The highly productive method of natural gas extraction known as "hydro fracturing" has spread rapidly across the United States in recent years, opening up vast new reserves in Texas, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and other states.
Last fall, however, the process - also known as "fracking" - ran headlong into opposition from New York City. And for now at least, stiff resistance from the city, which fears the contamination of its pristine water supply in upstate New York, seems to have slowed the momentum behind this highly touted - and highly controversial - drilling technique.
The city's 90-page inventory of the possibly dire impacts of hydraulic fracturing has now become primary source material for a growing environmental backlash to the gas industry's rapid assault on the huge gas-rich geological formation known as the Marcellus Shale, which underlies large portions of rural Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and New York State.
Acting in part on concerns raised by the New York City report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced last week that it would conduct a nationwide study to assess the environmental damage caused by hydro fracturing. The EPA's larger conclusion - that the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on human health, the environment, water supply, water quality, wastewater treatment, air quality, and management of radioactive materials, "warrant further scientific and regulatory analysis" - was not one the industry wanted to hear.
The EPA study may well lead to tighter controls over this loosely regulated practice, and could impede the spread of hydro fracturing. The drilling method involves forcing a mixture of water, chemicals, and sand at high pressure down a well bore and into the dense surrounding rock. There, it creates small fractures that release the previously trapped reserves. The problem is, however, that the technique also uses large quantities of water - anywhere from 3 million to 8 million gallons per well - some third to half of which emerges from the fracking process tainted by numerous contaminants and chemicals. If that water isn't properly stored and treated, it poses a risk to surface water, wells, and underground aquifers.
The Bush administration, acting on a widely criticized EPA study that did not even test water samples, concluded that fracking was safe and in 2005 exempted gas drilling from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Fracking was already widespread in Texas and Wyoming, but in recent years concerns began to grow over the environmental impact of the technique. Some western landowners claimed the drilling had polluted their wells or streams and poisoned their cattle; others claimed to have been exposed to toxic fumes seeping out of the wells. The industry, which refused to identify the chemistry of its fracking fluids for proprietary reasons, protested that these were isolated incidents, the result of poorly managed operations.
Then, in 2008, estimates that the Marcellus Shale held 350 trillion cubic feet of natural gas - enough, at the present rate of consumption, to cover the nation's natural gas needs for 15 years - set off a gas leasing frenzy in the Marcellus region. Fracking wells began sprouting in the East.
Last year, however, New York City - concerned about the spread of hydro fracturing into the city's 1,585-square-mile watershed in the Catskill Mountains and upper Delaware River basin - hired a team of geologists to assess fracking's impact. Although the city's watershed makes up only 8.5 percent of New York State's share of the Marcellus region, the city's study raised a large red flag as scientists argued that significant risk of water pollution was endemic to the fracking process.
"Intensive natural gas well development in the watershed," the study said, "brings an increased level of risk to the water supply: risk of degrading source water quality, risk to long-term watershed health... risk of damaging critical infrastructure, and the risk of exposing watershed residents and potentially NYC residents to chronic low levels of toxic chemicals." The city's report said that while a single well may be environmentally benign, the risks become unacceptable "when evaluated in the context of hundreds or thousands of other wells."
Wes Gillingham, program director of Catskill Mountainkeeper, said of the report, "One of the reasons industry could get away with these incidents is that there was a lack of science. New York City used reputable geologists and came up with the science."
In a letter to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the EPA agreed with the city's concerns and further stated that, "While protecting the New York City watershed is important... we also have concerns about water quality throughout the state. Just because fewer people rely on upstate water resources does not imply that these supplies are not worthy of protection."
Not long after the EPA made itself heard anew, a "Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act" was introduced in Congress. Known as the FRAC Act, it would return to the EPA jurisdiction over hydraulic fracturing nationwide.
New York City, it turns out, had thrown a wrench into a fully stoked industrial machine.
Only a few years ago, before the Marcellus Shale became a household name across rural West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York, this deep sedimentary formation was mostly known only to geologists. They knew it lay a mile and more below the surface of the Appalachian basin and stretched north from West Virginia to Lake Erie and east across the Appalachian mountains, the Allegheny, Susquehanna, and Delaware river valleys, and into southern New York. They knew it formed some 350 million years ago as the organic-rich deposit of an ancient river delta and that, compressed over time beneath sandstone, siltstone and shales, it had produced hydrocarbons, especially in the form of natural gas.
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What they didn't know, until recently, was how much gas it held. Twenty years ago they would have said, "not much." And what was there, they would have said, was hardly worth tapping since the Marcellus was a tight-fisted formation, its gas either trapped between fine and densely-packed grains or adsorbed into its organic matter. The relatively low cost of natural gas and the high cost of fracking - wells can cost a few million dollars and more - also led to the Marcellus reserves remaining untapped.
But the realization two years ago of just how much gas the Marcellus Shale contained changed the economics. A "play," as the industry calls it, in the Marcellus Shale seemed plausible. What made it practicable was a new technology developed in the early 1990s for use on drilling rigs in waters off the Gulf Coast: A motor attached to the drill bit allows it, once it reaches its final vertical depth, to be turned 90 degrees and to bore horizontally. A few of these horizontal wells, each sometimes running as much as a mile from the vertical well bore, allows fracking to extend far into the surrounding rock. While each well might now require millions - instead of thousands - of gallons of fracking fluid, this combination of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling made drilling into dense shales like the Marcellus eminently doable and profitable. What also made it irresistible was the fact that the price for a thousand cubic feet of natural gas had risen to more than ten dollars.
Energy companies began a rush to lease lands over the Marcellus Shale. States predicted new jobs and big revenues. Politicians concerned over the country's dependence on foreign oil saw a large and untapped source of domestic fuel reserves. Landowners in job-scarce rural counties imagined their leases bringing big Beverly Hillbillies payoffs, such as the ones that had come to many landowners in the West. Some conservationists, including the Sierra Club, saw the possibility that such reserves would make natural gas - with fewer CO2 emissions than coal or oil -the transitional energy of choice until wind or solar power took over.
In 2008, drilling began in West Virginia and Pennsylvania. New York State, recognizing that its regulations did not address either the new technology or the expected intensity of drilling effort, imposed a temporary moratorium and quickly drafted an environmental impact statement that it hoped would soon allow drilling to commence. The industry, including Exxon-Mobil, was touting widespread gas development in the Marcellus Shale.
Then New York City's report rang up the numbers: Each well pad will take up 5 to 7 acres including roads, pipelines, and storage facilities. There will be 6 to 10 wells per pad. The well bore will go down some 3,000 to 7,000 feet and horizontal sections will extend laterally for 2,000 to 6,000 feet. The fracking process requires, at minimum, several million gallons of water per well. Since the wells will be far from any municipal supply, getting this water to the well will require 800 to 1,200 tanker truck trips or on-site water. If this water is drawn from the city's watershed it will mean less water in its reservoirs, especially in times of drought. (Eight million gallons of water is equivalent to 320,000 ten-minute showers.)
New York City's study also estimated that 4 million gallons of frack fluid will contain anywhere from 80 to 330 tons of chemicals per well. Much of that water returns to the surface over several weeks of fracking. This "flowback" contains both the original - and unidentified - frack fluid chemicals, as well as dissolved hydrocarbons, benzene, heavy metals, and naturally occurring radionuclides, including uranium.
These millions of gallons of hazardous flowback waste need to be collected, safely stored on site, and then trucked from the well site to an industrial wastewater treatment plant. New York State has only two treatment plants capable of handling the wastewater, and neither is anywhere near the Delaware River watershed. The nearest, according to the Delaware River Basin Commission, is outside of Philadelphia, some 200 miles away.
The city was not impressed with the industry's claims that hydrofracking poses little risk to underground aquifers. Although the main well and its horizontal bores will be far below any freshwater aquifer, New York City's analysis found that natural faults and fractures in the underlying geological formations "can and do serve as conduits that facilitate migration of contaminants, methane, or pressurized fluids from deep formation towards the surface."
The city's final word, as its Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner, Paul Rush, put it, was "no": no water withdrawals and no fracking "in the New York City watershed or anywhere near its infrastructures."
Not long after the city's report was issued, Chesapeake Energy - a major player in the Marcellus Shale that holds leases on properties in the city's watershed - vowed it would not drill on any of them.
New York City's concerns are unique. As it has since 1915, city water runs untreated through more than a hundred miles of tunnels into New York City taps. Anything that might affect the quality of that water and require it to be treated could cost the city billions of dollars. And yet, the city's description of its watershed as a "pristine, largely undisturbed landscape" applies to much of the 18,000 square miles overlaying the Marcellus Shale in New York State. Most of this southern tier region, as it is known, is sparsely populated: small towns surrounded by forests and farmland.
While the sight of oil and gas rigs scattered across the landscape may be a familiar and even comforting one to those who live in the southwestern U.S., it's an unfamiliar - and often disconcerting - vision for those living in the relatively pristine environs of the Catskills. And while some upstate New Yorkers see the possibility of new jobs and incomes, others fear the fragmentation of forests and farmland, the costs of maintaining roads and services, the ruination of the landscape, and the possible contamination of their streams, rivers, and wells.
"Fracking gets all the headlines," says the Mountainkeeper's Gillingham, "but one of the biggest impacts will be the industrialization of the landscape."