This past week, the new head of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation said gas drilling in the massive Marcellus Shale formation is the most daunting environmental issue the agency has faced in its 40-year history. No wonder: Reports and first-hand experience with the natural gas drilling method, called hydraulic fracturing — or hydrofracking — range from horror stories of contaminated drinking water to a economic boon.
New York has had a moratorium on gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale since 2008 while new rules are being developed, even as other states such as Pennsylvania are already doing it.
Meanwhile, those on all sides of the issue are lining up to defend their stands in what is becoming an increasingly heated debate.
“I will put our experts up against up any of those people,” said hydrofracking supporter Jim Smith, a consultant with Corning Place Consulting who does work for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York. “We have scientists, drillers and water hydrologists” who can “debunk” myths, he said.
Countering industry leaders are professionals ranging from Cornell University professors to engineers and watershed watchdogs.
“You have fracking fluid ending up in rivers,” said Jeff Andrysick, a farmer turned filmmaker with his wife, Jodi. The Andrysicks, who have family in Pennsylvania, where fracking takes place, began making their documentary “All Fracked Up” after Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy Corp. approached officials in their hometown of Pulteney, Steuben County, in 2009. The corporation wanted to dump wastewater from the hydrofracking process into a former natural gas well a mile west of Keuka Lake.
“We are concerned citizens who are frightened that the natural beauty of New York, our streams, rivers, pristine lakes, aquifers, private water wells, and municipal water supplies will be irreversibly ruined by the process of hydrofracking …” the Andrysicks say on their website.
With so much at stake for those on all sides of the issue, concerned groups in the Finger Lakes region got together to host a series that kicked off April 1 at Finger Lakes Community College. The series — which continues on April 5, 7 and 8 — includes the showing of “All Fracked Up” on April 5 and visits from gas industry representatives on April 7 and water quality experts on April 8.
Concerns about hydrofracking in New York are so widespread that a first draft of an environmental-impact statement for gas drilling in September 2009 drew 13,000 comments, DEC chief Joe Martens said this past week.
DEC staff will meet twice a week beginning in early April and through the summer to complete a new environmental statement addressing those concerns, Martens said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this winter submitted its draft study plan on hydrofracking for review to the agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), a group of independent scientists. EPA scientists continue to study this method of natural gas drilling “to better understand any potential impacts it may have, including on groundwater,” stated the EPA.
As government reviews continue, pressures mount to promote sources of energy on American soil. President Barack Obama on Wednesday called for a one-third reduction in U.S. oil imports by 2025. This call revives a long-elusive goal of reducing America’s dependence on foreign supplies. Obama touted energy proposals already called for, which include increased use of biofuels and natural gas.
Nadia Harvieux, a watershed educator and organizer of the hydrofracking series at FLCC, said she sees New York playing a key role in what happens with hydrofracking.
“The whole nation is watching what we do,” Harvieux said.