Risky Drilling

By leasing your land to a gas company, you could gain a lot of money: thousands of dollars an acre as a signing bonus and even more from years of royalties. But we all risk losing money and so much more besides.

Siting, drilling, fracking, and completing are industrial operations that for one well run from three to nine months, some of it 24/7. The noise and lights last much longer if multiple wells are drilled at the same site, possibly up to three years.

In New York, the legal setback for drilling rigs from your home is only 100 feet, the shortest of any state. A drilling permit from the Department of Environmental Conservation specifies the location of a well, leaving our town government with no say whatsoever.

These operations put heavy truck traffic on local roads, lots of it. Fracking alone requires hundreds of tankers to haul millions of gallons of clean water in, and dirty water out. In addition, the pipelines necessary to ship gas from wells to market must be trenched across local roads and buried. In New York, some towns such as Berkshire in Tioga County have enacted a permitting process for road use, including bonding to cover damages.

The initial drilling can disrupt nearby springs and wells. Because the hole is not lined with casing until drilling reaches below fresh water, during this drilling, water can drain into the hole, thus drawing down the water table. Or high pressure air can enter the aquifer, which can foul the water. As the result of an error in 2007 at Case Hill, Madison County, several homes have had to be supplied with water ever since. And, of course, property loses much of its value without a source of drinking water.

Occasional spills of diesel and chemicals pollute the ground, as with any industrial operation. If a spill flows into streams or rivers, life is poisoned far downstream. Dimock in Susquehanna County, PA, has suffered several spills in the last year. Well fires can pollute the ground and air, such as the one in Smyrna, Chenango County, in 2008.

Natural gas, which is released by drilling, is almost all methane, an odorless and colorless gas which is explosive. In rare cases during drilling, explosions have occured in nearby water wells and cellars, including in a home in Bainbridge Township, Geauga County, OH, three years ago. Natural gas flowing through aquifers also fouls the water. In Bainbridge, 22 residential and one municipal well were fouled.

Black shales are slightly more radioactive than most sedimentary rocks. Chips of shale that are brought up from the hole might be stored in the reserve pit. During reclamation of the drilling site, they might be buried there. These could be a hazard if you built a home on the fragments. Formation waters (the water that occurs naturally in rocks) are radioactive, though at the surface, radon gas quickly dissipates in the air. Some water is so radioactive that it is difficult to dispose of legally. Radioactive elements also accumulate in the crust (or scale) that forms inside equipment. This radioactivity is mainly a hazard to drilling and clean-up crews.

All these operations use tens of acre feet of water. Conventional vertical drilling uses only a few tens of thousands of gallons, but fracking of horizontal wells will use 2 to 9 million gallons. The only source of so much water is local rivers and lakes. While these can supply a limited number of wells during high or normal flow, pumping during a drought can cause severe water shortages.

Some of the water that is pumped down the hole flows back up and out – ten to thirty-five percent. This water is contaminated by chemicals that are added for fracking and by mixing with formation water. The Bureau of Oil and Gas Regulation requires that all flowback water be trucked off site, but it is not clear where it will go. Neither existing industrial treatment plants nor injection wells have the capacity for so much polluted water.

The DEC and industry associations have claimed repeatedly that for the thousands of wells fracked in New York State, there is no evidence of a polluted aquifer. This is true but deceptive, because it is equally true that neither the DEC nor drillers have proven that these wells have not polluted surrounding aquifers. Neither has done any testing of aquifers before and after gas extraction. Plus, the combination of horizontal drilling and high-volume fracking has yet to be done in New York.

Drillers argue that because the shale layers are thousands of feet underground, fracking fluids can not escape upward to the aquifers. But natural gas can: it occurs naturally in ground water in scattered locations throughout the Southern Tier. Frack fluids may follow the same paths upward. What is more, past fracking has been of vertical wells. Horizontal wells will have a much greater chance of penetrating faults that could offer a pathway up into an aquifer.

Drilling companies have largely refused to release to the public lists of the chemicals added to the water for fracking — hundreds of tons of these per well. Without this knowledge, wells and other water sources have to be tested for every possible toxic chemical, a vastly expensive procedure. And without proper baseline testing before drilling, it would be difficult to make a legal case that drilling polluted your well.

A review of the DEC’s searchable Spill Incidents Database found hundreds of drilling spills and seeps over the last 30 years. However, oversight of pollution caused by drilling is the responsibility of the Bureau, and their non-routine incident reports are on paper, most in dead storage, and are not available for review. Therefore, the full extent of past and present pollution is impossible to determine.

After fracking fluids stop flowing back out of the well and gas begins to flow in quantity, there is a small amount of formation waters that comes along. This salty waste water is separated from the gas and stored in a tank on site. Standard practice is to spread this water on local roads, even though the chemicals in this water have not been analyzed. Approval by the town highway department is required before spreading.

The Bureau of Oil and Gas Regulation is responsible for writing and enforcing drilling regulations and is in the process of revising the rules to accommodate horizontal drilling and fracturing of black shale. It has only 16 employees in the Permits Section. They oversee 60,000 inactive wells, 15,000 active wells, and the several hundred new wells that are drilled each year. Fees for drilling are only about two thousand dollars for a vertical well that could net ten of millions of dollars, and the Bureau keeps only ten percent of that. Such low fees keep it too short of resources to supervise adequately. Under current regulations, an inspector must visit a drilling site only twice: prior to start of operations and after site has reclaimed — three times, if the well penetrates a primary or principal aquifer.

As limited as it is, the Bureau is the only governmental agency that is regulating pollution by drillers. The Federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempts fracking from oversight under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and New York State Environmental Conservation Law preempts all town law except for those on local roads and property taxes.

While each land owner must decide if these risks outweigh their payments, the larger community should protect itself from risking its wealth and health.

This is the fourth in a series on gas extraction. The next installment will be on gas leases.