The search for liquid gold draws nearer in region

Loujane Johns

If you are a certain age you will remember Jed Clampett on the Beverly Hillbillies, who became rich when oil was found in his backyard — “black gold, that is.”  He moved to California and bought a mansion with a swimming pool.  Could that happen here?  Perhaps. But at what cost?

After many months of hearing about the Marcellus Shale filled with an estimated 1,300 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, the time is drawing closer to when our area may see drilling in action.

Those in favor, including large natural gas companies (some with overseas backing) and landowners who stand to collect royalties, say there is a great supply of the clean-burning gas with minimum greenhouse emissions.

On the other hand, geologists, scientists and large and small environmental groups are taking a hard look at the down-side of hydrofracturing to release natural gas deep below the surface. 

A local group “Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes,” used the power of the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) to obtain information on chemicals used in the process From the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).  The source of large amounts of water used in the process is questioned and there are concerns regarding storage of runoff.

The internet is filled with information for anyone who wants to spend hours of study on the subject.  Some of the most interesting sites come from Wyoming and Texas where the natural gas industry has been drilling for some time.  Small towns have become “boomtowns,” flooded with boosts to their economy.  Sounds great!  But there are downsides.

The natural gas companies websites talk about having a clean, affordable and abundant product.  Creating jobs for American workers is another positive note.  Investment companies are advertising gas companies as a good market for the investor.

The state has spent a lot of time considering the issue and on Sept. 30 the DEC announced a proposal for regulations governing natural gas drilling in the state. The public is given until Nov. 30 to submit comments, too short a timeframe many environmentalist groups say, for the average New Yorker to delve into the controversial topic.

Environmental and civic organizations around the state have recommended the comment period be extended to 120 days and include several public hearings to be held across the state. 

Concerns from the groups include: the safety of drinking water, harm to the ecosystem and harm to the air quality.

The draft of the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) addresses many of the impact issues associated with horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing.  The document outlines safety measures, protection standards and mitigation strategies that operators would have to follow to obtain permits.

The DEC also states in the press release, “Natural gas drilling presents economic development and job creation opportunities, and can help achieve state energy policy goals.” 

The SGEIS expands on a Generic Environment Impact Statement adopted by the state in 1992. 

Highlights of the SGEIS which deal with environmental concerns that have been raised include:

• Every applicant must disclose the composition of “frac” fluids and the percentage of chemicals used in each well.

• Prior to drilling, private wells within 1000 feet of the drill will be tested for baseline information and drillers must allow for ongoing monitoring.

• Protocols for the withdrawal of water for use in the process will be followed.

•  Before drilling a well, operators must complete a new “Pre-Frac checklist and Certification Form.”

• Operators are required to prepare plans for mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, visual and noise impacts. A trucking plan including routes must be submitted.

• In primary and principle aquifer areas, state inspectors must be present when operators commence cementing well-bore casings. Special requirements are imposed to expeditiously remove fluids from on-site reserve pits or well pad tanks.

* Flowback on-site storage must use steel tanks.

• For centralized flowback from several sites, the operator must use a double-liner system, provide fencing and off-sets to prevent public access and employ measures to protect wildlife.  These impounds cannot be used within boundaries of public water supplies.

• Before a permit is issued, the operator must disclose plans for disposal of flowback. A new “Drilling and Production Waste Tracking” process will be used to monitor disposal. 

• More specific plans will be used to protect the New York City Watershed.

• On-site reserve flood plain pits are banned from flood plains. A closed-loop tank system is required.

The DEC will accept public comment until Nov. 30 in writing, either by e-mail of regular mail, direct online submissions or at public information sessions (still to be announced).

The SGEIS document is available on the DEC website, but the agency discourages downloading the volumes of paper.

The DEC has the exclusive authority to issue well permits, as the DEC Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Law supersedes local government authority.  They strongly urge operators to consult with local government, however. The only real authority local governments have in regard to well drilling is jurisdiction over local roads and the right to collect real property taxes.

Yates County officials have started working on plans to implement agreements with gas drilling companies regarding road damage from the heavy equipment used in hydro-fracturing.

Legislators have been passing the word on to townships so they can protect the town roads.

Information on the DEC website indicates that complaints on private well contamination will go through the county public health department in the early stages.  The state DOH has already reviewed information on the 260 unique chemicals present in 197 products used in the process. 

They compared the information to the 1992 GEIS and did not identify any different situations and called the designs adequate to prevent fresh ground water contamination.

It’s a hard call to make.  Residents should learn all they can by reading and attending meetings.  Cornell Co-operative Extension is planning a Marcellus Shale Summit on Monday, Nov. 30 at the Owego Treadway Inn.

The Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes will hold a press conference at the Village of Penn Yan Municipal Hall at 111 Elm St. at 2 p.m.Friday, Oct. 16.