Letter to the Editor: "Omissions and inaccuracies" in Natural Gas article

November 24, 2009 by Jeff Claus

This letter to the editor is in response to a recent article about natural gas drilling in the Finger Lakes. We are reproducing it in its entirety, with a reaction from the original author below.

Sadly, the "article" by Bill Chaisson in your recent issue of 14850, about gas drilling and hydrofracking, is a snide opinion piece masquerading as information. He makes it sound as though those opposed to drilling by hydrofracturing are irrational and basing their views on ideology rather than science. This tone and the lack of balance in his discussion of fracking and its very real dangers strike me as irresponsible "journalism." This piece serves to misinform and misguide those who most need thoughtful information and evidence.

There are a number of major and convenient omissions and inaccuracies in Chaisson's piece. A key omission is that horizontal hydrofracturing often blows up the shale at 3,000-4,000 feet in unpredictable and uncontrolled ways, and this has been documented to release into the atmosphere and nearby residences naturally buried radioactive gases and fluids. These gases have, in some cases, been found to be 260 times above currently acceptable limits for humans and animals. There are documented cases of farmers having to put down horses and cattle due to serious neurological damage resulting from exposure to toxic gases emitted by compressors in nearby gas drilling and pumping operations, and farm animals have been poisoned by drinking water documented to have been poisoned by drilling. There's a farmer in northern Pennsylvania who is walking away from a poisoned 480 acre farm, giving up his total investment and life there to bring suit against the drilling company that drilled adjacent property. There is toxic gas and fluid bubbling to the surface all over his land, and he can't sell because no one wants the now poisoned land.

Chaisson also conveniently neglected to tell readers that drilling companies are allowed to draw a substantial amount of the literally millions of gallons of water they shoot into the ground from local sources, including rivers, lakes and streams; and, this is never returned to the natural source. Some of it stays in the ground full of toxic chemicals where the drilling occurs, some of it must be processed by local wastewater treatment plants that are unprepared to clean the water properly, and some is trucked further away to be processed by other wastewater plants that are also unable to completely clean the water. Some will think I'm making this up, but if you read the NYS DEC's proposed regulations and some of the hundreds of studies written about this technology, you begin to understand that counter to anything logical or fair, this is the current method of extracting gas from deep shale. As Chaisson does note, the drilling companies are exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act and do not have to reveal the chemicals they use. This amendment was guided through by then Vice President Dick Cheney, a previous president of Halliburton.

The Shale Shock group staffs an information booth each weekend at the Ithaca Farmers Market. Photo by Shira Golding.The Shale Shock group staffs an information booth each weekend at the Ithaca Farmers Market. Photo by Shira Golding.

Yes, this is political, but rather than working against each other in a war of social class divide we should be working together to create good work and wages for everyone here. I live in a rural part of the county and have for almost 25 years. I love it here and don't want to see it thrown to the dogs in one generation.

I also encourage readers to look at photos of wells drilled across the landscape in northwestern Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, and northern Pennsylvania (see links below). We're not talking about a few wells that blend or disappear into the landscape. We're talking about thousands of wells per county. The economy of Tompkins County depends heavily on the "industries" of education and tourism. Drilling will have a chillingly negative effect on these enterprises and on farming, and it is likely to end up costing municipalities more than it brings in. While drilling may appear to some to represent income, this is a very short sighted and naive view. The average amount paid to those who have signed leases in the Barnett Shale area (a "mature" drilling area similar to the Marcellus Shale) is $50 dollars a month. Yes, a few people get rich, but a lot of people get nothing, and we all get stuck with higher tax bills to pay for the environmental damage and the cost of repairing highways, cleaning up toxic sites, etc., not to mention the cost of having our wells tested when there's drilling nearby. Gas drilling revenues do not return taxes to local municipalities. Most of them go to the companies and the outsider "roughnecks" who come in to lead and do a lot of the work.

If you think Halliburton is your friend, you're mistaken and haven't been following the news of the last 6-8 years. When things go badly, neither the gas companies nor the state government will be there to take responsibility. In the case of a man in Candor who can now light his tap water due to conventional drilling near his home, he was told by both the gas company and the DEC to just drill another well. Really! He's a Vietnam Vet who lives on little, and now he can't rent an apartment in his small home because of this.

For photos, data, science, video reports about poor rural people who have been harmed with no recourse against drilling and gas companies, and much more, please investigate some of the following links. These will provide readers with a useful start, and they will lead to other links and studies.

A reaction from Bill Chaisson:

If hydro-fracking "blows up" shale in "unpredictable and uncontrolled ways," then the geologists that I've talked to and the engineers who have written about the process are liars. I am told that the decades-old technique cracks the rock in a tightly circumscribed manner that is constantly being refined.

This is definitely an industrial process, and it will definitely disrupt the status quo in the rural areas of the Finger Lakes and the Southern Tier. It is my hope that public comment will improve the regulations as presented, including imposing fees on the gas companies that pay to hire more inspectors to monitor the drilling, reduce the allowable density of pads, and outlaw open frack-fluid lagoons entirely, as they are the most frequent source of contamination.

My greatest fear is that inaccurate evidence presented in opposition to drilling will give ammunition to laissez-faire maniacs who want to "drill, baby, drill." For example, it is very unlikely that the methane in the well in Candor has anything to do with gas drilling, and yet it has already been offered on Democracy Now as a consequence of drilling. If, as is more likely, over-drawing the well is shown to be the cause, it leads drilling advocates to belittle the opposition's case.

In order to get this under control our opposition to rampant gas drilling must use robust evidence that shows a good grasp of the geological, hydrological and engineering facts. The "all or none" approach either implied or explicit in much of the opposition aggravates the "social class divide" that Claus wishes to close.

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