The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release

Serious Flaws Plague NY Drilling Plan


Significant scientific gaps in a New York state regulatory plan would make drilling for shale gas a multi-billion-dollar gamble, according to a joint report by two watchdog organizations.

The analysis by New York-based Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy and the Environmental Working Group, based in Washington, D.C., finds that the Cuomo administration deserves some credit for adopting what appears to be a more conservative approach to drilling as reported in the New York Times today. But state officials have still not resolved the significant scientific gaps.

Details of the modified plan are sparse, but the elements reported by the Times appear to perpetuate the seemingly arbitrary, unscientific thinking behind the published draft plan. For example, state officials claim that they can prevent pollution by limiting drilling to areas in the Marcellus Shale near the Pennsylvania border where the shale is at least 2,000 feet deep and there is at least 1,000 feet of separation between the top of the shale and water supplies. But the state will have to explain how these depths were chosen when:

  • A 1987 EPA report to Congress found that a shale gas well hydraulically fractured at a depth of more than 4,200 feet contaminated a water supply only 400 feet from the surface.1
  • A 2004 investigation by the state of Colorado found that an improperly cemented natural gas well drilled more than 6,500 feet deep and hydraulically fractured released natural gas and associated contaminants from more than 4,000 feet underground, polluting surface water with unsafe levels of benzene, a known human carcinogen.2
  • Industry studies have found that oil and gas wells routinely develop leaks that allow gas and potentially associated contaminants to migrate from deep underground to the surface.3
  • The U.S. Geological Survey has found that the Marcellus Shale is highly fractured, providing pathways for contaminants to migrate vertically into water supplies.4
  • The U.S. Geological Survey has found that New York officials do not know the locations of many underground water supplies.5

Officials from Chautauqua County, where there is a long history of natural gas drilling, have expressed similar reservations about well failures and a lack of science behind the state's plan. Moreover, limiting drilling to several counties near the Pennsylvania border still does not solve the problem of how to safely dispose of millions of gallons of toxic wastewater.

"In light of the recent call by the U.S. Department of Energy for much more empirical scientific information about the safety of high volume hydraulic fracturing for shale gas, and the limited amount of solid scientific support for the program proposed for New York, it would be reckless and irresponsible to proceed with drilling at this time," said A.R. Ingraffea, president of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy and a professor of engineering at Cornell University who specializes in rock fracturing.

"There is a lot of science to do to determine how and whether inherently risky shale gas drilling can be done safely, and the state hasn't done it yet," said Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel for Environmental Working Group. "Producing thousands of pages of text is no substitute for figuring out whether toxic wastewater can be safely disposed of or how far drilling pollution can spread underground."

The ten most significant deficiencies in the draft plan drawn up by the state Department of Environmental Conservation are:

  • No empirical scientific data on drilling and fracking risks
  • Drilling allowed too close to sensitive water supplies
  • No plan for disposing of millions of gallons of toxic wastewater
  • Radioactive pollution from drilling underestimated
  • Outdated studies to estimate greenhouse gas emissions from shale gas operations
  • No assessment of the impact of shale gas development on New Yorkers' health
  • Little basic data on the location of underground water supplies, faults and flood plains
  • No review of siting plans and risks of potentially explosive natural gas pipelines
  • No provisions to protect sensitive areas from vertical drilling and lower-volume hydraulic fracturing
  • Too few inspectors to enforce scientifically rigorous regulations

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has received 66,700 public comments, a record, and another 13,000 on its 2009 draft drilling plan. The department recently told Buffalo Business First that it is preparing responses to all 79,700 public comments, many of them critical.

The state should take the time to review these comments thoroughly and, most importantly, conduct the necessary scientific inquiry to determine how and whether shale gas drilling can be conducted safely.

Moving forward with plans to drill before more research is conducted would be a roll of the dice that New Yorkers cannot afford to lose.

Read full report online

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