Gas Drillers To Disclose Fracking Chemicals

The Wall Street Journal reported today that Texas Governor Rick Perry signed into law Friday a bill that will require companies to make public the chemicals they use on every hydraulic fracturing job in the state.  Texas’ law is significant because the oil and gas drilling industry, which is powerful in Texas, vocally supported the measure.  Opponents to fracking in the Marcellus Shale region of  New York and Pennsylvannia have long accused the drilling companies of secrecy for failing to disclose the chemicals used in hydrofracking.  Widespread support for this measure, and similar measures in other states, provide some indication of just how untenable the industry’s former stance had been.  Fracking involves blasting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to break up oil and gas-bearing rocks.  Environmentalists and residents in drilling areas fear that the fracking process may result in chemical contamination of drinking water aquifers.  Until now, industry’s argument that fracking is safe has been hamstrung by drillers’ refusal to disclose the chemicals used.  Going forward, the fracking debate can now refocus on the important issues, such as the likelihood that faulty well construction may result in contamination of an aquifer.  According to industry spokespersons, tens of thousands of wells have been drilled with relatively few problems.  In those rare instances where a problem has been reported, the industry believes that the problem is most likely attributable to an improperly constructed well.  Earlier this year, some of the larger gas producers, notably Chesapeake, Chevron and BP, announced that they would voluntarily begin to publicize the chemicals they use online at This website is a joint project of the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.

Ed Lowenberg Retires From ExxonMobil

Ed Lowenberg, the Coordinator of the Toxic Torts Group in the Litigation Department at ExxonMobil, is retiring after 32 with the company on November 30, 2010.  Before he retired, he calculated his retirement account using this link . He will be greatly missed by members of the toxic tort bar–by both the defendant and plaintiff lawyers with whom he has worked over his long career  To many of us, Ed Lowenberg personified Exxon.  Over the years, he was responsible for some of the most high profile toxic tort litigations in the United States.  Like the consummate fighter that he was, Ed always looked to land a decisive  knockout blow on an adversary. At the same time, however , Ed handled all of his matters with professional integrity, creativity and good humor.  He will be greatly missed by the toxic tort bar.

After receiving a B.A. in Political Science from the City College of New York in 1967 and a J.D. from the University of Texas in 1970, Ed worked at HEW, as a Trial Counsel for Justice, and as Special Counsel for the SEC. He also served as Special Assistant United States Attorney in Houston, New Orleans and in other venues. However, he found his true calling working in-house at Exxon, which he joined in 1978, defending the the company’s toxic tort litigation.

Ed was an early advocate of joint defense groups in mass tort litigation.  In cases in which plaintiffs would sue 20 chemical manufacturers, each manufacturer would routinely retain its own legal team to defend the case.  In a joint defense, the defendants agree to waive conflicts and to retain a single law firm to represent the entire defense group.  When joint defense groups were initially proposed, there was a tremendous backlash within both the in-house bar and among outside law firms, who feared the  loss of significant clients to the “joint defense counsel”  and bemoaned the the loss of revenue from defending the case.  However, Ed and other pioneering in-house lawyers recognized that the industry could more properly defend baseless toxic tort cases once a joint defense group comprised of in-house lawyers could was able to instruct defense counsel how best to defend a case.  With multiple law firms appearing for multiple defendants, the temptation for some companies to settle for “nuisance value” to avoid high defense costs was often irresistible.  In a joint defense, in which each of the twenty law firms pays only a fraction of the cost of defense, nuisance value is greatly diminished and plaintiff lawyers often lose their enthusiasm about their claims.  The joint defense was just one of many innovations Ed brought to toxic tort defense.


Gas Exploration In Marcellus Shale: Water Quality and Water Usage Issues

Eileen Millett is Counsel to the law firm of Epstein Becker & Green, P.C. where she represents clients on environmental matters, including solid and hazardous waste and the Clean Water Act,  and counsels clients on general regulatory compliance questions, including issues related to toxic waste and water quality, permitting, emerging obligations under impending climate regulations and other federal, state, and local environmental statutes and regulations.  Ms. Millett previously served as Assistant Counsel with the Hazardous Waste Task Force at NYDEC and as General Counsel to the Interstate Environmental Commission, a tri-state water and air quality enforcement authority, where she conducted and managed litigation to control and abate water pollution and ensure adequate water and sewer infrastructure.  She teaches environmental law at the Syracuse University College of Law. 

Marcellus Shale is shale formation that extends deeply underground from Ohio and West Virginia, northeast into Pennsylvania, and into New York’s southern tier. Although the shale is exposed in some locations in New York, it descends to a depth of as much as 7,000 feet or more below the ground surface along New York’s Pennsylvania border.  Estimates project that this shale formation contains enough natural gas to fuel New York State’s energy needs for decades to come. Some geologists have estimated that the entire Marcellus Shale formation could contain between 168 trillion to over 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas throughout its entire extent. New York uses approximately 1.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas a year. How much gas will be recoverable from the shale is not yet known. Nonetheless, natural gas has emerged as an energy source capable of contributing to alleviating some of the United States’ dependence on foreign oil. Thus, the ability to effectively capture natural gas in the Marcellus shale efficiently and in an environmentally sound manner is of the utmost importance.

It is the process associated with the recovery of natural gas from the shale and the attendant interstate environmental impacts that have become the subject of much debate. The natural gas is both very deeply and very tightly embedded in the shale. However, of late, new technological developments with extraction, notably hydraulic fracturing, have demonstrated promising results.   Interest has naturally advanced because of the shale’s proximity to high demand markets and the development of the Millennium Pipeline. This interest, however, has not been without question about the effects on the surrounding communities and the environment. The concerns raised have been with the technology, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

Horizontal drilling is one of the techniques used in the process of reaching the natural gas. One drills down vertically first and then special tools are used to turn the well horizontally. This type of drilling has two advantages, one, is the production of more gas from a single well, since perpendicular penetration of the vertical rock fractures allow engineers to drill more area in the zone of gas producing rock, and, two, many more horizontal wells may be drilled from the same surface location, thus, disturbing less ground surface as compared to using vertically wells. Both, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies have enhanced the cost-efficient recovery of natural gas contained within Marcellus shale. The NYDEC website provides a description of the drilling technology.

Hydraulic fracturing is the high pressure pumping of fluid with a material adept at propping, such as sand, to both expand or fracture the rock to facilitate recovery of the gas, and at the same time, allow the space that’s been expanded to stay open long enough to allow the maximum amount of gas to flow into the well. Unlike of types of drilling, no blasting is used. The hydraulic fracturing process is especially helpful for the type of “tight” rock formation found in rocks like shale. Water and fine sand are pumped through the rock with pressure, fracturing the shale and leaving the grains propping up the rock so that gas escapes. Extracting gas from shale is not as simple as this process may sound. Each shale rock formation is different, thus, to achieve the optimal gas production, could require one to change the amount and mix of fluid and sand. The results cannot be guaranteed and experience and experimentation is the normal way of operating.  

Concerns have been raised that the fracking technique could contaminate groundwater, and that its use should be closely regulated. Most fractured wells are thousands of feet below any potable water zone, thus concerns about groundwater while understandable may be misplaced.  Notable among the concerns is the volume of water required for the process, the chemical composition of the fluid used and the challenges posed by the proper disposal of those fluids. First, Hydraulic fracturing requires the use of large volumes of water to fracture the rocks and produce gas, with each well using up to a million gallons of water. Secondly, the fracturing fluid contains compounds added to it to make the process more effective.   These fluids could include chemicals to reduce friction, inhibit the growth of bacteria, assist in carrying the propping agents into fractured rock, substances to ensure that the propping agent stays in the fracture and agents to prevent or retard corrosion of pipes in the wells. Thirdly, fluid removed from the wells is required to be handled, transported and disposed of properly.


Among the many issues of concern for the environment in the water quality context are water usage, effluent content, and disposal. Among the most pressing of these issues are the following: the amount of water usage, the need to withdraw surface water, what authority controls and regulates the withdrawal of public drinking water, what authority regulates the withdrawal of surface water for commercial and industrial use, the management of the water withdrawals outside of the authority of water quality commissions (the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) and the Great Lakes Commission (GLC)), what approved pretreatment programs exist, and the adequacy, the capacity and the ability of treatment facilities to properly treat and dispose of water. The challenge for attorneys and for courts will arise as communities grapple with:

● Managing the use of water, water withdrawals, what authority controls and who regulates;

● Impacts if any on waterbodies and aquatic life in affected water bodies accepting chemical fluids of varying composition;

● Adequacy and availability of treatment and pre treatment facilities.

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.