In earlier issues of this magazine we published an Article by Jim Morris on “The Pennsylvania Experience With Methane Extraction, or Fracking,” and a Report on “Fracking in New York: accidents, spills, releases, ETC,” which explores the State of New York Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) assessment of the possibilities of fracking in New York in its Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS). (Note 1) As required by law, the GEIS was submitted for public comment and a number of public hearings were held on the GEIS across New York State. This Report summarises some of the responses of the public and the US EPA to the GEIS and the implications for plans for fracking in the Republic of Ireland (RoI) and Northern Ireland (NI).
Over 60,000 comments were submitted to the NYS DEC in response to the GEIS and thousands of people attended the public hearings and made comments. The NYS DEC is soon expected to issue its responsiveness summary in reply to the public comments. It should be noted that the NY GEIS, through all its stages – drafts, revisions, supplements, public input, and soon-to-be summary of response to public comments — represents one of the most thorough and thoughtful assessments of the possibilities and problems of fracking.
Even if one does not agree with some of the critical conclusions of the State’s assessment, if fracking is being considered elsewhere, as it is in RoI and NI, then the NY GEIS process and assessment deserves a very close examination. But that review is just the start as it is also critical that one examine the important comments by the public, both environmental organizations, US EPA, and individuals, to understand fully the risks of fracking and some of the limitations of the NY GEIS.
The earlier Report on “Fracking in New York: accidents, spills, releases, ETC” covered the basics of New York’s assessment of the critical issues. This follow-up report will revisit a few of those issues in light of comments from the public. It is not possible to cover most, or even many of the comments submitted to NYS DEC, but there have been several recurring issues raised in the comments and public hearings, and we will concentrate on these.
Comments from the public and environmental groups
Certainly the overriding concern for members of the public is the risk of contamination of their drinking water, either through contamination of the surface water or groundwater that supply that drinking water. The risks come from drilling the wells, the actual hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the failure or leaking of well casings, the handling and disposal of flowback waters, and spills of chemicals on the surface. Any spill of flowback waters, that contain chemicals used in the fracking as well as possible normally occurring radioactive material (NORM), or of chemicals stored onsite have the potential to infiltrate the soils and migrate to surface or groundwater and to drinking water sources.
Some of the larger environmental organizations submitted long, thoughtful comments to DEC and were able to employ a number of expert consultants who examined all the technical issues for fracking, including, what kind of casing was required, methods for handling wastewater and cuttings from drilling, technicalities for monitoring air emissions, disposal of radioactive materials, containment systems, and much more.
Some of the specific concerns raised by public comments included:
• DEC’s assessment overlooked the risks from seismic effects on underground utilities, pipelines, and water supply networks, including the infrastructure for New York City’s drinking water supply in the area of potential fracking
• Since well casings can and do leak with risk of groundwater contamination, any fracking operations need tight regulations on materials and installation and critical oversight by DEC yet there are no resources for this expanded role for DEC. Some argued that there should be no fracking until the oversight and enforcement staff are expanded
• Estimates by DEC of air pollution attributable to fracking underestimate the cumulative adverse impacts from multiple wells in close proximity to each other and the impacts from trucking wastewater from the wells to disposal sites. Note that the US EPA has very recently finalized standards to reduce harmful air pollution associated with oil and natural gas production, including of course fracking. See Sources.
• Public wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to handle disposal of flowback and other wastewaters from fracking operations, which can include radioactive materials
• Health risks for exposure to methane are unclear and more research on this issue is needed before any fracking is allowed
• It is unclear who will pay for wear and tear on roads from the voluminous truck traffic
• DEC does not fully address the increased risk of serious accidents from all the truck traffic and the impact on the quality of life of those affected by fracking
• Setback requirements need to be extended to provide greater protection for sensitive natural resources, including drinking water sources. See the recent UK study recommending, based on an evaluation of fractures in areas where fracturing might occur, that fracking should be allowed only at least 600 metres down from aquifers used for water supplies. See Sources.
• DEC does not clarify what local control or input will be required or allowed on critical issues such as siting of wells, disposal of wastewater, and truck traffic impacts
Comments from US EPA, Region 2
While fracking operations are regulated by states, like most gas and oil exploration, nevertheless the US EPA retains an important role in such regulation. The national EPA study of fracking, limited to impacts on drinking water, is not expected until 2014. In the meantime, the Region 2 office of EPA, with responsibility for New York and other states, has submitted comments on the GEIS and they deserve separate treatment.
EPA suggested, as a general comment, that DEC should develop a Geographic Information System (GIS) for fracking with location of all wells, updated monthly with each well to include the stage of operation, including the volume of water being used and stored on site, whether fracking was in progress, whether gas was collected and the location of public water supply wells. EPA also proposed that such a GIS include a list of each chemical being used.
In addition, EPA made a number of very specific comments or recommendations on particular issues in NY’s plans for fracking. Here are some of EPA’s recommendations:
• DEC is underestimating the presence of radioactive material in, and risks from, the flowback in fracking operations, and EPA states that it has data from Pennsylvania wells indicating elevated levels of naturally occurring radiation materials (NORM) in fracking operations.
• While fracking is prohibited within 500 feet of a private drinking water supply unless the owner waives the limitation, EPA asks what happens when several private wells are located within the same 500 feet exclusion zone and one owner waives and another does not. Does fracking proceed? See GEIS, Section 3.2.4, at page 3-14.
• EPA has determined, based on data in the GEIS, that the maximium concentration of several chemicals (including arsenic, benzene, chromium (VI) and tetrachloroethylene) found in flowback water samples were greater than EPA’s risk-based screening values for tap water and that if flowback contaminated drinking water sources these levels would present potential short-term and long-term health problems for people drinking the water
• DEC addresses only several of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) and fails to include or address several key sources of GHG emissions, including GHG emissions associated with combustion of shale gas by downstream users and methane releases that occur during transport, storage and distribution of shale gas See more below on GHG emissions from fracking
• DEC suggests that fewer GHG emissions means less impact but fails to address the differential Global Warming Potential, especially from methane, and EPA differs with DEC on the significance of methane emissions from production activities
• If re-fracking of wells after a few years becomes the standard practice, as expected, then the assessment of impacts from truck traffic will present a continuous source of GHG emissions
• While DEC claims it did not estimate toxic emissions from mobile sources, i.e., offsite truck traffic, in part because the data was not available, EPA replied that it currently has the emissions inventory tools to quantify air toxics emissions from truck traffic
• How is DEC going to limit the number of permits to only those it has resources to adequately review and enforce, while those staffing resources are unlikely to materialize and the pressure to issue permits will not abate
• Private drinking water wells should be tested by a company selected by the well owner and paid for by the drilling company
• Storage of flowback water in reserve pits on well pads should be prohibited
• Drill cuttings should be tested and if they contain dangerous materials, then they should have to be disposed of at a permitted offsite facility
• There is need for an evaluation of environmental impacts from the siting and construction of pipelines and other infrastructure that is part of fracking
• Plans to reuse flowback water as hydraulic fluid in other wells may present problems because the recycled flowback may have more contaminants, including radon
• While DEC proposes to prohibit road spreading of flowback water, EPA submits that road spreading of production water would be just as dangerous, and that production brine also should be prohibited
• Operators should be required to regularly test wastewater and DEC staff should review the results to see if it poses a threat to human health or the environment, and what disposal is required
• While DEC proposes to provide the public with a list of the names of chemical being used, EPA recommends that DEC also include the concentrations of the chemicals as well
• While states will have primary responsibility for overseeing and enforcing fracking operations, EPA pointedly reminds DEC, and everyone else, that it has broad powers under the Clean Water Act (spill prevention), the Clean Air Act (obligations to prevent accidental releases), Safe Drinking Water Act, the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (obligation to notify relevant authorities of storing and release of certain dangerous substances) and other federal statutes to take action against polluting fracking operations
Comments on GHG Emissions from Fracking
DEC provides some data on levels of GHG emissions from a single well but it fails, or intentionally chooses not, to provide an estimate of the total GHG emissions expected from all the wells to be developed under NY’s plans to allow fracking. As the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy points out, DEC fails to inventory the total amount of GHG emissions that will inevitably be released into the atmosphere from the combustion – as a fuel – of the extracted shale gas itself; and fails to inventory the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions attributable to all of the anticipated hydraulic fracturing wells (and related operational activities) that will be permitted under the new program over time.
As we will discuss below, this failure is a critical weakness to the plan as it ignores NY efforts to reduce GHG emissions and it undermines the integrity of any energy/climate change plan for the state.
Comments on Fracking and New York’s Energy Policy
Former Governor David A. Paterson, in March 2008, issued Executive Order No. 2 directing the creation of a State Energy Plan stating that “…the development, implementation, and periodic review of a sensible comprehensive energy plan will enable the State to determine its future energy needs and facilitate a deliberate, efficient, and cost-effective means of meeting those needs.” In June 2008, New York State began a new statewide energy planning process, and in September 2009, a law was passed that statutorily established the State Energy Planning Board and called on that Board to complete a State Energy Plan on or before March 15, 2013. In the interim the Planning Board has been producing documents setting forth its work in progress and the scope of the final Plan to be issued in March 2013. In October 2011, the Board issued a “Scope for the 2013 New York State Energy Plan,” which includes information on the statutory requirement that the Plan seek to:
• Improve the reliability of the State’s energy systems
• Insulate consumers from volatility in market prices
• Reduce the overall cost of energy in the State
• Minimize public health and environmental impacts, particularly those related to climate change (emphasis added)
• Identify policies and programs designed to maximize cost-effective energy efficiency and conservation activities to meet projected demand growth
Obviously, any energy plan has to balance these different, and sometimes competing, interests. So the question is, how does fracking for natural gas “minimize public health and environmental impacts, particularly those related to climate change”? How does drilling, extracting, producing and consuming this form of fossil fuel advance or retard that policy?
If the State’s energy policy adopts a future based on carbon-free energy sources, we need to know how fracking helps us get there, or not. If the policy supports all forms of energy – oil, gas, coal, nuclear, renewables – with no particular priority, in a catch-as-catch-can way, the cheapest form of energy will win out, as it always does. That currently usually means coal, oil, or gas, not renewables. So to the extent fossil fuel sources including methane gas are supported, with tax benefits or subsidies, why would investors pursue renewable sources of energy.
And if there is a climate change policy, how does fracking advance or retard that policy, especially in light of the levels of GHG emissions in the production and consumption of methane gas.
These questions remain unanswered and undermine the adoption of a rationale energy/climate change policy for New York. Should not New York wait until it adopts its energy plan next year before approving a whole new industry, with thousands of wells across the state, that will significantly increase emissions of methane, a GHG with high Global Warming Potential?
IMPLICATIONS FOR IRELAND
The European Parliament Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety commissioned a study of fracking in Europe and the report was issued in June 2011. While some in the press suggested that “European Union report says ban fracking,” the report is not so direct or unambiguous. Indeed, in the “Executive Summary” the authors make a set of Recommendations that focus on what steps need to be taken if fracking projects are permitted rather than advance an argument that fracking should be banned. The authors also note that, “The recorded violations of legal requirement amount to about 1 – 2 percent of all drilling permits” (in the US).
On the other hand, the study also noted that many accidents do happen and they are harmful to the environment and human health. Causes of these accidents include blow out with frac-water spills, leakages from wastewater or from fracture fluid ponds or pipes, groundwater contamination due to improper handling or unprofessional cementing of the well casing. The report suggests that many of these risks can be reduced and probably avoided with adequate technical directives, cautious handling practise, and supervision by public authorities.
The problem is that these corrective mechanisms are often lacking or weak in many countries. The study evaluates the existing EU regulatory regime that might apply to fracking and finds substantial gaps, most especially the lack of any comprehensive mining framework. The authors point out some of the shortcomings of other Directives that apply to aspects of fracking.
Supervision by national and local public authorities over activities that generate environmental problems has less than a stellar history in Ireland, especially in the RoI, and the current financial crisis only worsens the chances that resources will be made available to supervise fracking operations.
Getting aggressive enforcement against polluting industries, like fracking, is an uphill struggle. That struggle is not helped by statements from the General Director of the Irish EPA that appeared in her recent interview with the Irish Times where she stated that the Irish EPA should not be “racing to prosecute” businesses for not complying with environmental licences and regulations and where she said that she wanted to reposition the agency to support economic growth and move away from “the perception that it was purely an environmental watchdog or policeman.” As made clear by an editorial in the Irish Times, and a Letter to it in reply by Malcolm Noonan of the Green Party, EPA is empowered to protect public interests, not business interests. A major deterrent to polluters is in fact the strong presence of a watchdog and enforcer. Rather than promoting economic development — was our environment not just mauled by a Celtic Tiger — should not the Irish EPA be prosecuting anybody who ignores the public interest and pollutes our shared environment, including businesses that contribute to environmental contamination from fracking. (Note 3)
GHG Emissions, Climate Change and Energy Policies in Ireland: Does Fracking Make Sense
What was said above about the adverse consequences of fracking for New York’s GHG emissions, climate change and energy policies applies with even greater force in Ireland.
We mentioned how the release of methane, a potent GHG, creates problems for New York’s energy and climate change plans. (Note 2) Those problems pale in comparison with the difficulties for Ireland as a result of the substantial increase in methane emissions if fracking is allowed to proceed. The government of Ireland has adopted Harvest 2020, a strategy committing Ireland to double the production in beef and dairy exports by 2020. This increase is possible because the EU is eliminating restrictions on the level of exports for these farming products. Since the farming sector in the RoI already generates about 29% of the country’s total GHG emissions (and about 22% in NI), such an increase will cause major challenges for meeting any EU targets to reduce GHG emissions by 2020, or any other period.
As the Irish Times has recently noted, greenhouse gas emissions in RoI will exceed permissible levels by 2017 and continue to grow from there, and the “primary culprit will be agriculture, which is expected to generate almost half of the affected greenhouse gases.” In order to meet the 50 per cent increase in beef output under the food harvest plan, farmers have proposed that environmental controls under the nitrate and water framework directives should be eased.
How can Ireland support the release of more methane gas into the environment from fracking when it cannot control or reduce the methane emissions from farming and where the government plans on doubling farm production. Such growth in production most likely will produce a substantial increase in methane emissions. While that increase may be held lower than a doubling of GHG emissions, through development of production methods to reduce the carbon intensity per unit of output and through maximising carbon sequestration in soils and forests, these options are not certain to succeed and even if they do, methane levels will most certainly rise from the expansion of the agriculture sector.
If fracking is allowed, shall the agriculture sector pull back from a 50% growth, or even from any growth? What politician will propose and implement that policy?
If the increase in GHG emissions from fracking is allowed, and farming is going to be permitted to double, with a substantial increase in its GHG emissions, who is going to be responsible for the reduction in GHG emissions necessary to save the planet, let alone to comply with binding EU legal obligations. Shall all citizens be precluded from driving their cars? Shall industry shut down?
If the political parties think hard choices currently are creating a backlash, wait until they have to force some sector of society to sacrifice so that fracking can provide profits to drilling companies, and some landowners.
The recent report from the EU on fracking, discussed above, reinforces the questions about the viability of fracking. It points out GHG emissions from natural gas are usually lower than from other fossil fuels at about 200 g CO2-equivalent per kWh. But due to the low gas recovery per well and fugitive methane losses, the higher efforts for development, and the low throughput of gathering lines and compressors, the specific emissions of shale gas use are higher than from conventional gas fields. And this does not include the GHG emissions from consumption of the shale gas.
In the “Conclusions,” the authors of the EU study raise serious questions as to whether fracking makes sense for EU energy policies. The argument rests on the analysis that fracking leads to a short-lived gas supply with substantial risks to ground and surface waters and with high GHG emissions, in some ways equal to or even greater than coal. Instead, the authors suggest, efforts should concentrate on reducing dependence on fossil fuels through renewable and efficient energy.
The EU report concludes, “Whatever reasons for allowing hydraulic fracturing exist, the justification that it helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are rarely among them. On the contrary, it is very likely that investments in shale gas projects – if at all – might have a short-living impact on gas supply which could be counterproductive, as it would provide the impression of an ensured gas supply at a time when the signal to consumers should be to reduce this dependency by savings, efficiency measures and substitution.”
In order to put a lid on the accelerating global warming, with enormous difficulties in limiting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, many groups are now focusing on controlling the more short-lived GHG emissions. To the extent these emissions can be limited and warming trends slowed, we may provide ourselves with a breathing space until we can develop the ways and will power to deal with the long-lived CO2 emissions. Of course, methane is one of the important short-lived GHGs and Ireland will, once again, be on the outside of climate change initiatives if it cannot control the explosive growth of methane emissions from agriculture, plus fracking if it is allowed to go forward.
Fracking’s Threat to Dublin’s Water, and Everyone Else’s
As pointed out in the earlier report in this magazine, on “Fracking in New York,” Ireland’s water supplies are now diminishing in the east and further reductions in water supplies likely will follow the global and Irish climate changes from GHG emissions. Dublin and surrounding areas are looking longingly for water from the west, specifically from the Shannon River watershed, to supply water to these communities in the east, at a cost of €500 million.
To the extent any fracking would occur in the Shannon River watershed, any accidents, surface spills, leaks and other releases from fracking operations could adversely impact the quality of that water for all the communities that depend on it. If fracking creates too great a risk for the NYC drinking water supply, is there any reason to believe the same risks do not exist for Dublin’s water supply.
A further question remains, for both NY and Ireland. If fracking presents too great a risk of contaminating the drinking water for residents of the metropolis, including surrounding populous counties, why is the risk acceptable for the individual farmers and small communities outside the metropolis? What is good for the goose ought to be good for the gander. If fracking is banned from any watershed that is a source for Dublin’s water, as it should be, why would the government not adopt equal protection for drinking water wells of individuals and small communities throughout the island of Ireland.
A final note on the water supply issue. NY estimates that each fracking well requires on average 3.6 million gallons of water. In Ireland, where is this water going to come from, and who will it be taken from? Despite the image of a water-sodden countryside, we are learning that Ireland is experiencing severe dry spells, like other countries, and global warming impacts in Ireland will have deep effects on reducing further the supply of water in some areas.
If the huge volume of trucking on rural roads is a problem in New York — at least 6,790 one-way trips for each fracking well, and this may be too conservative an estimate — it does not take much to imagine the havoc that will result from thousands of large tanker trucks, loaded with water, chemicals or wastewater, driving down Irish country lanes, many of which are one-car wide, and running into or over whatever they encounter as these lanes are used for walking and moving sheep and cows.
The level of PAHs and particulate matter from these mainly diesel trucks will change the quality of the air in these mostly remote communities and aggravate many health problems, including asthma.
As the EU report on fracking points out, citizen understanding and participation in fashioning the quality of life for them and their families will likely suffer. The report points out that typically in EU countries “mining rights are privileged over citizens’ rights,” and local political authorities often are overridden or ignored by national or state governments and their authorities. Contributing to this disenfranchisement, the present EU-legislative framework requires an environmental impact assessment only when the production rate of the well in question exceeds 500,000 m3 per day, while shale gas wells typically produce in the order of several ten thousand m3 per day in the beginning. The report recommends that an environmental impact assessment with public participation should be mandatory for each well.
Stopping fracking in New York will be very difficult because fracking has been in operation in various states for decades and has received substantial support from fossil-fuel-friendly states like Texas and some western states. So it has a history and momentum, and very deep financial backing from the fossil fuel industries. Depending on the context, it can be politically difficult to oppose. For example, President Obama has a struggle to get re-elected and opposing development of an American source of energy at a time of high gasoline prices opens him to attack from the Republicans, although of course natural gas from fracking has no impact on car gas prices. On the other hand, in New York if support for fracking in less-populated upstate areas is split, about 50% in favor and 50% opposed, and if most of the heavily populated downstate areas, including New York City, are vehemently opposed (the threat to NYC drinking water being a prime reason, as well as the other risks), then a straight voter referendum on fracking likely would be defeated. Of course it is the governor’s decision, and is not subject to a referendum, but politicians are sensitive to strong voter opinion that often translates into direct votes.
In Ireland, there is no history of fracking or other hard-to-get fossil fuel projects (like drilling 5,000 feet in the Gulf of Mexico or in the Arctic), so fracking would be the first instance and it has no long-established local interest group to push for it. Most if not all of the local authorities where fracking might occur have expressed opposition or even passed resolutions banning it. Once those in the populated east of the country, who are going to have to depend on drinking water from the Shannon watershed, realize that fracking could jepordise that drinking water supply then opposition will grow, and New York’s position of banning fracking in the watershed for New York City and Syracuse will offer strong support for opposition.
No one should underestimate the economic forces, and their political supporters, that will push for fracking. There is a lot of money at stake. But at the end of the day, the arguments against fracking in Ireland are compelling.
NOTE 1. The procedural background for the GEIS is explained in that Report (December 2011). See also the entry for “Hydraulic fracturing” in the iePEDIA section, various News items on fracking, and several You Tube videos on the issue, all in irish environment.
Note 2. The Obama administration, through the Secretary for Energy, developed a set of recommendations to improve the safety and environmental performance of natural gas hydraulic fracturing from shale formations. Included were recommendations that measures should be taken to reduce emissions of methane as quickly as practicable; efforts should be made to acquire data and analyze the overall greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas use; additional field studies on possible methane migration from shale gas wells to water reservoirs should be undertaken. US Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Natural Gas Subcommittee, “Improving the Safety & Environmental Performance of Hydraulic Fracturing” www.shalegas.energy.gov/
Note 3. The EPA Director General responded to the Editorial in a Letter to the Irish Times. See below.
NYS DEC, Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program (September 2011) www.dec.ny.gov/energy/75370.html
“Fracking in New York: accidents, spills, releases, ETC,” in the Reports section of irish environment (December 2011).
Jim Morris, “The Pennsylvania Experience With Methane Extraction, or Fracking,” in the Articles k/n/a Commentary section of irish environment (November 2011).
Some Comments on NY GEIS:
Joint Submission by Catskill Mountainkeeper, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Earthjustice, National Resources Defense Council, Riverkeeper See, docs.nrdc.org/energy/ene_12011201.asp
US EPA Region 2: Copy available from publisher
Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy. envirocenter.yale.edu/programs/completed-projects
Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) blogs.edf.org/energyexchange/2012/01/31/improving-new-york%E2%80%99s-proposed-hydraulic-fracturing-regulations/
European Union Parliament, Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, Impacts of shale gas and shale oil extraction on the environment and on human health (June 2011, IP/A/ENVI/ST/2011-07) www.europarl.europa.eu/committees/en/studies.html#studies
“Restrict shale gas fracking to 600m from water supplies, says study,” The Guardian, 25 April 2012 www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2012/apr/25/shale-gas-fracking-600-metres-water?intcmp=122
Energy Institute, University of Texas at Austin, Separating Fact From Fiction in Shale Gas Development: Assessing the Real and Perceived Consequences of Shale Gas Development
RoI Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Food Harvest 2020 www.agriculture.gov.ie/agri-foodindustry/foodharvest2020/
“Staying green while growing,” The Irish Times, 23 April 2012 www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2012/0423/1224315048070.html
Malcolm Noonan, “Protecting the Environment” Irish Times, 25 April 2012. Malcolm Noonan is the Green Party Spokesperson for Environment, Community and Local Government www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/letters/2012/0425/1224315146561.html
Laura Burke, “Protecting the Environment,” Irish Times, 27 April 2012. Laura Burke is the Director General of the Irish EPA www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/letters/2012/0427/1224315232428.html
An Taisce, Energy Unit Newsletter on “The Question of Fracking,” (Summer 2011) www.antaisce.org/transportenergy/EnergyHome.aspx
“Key Allies Join Second Front in Climate War,” Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development igsd.org/
US EPA, “PA Issues Updated, Achievable Air Pollution Standards for Oil and Natural Gas / Half of fractured wells already deploy technologies in line with final standards, which slash harmful emissions while reducing cost of compliance” yosemite.epa.gov/opa/admpress.nsf/d0cf6618525a9efb85257359003fb69d/c742df7944b37c50852579e400594f8f!OpenDocument