After BP, A Closer Eye on Shale Drilling

Published on
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Rochester City Newspaper (New York)

After BP, A Closer Eye on Shale Drilling

by
Jeremy Moule

Questioning the safety of gas fracturing, a process in drilling for natural gas called "fracking" in which millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the ground at high pressure to fracture the shale and release the gas. Sound dangerous? Well, it is. (CHRISTINE BAKER, The Patriot-NewsJosh)

NEW YORK - As the BP oil spill saga enters its
second month, the country continues to struggle with questions: how to
stop the leak, how to contain the environmental damage, what can be
done to make sure this doesn't happen again, and what, exactly, led to
this unprecedented disaster?

In New York, where there's the
prospect of a natural gas drilling boom, there's another question: what
lessons from the spill can be applied to drilling in the Marcellus
Shale? State environmental officials are reviewing new regulations that
would apply to deep horizontal wells used in combination with hydraulic
fracturing. The unconventional combination has never been used in New
York.

(Hydraulic fracturing - hydrofracking, as it's commonly
called - is an extraction method where a mix of water, sand, and
chemicals is forced down a well at high pressure to break apart the
rock and release the gas.)

The BP spill illustrates that it's
cheaper and better for the environment to prevent pollution as opposed
to cleaning up a disaster, says Dereth Glance, program director for
Citizens Campaign for the Environment. And once pollution occurs, she
says, there's no guarantee you can clean it up.

Detailed plans need to be prepared in anticipation of any problem that might arise, Glance says.

Sally
Howard, a member of the Federation of Monroe County Environmentalists,
says there should be safety measures and backup safety measures to
protect fresh-water resources from contamination. Howard wasn't
speaking on the group's behalf.

"Once chemicals escape into a
lake, trout stream, or water table we can't just click ‘undo' to get it
back," Howard wrote in an e-mail.

Energy companies already use
horizontal wells and hydrofracking in Pennsylvania's part of the
Marcellus. And there have been serious problems. Last week, a Marcellus
well in the western Pennsylvania town of Lawrence ruptured and shot
natural gas and fracking fluid 75 feet into the air. The well was
capped 16 hours later.

In another incident, Pennsylvania state
officials ordered Cabot Oil to stop drilling after it spilled thousands
of gallons of fracking fluid, which contaminated a stream. The state's
regulatory agencies were caught unprepared, Glance says. She says she's
worried the same thing could happen in New York.

Environmental
groups have criticized New York's draft shale hydrofracking guidelines,
saying they aren't strict enough or easily enforceable. They also worry
that DEC staffing levels aren't adequate to provide the kind of
independent oversight that'll be necessary. The DEC's review could be
finished later this year, with permits going out in 2011.

Katherine
Nadeau is the water and natural resources program director for
Environmental Advocates of New York. A lot of people are paying extra
attention to what the Legislature and the state DEC do regarding shale
drilling regulations, she says.

She says there are 28 different
bills between the State Senate and Assembly dealing with different
aspects of fracking. Last week, some of them started through the
Assembly's committee process.

One bill would establish a drilling
moratorium until the federal Environmental Protection Agency finishes a
hydrofracking study. That bill is backed by at least some environmental
groups.

The same forces drive offshore oil drilling and on-shore
shale gas drilling. Over the years, easily-accessed domestic reservoirs
of oil and gas have been depleted, but there's still high demand for
both. Energy companies continue to make serious money off of the
products, so they've started tapping non-conventional sources like
deep-water oil deposits or natural gas trapped inside dense shale
formations.

But these new sources come with problems of their
own. They're more expensive to develop and they carry greater
environmental risk. The BP oil spill is a perfect example: it's at
least double the size of the Exxon Valdez spill and could be up to nine
times as large, say some media reports. The oil that's spewed from a
broken pipe has soiled beaches, coated wildlife, and could spoil
coastal marshes. BP has repeatedly failed to stop the leak.

The
factors that allegedly led to the leak sound an awful lot like the
concerns state residents have over Marcellus Shale drilling: human
error, lax oversight, and inadequate environmental review.

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