Opponents of gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing in New York got a boost last week when the EPA issued a draft report that found that chemicals used in gas wells may have contaminated a shallow-water aquifer in Pavillion, Wyo. With the state Department of Environmental Conservation having extended the comment period on its proposed rules for drilling and “fracking” to Jan. 9, the critics will surely point to the Wyoming case as cause for New York to just ban drilling.
In fact, the EPA report gives no reason for doing so. The situation in Wyoming bears little resemblance to how drillers would tap the Marcellus Shale, the vast formation that stretches from New York to Ohio and West Virginia.
Right off the bat, the report notes the many decades-old oil and gas wells around Pavillion that would never pass muster today; in some, the surface casing (which is used to protect groundwater) was “as shallow as 110 meters below ground surface,” even though water wells in the area ran “as deep as 244 meters below ground surface.” In other words, the shoddy old oil and gas wells may have allowed some of the fracking fluids to migrate into drinking-water supplies.
That factor simply isn’t present in New York. Furthermore, the report cites “at least 33 surface pits previously used for storage/disposal of drilling wastes” near the Pavillion site — pits that the researchers found had contaminated nearby groundwater.
Thus, the lack of proper casing in the old wells, combined with the presence of numerous pits that were badly managed, were the likely source of the contamination that the EPA found. It is thus a mystery why the report nonetheless insisted that, in Pavillion, “data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing.”
Another key difference: The shale being targeted in the Marcellus is usually a mile or more below the surface; the area around Pavillion is unusual in that commercial quantities of natural gas were located at depths as shallow as 1,100 feet, in rock strata relatively close to groundwater resources.
Over the last 60 years, the fracking process has been used more than 1 million times in the United States. And the rules being proposed by the Department of Environmental Conservation have rigorous well-casing requirements, as well as setback measures that would prevent what happened in Wyoming from happening in New York.
But don’t take my word for it. Last summer, the MIT Energy Initiative released a 170-page report on natural gas which directly addressed the fracking issue: “The fracturing process itself poses minimal risk to the shallow groundwater zones that may exist in the upper portion of the wellbore.”
Yes, New York needs appropriate regulations for oil and gas drilling — but it also can’t afford to be left behind in the shale revolution. Earlier this year, a study by Tim Considine, an energy economist at the University of Wyoming, estimated that drilling in the Marcellus Shale could add as many as 15,000 new jobs and $1.7 billion to the New York economy by 2015. (Full disclosure: The study was done for the Manhattan Institute, where I’m a senior fellow.)
Just this month, IHS Global Insight issued a report estimating that natural gas-related tax revenues in the United States will rise from $18.6 billion in 2010 to $118 billion by 2015. New York, with unemployment at 7.9 percent and multibillion-dollar budget holes in the years ahead, desperately needs to seize this economic opportunity.
New Yorkers have to decide: Do they want to participate in the most important energy breakthrough to hit the United States since the discovery of the East Texas Field in 1930? Or do they want to sit on the sidelines?
Original file here: