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Michael Miller


By Michael Miller
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Fracture, Part II

For a long time, oil drillers saw natural gas as an annoying by-product and burned it off. Not anymore.

There are some 13,000 licensed oil and gas wells in New York State, and about two-thirds of them are bringing up at least some natural gas. In some places, hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) has already been used in combination with “horizontal drilling” to bring up trapped deposits. What’s new is the increased demand for natural gas and new fracking techniques that can open up the vast Marcellus Shale deposits on a massive, unprecedented scale.


In 2007, farmland in Chenango County, just off New York’s Southern Tier, was selling for $750 to $1,000 an acre. Then came the “landmen” representing drilling companies. Today, if you live in the right place, where the gas is only 2,000 or 3,000 feet down, you might get $8,000 per acre, plus royalties.

In hundreds of New York communities, where Main Streets circle the drain, where factories now rot in silence and stressed farmers look for extra income , there is an understandable appeal to sign anything that means this kind of payday.

And it isn’t just appealing to individuals and families. A Denver outfit offered Broome County $15.9 million upfront, plus a 20 percent royalty, for five years of drilling rights at the landfill, the Greater Binghamton Airport and other public parcels totaling more than 5,000 acres. Last week, the county executive withdrew the proposal. Support was dwindling both from legislators concerned about pollution and from others concerned that the county wasn’t getting top dollar. The county executive says she will continue to shop public land in an effort to plug the gaping holes in the budget.

“Landmen know the psychology of sales and will beat the landowner every time unless the landowner says no and gets professional skill on his or her side,” the Chenango County Farm Bureau warns its members.

Farmers and rural residents traditionally consider land use rights as sacred, resenting any attempt to interfere with their ability to make a profit from their land. It says a lot that the governing bodies of several rural counties and towns drafted resolutions asking the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Governor Paterson to back off their plans to open up much of the Marcellus Shale, wild west style, as long as drilling was 300 feet from a drinking water source (and permit fees paid to the state).

Fred Mayer’s house, located in between Ithaca and Binghamton, is five miles from the nearest gas wells. Last year, the water from his well became infused with natural gas. When the DEC wouldn’t even send someone, the affable disabled vet became a star on the Internet and in dozens of newspapers by lighting the water from his faucet. There are reports of ignitable water in other New York communities, all in drilling country.

About half of the millions of gallons of chemical-laden “slick water” used in fracking to break up the rock below ground comes back up, stored in pits or tanks until it’s trucked away, somewhere. This “produced water” is often radioactive, and there are stories about the smelly stuff burning workers. No one knows where the rest of the fracking brew and some of the released gas goes underground.

In late April, just after the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the DEC withdrew its plans and imposed a loose moratorium on new Marcellus Shale drilling permits while it studies the issue. Federal, state and regional agencies are now “studying” the issue. Shouldn’t the drilling industry have to prove its practices are as benign as it claims?

The DEC is not an environmental protection agency; it’s a resource management and allocation agency. As gas demands rise, as budgets become even more strained, there will be incredible pressure to open up Marcellus. These are the kinds of choices left to us by our short-sighted energy policies.

Rushed choices, the wrong choices, could damage New York City drinking water supplies. In an emergency, millions of city residents will have to be supplied from groundwater aquifers, with unknown implications for Long Island’s fragile water supplies. If upstate farmland disappears, it matters to our future food supply. We need to do this right.

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