A seat at the table. This was the going price for tacit support of hydraulic fracturing, “hydrofracking” as it is commonly known (or simply “fracking”), from the New York League of Conservation Voters (NYLCV) and several other state environmental groups. I resigned my personal seat at the table on the Long Island board of the NYLCV after it took such a pusillanimous stance on what will prove to be one of the worst environmental and shortsighted economic blunders in New York’s history.
Late last week, Gov. Andrew Cuomo appointed a blue ribbon panel to advise the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on the regulations and rollout of hydrofracking upstate, effectively ending the moratorium on natural gas shale exploration. Hydrofracking means breaking through shale to extract natural gas trapped in pockets deep beneath the ground, a process that has deservedly come under increased scrutiny recently for countless reasons. But first, a little context.
Hydraulic Fracturing History. Natural gas is a cleaner-burning fossil fuel than oil, and something the United States has in abundance. Increasing access to natural gas is compelling as our dependence upon fossil fuels continues to grow while our tolerance for protecting oil interests around the globe steadily wanes. And since the combination of renewable energy, conservation efforts and efficiency standards have yet to keep pace with our insatiable appetite for energy consumption, any solution with environmental advantages, no matter how marginal, is persuasive.
Fracking has been around for more than a century as a means of pressurizing the drilling process of oil and gas wells. It’s referred to as “Enhanced Oil Recovery”, a process required for the most difficult of drilling scenarios, where oil and/or gas are trapped within rock formations. Essentially, once a well is drilled, a mixture of water, sand and a small amount of chemicals are pumped down the well at extremely high pressure; the mixture bores through the shale to release the gas into the well while the sand and chemical combination help prop open the fracture in the formation. Back on the surface, the gas is separated from the extraction fluids.
It’s important to understand that the pressurization itself is one of the reasons that the declines in the rate of shale production are steeper than from primary and secondary drilling methods. Removing fossil fuels from the ground is a difficult and delicate process that ranges from relatively pristine oil fields that can be easily drilled and pumped to the most extreme cases that require hydraulic fracturing through dense rock formations. The need to maintain intense levels of pressure in the drilling environment—as opposed to tapping an easily accessible reservoir under the desert—means that more can go wrong along the way. These areas reach what is known as “production total decline” faster than other plays—or drilling sites— because the pockets are spread out through the shale formation and difficult to access, and pressurization is hard to maintain over time. In fact, shale gas was considered too difficult to tackle until Halliburton established a new horizontal drilling protocol in the late 1940s that revolutionized the industry; even still, it wasn’t until the technology was enhanced by the chemical mixture in the 1990s that fracking began to catch fire, renewing the natural gas rush primarily in Texas, New Mexico and Wyoming.
Where we are today. There is no question that decreasing our dependence on foreign oil is popular and necessary. The question is whether this is the right method of extraction, particularly in a populous place such as New York. The answer is definitively “no.” And the reasons aren’t strictly environmental, though the pernicious effects of fracking on human health and the environment are certainly enough to arrive at this conclusion independently. Advocates of fracking have argued that the proper regulation of the process and the protection of the watershed are enough to satisfy environmental concerns and that the economic benefits of fracking the Marcellus Shale, which runs from Tennessee through New York, are considerable, particularly in hard-hit areas upstate. But taken individually, every argument in favor of fracking falls down under scrutiny. So, let’s get to it.
Environment. Fracking is both an art and a science. This is the most complicated of drilling endeavors. Because of the precarious nature of this technology, it is nearly impossible to contain the spread of contaminants involved in the process; likewise, it is impossible to contain the spread of methane gas once it is released from the shale. Fracking cannot and does not extract 100 percent of the natural gas from the rock, leaving a small quantity behind that can infiltrate surrounding areas. Moreover, the process itself requires millions of gallons of water that eventually return to the surface contaminated by the chemical mix. In no instance, has there been a system robust enough to thoroughly remediate the return flow from a gas well.
Countless examples have been offered to the public and to state and national environmental agencies of the dangers of fracking, whether they are contaminated drinking wells, methane gas explosions or known-carcinogens found in areas near drilling operations that could only have come from the pressurized mixture being shot through these wells. Despite the growth of cancer clusters near the drilling wells or the evidence of homeowners living in fracking areas being able to set their tap water on fire, New York believes that it has the secret regulatory sauce to control the hazardous effects of fracking. Okay, so let’s look at the regulatory environment.
Regulation. The only reason fracking chemicals have remained proprietary is then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s insistence that the 2005 federal energy bill exclude the Environmental Protection Agency from hydrofracking regulation that would normally have come under the purview of the Safe Water Drinking Act. Cheney allowed his former employer, Halliburton, to do an end-run around the regulations the moment the public started linking environmental contaminants to the new chemicals used in fracking. His actions alone should alert any nose-breathing person to the inherent danger in this process. Instead, we have new “mandatory regulations” from the EPA, which are not yet the law of the land, that require full disclosure of these chemicals. Good luck. If the government had any ability to enforce this requirement, it would already be law. Yet, when Sen. Robert Casey [D-Pa.] introduced a bill (S.1215 Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act) in 2009, it died unceremoniously in committee. He attempted again in March of this year to revive the bill (S.587), and it too is sitting in committee where it will also undoubtedly meet its maker.
New York believes that it can keep hundreds of wells in check through the auspices of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Although Gov. Cuomo’s 2011 budget didn’t hack away at the DEC staff, the resource-strapped agency is incapable of policing leaks below gas stations, let alone monitoring wells throughout New York. The idea that the DEC will have the manpower to regulate these operations is a joke, and everyone knows it. The only logical conclusion here is that the economic benefits of infrastructure spending and job creation are so great that the state is willing to take the gamble.
Economy. The thought of residents in a small, working-class town upstate coming off government assistance and getting back to work, putting food on the table and earning an honest wage is the kind of post-recession Norman Rockwell imagery the oil and gas industry would like us all to believe. The economic reality of gas drilling of the fracking persuasion is a little different than this ‘Wish You Were Here’ postcard from a bygone era. First of all, the drillers are too smart to buy property anymore. Instead they offer attractive drilling rights in the form of leases to landowners who are indeed paid handsomely for access to their land. Once the rights are sewn up, employment grows. But not necessarily the kind of employment illustrated above. Experienced drillers and machinists come from far and wide to exploit the new territory because they are already trained in this field of expertise. Suddenly, restaurants are packed, car dealers are moving inventory, and supermarkets and drugstores are filled with new faces in the community. I’m not suggesting this is a phantom recovery, because it’s not. These are important economic steps, but not if they are fleeting. The problem lies in the short productive life of the wells being drilled, which ends up curtailing the peripheral employment created during the height of production.
When American think of oil and gas operations, they think of enduring periods of wealth typically associated with the gulf states or Arab nations that went from rags to riches seemingly overnight, awash in the endless supply of crude. Unfortunately, the reality of natural gas stands in stark contrast to this vision. Gary S. Swindell, a well-known petroleum engineering consultant, conducted and published a study in 1999 on the 30-year performance of Texas natural gas wells, some of the highest yielding gas wells in the nation. His conclusion: “There have been substantial changes in the decline profiles of wells drilled in Texas over the last 30 years. This study indicates that for new Texas gas wells, the decline rates in the early years are now on the order of 50 percent per year.” Swindell updated the study in 2005, noting the rate of decline is closer now to 60 percent per year.
What does all of this mean? It means that the easy stuff is gone. Every year we have to look for deeper, more difficult plays, and the only reason the oil companies keep gobbling these operations up is because the market price is so artificially high due to market speculation. If we were in a normal commodities pricing environment, none of these areas would be considered because there wouldn’t be a shale play in America that would make financial sense.
Even the U.S. Energy Information Administration cites that “the average gas well half-life has dropped for all major production regions and for the lower 48 States. Second, the regional gas well production half-lives have converged to a value of between 23 and 25 months.” Translation: At best, the average production life of a natural gas well is four years.
Four years. After that, they’ll be gone. The customers in the restaurants, supermarkets and auto dealers will have moved on to the next play. That’s called a bubble. But when this bubble pops, there’s no going back. You can’t put the Earth back the way it was. Can’t cure the cancer these companies left behind. Can’t put the pieces of rock back together. When the wells are sucked dry, so too is the local economy when the drillers head for the proverbial hills and leave the land owners high and dry with polluted and devalued properties. This is a zero-sum game, and for some reason, with all of the information and resources available to us, we’re still willing to take a “seat at the table” instead of dismissing the practice entirely.
Personally, I refuse to vie for a seat at the devil’s table to drink hemlock and swallow my pride. The NYLCV and others are committed to advising the official hydraulic fracturing policy as though it’s a policy worthy of consideration, or worse, a fait accompli. It is neither. We still have a choice. The only question is whether we have the courage to make the right one.