Look For Middle Ground On Hydraulic Fracturing

Regarding the April 22 Post-Journal editorial, I agree that “middle ground” between society’s needs and environmental concerns is something worth striving for. With my background in natural resource management, I’m often frustrated that people do not have a better understanding about the goods and services we demand, the resources necessary to produce them and the tradeoffs between the two. Having followed the issue of high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) and horizontal drilling since 2008, I think there’s more opportunity for middle ground than we’re often led to believe.

In the previous Saturday’s Post-Journal, Assemblyman Andy Goodell is quoted as having stated: “We have been hydrofracking in Chautauqua County now for over 65 years. We have over 5,000 wells hydrofracked, in Chautauqua County. Can we hydrofrack safely? Of course you can. Should we? Absolutely.” Would DEC really initiate a new regulatory process if HVHF is the same technique that’s been used for 65 years? Despite Mr. Goodell’s statements, “fracking” has been permitted in NYS since 1972 with no requirement for water quality testing of drinking water supplies. To their credit, some operators have tested water supplies without being required to do so. However, the general absence of data does not prove safety, but more a lack of scientific information on which to develop an informed middle ground.

Earlier this year, Mr. Goodell reintroduced a bill in the Assembly to protect drinking water supplies (Bill #A04938). Under this proposed addition to DEC’s Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Law, owners, drillers or producers would be held responsible for reducing the volume of drinking water supplies within 48 hours of drilling, alteration, or operation activities, or for impacts to water quality within six months of those activities. Under both scenarios, the changes to water resources must occur within 1,000 feet of the gas development activities and be documented with pre- and post-activity water quality testing conducted by a state-certified lab. I commend Mr. Goodell for safeguarding his constituents. However, I’ve suggested to him that four changes be made: 1) Extend the distance of coverage to be equal to the length of the horizontal wellbore; 2) Expand coverage to all activities associated with producing oil or gas; 3): Extend the timeframe of coverage by years or decades; 4) Preclude cases settled under this Bill from non-disclosure agreements. Maybe these suggestions go too far, but where is the middle ground that provides long-term protection of drinking water supplies from a dispersed activity that industry and many politicians say is safe?

One reason DEC initiated a new regulatory process is because it requires far more water to frac a shale gas horizontal well than a traditional vertical well. Using a conservative volume of 4,000,000 gallons of water needed for each HVHF horizontal shale gas well, that’s 50 times more than the 80,000 gallons typically used to fracture a traditional vertical well. By DEC’s estimate in their 2011 Environmental Impact Statement, on average, it will require approximately 13,800 heavy truck loads and 9,960 light loads to fully develop the six horizontal wells DEC anticipates on each well pad. How will all that truck traffic mix with other investments the county and municipalities have made over the last few years – comprehensive plans, the Greenways plan, or efforts to improve the recreational value of lakes and waterways?

How might it affect the Grape Heritage Area or maple producers? How will industry, politicians, and the media work proactively to define the middle ground between industrial natural gas development to meet soaring energy demands and the region’s other economic drivers, such as natural resource- and agricultural-based tourism?

My understanding is that operations on currently-leased lands throughout Western New York could be shifted from traditional vertical wells to HVHF wells without lease renegotiation. Many standard oil and gas leases include language that grants permission for any infrastructure necessary to develop and produce those resources to be constructed on the leased property. Is this the appropriate middle ground for lessors who must honor agreements signed decades ago based on a much smaller scale natural gas development? In full disclosure, I own one of those agreements, originally signed by a former landowner in 1911.

These are just a few tradeoffs inherent in HVHF. As I contemplate a new gas furnace, I recognize I’m “part of the problem.” There are many challenges facing our region, including a high unemployment rate. Still, I think we need less rhetoric and more acknowledgements of short- and long-term tradeoffs regarding HVHF. It’s easy to discuss shale gas development in a vacuum. It’s much more complex to find the middle ground in Western NY, with its cold winters, its history of drilling and its numerous tourism-driven economies.

Maybe I missed it, but it seems The Post-Journal provided no post-event coverage of the Prendergast Library’s Critical Discussion Series, Part 2, on HVHF. In general, the presenters did offer views counter to those supportive of the practice. However, I expect The Post-Journal, in their quest for middle ground, to more thoroughly examine both benefits and concerns related to this topic. I encourage them to use their journalistic integrity to develop informative and thought-provoking articles that serves their readership, especially here in “The World’s Learning Center.”

Kim Sherwood is an Ellington resident.