Monday, December 3, 2012

Fracking and the Adirondacks

One doesn’t read much about high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing (HVHHF) for natural gas extraction in the Adirondack media – for a good reason. After all, who thinks they would ever profit from drilling into the bedrock of North America – crystalline granitic-gneissic bedrock yielding uphill to massive anorthosite blocks making up the high peaks region, part of the Canadian Shield, and among the oldest root rocks in North America. The geological survey of the Mount Marcy region in 1837 knew more than enough of their science not to expect gas-laden sediments here.

But over the course of geologic time the stripping off of miles of sedimentary rock from the Adirondack dome ended not far from the blue line, where if one drives along West Canada Creek in southern Herkimer County, and finds the once-famous Trenton Falls you see 300-feet of sedimentary strata exposed in that great gorge. The Trenton group of limestones and siltstones found along the borders of the southern Adirondacks overlay still more rock – shale. Not the Marcellus shale, for which gas companies have flocked to Pennsylvania, drilling more than 800 hydraulically fractured wells in five years in Susquehanna County, PA adjoining the New York line. No, these are shales in the Trenton Group – found from Alder Creek, to Trenton, to Poland, Middleville, to Herkimer. Gas is lurking way down there, just as it is in New York’s vast region known as the Southern Tier – where some landowners are naturally enticed by the gas bonanza lit up just across the PA border.

So, along the edges of the Adirondack uplift, and even within the southern boundary of the Adirondack Park, people should care about HVHHF. Under a relentless search for natural gas, future gas producers might be encouraged to migrate northward to seek to exploit this formation.

Actually, Adirondackers who value their landscapes at all should care about the issues for a variety of reasons:

Forest Fragmentation

Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, and many other organizations found the NYS DEC’s revised environmental impact statement on fracking failed to assess the cumulative impacts of issuing permits for up to 2500 horizontal and vertical gas wells in a peak year, and for over a 30 year period within a large, geologically distinct region of the state overlying the Marcellus shale formation.

In the Adirondack Park and elsewhere, courts have upheld the State Environmental Quality Review Act that whenever an action with potential adverse effects on the environment is part of a larger pending plan or scheme, then the cumulative impact of the larger scheme must be considered. In the southern tier, the NYS DEC is attempting to plan and regulate thousands of potential deep gas wells, with thousands of miles of new roads, truck traffic and industrial equipment. The potential to fragment tens of thousands of acres of forest environment is significant. One or two well pads might have little impact, but cumulatively the impacts to the environment, towns and counties and private landowners could be very significant.

The organization Hudsonia (Hudsonia, based in Annandale, NY, conducts research, education and technical assistance in the environmental sciences) wrote about the impacts of fracking:

“Areas of intensive gas drilling show forests fragmented by roads built for exploration, drilling pads, access roads, pipelines, and other facilities. Johnson presented data for 242 drilling pads on the Marcellus shale of Pennsylvania, about half of which were in forested areas. An average of 8.8 acres of forest was cleared for each drilling pad with its roads and other infrastructure. Assuming an ecological edge effect of 330 feet extending into intact forest from cleared areas, each drilling installation affected 30 acres of forest. In some areas of Pennsylvania, HVHHF installations occurred at a density of 1 per 40 acres, representing a very high degree of fragmentation.” – News from Hudsonia, Eric Kiviat and Karen Schneller-McDonald (Fall 2011).

Water Resources

The abundance of fresh water in the Adirondacks is an increasingly valuable asset, yet small streams, well fields and watersheds are threatened by commercial withdrawals. Hydrofracking poses just such a threat elsewhere in the state. Each fracking well – and there can be multiple directional wells on any one drillpad – will require 3-4 million gallons of water annually. With over two thousand wells expected to operate in a given year, annual water withdrawals will exceed 9 billion gallons for this activity. While the SGEIS calculates that 9 billion gallons is just a tiny fraction (0.25%) of statewide annual water withdrawals (NYC withdraws a trillion gallons of water each day), small watersheds and streams and aquifers within them could be severely drawn down, especially in a drought. Wildlife and plant populations requiring a high water table, vernal pools, or damp conditions might be put at risk locally and regionally. Shallow wells that homes and communities rely on could be easily damaged.

State Lands

While the DEC revised statement prohibits HVHHF on Forest Preserve and on the surface of other state lands beyond the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, leasing of the gas rights far below ground is not prohibited on our State Forests. Some of Governor Cuomo’s advisors are recommending a large expansion of those state land leases for gas production via HVHHF. The gas would be accessed via horizontal wells several thousand feet below the earth drilled from adjacent private land. While not Forest Preserve, these state forests are subject to the same language in our State Constitution – they “shall not be leased, sold or exchanged.” Leasing of mineral and gas rights, and exploitation of underground gas on these state lands is a complex issue with many repercussions not just for the state lands involved, but also for adjoining private owners. The DEC report does not adequately address these repercussions.

Wildlife Studies

The DEC report will require site-specific wildlife studies from some developers who seek to drill on or near core forest and grassland habitats in the Marcellus region. This is similar to the required wildlife assessments the Adirondack Park Agency Act and regulations require. The DEC report states that “for each acre of forest directly cleared for well pads and infrastructure in New York, an additional 2.5 acres can be expected to be indirectly impacted. Interior forest bird species with restricted breeding habitats, such as the black-throated blue and cerulean warblers, might be highly impacted.”

“We ought not to be complacent here in the Adirondacks,” said Adirondack Wild’s Dan Plumley, a resident of Keene in the High Peaks region, in a statement issued earlier this year. “The impacts of hydrofracking will set a precedent for how our state analyzes cumulative impacts, forest habitat fragmentation and ground water conservation.”

Fracking technology involves drilling vertically to a depth of a mile or more to reach the shale formation, then drilling horizontally for a mile or more and forcing a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to fracture the rock and release the gas. The DEC’s revised impact statement defines HVHHF as a “well stimulation technique which consists of pumping an engineered fluid system and a proppant such as sand down the wellbore under high pressure to create fractures in the hydrocarbon-bearing rock. The fractures serve as pathways for hydrocarbons to move to the wellbore for production.”

The overall public comment period ended on January 12, 2012 after which the agency had to respond to over 40,000 comment letters. After a full year passed without finalizing its regulations, DEC is now required to re-open the public comment period to deal with a new health impact review expected to be completed this week. The media has recently quoted Governor Cuomo to say that the DEC decision to permit HVHHF in New York’s Southern Tier is still months away.

Illustration: Trenton Falls by Currier and Ives.

Dave Gibson

Dave Gibson

Dave Gibson, who writes about issues of wilderness, wild lands, public policy, and more, has been involved in Adirondack conservation for nearly 25 years, much of that time as Executive Director of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks and then as first Executive Director of Protect the Adirondacks.

During Dave's tenure at the Association, the organization completed the Center for the Forest Preserve including the Adirondack Research Library at Paul Schaefer’s home. The library has the finest Adirondack collection outside the Blue Line, specializing in Adirondack conservation and recreation history.

Currently, Dave is a partner in the nonprofit organization launched in 2010, Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve.

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12 Responses

  1. TiSentinel65 says:

    I can understand being vigilant to protect the water supply but natural gas production has brought a significant reduction in air pollution. Dave, you need to weigh the good with the bad on this issue. You can’t deny that some good has come of replacing the burning of oil and coal with the burning of natural gas. I look forward to the day when our energy supply is completely cheap and renewable by means of wind and solar and other yet to be found technologies, but I have to use what the market provides. I think fracking if done correctly is a step in the right direction.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 3 Thumb down 12

  2. Bfrank4fr says:

    Can you tell us where to send comments and if there are any more public meetings? Have the earthquakes been proven to be attributable to fracking?
    I could even live with short term consequences if we knew they were that- short term and reversible
    But the opposite is true
    They are long term and irreversible

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

    • Dave Gibson says:

      Bfrank,

      Public Comment on hydrofracking regulations will be extended from December 12, 2012 through 5:00 PM on January 11, 2013. During that period, to comment go to the DEC webpage and click on High Volume Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing.I do not believe DEC is planning more public hearings, but that could change under public pressure.

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  3. Andrea says:

    Interesting article, Dave. I’ve been wondering how this might affect the Adirondacks.

    Speaking as someone who lives in the northeastern PA area mentioned above and is planning to move to the Adirondacks in the near future, I truly appreciate the caution with which NY state is proceeding. Pennsylvania had no real regulation in place to speak of when the gas companies arrived and it shows in both the environmental and economic impact on this area. If fracking is done correctly and is regulated, then yes, perhaps it is reasonably safe. There have been enough explosions and contaminated water wells in Susquehanna and Bradford counties to leave me wondering though.

    I also look forward to cheap renewable energy and hope it isn’t far from our grasp. Here’s to staying informed and proactive during this transitional time!

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    • Mark says:

      I too have a home in Susquehanna Cty, PA and am looking to possibly make a move to the Adirondacks,dependent upon how the hydrofracking issues resolve. I would like there what I feel we used to have here. I think your comment sums up the situation in our part of Pennsylvania to a ‘T’.

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  4. Pat says:

    Dave, I’d like to think that the state would protect the residents from any adverse impacts from fracking by doing extensive research before approving fracking. But your observation that the courts have upheld SEQRA is not quite accurate. Unless I’m mistaken it seems that the state courts ruled against a group that brought an article 78 suit against the town of Tupper Lake in the midst of the ACR project. Had something to do with the town rezoning a huge parcel to accomadate the developers. Seems to me the court reasoned that the APAs’ process of review would be more comprehensive and thus substitute for SEQRA. Look how that worke out. And with Cuomos’ bent for economic development I don’t really have much faith in our state agencies protecting the public. Hope I’m wrong.

    Like or Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. Paul says:

    All the land should be open for any kind of commerce. The same goes for all the rivers and brooks.

    http://www.adirondackdailyenterprise.com/page/content.detail/id/534249/Canoe-trespassing-case-in-the-hands-of-judge.html

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 1 Thumb down 12

  6. Dave Gibson says:

    Pat,
    The SEQRA case you mention, v. Town of Tupper Lake, is different from the SEQRA case I cite on the need for lead agencies to analyze cumulative impacts of a project, my point being that Fracking, if it takes off in NYS, may one day be susceptible to a cumulative impact court challenge. That cumulative impact decision was a Court of Appeals case from decades ago. Tupper Lake case we brought in Supreme Court for what we believed was the Town’s failure to undertake their responsibilities for project review under SEQRA. We lost in Supreme Ct. and at the Appellate Division. It’s a different part of SEQRA law, but I do appreciate your larger point about state agencies and the larger public interest. Look how that worked out on ACR – indeed ! Thanks for writing.

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  7. Paul says:

    Dave, get over it. The ACR got a long and detailed review. You and a few others were not satisfied so you sued. You are most likely to lose that case as well. Spend your members money more wisely.

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  8. chuck says:

    i just finished (yesterday) a study of ghg emissions from electrical generation that included a full LCA of shale gas emissions.
    i do not think that the wells have a large, annual water requirement. they do have substantial water use at the time they are being developed (approx 500,000 gallons for mud which is approx 85% recyclable, and 2,000,000-6,000,000 gallons, of which 60-65% returns in flowback, of which 30-60% is recyclable) that information is from Jiang et al at Carnegie Mellon (2011) and it is one of the most commonly cited recent works on Marcellus shale. it is easily found on line for those who would like to read the study.

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  9. Larry says:

    Experience elsewhere with hydrofracking paints a nasty picture of human and livestock health and environmental impacts. Two examples: http://truth-out.org/news/item/13058-why-are-cows-tails-dropping-off and http://tinyurl.com/cbw9s52.

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