Nel's New Day

December 17, 2014

Don’t Frack in New York

In a first for the country, New York has tentatively banned hydraulic fracturing—better known as fracking—because of health risks. State officials concluded that the method of extracting natural gas contaminates air and water. Fracking uses water and chemicals to obtain the gas in deeply buried shale deposits. Former Gov. David Paterson issued a moratorium in 2008 which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo continued after he took office in 2011. Dozens of local governments have legally banned fracking through land use regulations, according to a state Supreme Court decision last summer.

Acting state health commissioner, Dr. Howard A. Zucker, said the review came down to one question: Would he want to live in a community that allowed fracking? His answer was no. Fracking supporters claim that the practice contributes to local economies, particularly in the huge Marcellus Shale that spreads across New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Opponents worried about the state’s watersheds and aquifers as well as tourism and quality of life in upstate communities.

One person well aware of fracking problems is Louis W. Allstadt, a retired executive vice president of Mobil oil. He ran the company’s exploration and production operations in the western hemisphere before he retired in 2000 and was also in charge of its marketing and refining in Japan, and managed its worldwide supply, trading and transportation operations for 31 year. In addition, he oversaw Mobil’s side of its merger with Exxon, creating the world’s largest corporation. An interview with him is here.

New studies examining the health effects of fracking indicate that this research is relatively new. The Compendium of Scientific, Medical and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking by the Concerned Health Professionals of NY examines the results of many studies for its conclusions regarding potential harm from fracking and reports:

“A significant body of evidence has emerged to demonstrate that these activities are inherently dangerous to people and their communities. Risks include adverse impacts on water, air, agriculture, public health and safety, property values, climate stability and economic vitality.”

Fortunately, the study has found a great increase in recent research, possibly one daily for the past two years, and plans to update its compendium every six months. In encouraging Cuomo to ban fracking, Dr. Larysa Dyrszka said:

“The longer we look at fracking, the more trouble we find. There is no split debate within the scientific literature.”

People who think that fracking makes landowners wealthy need to look at farmers in Pennsylvania. People who owned a great deal of land and sold at exactly the right time may have profited, but everyone else has lost, because of unexpected costs or water contamination. A member of the Bradford County Planning Commission has three shale gas wells on his land, but signing the lease meant costs for setting up an LLC ($22,000), pre-drilling water testing ($14,500), and the loss of a tax credit for farmland which raised the assessment per acre from $500 per acre to a commercial property assessment of $2,500 with taxes due retroactively. After a division of Chesapeake Energy deducted costs from his royalties, the man was paid $0.10 for the gas produced on his 359-acre farm. State law requires a minimum of 12.5 percent of the gas value produced on the land in royalties, but a 2010 state Supreme Court ruling opened a loophole allowing a diversity of costs, many times retroactive.

Another man, whose girlfriend signed a lease, cannot use the contaminated water from the well on his property. He said his first check was about $3,000 which quickly dropped to $58. The royalties have stopped because contamination forced the wells to be cut off.

In addressing the questions of economy, Deborah Goldberg, managing attorney for Earthjustice, described the negative economic impacts on communities. The boom-and-bust result of temporary industries produces growth only in “burger flipping, trailer parks, drugs and prostitution.” Meanwhile, dairy farmers and carpentry workers in Pennsylvania were negatively impacted through livestock death from toxin exposures and lumber becoming a rare commodity after it was used to fill well packs. When the oil and gas industry disappears, nothing of the former economy is left.

The failure of wells to be profitable might support a new bill to ban fracking on publicly owned lands. Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) are trying to preserve lands preserved for recreation, tourism, history, and culture. Currently, 90 percent federally managed lands are available for oil and gas leasing, including fracking, with just 10 percent protected exclusively for conservation, recreation, wildlife and cultural heritage. Oil and gas companies already have leased over 36 million acres of public land and want to use another 12 million acres in national forests and land adjoining national parks.

Unfortunately, the $1.1 trillion spending bill includes a provision to streamline permitting for fracking on U.S. public lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a unit of the US Department of Interior. The BLM has failed to inspect more than half of the so-called “high priority” wells, which required more attention to prevent water and environmental contamination.

Abandoned wells are leaking huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is 86 times more effective in trapping heat than CO2 and responsible for about 25 percent of human-created global warming. Two new studies show that unreported methane is leaking from millions of unused oil and gas wells throughout the nation. Of 19 abandoned wells investigated in northwestern Pennsylvania, all leaking methane, the Princeton University study reported that only one is on the state’s list of abandoned wells. Three of the wells emitted methane at thousands of times the levels of the other 16. A University of Texas study showed that 20 percent of the investigated sites emitted far more than the rest. The U.S. has no system to monitor wells to see which ones emit the high levels or to determine what should be done with those that are.

Last summer, California officials shut down 11 oil and gas waste injection sites and ordered a review more than 100 others in the agricultural Central Valley for fear that companies were pumping fracking fluids and other toxic waste into drinking water aquifers. The state has protected only a fraction of the waters that the federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires. Although California has been hit with a number of storms bringing water to the drought-ridden area, the rainfall doesn’t even put a dent in the state’s drought problems.

San Benito County, one of the smallest counties in California, managed to pass an anti-fracking ordinance with only $130,000 against oil companies that spent $2 million opposing the initiative. Mendocino and Santa Cruz counties, Santa Barbara, and Los Angeles had already passed fracking bans. Bully oil isn’t through: they’re suing the San Benito County for $1.2 billion because of the company’s claim that they are entitled to frack under the agricultural ground, destroying the agritourism future of wineries, organic farms and small inns.

In another victory for protecting the planet, President Obama withdrew Alaska’s Bristol Bay from future oil and gas drilling. Its fishing industry generates $2 billion per year by providing 40 percent of the wild-caught fish in the United States. One of the world’s largest wild salmon runs in the bay annually provides $100 million in tourism, and the location is home to many endangered species including orcas and beluga and the North Pacific right whale. A decision on a bigger threat to the bay, the huge proposed gold and copper Pebble Mine, is still pending. [Popular culture junkies will know that Bristol Bay is the namesake of Sarah Palin’s daughter.]

New York’s ruling is hopefully just the tip of the iceberg in stopping indiscriminate pollution of the United States through fracking. San Benito County may have only 57,000 residents, but New York state has almost 20 million—and a lot more money if the fracking industry decides to sue them.

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1 Comment »

  1. Great news!

    Like

    Comment by Lee Lynch — December 17, 2014 @ 11:33 PM | Reply


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