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Columns

April 9, 2011

The rime of the upstate anti-fracker

In Samuel Coleridge's oft-quoted late 18th-century poem of the violation of nature and Christian redemption, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," the title character laments, "water, water, everywhere, Nor any a drop to drink."

An albatross, a good luck omen to sailors, had been pursuing the mariner's ship for days. The mariner thoughtlessly kills the great seabird, invoking the wrath of the spirits of the sea.

The ship is tossed into the windless doldrums, where it remains until the ship's water supply is exhausted and the crew severely dehydrated. The vengeful crew wrapped the seabird around the mariner's neck as a kind of "Scarlet Letter."

While the fantasy of this faraway mariner's life-threatening dehydration may seem irrelevant to the risks posed by rural life in upstate New York or urban life in New York City, this fantasy may be a far more imminent possibility than most New York state residents can yet imagine.

Why?

Some of the nation's richest reserves of natural gas are trapped in the tight, difficult-to-access shales of the Marcellus Formation, some of which lie several thousands of feet below the surface in a broad, 18,000-square-mile swath across New York state's Southern Tier. The formation covers 95,000 square miles across several states, including Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The oil and gas drilling industries have already leased tens of thousands of acres in the watersheds that supply 27 million consumers in five states _ New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland _ with clean, potable and mostly unfiltered and affordable water.

Using a relatively new, aggressively intrusive method _ horizontal hydraulic fracturing _ well drillers penetrate the earth vertically to reach the tight shales, then extend horizontally for up to a mile.

The 3 to 8 million gallons of water for each individual well are drawn from local aquifers, streams and rivers to facilitate the drilling process. Eighty to 300 tons of "proprietary" chemicals, the identities of which are unknown to the public, are used with the drilling water.

The Federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempts the oil and gas industries from disclosing chemical drilling recipes, and exempts them from regulation under the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Water and Clean Drinking Water acts.

However, the EPA labels oil and gas drilling by-products as the most hazardous industrial wastes in the nation.

Approximately 1 million gallons of drilling wastewater laden with toxic chemicals, normally occurring radioactive materials (NORMS) and total dissolved solids (TDS) will be recovered from the well bore and stored on site until they can be removed and processed at an appropriate wastewater processing facility _ the type of which only exists in a few locations in the entire country.

After drilling, the gas is released from the shale by water and sand under explosively high pressures. Some of the recovered methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide, along with a miasma of volatile organic compounds, will be "flared off" at the wellhead before the useable gas can be contained.

With an economy of scale throughout the full range of the Marcellus' 95,000 square miles _ 6 to 10 wells per square mile _ the gas drilling industry claims it can provide enough gas to

See Frack on Page D2

meet the nation's current gas consumption needs for 100 years. Yet the U.S. population of 310 million will reach 450 million by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That implied increased consumption would considerably shorten that projected supply period, even if current per capita use remained stable.

Moreover, subsidizing the gas industry with costly tax exemptions and EPA exemptions that threaten public health and safety are tantamount to feeding the world's most consumptive society's insatiable fossil fuel addiction, instead of treating it with heavier subsidies for genuinely renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. The Rocky Mountain Institute asserts that if the 40 least electrically efficient states in the U.S. were to achieve the electrical efficiency of the 10 most efficient ones, national electricity use would be cut by one-third _ the equivalent of shutting down 372, or 62 percent, of the nation's 600 coal-fired power plants.

Exclusive use of LED (light-emitting diode) lighting in the U.S. would reduce electrical energy use for lighting by 75 percent. Worldwide exclusive use would reduce global electrical energy consumption by 12 percent. And that's only the beginning.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection's Final Impact Assessment Report (released in December 2009 by a hydrological civil engineering company) details a host of additional risks posed by hydraulic fracturing to the purity of the 1 million-acre New York City watershed in the Catskill region.

Many thousands of trucks laden with toxic wastewater would be simultaneously plying town, county and state roads adjacent to streams, rivers and reservoirs. Naturally occurring and hydraulic-fracturing-related fissures and fractures in rock formations would provide pathways through which highly toxic drilling chemicals and NORMS could migrate under pressure to aquifers and aqueducts.

The "ancient mariner" in Coleridge's fantastical poem was ultimately redeemed by his own contrition and the forgiveness of Christ, even though all his crewmates perished by dehydration because he had violated the natural law of the sea. Our elected state officials may not benefit from that same kind of redemption and may be compelled to wear an albatross of shame if they fail to act at this decisive moment.

While the DEP report has been available since 2009, two governors, the state Legislature and the state Department of Environmental Conservation still have not acted decisively to ban hydraulic fracturing in New York state. They produce only moratoriums, fatally flawed drafts, and hearings in public auditoriums where concerned citizens speak to DEC stenographers who mechanically record their eloquent remonstrations on an otherwise vacant, unresponsive public platform.

When I interviewed state Assemblyman James Brennan of the 44th Assembly District, he characterized the proposed hydraulic fracturing in the New York City watershed as "the industrialization of the region." Brennan courageously sponsored a bill in the Assembly that would cut the Gordian knot of disparate opposition and effectively ban hydraulic fracturing in anyone's watershed. A similar bill, SO 1234, was sponsored by Sen. Tom Duane in January. The bill is now with the Senate's Environmental Conservation Committee, with little or no support.

This is no time for quibbling over an industrial process that is inherently dangerous, regardless of the most restrictive regulations or oversight, which no state agency has the staff to implement. Budgeted to the bone, the DEC has 19 staff to supervise what could become tens of thousands of hydrofracking wells in the state. Let's get real.

All that glitters may not be gold or oil or gas, but the sparkling surface of a pristine river or reservoir.

Art Siegel is a certified tree farmer with The National Tree Farm System and an independent filmmaker. His film "Parcelizing the Catskills and the Boiled Frog Syndrome," which features interviews with local, New York City and state elected and agency officials on environmental issues affecting the Catskill Region, is being screened at the Frank W. Cyr Center in Stamford on Saturday.

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