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Frack Checks

There's a state moratorium on fracking until May, and the two sides of the issue are lining up their arguments

There’s a bumber sticker that pictures a beat up, disheveled US military man; the caption beneath the illustration reads “The more gas your SUV uses, the more foreigners I have to kill.”

The man in the picture would probably be delighted to hear that there is a wealth of natural gas sitting beneath the surface of the Marcellus Shale, which stretches across a large portion of New York State, and it is there for the taking.

Proponents say that drilling for this gas would decrease dependability on foreign resources and turn an estimated $20 billion in profit for New York over the next two decades. But opponents fear that tapping into the Marcellus Shale using a method known as hydraulic fracturing could unleash a nightmare.

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” is a horizontal drilling procedure that forces immense amounts of water mixed with sand and hundreds of chemicals into the earth, in order to crack rock beds and force out trapped gas. A March 2010 report of fracking, compiled by Chesapeake Energy, reveals that some of the chemicals used in the process are also found in swimming pool cleaners, laundry detergents, hair coloring, glass cleaner, paint, chalk, dishwasher detergent, and many other hazardous products. The report says that less than .5 percent of the mix is made up of toxins, with water and sand accounting for 99.5 percent.

In 2004 the Bush administration, under direction of then Vice President Dick Cheney (former CEO of oil giant Halliburton Company), declared that fracking was safe. In 2005 the process was exempted from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, making regulation of the drilling process a state matter.

Christopher Kulander, Ph.D., is an attorney at Houstin’s Haynes and Boone LLP; he also holds a doctorate in geophysics. Kulander, who resides in the first state to employ widespread fracking, that the federal government was right to leave hydraulic fracturing regulation to the states.

Followers of the fracking controversy in New York are haunted by images of tap water in Pennsylvania being lit on fire, as captured in the documentary Gasland. Kulander says that there have been no such problems in Texas, and he is highly skeptical that there is a connection between flammable drinking water in Pennsylvania and hydraulic fracturing.

“In Pennsylvania, companies are producing affidavits that they have always had that problem with near-surface methane,” he says. “The fracking takes place sometimes 10,000 feet into the ground and the water table is 50 feet from the surface. I haven’t yet seen any evidence that convinces me there is a direct nexus between the two events.”

The con

Richard Young, Ph.D, geologist and distinguished service professor at SUNY Geneseo, believes a ban on hydraulic fracturing is necessary because fracking is too unpredictable and is likely to cause water contamination.

“It’s just too complicated to be specific about,” he says. “Rocks are full of porous pathways for fluids to move…especially the faults. There is just no way to control where the fluid goes.”

Young is referring to the millions of gallons of water injected with sometimes toxic chemicals that will move through the fault and joint lines of the Marcellus Shale in directions that are near impossible to foresee, making the prevention of groundwater contamination an unachievable gaurantee.

He says another issue preventing cast iron safety is the way that groundwater moves.

“Ground water is more complicated than most people think,” Young says, explaining that when water is above ground it does move down, but when it is below the earth and near surface water, it moves up. “The migration of fluids in the rock is going to be an issue,” he says.

Young says that a rock quarry has multiple joints, and if you study rock formations you are likely to see brown stains that form after groundwater migration, illustrating that water moves upwards when underground.

Rocks also have faults, which are formed after rocks shift and are displaced. Young says faults and joints are similar, but because a fault occurs after a rock has moved, it is easier for fluids to pass through because the path of migration is larger, and when these systems are pressurized (as they are in fracking) they open up more.

The danger, Young says, is that not all faults show up on maps.

Imagine that hydraulic fracturing is taking place. The drillers inject millions of gallons of water that is mixed with sand and chemicals into the earth, predicting that the conglomeration will travel a specific direction—vertically.

During the injection process, some of the fracking concoction is picked up by a horizontal joint that was not present on any map. The fluids migrate through the rock, relocated time and time again by different joint and fault lines. The water, because it moves up, is trying to get to surface water—like a lake or a stream—but comes into contact with well water. The result is contamination.

Young says that there is a common misconception that joints are vertical, meaning that the water does not migrate horizontally,. In fact, he says, rocks have many horizontal joints and faults.

“Anytime you are drilling horizontally fluid can go into these faults, go through the joints and migrate into the surface,” Young warns.

“You are blindly drilling holes and increasing pressure to the point where you don’t know where these fluids will go,” he says. “You are talking about thousands of wells drilled in New York, and hundreds of them having problems. It won’t happen all of the time, but even five percent of the time is scary.”

The recent controversy over the future of hydraulic fracturing in New York is in large part fueled by reports of groundwater contamination in areas where fracking has occurred, such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia. However, Kulander says there hasn’t been “a single example of that that has been documented.” And the Groundwater Protection Council released a report in April 2009 stating that the possibility of groundwater contamination as a result of hydraulic fracturing is as low as one in 200 million.

Kulander absolutely agrees that there is a need for state regulation to prevent surface water pollution, which deals with how companies dispose of the chemicals used in fracking fluid. He says that if the chemicals are not disposed of properly after they come back to the surface following the high-pressurized injection process, there is a chance of surface water contamination.

“The states, in my opinion, are doing a pretty good job of getting a handle on it,” he says. “They already have a lot of regulation.”

Radioactive rock

However, there is more to the Marcellus Shale than unpredictable fault and joint lines that could make fracking a bad move.

The Marcellus Shale is easily spotted by its radioactive signature. a feature that Young says is common for black shale.

“Radon is short-lived,” Young says. “Once it forms a gas and escapes, you are pretty safe. The issue is when you go down to the rocks where the uranium is. You are potentially bringing up rocks with radioactivity, and it increases the problems of how you get rid of the radioactivity. The sludge that is left over has to be dealt with.”

Tracy Bank, Ph.D, assistant professor of geology at the University at Buffalo, recently led a study to determine the mobility of metals in the Marcellus Shale. By reacting shale samples with fluids similar to those found in fracking mix, they were able to determine that there were concentrations of metals in the solution and in the shale.

“This means that uranium is removed from the shale and will be mobilized into the fracking waters,” Bank says. “Some of the fracking waters return to the surface and need to be disposed of safely.”

Bank says her primary concern is what will be done with the waste materials created by fracking, because there is a probability that it some will contain low concentrations of toxic metals.

“I believe uranium will be mobilized by hydrocarbon extraction due to the physical and chemical relationship with the organic material,” she says.

Fracking in New York State

Currently, there is a temporary ban on hydraulic fracturing in New York because of a bill sposnored by New York State Senator Antoine Thompson, which passed in the State Senate, 48-9. The moratorium was passed by the Assembly during Monday’s special session at about one o’clock in the morning, 94-43. The bill will now go to Governor David Paterson’s desk for his signature.

The moratorium will stall hydraulic fracturing in New York State until May 2011. New York is the first state to pass such a moratorium.

At the federal level, the US Environmental Protection Agency is studying the impact the process may have on drinking water, which could lead to federal regulation. However, the study is not forecasted to be released until late 2012, long after the state moratorium expires, assuming it is signed into law.

To combat the potential for drilling in Buffalo members of Frack Action Buffalo are trying to enforce a city-wide ban on hydraulic fracturing. Since the beginning of October the Buffalo chapter of the grassroots group has collected over 1500 signatures on a petition they drew up to gain community support for the potential ban.

“Every municipality needs a ban,” says organizer Rita Yelda. “It’s important for us to inspire groups in other parts of the state to pursue an ordinance in their area.”

Yelda says the ban is circulating through Buffalo’s Common Council. “Right now the law department has it and they are drafting their own version,” she says.

“Frack Action Buffalo wants the least watered down version possible,” says member Jeffrey Melvin.

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