By Amy Kotlarz
With his gaunt face, cowboy hat and wispy braid trailing down his back, rancher Rick Roles stood out in the hallways of Ithaca College.
From his pocket, he pulled a photocopy of a blood test that he had taken in 2005 after he fell ill and was unable to move. The test showed traces of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and several other chemicals in his blood.
“My whole body seized up,” Roles said. “I couldn’t eat. I haven’t worked in six years. My livestock’s dying. I’m dying.”
He said he blames his illness on more than a decade of exposure to natural gas drilling and wastewater evaporation pits located just a few hundred feet from his home in Rifle, Colo. Indeed, environmental groups have identified elevated levels of chemicals in the air and groundwater in the area.
Yet gas companies have responded to criticism from Roles and others in his community of Garfield County, Colo., by stating that their drilling operations are not at fault. They point to many other potential causes, including smoking or such pre-existing sources of contamination as junkyards.
“It is very difficult to prove that the industry has damaged your air, water or property,” said Tara Meixsell, an author and activist who chronicled Roles’ story and those of his neighbors in her book Collateral Damage.
Rather than fight with the gas companies, some neighbors with health concerns have signed settlements with the gas companies to get money to move out of the area, Meixsell said, noting that signers also agree not to talk publicly about their problems.
Roles, who has been featured in the documentaries “Gasland” and “Split Estate,” said that he has not settled and is committed to telling anyone who will listen his experiences with high-volume hydraulic fracturing, also known as hydrofracking. That’s how he wound up at Ithaca College, where more than 3,000 people gathered in June for a daylong event opposing the technology.
Coming to town
In July, hydrofracking took a step closer to becoming a reality in New York as the state Department of Environmental Conservation wrapped up an environmental review of the process.
The draft DEC report noted that natural gas drilling is not new in New York. In fact, the first natural gas well in the country was drilled in Fredonia in 1821.
Hydrofracking itself is not new either. It is a drilling method that recovers natural gas deposits in methane-rich shale rock that lies between 4,000 and 9,000 feet under the ground. In the past, low-volume fracturing, a term that denotes processes using less than 80,000 gallons of water, has been used to stimulate vertical wells throughout New York state.
Yet in the past decade, drillers in other parts of the country have begun drilling both vertical and horizontal shafts, and using millions of gallons of fracturing fluid to release the shale gas more efficiently.
After the shafts are drilled and lined with several layers of steel and concrete, a gun perforates a small section of the shaft. When pumps inject water, sand and chemical additives into these wells at high pressure, rock fissures separate near the perforations and allow gas to flow out of the drill bore. A well can be fractured several times, and multiple horizontal shafts may be drilled off a vertical shaft.
In draft recommendations released June 29, the DEC suggested restricting high-volume hydrofracking within the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, which provide surface water directly to the two cities without first going through filtration plants. The department also recommended banning drilling within 500 feet of primary aquifers and on state-owned land, and regulating drilling on other private lands.
If approved, these recommendations could open the door to hydrofracking across the state, including in the Southern Tier, where it has been hotly debated. Although drillers are seeking access to the Southern Tier where there is a prevalence of Marcellus Shale — the same shale formation that has been fractured in northern Pennsylvania — some also have applied to explore drilling in the Utica Shale, which covers much of central, western and northern New York.
Independent consultants working with the DEC are looking into likely positive and negative effects of the process on socioeconomic conditions, transportation infrastructure, and visual and noise impacts.
[The DEC planned to release the final draft of its report Aug. 31, but DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said the release would be delayed until the following week due to ongoing response and recovery activities related to Tropical Storm Irene. A public comment period will follow the report’s release.]
While the DEC has been studying the issue, so has the [Rochester] diocesan Public Policy Committee. In 2011 the committee compiled and publicized through parishes its findings on energy issues and climate change, especially in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and Japan’s nuclear power plant disaster, said Kathy Dubel, a member of the committee and justice-and-peace coordinator for Catholic Charities of Chemung/Schuyler.
The committee studied hydrofracking in the context of determining which sources of energy do the least harm to the environment. One argument in favor of hydrofracking that it considered is that natural gas burns cleaner than coal or petroleum, she said.
“The one conclusion as a committee we came to is that gas drilling is positioned as a clean source of energy, but (natural gas is) really a greenhouse gas, and it’s not a renewable source of energy,” Dubel said.
Although it may be cleaner to burn natural gas than its fossil-fuel counterparts, the committee noted that development of a gas well involves hundreds of diesel truck traffic trips to and from the site to haul in clean water and haul out waste, including drill cuttings and “flowback” hydrofracking fluid. In addition to the chemicals added to water that is injected into wells, flowback also can pick up a host of underground pollutants, including high salt concentrations, arsenic and radioactive elements, which complicate its disposal, Dubel noted.
Additionally, gas companies and residents have often fought over reports of methane infiltrating drinking water supplies after hydrofracking operations, leading in some cases to tap water that can be set on fire. While some residents say their water could not be ignited before hydrofracking came to town, gas companies — supported by other residents — assert that methane has long been found in drinking water supplies in Pennsylvania and New York. Environmental activists say those using private wells should take baseline water samples before hydrofracking begins in their communities. The state DEC also has proposed that drillers at their own expense sample and test all residential water wells within 1,000 feet of the well pad, subject to the owners permission. The results would be provided to property owners and available to regulators in the event of an investigation.
Catholics will be examining these and other proposed state regulations on hydrofracking during the public comment period on the department’s report to ensure that all implications are considered, Dubel said.
“We hope that there are going to be strong and really effective regulations before any fracturing permits are issued,” she said.
The Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, a trade group for small oil and gas producers in the state, pointed out that New York has been one of the strictest states in the nation on the gas industry.
“Our membership has always favored a tough but fair regulatory structure,” said Cherie Messore, director of public relations for the IOGA of NY.
Messore said New York could benefit from the job-creation potential of natural gas drilling. She said the pro-business Public Policy Institute estimates that more than 125,000 direct and indirect jobs could be created if about 1,000 new wells are dug in New York in the next five years.
In addition to creating jobs, natural gas is available now and offers the opportunity to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign oil as it transitions to green alternatives, Messore said.
“In the long term, we hope to move our nation to a greater energy independence,” she said.
She pointed out that all alternative energies have drawbacks. For instance, the energy produced from windmills is difficult and expensive to store, and manufacturing solar panels involves the use of toxic chemicals, Messore said.
Proposing use of natural gas as a bridge to other forms of fuel is a viewpoint echoed by Deacon Dan Williams, who until April worked for six years as a natural gas land-leasing agent.
“I think it would be lovely if we all could stop using fossil fuel and walk or use bicycles until we get wind power,” Deacon Williams said. “I’m completely in favor of alternative forms of energy. I don’t think it’s a credible path to stick our heads in the sand and say we can do without it. There’s some transitional process, and to me the transition is … to convert our electrical plants from coal to natural gas.”
Deacon Williams, who started the Joseph’s Hammer ministry and assists at Ss. Isidore and Maria Torribia Parish, both in Steuben County, said he believes people need to weigh the environmental risks against economic benefits.
“If it’s not a significant (environmental) risk, and if we succeed through politics to prevent economic development from happening, that seems wrong to me on a moral level,” he said.
Ellen Harrison thought she had properly weighed the environmental risks when she leased property in Dryden to a natural gas drilling company. Harrison, retired director of the Waste Management Institute at Cornell University, runs the organization Fleased, which is dedicated to people who believe they have been ripped off in deals with natural gas land agents.
“We signed,” Harrison said. “Our thinking was we use gas, and we shouldn’t be NIMBYs (those who espouse a ‘not in my back yard’ attitude).”
At the time she signed the lease, Harrison hadn’t heard of high-volume hydrofracking, but said she became alarmed when she watched the documentary “Split Estate.”
Harrison said she later learned that natural gas leases can be difficult to terminate and may automatically renew. Even if landowners don’t sign leases, they may be subject to a state policy called compulsory integration, which can force holdout landowners to allow drilling if 60 percent of the land around theirs is leased.
“To me, the biggest thing is (drilling is) industrializing the whole landscape, and to me that’s not OK,” Harrison said. “That’s not what rural, pristine New York is meant to be. We should be restricting that kind of activity.”
Rapid economic and population growth accompanying natural gas development in northern Pennsylvania is a relatively new phenomenon, according to a July 22 report by the Pennsylvania Governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission. Since 2009, 72,000 people have been hired in the state of Pennsylvania for new jobs in natural gas drilling and related industries, the commission noteds.
Several unintended consequences also have been observed, including a spike in homelessness, as local residents are no longer able to afford rising rental rates following an influx of out-of-state workers from the natural gas industry, the report stated.
“While a few natural gas companies are constructing company man camps for workers, many residents, particularly renters, have relocated further away from their jobs and communities to find an affordable place to live,” the report noted.
On the other hand, economic prospects were few in northern Pennsylvania before the gas companies came to town, Deacon Williams said, but businesses that cater to the workers are now booming.
“My concern is with farmers and their ability to lead a dignified life, and I’m seeing a lot of them with the ability to do that in Pennsylvania,” he said.
The deacon said he welcomes dialogue on how to best manage the development of natural gas drilling so that it does not reshape the character of the Southern Tier. For instance, he said he hopes local entrepreneurs, rather than big-box stores, would benefit from any new growth.
“That’s where we should be putting our efforts: trying to build up communities,” Deacon Williams said. “When economic development comes, that it should be done responsibly.”
Reprinted with the publisher’s permission
from the August 2011 edition of the Catholic Courier, newspaper of the Diocese of Rochester.