NYC Study Warns of Dangers of Hydrofracking
“Introduction of hundreds of tons per day of fracturing chemicals into the watershed over a period of several decades will likely be accompanied by the gradual dispersion of low levels of toxic chemicals into the environment and potentially the [New York City] water supply via multiple transport pathways.”
That’s from the just-released “Final Impact Assessment Report” by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection on the risks posed by natural gas production in upstate New York. Normally, engineer- and scientist-speak tends to understate risks; they’re the kind of people who’d call what happens when you hit the pavement after falling off the observation deck of the Empire State Building “Sudden Deceleration Syndrome.” However, even couched in scientific-ese, the conclusion reported above is frightening—any time you put “toxic chemicals” and “water supply” into the same sentence, you have a problem.
Other conclusions from the DEP’s report include:
• “Withdrawals [of water to support hydraulic fracturing] during dry periods could increase the duration of drought watch, warning, or emergency conditions.”
• “[C]hronic and persistent occurrence of small scale surface spills and contamination incidents will inevitably accompany . . . hydrofracking . . . [and will] reduce public and regulatory agency confidence in the quality and safety of the water supply.”
• “[H]yrodfracking . . . will produce an industrial-strength waste stream characterized by exceptionally high concentrations of a wide range of substances with the potential for adverse health and water quality effects which can be expected to exceed existing treatment and assimilative capacities. . .”
• “There is high level of uncertainty as to whether effective waste treatment processes and sufficient capacity will be available in the future.”
All of which led NYC’s acting Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner, Steven Lawitts, to say that “high volume hydrofracking and horizontal drilling pose unacceptable threats to the unfiltered fresh water supply of nine million New Yorkers.”
Hyrdrofracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the use of high-pressure fluids to force open seams in natural gas-rich rock, to allow the gas to be extracted. While it is an old technique, hydrofracking has gained currency in the last few years as a way to extract gas from sizeable but hard-to-reach deposits, such as those in the Marcellus Shale of upstate New York and Pennsylvania.
Hydrofracking uses vast quantities of water—enough, as the DEP report noted, to exacerbate drought during dry spells. However, that’s a just a sideshow to the real hazard, which is the toxic brew used in the hydrofracking process. While it could technically be done using just water, that’s costly and inefficient; hyrdrofracking works much better—and is kinder to drilling companies’ bottom lines—when chemicals such as diesel fuel, methanol, hydrochloric acid, and formaldehyde are added to the mix. Since the whole purpose of hydrofracking is to force open channels in rock to facilitate the upward movement of liquids and gases, it should be no surprise that despite drillers’ best efforts, hydrofracking chemicals get out into the environment. That’s bad under any circumstances, but worse when it occurs in or near the water source for millions of people, such as the New York City watershed.
That’s why acting Commissioner Lawitts is asking for a ban on gas drilling in the watershed; when you’re talking about potentially introducing toxic chemicals into New York City’s water supply, “[t]he risks are simply not worth it.”
To their credit, a number of gas companies (such as Chesapeake Energy Corp.) have already voluntarily announced that they would not drill in the NY watershed. The question is whether corporate good citizenship and judgment can be trusted, or whether a formal ban is necessary.
The issue is going to keep coming up: much of the vast quantities of natural gas that have been discovered in the last few years are in reserves that require hydrofracking to exploit. Without hydrofracking, a large percentage of this gas can’t be reached—to a considerable extent, domestic natural gas supplies and hydraulic fracturing are inextricably intertwined.
Hydrofracking’s not all or always bad: there are locations where it can be done with little environmental or societal impact, and there are techniques that are relatively safer or cleaner. Very few people in government or otherwise are calling for broad, outright bans on hyrdrofracking, though momentum seems to be building for restricting where it can be done, as well as for requiring greater transparency from gas companies in terms of disclosing the chemicals they use. That’s the purpose, for example, of the so-called “Frack Act” that’s working through Congress—to mandate disclosure of hydrofracking chemicals.
On all sides, the stakes are high: in the Marcellus Shale alone, the water supply for 9 million people and the upstate environment is balanced against a 20-year supply of natural gas, several thousand jobs, and considerable tax revenue. Getting that balance right will not be easy, but it is vital.