What a frackin' mess.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation's revised recommendations for regulating hydraulic fracturing raise enough issues to plug a gas well, which is what opponents of drilling are hoping for.
A review of the DEC's proposals tells me that the agency realizes how risky and potentially disastrous fracking is. Otherwise, why would some of its revisions seem so stringent or limiting?
But because the DEC is proposing to allow fracking in 85 percent of the Marcellus Shale, it's clear it all comes down to the same old argument between what's best for the economy and jobs and what's best for preserving the relatively clean upstate environment.
However, hydraulic fracturing, the process by which millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals are pumped deep underground at high pressure to fracture the shale and release natural gas, actually is risky and potentially dangerous.
The problem is that the state's portion of the Marcellus Shale is thought to hold more than 500 trillion cubic feet of gas. That's nearly 500 times more than what New York state's natural-gas consumers use in a year. About 95 percent of our current supply is imported.
Obviously, there is a lot of gas in that shale, but at this technological point in time, you can't get it out without fracking. Given our energy demands and need to wean ourselves from imported oil, energy companies want to get that gas out and the state wants to let them do it, governed by the regulations now being finalized.
The big question, of course, is whether fracking can be less risky and not potentially disastrous to the environment given the proposed regulations. I think the answer is no, and the evidence lies is the regulations themselves. Let's raise the following questions.
"¢ Fracturing would be prohibited in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, including within a buffer zone, because those systems lack filtration. How, then, could it be safe around other water supplies, such as Oneonta's reservoir, the Susquehanna River and underground wells?
The issue is not just the possibility of the toxic water seeping where it shouldn't during the fracking process. A typical Marcellus Shale fracturing operation would use 4 million to 7 million gallons of water over a five-day span. As much as 1 million gallons of that toxic water flows back to the surface within weeks. Then where does it go?
The trend for drillers, who face limits on how much fresh water they are allowed to extract, is to reuse the toxic water in another fracking operation. The chances for spills or leaks of this flowback water are a major concern for nearby streams and water supplies.
"¢ Drilling would be prohibited within primary aquifers and within 500 feet of their boundaries. Unfortunately, no primary aquifers have been identified outside the New York City watershed in this region, including Otsego, Delaware and Chenango counties.
"¢ Surface drilling would be prohibited on state-owned land including parks, forest areas and wildlife management areas. Only a tiny percentage of land in Otsego County falls within this prohibition. At least the state wants to protect its own trees, water and wildlife.
"¢ If the ban on fracking is lifted under the proposed regulations, the DEC expects an average of 1,600 drilling applications per year over 30 years, with busy years attracting up to 2,500 applications, beginning as early as next year. Even the gas companies admit the DEC does not have the staff to monitor and enforce the regulations.
With the DEC already beset by staff reductions and more possible in the future, how will the agency keep track of the chemicals, drilling operations and reuse and disposal of the flowback?
"¢ Experts estimate that once the go-ahead is given, fracking will lead to an increase of up to 1 million truck trips a year in the Marcellus Shale region.
How will the state and localities ever come up with the money for the road and bridge work necessary to maintain and improve highways? The estimated annual costs to undertake these transportation projects range from $121 million to $222 million.
The DEC has named a committee to deal with this and other issues, but it is clear that the fight over hydraulic fracturing is far from over. A 60-day comment period on the revised regulations will begin soon, though some are demanding that it be expanded to 180 days.
Now is the time to make your opinion heard. The proposed regulations make the risks of pollution involved in hydraulic fracturing all too clear.
Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.