There seems to be no end to the number of invasive species threatening state fisheries. The discovery of didymo aka “rock snot” in both the East and West Branch of the Delaware River as well as the Batten Kill in Washington County, is but one of many invasive species the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has to deal with, up to and including the Northern snakehead, which was discovered in both Ridgebury Lake and Catlin Creek in Waywayanda (Orange County) last May.
More than 1,500 property owners in Otsego, Delaware and Chenango counties have agreed to let firms prospect for natural gas on their land, even as calls come from some quarters for a moratorium on drilling.
The excitement comes as geologists predict that much of the central New York area is sitting on rich gas deposits, trapped in shale deep in the ground.
Gas has been found in Springfield, and firms are betting big money they’ll find it throughout the area, as they have in northern Pennsylvania.
Two months ago, New York state geologist Richard Nyahay told a crowd of 700 at Unadilla Valley Central School in New Berlin that on a scale where 1.00 is an ideal drilling prospect, this area rates “.98 or .99.’’ Last month, Nyahay quit his state job to go to work for GasTem USA, a Montreal-based firm that plans to drill in upstate New York, according to the Reuters News Service.
The boom has been building for a few years. At first, landowners typically were offered $2 an acre to sign leases that would permit wells to be drilled. State law guarantees landowners a 12.5 percent royalty on producing wells, and with this incentive, some signed up.
In the interim, energy prices spiked, drilling techniques improved, and the dollars per acre shot up.
About three months ago, Fred and Anna Schoellig of New Lisbon leased 800 acres for $50 an acre.
But on Wednesday, Elmira attorney Christopher Denton, who represents the landowners’ cooperative Central New York, said it’s not uncommon now for land in the Southern Tier to be leased for more than $1,000 an acre.
When leases are recorded in county clerks’ offices, the amounts paid to landowners often are not included. Companies that acquire the drilling rights are free to assign them to a different entity, usually a drilling firm.
For example, on July 21, the Elexco Group, which has been active in Otsego County, transferred many of its leases to Covalent Energy of Arlington, Va., a firm that has drilled wells in Cherry Valley, Springfield and plans to drill soon in Maryland.
According to records, more than 150 leases to drill have been signed in Otsego County, and in Delaware County, where activity is concentrated on the Pennsylvania border, the number tops 200.
Otsego County Clerk Kathy Gardner said Tuesday, “The rate these leases are coming in is unprecedented in my experience.’’
About 35 miles away in Norwich, the sign-up rate has been faster, and one firm, Nornew, has already acquired nearly 1,300 leases in Chenango County. Records indicate Nornew and other firms have been concentrating on the western half of the county and have few leases yet in New Berlin, Columbus or Guilford.
“Those people are holding our for big bucks,’’ a Chenango County Clerk’s Office employee said Wednesday.
Far bigger bucks will be involved if the wells produce, but costs to municipalities will soar as well, according to Ramsay Adams, executive director of the Catskill Mountainkeeper.
In late June, the environmental group held a hearing in Walton, where people from Colorado and Wyoming talked about contaminated wells, roads ruined by 30-ton rigs, and areas scarred by drilling.
On Wednesday, Adams said his group favors a statewide moratorium on new permits for drilling until the Department of Environmental Conservation rewrites its generic environmental impact statement, or GEIS, to reflect the consequences of modern drilling. The agency was ordered provide a supplement to include such technologies as horizontal drilling last week by Gov. David Paterson.
“We’re worried about what will happen between now and next spring, when we’re supposed to have the new GEIS,’’ Adams said. “The answer is have a moratorium on new permits to drill until we know the state is ready to protect our interests.’’
In Otsego County, the environmental group Sustainable Otsego plans to ask the county board to institute a county-wide moratorium on new drilling, according to member Adrian Kuzminski of Fly Creek.
However, county attorney James Konstanty said Otsego cannot comply.
“I know of no legal authority for the county to pass a moratorium on gas drilling,’’ he said Wednesday.
“You can’t put a moratorium on free enterprise.’’
Gas drilling is regulated by the state DEC, not the county, Konstanty said.
Afton attorney Mary Jo Long disagreed, saying that she has found cases where counties have imposed moratoria.
Long, a former Green Party candidate for state attorney general and a current member of the Afton Town Board, said she will attend Wednesday’s county board meeting to ask representatives to impose a moratorium on drilling.
“Municipalities have to be able to protect themselves, and a moratorium is a way to help do that,’’ she said.
On Thursday, James Powers, Otsego County Board chairman, said he will oppose the measure.
“I don’t think we need a moratorium,” he said, “and I don’t want to see one.’’
Energy companies seeking leases in this area
Covalent Energy, (703) 899-7325 or www.covalentenergy.com
Nornew Inc., (800) 217-3342 or www.nornew.com
XTO Energy Inc., (800) 299-2800 or www.xtoenergy.com
Chesapeake Appalachia, (405) 848-8000 or www.chk.com
Penn Virginia Corp., (610) 687-8900 or www.pennvirginia.com
East Resources Inc., (724) 772-8600 or www.eastresourcesinc.com
On Wednesday, July 23, Gov. David A. Paterson signed a bill that permits additional natural gas wells and drilling activity in New York State and allows for new and under-researched methods. The Environmental Conservation Law had previously established requirements for a spacing unit (the area of land from which a well recovers oil or gas) and set back measurements (the distance between the well and the boundaries of the spacing unit), but Paterson’s pen changed that: the legislation passed Wednesday reduces required well spacing from 640 acres per well to 25.
This change is significant, and potentially devastating to the Finger Lakes region, as the Southern Tier of New York has been discovered as the Mother Lode of Marcellus Shale, a rock layer that some geologists predict could meet the nation’s natural gas needs for more than two years. Three companies in the natural gas industry have submitted drilling applications for gas wells in Chenango, Tioga, and Chemung Counties in New York. On his Web site, the Governor claimed that "natural gas exploration has the potential to increase domestic supplies of natural gas, create jobs, expand the tax base and benefit the upstate economy." But because of New York’s geological formation and the techniques required to reach the desired resources, Paterson’s decision has created anger among locals who understand the potential consequences.
What is Marcellus Shale, exactly? It is a Devonian-age black, low density, carbonaceous (organic-rich) shale that occurs beneath much of New York, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Marcellus Shale is said to have "favorable mineralogy" in that it is a lower-density rock with more porosity, which means it may be filled with more free gas. In its 2002 Assessment of Undiscovered Oil and Gas Resources of the Appalachian Basin Province, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) calculated that the Marcellus Shale contained an estimated undiscovered resource of about 1.9 trillion cubic feet of gas.
In early 2008, Terry Englander, a geo-science professor at Pennsylvania State University, and Gary Lash, a geology professor at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Fredonia, estimated that the Marcellus might contain more than 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, 10 percent of which is considered recoverable and hence a potential resource. The technology required to recover these 50 trillion cubic feet of gas – almost 70 percent more than the current annual US production of gas – is a horizontal drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing (also known as "fracking" or "hydrofracking").
Writer Abrahm Lustgarten has described the recoverable gas in the Marcellus Shale as being held like bubbles in a brick of Swiss cheese. However, the grains in shale fit together so tightly that there is little movement of water or gas, and in order to extract the gas, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is shot into the earth with such force that it fractures the rock, releasing the bubbles to the surface. This is hydrofracking. According to Lustgarten, the gas then bubbles to the surface, as does the water, full of natural toxins from the shale, along with suspected cancer-causing compounds. Some of the injected fluids remain trapped underground, but a number of these fluids qualify as hazardous materials and carcinogens, and are toxic enough to contaminate groundwater resources. Englander said Marcellus is considered to be a highly radioactive shale, containing materials such as uranium and thorium. Roy Lackner, a Cornell graduate working in construction landscaping in Binghamton, has been investigating the issue and says these elements would seep right into local aquifers.
Potential local impact
There was a caveat to Paterson’s decision: Along with ordering a study of the effects of the drilling sites, he demanded that the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) provide a more thorough and detailed environmental statement for each site. Currently, drilling applications will be reviewed on a case by case basis, without regard to the effects on the entire region. Still, New York State candidate for the 51st Senate District Don Barber (D & WFP-Caroline) said this directive to the DEC is a "de facto moratorium" on gas drilling, and has called numerous times for the DEC to put proper regulations in place before issuing drilling permits. "We should extract the natural gas under us because it burns cleaner than oil and coal, and can be a part of New York’s energy independence strategy," Barber stated. "But it must be extracted in an environmentally responsible way." Barber mentioned the potential effects on local land, noting that the new law allows for more than one well every square mile. "Tompkins County isn’t equipped to deal with the wastewater, and I want to know what measures will be taken to keep it out of the aquifers," he said. "And when that water is taken away in big, heavy trucks, it will destroy local roads and leave tax payers to fix the damage with no revenue."
Of this, Paterson seems sure. "This new law will ensure greater efficiency in the processing of requests to permit oil and gas wells, while maintaining environmental and public health safeguards," he said. "My administration is committed to working with the public and local governments to ensure that if the drilling goes forward, it takes place in the most environmentally responsible way possible."
DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis said the legislation appropriately addresses the issue of how oil and gas wells will be spaced without compromising the environmental oversight. "The DEC will be vigilant in ensuring environmental safeguards. Water protection will be a top priority. As the issue of potential natural gas drilling develops, Governor Paterson and DEC are committed to exercising its authority to protect New Yorkers and their environment," he said.
Others were less sure. On Friday, eight environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society, the Catskill Mountainkeeper and the Riverkeeper, sent Paterson a letter seeking a moratorium on drilling activity until the environmental impact statement is adopted. "Natural gas development is progressing across the country at a scale and pace that no one ever envisioned," the letter said. "Let New York State be a model of how to do this right."
Judith Enck, the governor’s environmental adviser said the goal is "not to have a bunch of permits scoot through before the environmental impact statement is done." Enck predicted that the review will not be completed until the spring. The DEC announced Friday that it has initiated a public process featuring a series of public meetings across the Southern Tier and Catskills to supplement the generic environmental review. The regulatory update will focus on the impact on groundwater, surface water, wetlands, air quality, aesthetics, noise, traffic and community character.
Still, gas companies have already paid hundreds of millions of dollars in leasing fees to landowners in the New York City watershed, pressing area residents to bombard OGAP with questions ranging from the difference between deep and shallow gas drilling to how to negotiate mineral leases, surface use and damage agreements, to how to organize to what kind of regulations and laws exist to protect water and air quality. As writer Peter Applebome put it, "they didn’t pay the money without expecting to drill on the land. They can argue that gas is a far more palatable energy source than alternatives like oil from the Middle East, nuclear power or coal. And as the economy sputters, the economic lure has never been stronger for individuals, communities and the state."
In fact, drilling companies have been interested in leasing property as close as Caroline, New York, where Michael Ludgate manages a locally popular natural food store called Ludgate Farms. "Multiple different companies have come to try to get us to sign a lease for at least a year, and they finally stopped recently because I told them I don’t want to be bothered," Ludgate said. But with financial restrictions that afflict the vast majority of Americans, Ludgate said the prospect of leasing his land is "becoming more tempting." Ludgate owns 40 acres that border Hammond Hill State Forest and says several of his neighbors have already signed agreements after being offered "huge amounts of money."
One such resident who owns 108 acres in Spencer, 90 of which are in a gas drilling unit, blogged in an online forum started by Ludgate about signing on his land for the drilling: "Gas started production about a month ago, and I start getting royalties in September. It’s a Trenton-Black River well, which is much less nasty than Marcellus Shale. Once a driller has leases on 60% of the land in the unit, they can force everyone to participate," also known as compulsory integration. "You get 12.5% royalties by default, or you can put up your share of drilling costs and get 100% royalties. I signed a lease with a 3rd party who put up the $900K, and offered me $250 an acre up front and 18.75% royalty, and accepted a lease blocking all surface activities."
A source indicated that this resident didn’t want to sign, but had to, because 60% of the land in his unit had been leased, meaning all his neighbors already had signed, and that gas was already being pulled from underneath his land. Meanwhile, Barber’s Communications Director Micheal Blaine said these farmers were all being ripped off: they were being paid $250 an acre, while the actual worth of the land is closer to $2500 an acre.
The Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP), which was founded in 1999 to work with communities to prevent and reduce the impacts caused by oil and gas development, published a June report on potential oil and gas development in the Marcellus Shale formation in southeastern New York and northeastern Pennsylvania. OGAP aims to expose the health, environmental, economic, social and cultural impacts of irresponsible mineral development, and their report indicated that the pollution from oil and gas exploration and production has involved known carcinogens, reproductive toxicants, and other toxic chemicals like arsenic, hydrogen sulfide, mercury and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including benzene and xylene. According to the report, there is almost no information on the amount of water used by companies drilling the Marcellus Shale. A Chief Oil and Gas representative stated that the company expected to use about 800,000 gallons of water and 250,000 pounds of sand to fracture a vertical well in Barnett Shale, and that a horizontal well would require much more water and sand.
"The Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) and the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) have a very rigorous system for issuing drilling permits," said William Kappel, a hydrologist with the US Geological Survey (USGS) in Ithaca. The Interstate Environmental Commission (IEC), which controls the Great Lakes area, however, is much more lenient. The drilling companies will get water anywhere they can, Kappel said. "Instead of midnight dumpers, we’ll have midnight pumpers. There needs to be some coordination with the use and transport of water," he said, to avoid illegal inter-basin water transfer.
According to Lustgarten, the DEC says it does not track how drillers dispose of the produced water waste. The U.S. Department of Energy lists produced water from gas drilling as among the most toxic of any oil industry byproduct. Most drilling states inject the tainted water back into the ground in areas where solid rock layers keep it isolated from drinking water, but the geology in New York and Pennsylvania makes that impossible. DEC officials said the water would be shipped to Pennsylvania for treatment. But Paul Hart, an executive for three of five qualified Pennsylvania plants, said he had not been contacted about that plan, nor do plants there have capacity for the wastewater.
Drilling technology developed under Cheney
According to OGAP, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not currently regulate the injection of fracturing fluids under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Additionally, the oil and gas industry is the only industry in America that is allowed by EPA to inject hazardous materials – unchecked – directly into or adjacent to underground drinking water supplies. In 2000, the EPA initiated a study to assess the potential for fracturing to contaminate underground drinking water supplies.
An October 2004 article in the L.A. Times cited that, in the first four years of the millennia, the Bush administration and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office backed a series of measures favoring the lucrative technology, developed by Halliburton Co. Cheney himself was elected chief executive of Halliburton in 1995, and six years later the then-VP convened a task force to devise a national energy policy. The 2001 national energy policy report, written under the direction of the vice president’s office, cited the value of hydraulic fracturing but did not mention concerns raised by staff members at the Environmental Protection Agency.
The June 2004 EPA study concluded that fracturing "poses little or no threat" to drinking water. The EPA also concluded that no further study of hydraulic fracturing was necessary. Some EPA employees, however, complained internally about the study before its completion, according to the L.A. Times. One of them, environmental engineer and 30-year EPA veteran Weston Wilson, blew the whistle with a letter to the agency’s inspector general and members of Congress. The statement alleged that the study’s findings were premature and were approved by an industry-dominated review panel that included a current Halliburton employee. "EPA produced a final report [...] that I believe is scientifically unsound and contrary to the purposes of the law," Wilson wrote.
A week after receipt of the letter, EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said the agency was reviewing Wilson’s statement but did not "believe that any of the concerns raised by his analysis would lead us to a different conclusion." In March of 2005, EPA Inspector General Nikki Tinsley found enough evidence of potential mishandling of the EPA hydraulic fracturing study to justify a review of Wilson’s complaints.
Lackner highlights the seeming favoritism diluting government policies. The Energy Policy Act of 2005, sponsored by V.P. Cheney, exempts the oil and gas industry from the "most basic environmental protections," Lackner said, such as The Clean Air Act, The Clean Water Act, The Safe Drinking Water Act, The Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), and The Planning and Community Right to Know Act.
The Citizen’s Energy Alliance (CEA) of Spencer will hold its third meeting at 7 pm on Wednesday, July 30 at the Spencer Grange. Lisa Ann Wright, a resident of Cayuga Heights, plans to attend this meeting, but she is also wondering when public information sessions will be held in Ithaca to discuss the potential impact of natural gas drilling on the community. "In an agricultural area like upstate New York, how will our diverted water supplies impact our crops and farms?" she asked. "What kind of pollution are we going to realistically see? Are the horror stories from places like Washington, Pennsylvania true?"
Law A11606 is pending in the NYS Assembly to prohibit the use of toxic fracking solutions during hydraulic fracturing – a practice that is currently legal. Bill A11527 is also pending. It would require an immediate two-year moratorium on this type of gas exploration. Meanwhile, the Catskill Mountainkeeper, at catskillmountainkeeper.org, provides videos, first-hand accounts, and more information on getting organized and informed about the issues surrounding oil and gas development.
(Danielle Winterton contributed to the reporting in this article.)
It wasn’t the kind of bill to set metropolitan toes to tapping — a measure to extend New York State’s uniform well spacing system to allow additional gas wells and energy production, including intensive horizontal drilling.
Session will examine benefits of Scenic Byway for Route 28
By Jay Braman Jr., Correspondent
ARKVILLE – The Catskill Center for Conservation and Development tonight will host Nancy Alexander, a landscape architect with the state Department of Transportation, who will speak on the merits of designating state Route 28 a scenic byway.
The session begins at 6 p.m. and is open to the public.
CATSKILL – Greene County lawmakers are considering a resolution urging the governor to sign a bill establishing an independent commission to examine competition in the outdoor recreation industry.
If the bill is signed by the governor, a Blue Ribbon Commission would be formed to examine the extent of advantages state-owned outdoor recreational facilities have over privately owned businesses, according to Greene County’s resolution. The commission would also make recommendations to the governor and the state Legislature regarding methods to promote fair competition in the outdoor recreation industry, the resolution states.
WHEN it comes to tourism, some lawmakers seem to forget that a rising tide will list all boats. For a time in the Hudson Valley and Catskills, it was every county for itself. Tourism directors, under the gun from the elected officials who hired them, pretty much did their own thing, promoted parochially and viewed the county just over the border (or across the river) as competition.
That began to change in the ’90s, when IBM’s significant exodus from the valley prompted the Cuomo administration to explore economic alternatives, tourism key among them. Regional cooperation began to grow.
But that didn’t mean there was no more "we" and "them" in regional tourism, witness the on-going squabble between Ulster and Greene counties regarding Belleayre Ski Center.
It started in Greene, where owners of privately owned ski resorts Hunter and Windham were getting antsy as the state poured resources into its ski center at Belleayre in neighboring Ulster. That got the attention of Greene lawmakers and they screamed foul, claiming Belleayre was at an unfair advantage. That, in turn, motivated state legislators to carry a bill calling for the formation of a blue-ribbon panel to study the impact of state-run outdoor recreational facilities (skiing and golf among them) on the private sector. The legislation awaits Gov. Paterson’s signature.