Monday, June 8, 2009

Considering the Impact of Gas Wells and Gas Fields

by Chris W. Burger, Chair
Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition

In November of 2008, Broome County government took a courageous stand against unbridled gas drilling. They were soon joined by towns and villages across the region, along with groups like Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition (BRSC). The County was not against gas drilling per se. It was simply calling for safety and responsibility in the face of a growing “gas rush fever” where caution was in short supply. BRSC was established, in part, to foster economic development, yet along with the County, we understand that, if not done safely and responsibly, gas drilling could easily undermine the community’s sustainability – its long-term health and economic viability.

Everything about gas drilling cries for caution, due diligence, and patience. Its monetary benefits seem obvious, but the costs and risks are far from fully identified, much less comprehended. If there ever is a time for a serious, hardnosed cost-benefit analysis, this situation surely qualifies. It is hard to understate the disastrous consequences if we get it wrong. It is extremely difficult and expensive to address negative health, socio-economic, and environmental impacts after the fact.

We have been granted an extraordinary gift of time. The gas craze was just getting started in New York when natural gas prices fell and venture capital dried up. A short time before, behind closed doors, the Oil and Gas Industry (O&G) had pressured the Federal government to exempt its activities from most of the laws the public takes for granted to protect them; such laws as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, storm water rules, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

At the state level, quiet lobbying by O&G has stripped local communities of “home rule” when it comes to gas drilling. Listed as an industrial activity, the state, in effect, can declare our entire
county an “industrial zone’ for gas drilling activity. O&G now has the power to force landowners into “spacing units” for the purposes of extracting gas from their property. An environmental impact study will not be done for our particular community, but we will be regulated under a “generic” study for the entire state.

Landowner groups have been portrayed as uncaring, money grubbers, but if the truth be told, most landowners feel abandoned by their government and have had to band together for protection. Stripped of protection by law, they are seeking it by lease. Yet, many landowners are uneasy. They have observed a pattern of denial by O&G when it comes to taking responsibility. There is a growing, sickening realization that no matter how tight and comprehensive the lease, they will have to sue for lease enforcement and without the government on their side, they will be hopelessly “out gunned.” Even when landowners are upheld, they have witnessed a pattern of seemingly endless appeals to delay restitution.

Sooner or later, gas prices will rise again and venture capital will
again be available. We have been given time, but we are squandering
it. The NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is
supposedly looking at the impact of “horizontal hydofracing” the
technology required to get the gas from tight shale formations like
Marcellus, yet their “scoping document” (list of issues it is
studying) is limited and no one has stepped in to pick up the slack.
No one is volunteering to do the socio-economic cost-benefit analysis
required for good decision making (We feel the counties are best
positioned to do this). As important as looking at individual gas
wells is, no one is looking at the impact of a “gas field;” the more
relevant question from a community perspective.

One does not need to be against gas drilling to ask these basic
  • What well density do we consider acceptable?
  • What damage will our drinking water sources sustain?
  • How will we dispose of the toxic waste water generated by the drilling and fracing?
  • What are the effects on agriculture, hunting, and fishing?
  • What are the effects on our wildlife in general?
  • How will this affect tourism?
  • How will it affect our ability to attract young people to our area?
  • What air quality and noise levels do we consider acceptable?
  • Already stressed, what are the effects on our infrastructure roads, bridges, sewage treatment plants, emergency responders, etc.?
  • What are the effects on our ability to control flooding?
  • How will the many natural faults in our geography impact the safety of the technology?
  • How can we eliminate liability for the landowner?
  • What regulation is needed to hold O&G fully accountable for all costs associated with drilling?
These questions need to be answered in the context of a fully developed gas field, not a single well.

The saddest refrain emanating from our neighbors just to the south is
“if only we knew what we were getting ourselves into.” Families have
lost their water wells to pollution, there have been gas explosions,
and home values have plummeted. We need to ask hard questions because drilling will not be restricted to rural areas. It can occur in our suburbs and cities, just as it is happening now under downtown Fort Worth , Texas. A fully developed gas field will affect us all.

*Don't Miss Chris Burger's excellent video on the Marcellus Shale Play!


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