New York Governor David Paterson no doubt made New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg a very happy man recently, when he signed an executive order halting the controversial natural gas drilling process called hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—in the state until July 1, 2011.
The fracking process is controversial to say the least because it may be associated with harmful effects on the environment, specifically underground drinking water. Folks in the eastern states of New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are particularly concerned because they sit on shale formations such as the Marcellus Formation, which are estimated to contain trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.
The governor signed the order to stop horizontal fracking in New York state on Saturday. The ban will remain in place until the state Department of Environmental Conservation completes a comprehensive review to determine what, if any dangers are associated with this process.
But the folks who live in areas where hydraulic fracking is taking place—areas such as the Delaware River Basin in Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, claim they are already seeing the effects of fracking in their backyards. Some people have been able to set their water on fire – something they claim they couldn’t do before fracking began in their neighborhoods. In fact, CNN.com went onsite recently and filmed a resident lighting his well water on fire, the artesian well is located in his back yard.
According to a related report on CNN, the Delaware River Basin was recently named the country’s most endangered river because of the threat of natural gas. New York City gets approximately half its fresh water from this river basin, so one can understand the level of concern.
As CNN also reported, Mayor Bloomberg went public in November asking for a more cautious approach to drilling. “The stakes are high,” he wrote in a letter to the Carol Collier, executive director of the Delaware River Basin Commission. “The city has invested more than $1.5 billion in watershed protection programs that have resulted in improved water quality throughout our watershed, as well as to our releases downstream, which benefit all members of the commission, and the 15 million people who rely on the Delaware River watershed for clean drinking water,” Bloomberg wrote.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website (epa.gov), a well is drilled into reservoir rock that contains oil, natural gas, and water. Then, a fluid—usually water that contains “specialty high-viscosity fluid additives”—is injected under high pressure into the rock. Because of the immense pressure of the fluid being driven into the rock, the rock splits open further—i.e., it creates “fractures.” Once the rock is fractured, a propping agent (such as sand) is pumped into the fractures to keep them from closing once the pumping pressure is released. The fractures allow the natural gas to move more freely to a production well so that it can be brought to the surface.
Does this sound safe to you? It doesn’t sound all that ‘safe’ to me. Even the EPA is reviewing its position and plans to issue a further report on fracking in 2012.
But some people in rural Pennsylvania aren’t about to wait for the EPA’s new report. They have gone ahead and filed a lawsuit against an oil and gas company involved in hydraulic fracking in their area. They allege that Cabot Oil and Gas Corp., has contaminated the local drinking water. Of course the company says this is essentially bunk and cites a 2004 report by the EPA that found the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids “poses minimal threat” to underground water sources. That, I would have said, remains to be determined.
I guess I’m left with this question—if hydraulic fracking is a safer, cleaner, cheaper way to extract fossil fuel energy, something everyone wants to see, why would people make up allegations that it’s contaminating their drinking water? Why would they go to the bother of demonstrating that they can set their drinking water on fire as proof of contamination? Who benefits from that?