in the drilling process.

REPORTER: Afterwards, Laurie Spaeth from Colchester, New York - also in the New York City watershed - said her thinking about drilling had completely changed since she and her husband were first approached about leasing their acres a few months ago.

SPAETH: When we first got phone call and letter, it sounded like it had possibilities. And the more I searched and the more I learned, the more I thought there is absolutely no way that you can ever make enough money from this to pay for the damages.

REPORTER: But the while Spaeth is worried, the DEC has been vouching for the industry, reassuring legislators that hydraulic fracking is safe.

On May 29th, as the legislative session was winding down, the DEC was pushing a bill through the legislature to get the gas drilling process started. Brad Field gave a reassuring pitch to state legislators. In a PowerPoint slide presentation later supplied to ProPublica and WNYC, the DEC declared:

“Adequate state regulatory programs already in place.”

And the agency entrusted with protecting New York’s environment put a slide on the screen that read:

“All oil and gas states surveyed. Not one instance of drinking water contamination in over one million frac jobs.”

Brad Field:

FIELD: That was a survey taken by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission of the states that do hydraulic fracturing and that statement was made in testimony.

MARRITZ: Is that true?

FIELD: That's what he said. So.

REPORTER: After our interview, the DEC said a 2002 EPA study was actually the source. But state regulators in New Mexico have compiled hundreds of instances of groundwater contamination resulting from gas and oil drilling. In Colorado, an industry watchdog group has gathered evidence of contamination in 300 cases. And in the Barnett Shale in Texas - the formation geologists consider most similar to the Marcellus Shale - the state has overseen the cleanup of radioactive material dredged up at hundreds of gas drill sites.

That information was not presented to legislators. Republican Clifford Crouch is an Assemblyman from Binghamton who saw the PowerPoint.

CROUCH: I was much more reassured of what was going on after seeing the presentation, yes.

REPORTER: On the last day of session, June 23, the gas well spacing bill was passed - along with a dozens of other bills. Democratic Queens Assemblywoman Toby Ann Stavisky says she - and most of her colleagues – first heard about DEC’s bill just hours before they voted on it.

STAVISKY: Why didn’t I have more information was my first reaction because it’s very detailed scientific language. What’s going to happen to the environment, to the air quality, noise pollution, what about pipelines?

REPORTER: But the DEC’s Val Washington rejects the idea that the bill would speed things up. She says the state has 13,000 conventional wells pumping gas right now, with no instances of groundwater contamination.

WASHINGTON: If there’s any doubt in anybody’s mind about we’re going to proceed with these applications without full consideration and protection of the environment, they’re just wrong. This is not New Mexico, this is not Colorado, this is New York.

REPORTER: New York does have a lot more environmental regulations than some other states – a point Tom West is eager to make. He’s an energy industry lobbyist who spoke with the DEC as it was writing this bill. He says there was a healthy back-and-forth between the agency and the companies he represents.

WEST: The byproduct was a compromise which is very common in the legislative process that’s acceptable to industry, acceptable to the department, acceptable to some of the other stakeholder groups.

REPORTER: West estimates gas companies are ready to spend a billion dollars or more on infrastructure investments in upstate New York.

WEST: I can’t think of any other example where an industry is willing to come in to New York State and spend that kind of money developing local resources, without asking for a handout. The oil and gas industry is doing this on their own. They’re asking for a regulatory environment that makes it work.

REPORTER: Environmental groups are dismayed. The Sierra Club’s Roger Downs says the DEC is enabling industry, when it should be planning for all the hundreds of things that can go wrong when a company receives a permit to drill.

DOWNS: Every step of the way there are problems and there are chemical solutions to those problems. So if you get a shaft stuck in the well, how do you get it out? Well there are certain lubricants you use. Are those lubricants safe?

REPORTER: Almost all the city’s drinking water comes from reservoirs on the Marcellus Shale’s Western edge – like the one near Walton. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection is known as a fierce guardian of those waters. Yet so far it has issued only a perfunctory statement, saying it’s committed to protecting drinking water.

The DEC in Albany says it still hasn’t managed to get together with the city to discuss.

FIELD: We’ve had some extensive phone tag and vacations and whatnot but no, we haven’t exactly yet. No.

REPORTER: DEC’s bill to streamline permitting in the Marcellus Shale in on the Governor’s desk. He has until Wednesday to sign it.

For WNYC, I’m Ilya Marritz.

If anyone has any expertise on this type of drilling technique, please offer your thoughts in the comments section.


Here's today's page 1 story in the Albany Times Union about the new drilling bill which the Governor must sign (or veto) today. The bill fast tracks permits and also halves the distance from property lines, buildings and water sources that well heads can be drilled to less than 400 feet.

Thanks for posting this. My friends down in Walton, Hancock, Franklin, Deposit and Cooperstown are doing a fair bit of agitating about this. One sent me the text of the piece but it was good to hear it. The DEC sound even dopier in person than on paper.

I recently posted short blog entry containing a link to Catskill Mountainkeepers who have excellent resources on hydrofracking and what it means. The more I learn the more horrifying the information becomes. I wasn't aware before the piece you posted of the tremendous water resources needed and that the EPA considers hydrofracking waste water among the most toxic industrial effluents!

New Yorkers, please call Governor Patterson's office and request a veto of Bill A10526.

Is it any wonder that Bush's EPA couldn't find the contaminated wells that the State of New Mexico found hundreds of? Perhaps the next Attorney General will choose to enforce the law so we have honest reports from the EPA again.

Here's another link, to Hancock Gas Lease, cited in today's Times-Union story.

(edit) I had some shale gas charts and discussion posted here about shale in general (not just New York) so I moved them to the Drumbeat.
About the water problem, I've read that it could be a limiting factor on how far shale recovery can go. But I think the drilling/EROI problem (see my Drumbeat comment) is a more pressing limit.

I live in Albany NY and have a pretty high level of awareness on this issue. The article and interview posted above were atrocities of one-sided, hit-job journalism. The Times-Union should be deeply ashamed to have published such a poorly researched article. This is a good story that needs to be told, but not in the way it was done in this article.

A few major points:

There is a lot of excitement over the Marcellus Shale in NY and leases are going for record amounts. Both finding a good source of water for the frack jobs and disposing of the water are significant issues that are being discussed every day in both the NYS DEC and in industry. The discussion has moved way beyond the issues raised in this article. Most of the people in the areas where the drilling will occur are very excited about it becasue it is bringing jobs and huge amounts of money to an economically depressed area.

One problem with the article is that no one from industry and hardly anyone from government were interviewed so only the viewpoints of environmentalists who have an automatic anti-drilling agenda were heard. I am sure they mean well but they are woefully misinformed on some key issues and their deep mistrust of government and industry is never balanced by the other side.

The article makes it sound like the DEC is just doing the bidding of industry without regard to the environment. Nothing could be further from the case. The NYS DEC does a great job. We have some of the most stringent environmental regulations in the country. Brad Field is a smart, stand-up guy who is dedicated to making regulations that will allow gas drilling and production to proceed only if there is no harm to the environment. It is his job to protect the environment and he would be fired if he did not do that. Many companies don'w want to work in NY because the DEC has so many more environmental regulations than other States.

There are many factual errors in the article. The article says the Marcellus is 9000 feet deep and that there is no experience with deep wells in NY. The Marcellus is one of the shallowest drilling targets in the State. It outcrops near Albany and along the Heldeberg escarpment south of Lake Ontario. The deepest it gets is about 6000 feet. there are many wells currently producing high rates of gas that are more than 10,000 feet deep in NY. The gas is not in pockets, most of it is in very small pores in the shale.

The article says that it is not possible to inject the frack water into deeper formations in NY and PA. I do not know why they would say this. I think it is being injected in PA currently and no one has even tried in NY. The article suggests that the water will simply be discharged onto the surface because it can't be injected. That is absurd and will never happen. What I hear is that companies are looking into cleaning up and reusing the frack water which would solve both the problem of where the water will come from and how to dispose of it. For some reason this is not mentioned in the article.

Companies will need to get permits to both obtain the water and dispose of the water and this will be closely monitored. this is not mentioned either.

It should also be understood that while many who work for oil companies are not great friends of the environment, no one wants to poison drinking water. this is bad because it is wrong but it also makes very poor buisiness sense. These companies want to make money and discharging toxic substances into the environment is a very poor business decision as it will end up costing many times more to clean it up than it would to dispose of it properly. They know they will be caught here because the DEC is pretty rigorous in their inspections and there are a lot of concerned citizens.

The article makes it sound like frack water causes cancer but provides no actual evidence that this is true. Read it closely though and you will see that it is an tricky linking of unrelated incidents that helps the writer arrive at this position. A woman in Colorado thought that she got cancer from a nearby well that was fracked (this is not substantiated and no more info is given). So a scientist went to a place where a truck carrying frack water was in an accident and found traces of Benzene there which might cause cancer. Therefore we should all worry that anyone who is anywhere near any of these wells will get cancer. That is outrageous and really shoddy journalism. I am disappointed to see it reposted here. But this is how it works. Someone writes a crappy article about it and pretty soon everyone is convinced that they are going to get cancer from drilling for shale gas.

just my two cents, but as a person who cares about the future of the planet I hate to see resources and anger focused on the wrong things.

So you have no idea what they are going to do with the frack water but it's all going to be alright. Good luck to you. I see a superfund site in your future that the taxpayers (you) will have to pay to clean up. Or just live with.

I frac for one of the major service companies and it is very sad to see how misinformed they are. You only use 6 million gal of water if you do a WaterFrac, a type of frac where you pump at high rate and very low prop (sand) concentration. In that case you only add two chemicals to the water, a friction reducer and a clay stabilizer, both very harmless.
I would imagine they would go for a multi layer frac development in a these shallow wells (7,000 ft is shallow!!), using a normal water based guar frac fluid. In that case you would use more additives, like oxidizers, surfactants, cross linkers and while I don't suggest you eat them for lunch, then they are approved for using in the North Sea and can safely be handled on location and separated when flowing the well.

NB: It is frac and NOT Frack!

Why the assumptions that A)the industry will create a superfund site and b)that the NYS DEC will allow that to happen? These fracks are done twice a day in the Fort Worth Basin in the Barnett Shale and I have not heard anything a bout a superfund site there. No company wants that on their hands. Times have changed. 50 years ago industry did make a lot of messes. That is why we now have the DEC. None of the current superfund sites in NY that I know of were created in the last thirty years. It is good to be vigilant on these matters and I want a clean State. I also like my gas range and my water heater and we have to get the gas from somewhere. Why not keep the money here at home?

great posts. I liken the ignorant component of the environmental movement to the dogmatic religious right.

I find your lack of distrust disturbing. You're not even curious what they're going to do with the frack water. Don't get me wrong, I am 100% in favor of drilling in your backyard. I was absolutely in favor of drilling everywhere until I moved to Santa Barbara and learned for myself what all those environmental regulations and agencies are worth. I guess everyone has to learn for themselves. Well good luck to you. The circus is going to come to town, spill their toxic waste all over and leave. Extraction companies have a track record you can look at if you care.

I might trust these companies if they put the entire remediation costs in a bond before they started. Otherwise, no way in hell.

After the last seven years, I can't believe anyone is still using the argument that private companies would never do anything illegal because it would cost them money long term. That's a laugher by itself.

In theory they post a bond for the remediation costs. In practice, the bond is nowhere near what cleaning their mess will cost. They pay themselves huge salaries and dividends and when the resource runs out, they just declare bankruptcy. See Asarco.

I live in NY in the Marcellus shale area and attended a meeting last week put on by the NY DEC. That's Department of Environmental Conservation, keep that in mind. I went in a bit naive it turns out as I had assumed they would give a reasonably balanced view. This is a rural area of small farmers and very low suburban population. It began with long boring introductions and the next hour plus consisted of five officials propounding on how wonderful the whole thing is. Not a single negative that I recall. They even used gas company lingo with words like "play" and such. Additionally that hour was also quite boring with repetitious info and a really crappy powerpoint type presentation. At one point excitement was created when someone got up between speakers and for about a minute spoke on things the officials weren't telling us. Some booing and a bit of clapping. At which point someone asked a state policeman to come down and stand behind the speakers with his arms crossed. Yikes a small show of force. The speaker following, the last one to speak, was particularly full of oil company speak. He trailed off into almost mumbling blather toward the end.

Next came a break and people could write their questions on cards and they would select them for the next hour. They read them and almost all were answered by one speaker. As in the first hour plus no questions from the audience were allowed. And during the answers this did not allow any real follow up on their answers. I saw utter boredom settling in and at least 60% of the people left during this time. It came to me that this was the plan. It was likely arranged this way to allow as little "disturbance" as possible. They did not finish with the card questions and finally it was time for the people to directly ask questions. There were some good ones but this was a weekday night and I could tell most were just ready to go home.

Some things I think I got after this meeting:
The officials had no idea what the chemicals are that are added to the water. Only some "soft" guesses. Maybe they would test the toxic frac water that would be treated in Pennsylvania ????
A total of 19 employees in the entire department (I assume the 5 speakers were of that 19) to oversee all leasing, inspecting, etc of the entire state of NY.
If 60% of the property owners in a "unit" choose to have this drilling occur, the rest have no choice. It will come under their land too. A unit was 640 acres, and is concocted by the gas companies. This is being changed to 40 - 640 acre units.
I thought we the tax payers paid the salaries of the DEC, whoops I guess we do but someone else gives a better bonus.

To trust our DEC is basically to trust the gas companies. And somehow trusting them to Environmental Conservation goes way beyond naive.

I am not really getting what your problem is with the DEC. Units were made so that people didn't drill way more wells than necessary. If you are an environmentalist, then you should be FOR units. Back in the old days, you could lease a half an acre and start drilling and try to drain all of the surrounding land. This led to a hundred wells being drilled where ten well placed wells would have effectively drained the reservoir. The DEC wants to see the gas produced with the least number of wells so there is as little surface disruption as possible. Does that sound bad to you?

You are calling it toxic frac water but do you know if it is toxic? For all I know it could be but I would like to see some evidence that is the case.

I suggest trying to get more facts before forming an opinion.

The DEC is a little short staffed as NY had a relatively small oil and gas industry prior to the Marcellus play. That will change with all this activity.

I think the article is basically wrong. This is a 2004 Government Study that shows that there have been virtually no problems with water quality, in the nearly 60 years that hydro-fracturing has been used.

This is a link to a brochure explaining how hydro-fracturing is done.

I think it is an example of investigative journalism trying to sell more papers.

I'd say that the main story here is that there are a lot of unanswered question and the industry has to prove that this will not contaminate drinking water. New Yorkers are justified in wanting a lot of answers on all these questions before something is rushed through the legislature. Aside from the water contamination issues, there are issues of disposal. As some of the comments above point out, people have questions and they want answers that explain both the potential benefits and risks.

All of the information is out there for a journalist who was actually interested in getting the story right. These people were interested in stopping the drilling,not getting the story right. With one phone call, anyone could learn that they don't discharge the frac water on to the surface. They send it off somewhere where it can be cleaned up and injected or resused.

All that went through the legislature was the spacing regulations to drill horizontally in the Marcellus. There was nothing about the water in that bill. The DEC does not allow drilling or frac fluids to be discharged on the surface so there is no need for new legislation.

This article will bog down the permit application process and make life harder for everyone involved but will change nothing about how these wells are drilled and completed or where the water comes from and where it goes afterward.

It really is a terrible waste of time and distracts from real issues like climate change and peak oil.

The EPA study cited appears to only cover groundwater contamination linked to well bores. In at least one case there appeared to be methane pollution in ground and surface water from a fracture in a shallow formation (Fruitland) that created a channel to the aquifer. What the study specifically didn't cover is surface contamination or water table draw down problems that were also reported. It appears to say nothing about frac water disposal, air quality, storm water runoff, erosion, noise, quality of life, roads and taxes, property values, methamphetamine use or any of the many other issues that us ignorant environmentalists might be concerned about.

Since I only scanned the report for summaries of this stuff (I don't get paid to review overlong EPA reports), I could be way off base here and invite the TOD community to correct me. Ignorant, yet I want to learn.

The report also covers Coal Bed Methane (CBM) extraction instead of shale, and I wondered if those more informed could explain if there are any differences between CBM and shale UNG extraction in the context of New York vs. Colorado / New Mexico / Alabama, etc. Sorensen maybe?

In 2005, Weston Wilson, a longtime EPA employee in Denver blew the whistle on this issue in a letter to Colorado representatives. In 2007, the NRDC produced a report called "Drilling Down" which appears to be a more complete look at the picture than the 2004 EPA study cited above.
I'm not opposed to responsible resource exploration and production. In fact I'm looking into land purchase in the area, possibly to lease a well or two. I'm opposed to deception, obfuscation, oversimplification, railroading and outright lies regarding the impacts of gas drilling in New York.

America needs to stay FOCUSED, AWARE and EDUCATED.

History reminds us that every time oil prices peak and the North American market/consumers start to discuss alternative energy sources, the oil exporting countries start to trim down their prices. History also tells us that the oil exporting nations have been very successful in the past and in fact, we have lost our enthusiasm and dropped many of our alternative energy initiatives after oil prices are reduced.

WE need to stay focused this time.

1) Al Gore and his energy initiative is on course.
2) T. Boone Pickens and his wind power initiative is on course.
3) The BG Automotive Group mass production electric vehicle program is on
course along with renewable solar energy charging option.
4) Richard Branson from the UK is on course.
5) The Gas Reduction Act of 2008 might not be the most environmentally sound
solution, but yet it shows that Congress has finally realized that we have an
energy crisis (again), and a real threat to our national security.

The continued dependence on foreign oil is a threat to our long term democratic values. We must become an energy independent nation, and with this, some sacrifices will have to be made by the American consumer.

Be aware!!
We are exporting approximately USD $700 Billion dollars per year of U.S. currency. The majority of this money is being transferred to the Trillion dollar “sovereign wealth funds”. This is USD $700 Billion not being spent on America’s educational system, health care and security.

The “sovereign wealth funds” are directly buying major interests (large blocks of stock) in U.S. companies, including most of the major banks. Also, billions of dollars of “sovereign wealth fund” money is being invested in our hedge funds, private equity firms, and the investment banking industry. A few of these firms are directly and indirectly investing large sums of money into our “gas combustion” automobile industry. Do we want our auto industry in the direct or indirect control of the firms that are supplying us oil? This is an interesting topic for an investigative reporter.

There are automotive consulting companies in Michigan (heart of our auto industry), lobbying States and our Federal Government, NOT to subsidize the Electric Vehicle industry. The latter seems to be contradictory to what the American public would like to see from our automobile industry. After the billions (excess of $20 billion) the automotive companies have lost in the past 6 months producing gas combustion vehicles, you would think they too would change course. Changing course is not adding 2-4 miles per gallon w/Hybrids. Drastic measures in our auto industry must take place and NOW!

Do not let the temporary reduction in oil prices push us off course….AGAIN.

Read, Read, Read- Stay on top of the issues. Let’s not be fooled again.