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Source: City Newspaper

ENVIRONMENT: After BP, a closer eye on shale drilling


Posted: June 9, 2010
Originally Published: June 9, 2010

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.