PSS Summer '13

Hydrofracking 101

By Andrew Wickenden ’09

The debate over shale gas drilling in New York State is hard fought, particularly along the state’s Southern Tier—those New York counties that share a border with Pennsylvania and sit atop the Marcellus shale formation. The state of New York, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), local municipalities, and citizens are all weighing in on whether to okay the controversial gas extraction process called hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking. Those in favor look to the jobs and wealth generated in places like Pennsylvania and Texas, and the relatively clean burn of natural gas versus coal. Critics cite water usage, instances of groundwater contamination and surface spills, the greenhouse gas impacts of fugitive methane emissions, and the potential release of radioactive material.

Beth Kinne, assistant professor of environmental studies, hopes to provide some practical guidance for both sides of the debate in her book new book, Beyond the Fracking Wars: A Guide for Lawyers, Public Officials, Planners and Citizens, co-edited with lawyer and educator Erica Levine Powers. Beyond the Fracking Wars published in August, provides an introduction to the technology of unconventional oil and gas drilling, the structure of the oil and gas industry, and the legal and regulatory infrastructure underlying the current “shale gale.” It features case studies from around the country, as well as an international chapter, and is designed “to be a practical guide for attorneys, municipalities, planners and citizens who are figuring out what this type of development looks like and if and how it might be compatible with the future they envision for their communities and their country,” Kinne says.

Unconventional hydrocarbon exploration allows for the extraction of natural gas housed in microscopic pore spaces in the rock. The well is drilled vertically until it reaches the target rock formation, at which point the drill is turned horizontally and the bore then runs laterally through the formation for up to a mile or more. This allows for extensive exposure to the target formation. Steel casing lines the well bore. In the horizontal portion of the well, the casing is perforated. Fluids, sand, water and chemicals are then pumped into the well at high pressure to induce microscopic fractures in the surrounding rock and to prop those fractures open. When the pressure is released, much of the water flows back out of the well, and the gas escaping from these fractures flows up and out of the well.

Early on in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus drilling boom, “there were a lot of problems caused by lack of baseline data and questionable industry practices,” says Thomas Drennen, professor of economics and environmental studies. “Well water was not tested before drilling. We need a baseline and that’s where places like the Finger Lakes Institute can play a huge role.”

At the Finger Lakes Institute, Director Lisa Cleckner and other researchers are collecting surface water samples for trace metal analysis to establish that baseline in the Seneca Lake watershed. These efforts help inform policy makers, conservationists, and community members as they gauge the potential environmental impacts of hydrofracking, which are still being studied by the DEC and reviewed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The potential productivity of the Marcellus shale in the Southern Tier and in the southern tips of the Finger Lakes has been championed as an economic driver for the region; however, from Governor Cuomo to small municipalities, there is statewide ambivalence—and outright opposition. Groups like New Yorkers Against Fracking and the Finger Lakes Regional Watershed Alliance have submitted public comments and are petitioning the DEC to prohibit hydrofracking. Their concerns include truck traffic, possible contamination of drinking water sources, and sediment and nutrient loading in the watershed.

Although Governor Cuomo has promised a legislative decision on fracking by 2014, both critics and proponents are getting impatient.

“There’s a lot of pressure to get development in that area,” says Kinne, “but also a lot of opposition. Farmers have a chance to save their farms and send their kids to college. And we’re using natural gas from the Marcellus in New York already—we’re not divorced from this process. But a lot of people are ambivalent. It’s not a low impact activity, but the level of impact depends not only on if we harvest natural gas, but also on how carefully we do it, how effectively we mitigate the impacts. Issues need to be figured out and regulated. And we need to budget for hiring people to enforce those regulations.”

The benefit of the de facto fracking moratorium in New York, say Kinne and Drennen, is that it has given the state time to consider the impacts of hydrofracking and more carefully weigh the economic benefits with the environmental challenges, and attempt to design solutions.

“New York is lucky that we’ve held off and been able to think about these questions,” says Kinne. “The threat of water use by shale gas developments is promoting much more careful thinking about who takes what water when and for what. It’s about doing things carefully, planning rather than letting the market decide.”

“We need to make sure we go after natural gas in a safe manner,” Drennen says. “There’s no reason to rush. Natural gas prices are really low right now. From both an environmental and economical standpoint, it makes sense to take this slowly and get it right.”