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Michael Miller

Viewpoint

By Michael Miller
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Fracture, Part I

“This is a complex business transaction masquerading as a lottery ticket,” warns the Chenango County Farm Bureau in its pamphlet, “What to Know and What to Do When a Landman Comes to Your Door.”

In a growing number of New York communities, it is the biggest issue there is. You can watch neighbors yelling at each other on YouTube. At first glance, it may seem like someone else’s business, but the long-term implications for Long Island are grave. We’ve got to pay attention. It’s an Erin Brockovitch moment, before the serious damage has been done.

When Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, it included what the energy industry admiringly refers to as “The Halliburton Loophole,” exempting the practice of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) from all federal environmental protection laws. This touched off a mass wave of fracking for natural gas in rural communities, where many residents did not see what was coming.

In fracking, millions of gallons of a mixture of water, sand and a proprietary cocktail of chemicals are injected thousands of feet down into underground rock formations, cracking the rock and releasing more natural gas than used to be possible. Halliburton’s own brand of fracking fluid contains hundreds of chemicals, including benzene and formaldehyde.

The process moved east and then north, like a wave. There are now hundreds of thousands of drilling sites. The industry’s highest priority is to open up the rest of the Marcellus Shale, a massive, gas-rich underground formation below six states, including most of New York south of Interstate 90 and west of the Hudson River. More than 50,000 natural gas wells can theoretically fit over the New York portion of the Marcellus Shale and some smaller formations, like the Utica Shale. In these communities, where more and more people are economically struggling and even desperate, the Landmen have shown up, with contracts.

In Bradford County, Pennsylvania, over 300 Marcellus Shale drill permits were issued in 2009, and two dozen new wells were actually drilled. Longtime residents aren’t becoming millionaires, but drilling has, at least for the time being, taken some rural villages and hamlets out of their long, depressing decline. Most of the really good drilling jobs go to experienced workers from out of state, but they generate economic activity. Men who lost their jobs when the logging industry tapped out and the clothing label factory left now haul gravel and water on the back of their flatbed trucks. Laundromats, restaurants, boarding houses and taverns are doing booming businesses, and one gas company is opening a dormitory for 180 workers it’s brought in, and a dorm has to be maintained and supplied.

But then there’s Dimock, directly south of Binghamton and northwest of Scranton. In Dimock, thousands of gallons of Halliburton’s fracking water seeped into a creek, killing some fish and leaving others “swimming erratically,” according to a state report. The drinking water in some homes became contaminated with metals and methane gas that the state determined leaked from nearby underground wells. Animals and pets began losing hair in large clumps. Last week, in the face of growing bad feelings, Pennsylvania fined two drilling companies $400,000 for their role in a recent natural gas well “blowout” that spewed 35,000 gallons of fracking fluid into the air for 16 hours.

One thousand six hundred Marcellus Shale wells have been drilled in areas of Pennsylvania. Thousands of more permits have been issued and are expected to be drilled over the next few years.

When mistakes were made in Oklahoma, Colorado and even West Virginia, and wells blew out or water from nearby drinking wells turned muddy brown and smelled like paint remover, it was a small-scale, personal tragedy for those it affected. The Marcellus Shale lies beneath communities surrounding the Delaware River Basin, which supplies the drinking water to more than 14 million people, including residents of New York City and Philadelphia. We’ve got a higher responsibility in New York to get this right.

Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: millercolumn@optimum.net