Is Cuomo Set to Sign an Anti-Fracking Bill?

Recently, New York state Governor Andrew Cuomo has moved to allow for more natural gas drilling under the process known as hydraulic-fracking or “fracking” for short. Many NY conservation groups are asking for an extended period of review and comment period of the DEC’s proposed policy. Cuomo, ever the politician, has already stalled the review once after Chesapeake Energy caused an accident that sent 100K gallons of fracking solution into a PA creek in April.

Cuomo wants the jobs (and the campaign donations) without alienating conservationists, who like myself want a ban outright, such as NJ has done. However, something interesting has just happened in Albany that suggests Cuomo is trying to have his cake and eat it too. Two days ago, Gov.  Cuomo announced he is set to sign a bill to protect NY’s water basins, creating a permitting process to withdraw water over 100K gallons a day. It covers the state’s lakes, rivers and streams from Lake Erie to the Croton Watershed and complies with the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact. To read the press release, go here.

“The new law is designed to foster responsible conservation practices and economic growth while protecting water bodies and wildlife habitats. The permitting process will ensure a continued water supply to existing municipal, agricultural and industrial users, and will help identify areas that could support new water-dependent businesses. Specifically, the law requires approval before operating or proposing a system with the capacity to withdraw 100,000 gallons or more per day of surface and groundwater.”

This is a significant step in protecting our water supply, especially if the DEC is to regulate the permitting process. While it was setup to protect our water supply, it has a valuable side effect that could protect NY state from hydrofracking. How? A typical fracking process uses between 3 and 9 million gallons of water and sometimes even more. That water must come from somewhere, either its local or shipped in. If its water drawn from NY state, then under the new law, it’ll need to be regulated and permitted. If NY state puts limits on the amount and timing of withdrawals, then effectively, NY state can regulate just how often and how much hydrofracking is done by controlling water withdrawal levels, all this, without ever having to step foot on a fracking site. If the DEC requires testing of local withdrawals, and withdrawals are done anywhere near a fracking site, then the government should effectively be able to correlate water quality with the fracking process.

I know, that’s a lot of “ifs”, but its a clear way to exploit the bill to the benefit of conservationists, local municipalities, and anti-fracking organizations and communities.

The fracking process creates immense pressures that drives thousands of gallons of fracking solution back to the surface collected in pits protected by a liner. Clearly, runoff is quite possible, especially if the liquid is returning to the surface–it’s not just blowing out at the top, but being forced right into the seams, cracks and ground closer to the surface. Because the fracking chemical solution is considered intellectual property, gas companies do not need to share the chemical cocktail they are injecting into the earth. Halliburton has released the details of chemicals in three of it’s solutions, but not the concentrations.

Here’s what a fracking site looks like. You can see the conditions of the runoff pit and the blowback of fracking solution and brine.

In this Post Standard Feb. 2010 video, Sharon Daggat of Pulteney, NY is worried that the runoff from the process of fracking by Chesapeake Energy will contaminate her well and kill her vineyard at Keuka Lake.

Here’s another way the DEC could use the Bill to test the water at actual fracking sites. I’m not certain the state tests fracking wastewater currently, but the collection process of runoff water from fracking could be considered a “withdrawal” if it exceeds 100k gallons. That wastewater would then be subject to testing. The downside is that there’s an incentive to the natural gas companies to do illegal dumping to avoid the testing. Once the solution is in the earth, the question is, is it now part of the water supply or is it company property? Marcellus Drilling News has also suggested that the DEC could use the law to “slow” the expansion of fracking down by taking their time to issue permits. It’s an interesting thought that Cuomo may be using the water withdrawal bill to set-up a get-out-of-jail free card with conservationists if he does ultimately lift the moratorium on fracking in NY. Hopefully, with or without the governor, conservationists will be able to exploit the new law for all its worth.

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Big Fracking’ Problem Awaiting New Yorkers?

Received an early Christmas gift from the Governor today–a simultaneous veto on the May 5th moratorium on “hydrofracking”, with a new moratorium that pushes it to at least July 1 in a more limited fashion. Hydrofracking or “fracking” is hydraulic fracturing done to stimulate more production from natural gas wells. Fracking injects a cocktail of chemicals deep into the ground in shale deposits, literally fracturing the rock formations, generally below 5,000 feet. Today, Gov. Paterson preserves some upstate jobs, but enables the next governor, Cuomo to do his own due diligence..

I could explain the positive effects of this natural gas drilling “innovation”, but allow me to share a demonstration of one of the side-effects instead.

This reminded me of a sad drama that took place in Cleveland more than forty years ago. When I was living in Cleveland, often when we drove past the Cuyahoga river, my father or mother would inevitably tell the story of how the river once caught fire because it was so polluted. Well, I never quite believed them, even though I knew it was truth. Fact is, the river burned not once, but on more than a dozen occasions.

The restoration of the Cuyahoga River has been a truly remarkable 40-year effort , but protecting our natural resources, before we have the opportunity to pollute is the best strategy. The “burning river” lead to the Clean Water Act and dozens of other policies, including the development of the EPA. During the 80s, my father and I fished Lake Erie but we steered well clear of Cleveland and the river. Today, the Cuyahoga has steelhead trout along with smallies and pike, I mean, steelhead? That’s nothing short of a miracle and shows you what can happen when we do right by nature. It does right by us.

Back in July, I told my fishing buddies over at Westchester Fishing and encouraged them to spread the word about the intentions of the gas and oil companies trying to hydrofrack the Marcellus Shale deposit which stretches for some 14K miles from New York to West Virginia. Should there be even a small incident, what makes us think we have the technology to protect the entire Catskills watershed AND our NY water supply? As usual, the oil and gas companies can think of a million ways to get the gas, but have none in mind to clean it up. And if the BP oilspill is any indication of what could happen, we owe it to ourselves, our enviroment, across countless counties and multiple states, to demand more time, diligence, and investigation into the effects of hydrofracking before we drill right below our very feet, possibly endangering the most populous parts of the Eastern Seaboard and its waterways.

Hydrofracking of course is just one more technology in a long list that have the potential to go awry. Not only did the Cuyahoga river fire burn in the 60s, the entire town of Centralia, PA was lost to a mine fire. Forty years on, Vice and Palladium captured just how Centralia is doing.

If you want to learn more about the Marcellus Shale and hyrdrofracking, check out the Atlantic Sierra Club’s explanation (I’m a member) and their position here. For a more official view from the oil and gas industry-sponsored lobbying organization, American Clean Skies Foundation, check out their 30-min film here. And if you’re really committed to learning more, check out the documentary by Josh Fox, Gasland. America’s Natural Gas Alliance has an interesting response to Gasland here. Gasland won the Special Jury Selection – Documentary at Sundance 2010. [Update – Gasland was nominated for an Oscar Best Documentary Feature!]

*Disclosure* I work for a PR agency, Porter Novelli, who lists American’s Natural Gas Alliance as a client. The contents of this blog DO NOT reflect the views of my employer. I was not asked to write this post on behalf of ANGA or Porter Novelli.