Marcellus Shale Progress Addressing Methane Contamination

At a recent Shale Gas Insight conference in Philadelphia, Aubrey McClendon, the outspoken Chairman of Chesapeake Energy, expressed optimism concernining progress made by industry to address methane contamination of drinking water supplies due to faulty gas well construction. According to McClendon, "Problem identified; problem solved".  However, according to the Times-Tribune writer, Laura Legere, DEP data concerning environmental violations demonstrates that McClendon’s optimism may be premature and that problems with cemented steel well casings designed to protect groundwater from gas and fluids in Marcellus wells perist.  Of course, casing and cementing violations do not necessarily indicate that gas has migrated or will migrate into drinking water supplies. Moreover, methane is present in many water wells in PA from natural pathways unrelated to gas drilling.  However, the crux of environmentalists’ opposition  to hydrofracking appears to center on the gas casing and cementing concerns.  In his comments, McClendon credited an "updated and customized casing system" included in PA state regulations which will hopefully prevent new instances of gas migration.  It is recognized, however, that the geology in Marcellus Shale is neither uniform nor predictable and that the geologic issues are complex.  In planning for Marcellus Shale natural gas exploration in New York, NYDEC personnel have taken to heart (we hope) the lessons of  PA’s experience–good and bad–with hydrofracking and will craft a set of regulations in NY that will promote safe natural gas exploration on a sound economic footing. DEC’s website contains a detailed discussed of DEC staffers’ visit to PA in July ’11 that detailed the environmental issues in PA that NY needs to address in its regulatory framework.

Is DEC Ill-Equipped to Oversee Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Drilling?

According to a report issued by Cornell Law School, the State of New York’s blueprint for Marcellus Shale development proposes 187 new regulatory activities necessary for the oversight of natural gas drilling, but the blueprint does not explain how DEC will carry out these activities.  Cornell’s report concludes that DEC does not have the manpower to appropriately regulate economic development in the Marcellus Shale Formation. According to Adjunct Professor Keith Porter at Cornell Law School, “There is no way they [DEC’s Division of Mineral Resources] have enough people to visit the sites to make sure conditions are met.”  The Cornell study notes that DEC’s proposals require firsthand inspections and the development of detailed spill prevention plans on a site-by-site basis. The proposals also involve assessing and monitoring water resources to ensure they are not damaged by the gas industry’s need for huge volumes of fresh water to stimulate gas production in the fracking process. This process involves shooting millions of gallons of chemical solutions into each well, which then regurgitate brine and wastewater with chemicals, heavy metals and naturally occurring radioactivity. For their part, industry proponents point to New York’s strict regulations and a strong track record by industry. Environmental advocates challenge industry claims, pointing to hundreds of incidents and complaints involving natural gas and oil drilling buried in the DEC’s hazardous spills database. However,  it was reported on January 11, 1010 that DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis had asserted in a letter to Assemblyman William Parment, a member of the legislature’s Environmental Conservation Committee, that reports of accidents relating to natural gas drilling in New York have been overblown and taken out of context.  Without additional DEC inspectors, says Professor Porter, Marcellus Development “will rely on self-compliance.” Environmental advocates point to the water contamination and regulatory violations that plagued the operations of Cabot Oil & Gas in Dimock, Pennsylvania as an object lesson. The Cornell study summarizes the proposed regulatory obligations DEC sets forth in the draft Supplemental Generic which include, among other things,  protecting water resources such as New York’s portion of the Great Lakes Basin;  reviewing permits for equipment and structures that might disturb surface water bodies such as rivers and streams or potentially impact aquatic wetland and terrestrial habitats and water quality;  impacts to wetlands; aquifer depletion arising from proposed groundwater withdrawals for high-volume hydraulic fracturing; reviewing major water withdrawals and approved diversions in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin under the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Water Resources Compact; comprehensive storm water pollution prevention plans and review of permits to address storm water runoff and storm water discharges; industrial activities, including addressing potential sources of pollution and determining when drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations are completed; surface spills and releases at the Well Pad; drilling rig, fuel and tank refueling activities; groundwater impacts associated with well drilling and construction;  private water well testing;  infrastructure control from waste transport to road spreading; and, not least, protecting New York City’s subsurface water supply infrastructure. The import  of the Cornell Law School study is that New York can build an elaborate regulatory scheme designed to protect the environment, but unless there are enough of the right people to enforce the regulations and ensure that they are being rigorously adhered to, the regulations do not amount to much. 

Environmental & Economic Interests Clash Over Marcellus Shale

Environmental groups and proponents of economic development and natural gas exploration are on a collision course of competing economic and environmental interests involving an enormous untapped reservoir of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale Formation. That the Marcellus Shale Formation lies in part across economically depressed regions in upstate New York and Pennsylvania, in urgent need of  an economic boost,  only adds fuel to the dispute. At the heart of the controversy lies the New York City watershed, pristine waters in upstate New York  counties that provide the drinking water for millions of people in New York City. The Marcellus Shale Formation sits underground and stretches southwest from New York through Pennsylvania, and into West Virginia and Ohio. According to experts at Penn State University, the Marcellus Shale Formation is the largest known shale deposit in the world. Recently developed extraction techniques in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing are expected to provide an additional boost to the productivity of Marcellus gas wells. Terry Englander, a geoscience professor at Penn State University, estimates that recoverable reserves in Marcellus Shale could be as high as 489 trillion cubic feet! The Draft 2009 New York State Energy Plan recognizes the great potential benefit to New York from development of the Marcellus Shale natural gas resource. But what environmental safeguards should accompany this monumental enterprise?

On December 23, 2009, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) (not to be confused with theNew York State Department of Environmental Conservation or "DEC"),  called for a prohibition on natural gas drilling in the New York City watershed, urging that, “[N]natural gas drilling and exploration are incompatible with the operation of New York State’s unfiltered water supply system and pose unacceptable risks for more than nine million New Yorkers in this City and State.” According to DEP’s Final Impact Assessment Report, drilling in the watershed requires invasive industrialization and would create a substantial risk of chemical contamination and infrastructure damage. In particular, the DEP’s report singled out the high-volume hydrofracking and horizontal drilling as posing significant environmental risks. Clearly, measures will be taken to protect the watershed, but the devil will be in the details.  A Congressional Research Service report, released on September 9, 2009, examines gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region.  The report acknowledges that groundwater contamination from improper drilling and casing is a risk.  Water sources in New York listed as "primary" or "principal" aquifers may be at risk, according to the report, due to the permeable "unconsolidated sand and gravel deposits" in northern Pennsylvania and southern New York because of short distances from the land surface to the water table.