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Special News Reports

Treading Water: Pros And Cons Of Fracking

Special News Reports

Panelists split on environmental protection vs economic development 

The two couples sat at opposite sides of a small table but couldn’t be farther apart.

Nancy and Tom Schmidt represented the Independent Oil and Gas Association (IOGA) of New York on the panel discussion about hydrofracking organized by the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Port Washington/Manhasset on March 22 at the Manhasset Public Library. The Schmidts believe hydrofracking is safe and necessary.

Patti and Doug Wood spoke on behalf of their organization, Grassroots Environmental Education, a nonprofit environmental health organization, to explain why they believe hydrofracking poses an enormous health risk to future generations.

Hydrofracking, commonly referred toas fracking, simply defined is a method of extracting natural gas from shale using pressurized liquids.

The Players

IOGA represents oil and gas professionals to the citizens and lawmakers of New York State, and has since 1980. The association says the industry provides safe, efficient and environmentally sound exploration for oil and natural gas in New York, employs thousands of workers and contributes to New York’s quality of life. The Woods believe, well, the exact opposite.

Adding drama and urgency to the discussion, in September of 2011, the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation (DEC) put out a study on hydrofracking, held a public comment period, received more than 61,000 comments and now the state must review the comments and respond to them. The Woods pointed out the DEC received more comments on hydrofracking than any other issue in its history.

IOGA is concerned that certain members of the state legislature will attempt to promote bills that stall or block the issuance of permits that would further delay the expansion of natural gas development in New York’s southern tier. That is precisely what opponents to hydrofracking hope will happen.

“An event such as this,” Sam Bernhardt, Long Island Organizer for Food & Water Watch, said, following the discussion, “where experts offer radically different opinions on an issue, is evidence that we should not allow fracking to happen in New York. Residents of North Hempstead agree on that. We have gathered over 2,300 petitions to State Senator Jack Martins asking that he support legislation to ban fracking in New York. Senator Martins has yet to support legislation that will keep fracking out of New York.” Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel, however, is a strong advocate of banning hydrofracking in New York State, and she attended the debate at the library.

After the DEC submits its final report, the decision on issuing the permits will be made by Governor Cuomo. Following the debate, Nancy Cowles, a Port Washington resident, expressed her belief that the decision should not rest with one man. A spokeswoman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association, it was said, claimed the governor has been consistent in saying he will await the DEC findings before allowing the expansion of natural gas development in the southern tier.

Both sides presented their case after introductions by LWV President Jane Thomas and a formal introduction to hydraulic fracturing (shortened to hydrofracking, shortened further to fracking), by LWV Natural Resources/Land Use Chair Star Anthony. Following the pro and con presentations the audience was invited to ask questions. The panelists were intelligent, articulate and, to be expected, firmly entrenched in their beliefs. The crowd, too, predominantly from Great Neck and Port Washington, was informed, articulate and arrived armed with questions, and those who asked their questions seemed closely aligned with the environmentalists.

What is Hydrofracturing?

Shale rock contains large volumes of natural gas, she said, and after drilling a vertical well to the depth of the shale, massive volumes of fluids are pumped at high pressure to break up the rock formation that contains the natural gas. In the eastern part of the U.S. one large rock formation, the Marcellus shale, is sedimentary rock that runs under most of West Virginia, half of Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and western New York.

Vertical drilling for natural gas has been taking place in New York State for many years, Anthony acknowledged, is grandfathered in and is not the subject of this current controversy—which is the opening of permits for horizontal high volume hydrofracking.

Fracking has aroused such inflamed controversy, Anthony said, that it has pitted neighbor against neighbor in upstate New York and across counties where oil and gas companies are seeking permission to use the process. Now, that heated controversy has reached Long Island because, she explained, of statements made that wastewater from the process may be processed here.

Anthony concluded saying, “It is a complicated issue. We all want our country and fellow citizens of New York to have access to energy sources but also pristine water, land and air. We want our governing representatives to provide both.”

The Debate

Nancy Schmidt, an impressively credentialed panelist, spoke first and drew the big picture enabling the audience to grasp the options for New York. Ninety percent of the fuel the world burns is hydrocarbons—coal and wood are hydrocarbons. Since 1971, she said, there has been a little nuclear power and some renewable energy - wind and solar power constitute a small percentage - but the bulk of our energy source is hydrocarbons. Not all states produce hydrocarbons, 32 do (New York is one), and they are produced where they are found.

Gas drilling, Ms. Schmidt said, is not new to New York, it began in 1821, when the first natural gas well, in Fredonia, was drilled. And 38 years later the first oil well was dug to 65 feet in Titusville, Pennsylvania.

Most hydrocarbons are produced in southern and western areas, so a huge system brings hydrocarbons from producer states like Texas, Louisiana, Wyoming and North Dakota to consumer states in the east coast, especially New York, Schmidt said, adding, “we are big consumers of natural gas, New York uses 1.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year. So all that money leaves New York and goes to other states.” New York, she added, pays more for natural gas than producer states do, plus it competes with them at peak times. New York is the fourth largest U.S. consumer of natural gas with 5 percent produced in-state and 95 percent imported. As more people become middle class, Schmidt explained, there is more demand for hydrocarbons and there is a lot of it here, in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and New York. Schmidt continued to make a case for hydraulic fracturing in New York based on economic benefits. She said in Ithaca, where Cornell is located, opposition to hydraulic fracturing is widespread. But in poor rural counties where there is not much industry, they want it.
The Schmidts provided handouts containing information on natural gas from the perspective of the IOGA of NY and the American Petroleum Institute. Points were made that the state DEC requires every service company to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracture stimulation. As for natural gas facts in all America, it says 91 percent of all gas and oil wells are hydraulic fracture stimulated, with negligible environmental impact. And, it says hydraulic fracturing solutions are composed of 99.5 percent water and sand and .5 percent other additives, including some chemicals.

The Woods believe when using hydraulic fracturing once a well is drilled, millions of gallons of water, sand and proprietary chemicals are injected, under high pressure, into a well. The pressure fractures the shale and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely out of the well, and they believe horizontal fracking uses a mixture of 596 chemicals, many of them proprietary, and millions of gallons of water per frack. This water then becomes contaminated and must be cleaned and disposed of.

Each statement made by one set of panelists was summarily refuted by the other.

Ms. Schmidt said chemicals used in the fracking process are registered, are publicly available, are listed on the DEC website (www.dec.ny.gov). Many of those listed are not, in reality, used, she said, but listed for the industry to be covered. When she said that increasingly the industry is using food grade chemicals in their response to the concerns of the public, the audience laughed.

Doug Wood said the precise cocktail of chemicals used in fracking is unknown due to what is commonly referred to as the Halliburton Loophole. In 2005, the Bush/Cheney energy bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 that congress passed to ensure clean drinking water is free from both natural and manmade contaminates. Because of the loophole, gas companies do not have to disclose the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing.
The Schmidt’s literature states that act was amended three times from 1980 to 1996 and hydraulic fracturing was never considered for additional federal legislation.

The gas industry claims that, “despite more than one million instances of hydraulic fracturing, there are no cases of hydraulic fracturing causing fracturing fluids to come in contact with groundwater.” Patti Wood said, “There is a dance going on here.” She claimed the gas industry does not want to admit contamination of the water supply and will inform affected families they will provide them with fresh drinking water if they sign a non-disclosure clause. The Woods claimed they had discovered the fact when attempting to interview individuals. Patti Wood asked, “If there is nothing going on then why all these non-disclosure statements signed in order to get their fresh water?” Ms. Schmidt countered saying the area in question on Carter Road in Dimick, Pennsylvania has a history of bad water.
Will fracking deplete streams and lakes of fresh water? Not so, Nancy Schmidt said, laws are in place to prevent the overuse of water through the permitting processes. Doug Wood had a different take on the problem, saying there is ongoing worldwide water depletion and eventually wars could be fought over clean water and that fracking takes water out of circulation.

The panelists disagreed and sparred for the duration of the presentation, then the audience was permitted to ask questions.

Port Washington resident Judy Epstein drew applause when she recounted how struck she was by a comment describing the contaminated run-off water in the hydrofracking process, and how it reminded her of a proverb: “A teaspoon of water in a barrelful of sewage is a barrelful of sewage. A teaspoon of sewage in a barrelful of water is also a barrelful of sewage.”