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More to Say About Fracking

Why Western New York needs to have a people’s hearing about hydrofracking, even if the public comment period is over

New York State is currently evaluating whether or not to allow a controversial natural gas drilling process called hydraulic fracturing to take place across the state. This process allows extracting of natural gas from certain shale formations that lie underneath New York, including the Marcellus and Utica Shales, both which are found below parts of Western New York.

The public comment period on the Revised Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Study, or RDSGEIS, closed on Wednesday, January 11.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has held several public hearings on the issue across New York State. Western New York’s proximity to the shale, and the potential social, economic, and environmental impacts of this process on the region, should be compelling reasons for the New York State DEC to hold public hearings on this matter here. They have chosen not to.

One reason that the process of hydrofracking is controversial because it uses toxic chemicals, which are injected into the ground under high pressure and in high volumes. There is growing evidence that these chemicals will enter water supplies and aquifers and render the freshwater unusable and toxic to life, including humans. This contamination could affect our drinking water and the Great Lakes, which are an increasingly valuable global resource representing about 20 percent of the earth’s fresh surface water and about 100 percent of our region’s sustainable future.

Only some of the at least 300 chemicals that are used are known to the public. They include methanol, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, naphthalene, benzene, toluene, and xylene. They are known to be endocrine disrupters, cancer-causing agents, or to cause other negative human health impacts including respiratory ailments and birth defects. These chemicals have been found widely in drinking water and in aquifers near gas fields and wells.

The drilling companies consider other chemicals used as secret proprietary formulas and they will not release these formulas to the public for scrutiny. This is of some consequence.

In 2009, the DEC analyzed 13 samples of fracking wastewater from gas drilling sites in the Marcellus Shale and found levels of radioactive radium as high as 267 times the safe limit for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit considered safe for people to drink. Studies conducted in Pennsylvania confirm those findings an have revealed some drinking water near fracking operations to contain radium at over 1,000 times higher than federal safe drinking water standards.

Environmental and health professionals, as well as citizen activists around the United States, share concerns that fracking with these contaminants will destroy the fresh water on which life depends, which we drink, and which our food supply requires. They are asking for more scientific analysis, and that New York State proceed with great caution until there is more quantifiable information. The US Environmental Protection Agency is still engaged in evaluation of the safety of fracking and will not publish its findings until at least 2013. The potential multiplier effects of introducing known and unknown toxins into our water could be catastrophic for us and for future generations.

Proponents of the drilling process, mostly energy companies, engineering firms, and law firms that will benefit from the extraction, argue that proposed regulations in New York mandate that the companies disclose proprietary formulas to the DEC for appropriate review and that all well sites and associated water sources will be appropriately monitored and tested. Opponents, including some DEC staff members, say that the DEC is not equipped to oversee the number of wells that may be drilled, and that it is unlikely that enough money will every be appropriated to handle the regulatory oversight needed to insure even a modicum of safety for water sources.

Apparently New York State shares these concerns albeit at this time on a limited basis. The DEC has already determined that they will not allow hydrofracking to proceed in the areas that make up both the New York City and Syracuse watersheds. Western New York watersheds are not protected by the same rules.

Western New York’s concerns ignored

Another reason that Western New York deserves a public hearing is that when Governor Cuomo appointed an advisory panel early last summer to help the state evaluate economic and environmental consequences of hydrofracking, he neglected to appoint a single member from Western New York.

Robert Knoer, Chair of the Western New York Environmental Alliance which is comprised of 80 Western New York environmental organizations, writing on behalf of the alliance noted in a letter to Cuomo in July:

I must however express our concern that there are no representatives of the Western New York region on the panel. While acknowledging that this is not a “regional” panel I note that there has been a natural dichotomy created by the proposed SGEIS. The current proposed course of action distinguishes among watersheds: Disturbance around the New York City and Syracuse watersheds from hydrofracking activities is unacceptable within a 4000 foot buffer. However when addressing the Primary aquifers that dominate upstate non-filtered water supplies the DEC determined that “Horizontal extraction of gas resources underneath the Primary Aquifers from well pads located outside this area (500 feet) would not significantly impact this valuable water resource” (dSGEIS Executive Summary pg. 18).

There appears to be a distinction, albeit perhaps unintentional, of the impact of the state policy between Western New York and downstate aquifers. As such, we feel it is appropriate that the Western New York environmental concerns be fully and thoroughly vetted as this discussion proceeds.

Knoer has received no response to his letter.

Another reason for concern to Western New Yorkers is the proposal to accommodate fracking wastewater at the Niagara Falls reprocessing plant. A portion of the hydrofracking fluid injected into wells is recoverable. This fluid needs to be treated before it is released. This fall the Niagara Falls Water Board decided to explore the financial benefits of taking fracking wastewater, treating it, and discharging it into the Niagara River. There are serious and fundamental questions about whether or not the Niagara Falls facility can handle the known and unknown toxins.

Dumping fracking wastewater into the Niagara River is an issue that needs intense scrutiny. On December 27, a coalition of 82 mayors from around the Great Lakes called on provincial, state, and federal governments to hold public hearings for “utmost transparency and disclosure” when it comes to the potential impact of fracking waste on Great Lakes waters.

The Niagara Falls Water Board has recently hired a public relations firm to handle “questions” about the issue. Great.

False jobs, real economic consequences

Politicians, lobbyists, the energy industry, and the engineering and law firms that will benefit economically from hydrofracking have used a “jobs” as the principle public argument to allow hydrofracking in New York State. Food and Water Watch, a national organization dedicated to safe food and water, issued a challenge to the “jobs creator” theory in a November 2011 report entitled “New York State Exaggerated Potential Job Creation from Shale Gas Development.”

The report states:

The oil and gas industry, industry-funded academics, and ideological think tanks have promoted shale gas development as a sure-fire job creator in difficult economic times. Proponents of shale gas development have benefited from media and U.S. government reports in which the supposed economic benefits have gone unquestioned. Food & Water Watch recently analyzed one industry-backed job projection and found that it overstated shale gas job creation potential in New York by a factor of about 900 percent.

The report states that the New York State economic analysis report originally produced by Ecology and Environment, a Buffalo-based engineering firm with strong ties to the oil and gas industry, predicted that an average New York State shale gas development scenario would bring 53,969 jobs. Food and Water Watch says that these projections are “deeply flawed.” For instance, close inspection of the footnotes reveals that the projection is based on a 30-year production scenario. According to the Food and Water Watch report, 30 years of production is unlikely. Currently the US Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether or not oil and gas companies have overestimated the productivity of shale gas wells.

Food and Water Watch concludes that in the first year of an average scenario only 195 new jobs would be created for New York State residents, and only 600 jobs after 10 years. After the 10th year there would be almost no more new jobs created. The first-year scenario would impact one 40th of one percent of New Yorkers currently on unemployment.

The report says that the Ecology and Environment report misuses the multiplier effects and the indirect job creation scenarios in ways that exaggerate the economic spillover from the jobs. The report also points out that Ecology and Environment has close ties to the oil and gas industry.

In addition, the Food and Water Watch report states that the New York State analysis fails to account for the negative impacts that drilling and fracking would have on employment in other industries, such as tourism and agriculture. These kinds of multiplier effects are shoved under the rug.

The report states:

Close examination of this job projection shows that allowing for such extensive shale gas development in New York would actually have a minimal impact on employment in the near term, primarily because most jobs would go to employees from out-of-state. Shale gas development would not provide the broad-based economic growth that New York now needs and that the industry has promised they could deliver. Instead, shale gas development would primarily benefit the oil and gas industry while bringing significant costs to public health, public infrastructure, and the environment.

These costs presumably would be borne by the taxpaying public. The Food and water Watch report concludes:

The New York socioeconomic impact analysis, conducted by E&E Inc., fails to provide an accurate projection of the potential benefits of opening up the state to drilling and fracking for shale gas. By exaggerating the potential benefits, New York has failed to serve the public interest. In reality, current residents of New York can only expect intensive shale gas development to create several hundred new shale gas industry jobs for each of the first 10 years, followed by far fewer production jobs created for the next 20 years.

In late December, the Legislative Gazette, an Albany-based newspaper covering New York State government, reported that three economists—Jannette M. Barth, senior economist at the Pepacton Institute; Edward C. Kokkelenberg, a research fellow at the School for Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell; and Timothy Mount, an economics professor at Cornell—sent a letter to Governor Cuomo that detailed why the Ecology and Environment economic survey is flawed. The letter reads in part:

The state’s economic focus should be the realistic identification and estimation of the present value of all costs and benefits to the state and its citizens…The state should be concerned with maximizing the present value of the benefits to the State and minimizing the present value of all costs to the State and its citizens. The gas industry will strive to maximize the present value of the benefits to themselves and postpone costs, or more likely, make others pay the costs.

“[The Ecology and Environment report] didn’t take into account costs of wear and tear of roads and infrastructure,” Barth told the Gazette, noting that the state’s Department of Transportation circulated a memo from July detailing the potential damage fracking and well construction could do to roads and other infrastructure, especially from truck traffic.

“The research findings done by independent studies are vastly different from industry research,” Barth said, saying that any study of fracking should be done not by any single agency, but a team of individual experts on all the ways that fracking could impact the economy and the environment.

“What we really, really need is the state DEC to insist on a comprehensive, unbiased, peer-reviewed environmental impact statement, based on data that is either published, or carefully scrutinized or verified because the industry has a bias in this.”

The DEC should have extended the public comment period beyond January 11. Regardless, the governor should call a public hearing in Western New York and extend the moratorium on issuing drilling permits until at least after the US EPA finishes its ongoing study about the safety and health impacts of hydrofracking. If this is not done, it is likely that a coalition of concerned citizens and groups may very well hold a “peoples hearing” to better alert the media, the DEC, and elected officials of the opinions of citizens of Western New York.

Jay Burney is founder of the Learning Sustainability Campaign and Greenwatch. Greenwatch provides a forum for discussion of and promotes community literacy about issues related to ecology, sustainability, and biodiversity. Visit Greenwatch on Facebook.

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