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Water contamination news – Fracking
A very important question is at the center of a court case that commenced this morning in Livingston County Court: Do individual towns have the right to ban natural gas fracking? An energy company is suing the town of Avon, hoping to set a precedent that would block towns from making their own decisions on fracking.
Dozens of towns are considering or have already enacted bans — more than half the towns in Livingston County passed one-year moratoriums on fracking, for example — and this is the one case that could decide them all.
We asked Michael Joy, attorney for Lenape Resources, why towns should’t have the right to ban fracking in the same way that towns can vote to ban, say, alcohol. Joy said it wasn’t a fair analogy.
“Not everybody is opposed to or supports natural gas development,” Joy said, “and you have the power as a property owner not to sign an oil-and-gas lease. What the oppositionists want to do is to go beyond that. They say, ‘We don’t only want to control what we do with our land; we want to control what you do with your land.’”
But to Joy’s point, a town that bans alcohol is not a town where no one chooses to drink any alcohol. That doesn’t stop the democratically elected town leaders from setting such a ban, nor does it stop the citizens from voting in new leaders if they disagree with such a move. Joy argued that an alcohol ban wouldn’t destroy the alcohol industry, but fracking bans could destroy the energy industry in New York State.
“There is absolutely the potential to see the death of — these kinds of actions could drastically impact the industry, and local employment,” Joy said.
The attorney for the town of Avon, who declined an interview after the hearing, disagreed with Lenape’s position. In court, Avon’s attorney argued that the State Court of Appeals has repeatedly moved to protect the rights of towns to set their own standards for what is an appropriate use of the land within its borders. The attorney stressed, “This case is not about fracking. It’s about town rights. Lenape is asking the court to eliminate the rights of towns to decide what use of land is appropriate.”
The attorney continued the point by saying that individual towns have to decide whether tourism and recreational activities can co-exist with natural gas extraction. He told the judge that Lenape’s position would take away the town’s ability to protect its resources.
Joy responded by telling the judge that much of the debate is being driven by “fear-mongering” and said, “Local municipalities should not be regulating the natural gas industry because they clearly do not understand what goes into the operation of it.”
Regarding the potential for bans to hurt the energy industry, Avon’s attorney scoffed: “This is not a referendum on whether the natural gas industry is going to survive in this state.”
Lenape Resources is located in Alexander, NY, just south of Batavia. The company has operated in Avon for several decades, but is awaiting a state ruling on fracking. The lawsuit seeks $50 million in damages, claiming the recent ban has injured the company.
Outside the courthouse, activists rallied to Avon’s side and said there were other rallies in Albany and elsewhere focused on the same subject: home rule.
“We’re basically coming out to support Avon and support the right of home rule, of local towns to set bans and moratoriums if that’s what the folks decide,” said Zora Gussow while she waved handmade signs.
This case is likely to become a model for other towns, and Lenape chose Avon for that very reason. “The fact that there are more than a hundred towns dealing with this issue across New York State makes this case that much more important,” Joy explained. “What the industry and communities and landowners need is clarity on this issue. This is an issue that is dividing communities across New York, and that’s unfortunate. That doesn’t help anyone. Resolution on this issue will.”
Judge Robert Wiggins did not set a timetable for moving forward, but attorneys on both sides hope to hear from the judge before the end of next week.
Five things you need to know about fracking:
#1 What is it?
Fracking is short for “hydraulic fracturing,” and the catch-all term used to describe the process of extracting oil and natural gas from shale rock formations deep underground. The process goes roughly like this: A company drills down more than a mile deep into the shale rock formations. Then comes what is known as “horizontal drilling” – effectively, the drilling turns 90 degrees, so that the well is exposed to more rock than it would be otherwise.
After the well is reinforced with concrete, tubes with perforating guns are sent down to set off explosions that create perforations in the rock surrounding the well. Then millions of gallons of “fracking fluid” – a mixture of water, sand and chemicals – is pumped down into the well at high pressure. The pressure builds up in the well, and the rock fractures. That frees the oil and gas that had been trapped within the rock, which flows back up through the pipe to be captured above ground. The process is repeated multiple times, with much – though not all – of the fracking fluid brought back up through the well.
#2The history and the boom
Fracking has been going on for more than half a century, but it has exploded in the last five years. That’s because of technological advances, including horizontal drilling, and the discovery that there is far more gas in shale formations like the Marcellus Shale than previously thought. In 2007, Penn State Professor Terry Engelder calculated that there were 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, which runs for about 95,000 miles underneath Pennsylvania, New York and four other states. The U.S.Geological Survey had previously estimated the shale held just 2 trillion cubic feet.
Engelder’s discovery and others around the country revealed that America’s shale held “the equivalent of two Saudi Arabias of oil,” as the CEO of Chesapeake Energy Aubrey McClendon put it.
Fracking has transformed communities – in ways both good and bad – across the country, sometimes turning residents who sell their land rights into millionaires – or “shaleionares,” as they’ve come to be known. For struggling towns Midwestern like Youngstown, Ohio, which saw their fortunes fall with the decline of the steel industry, fracking also represents an economic lifeline.
#3 The transformative potential
The realization that American had previously unknown vast oil and gas reserves has had a transformative effect on the American energy economy. It means that the United States can become less reliant on foreign energy sources, and, proponents say, potentially energy independent in the future. (By some estimates, there is enough natural gas deep underground to last for a century.) The oil and gas that is freed using fracking can be used to power cars, heat homes and provide electricity to hundreds of millions of people. And natural gas is relatively cheap and burns cleaner than coal.
As of December, there were 36,000 fracking wells in this United States, with thousands more set to open in 2013. The price of natural gas, meanwhile, has dropped by 33 percent since 2006, and the United States is beginning to export it for the first time.
#4 The risks
Environmentalists and some scientists have pointed to a whole host of environmental risks tied to fracking. They include the potential for drinking water to be contaminated if fracking fluid or the natural gas and other chemicals that had been trapped in the shale migrates up through rock and into aquifers or water wells. The Environmental Protection Agency said in a 2011 report, which has remained in draft form amid controversy, that chemicals from fracking were present in well water in Wyoming.
Other risks include those to air quality from burning off excess natural gas into the air and potentially negative impacts to wildlife and the environment from the clearing of land. There are also complications related to the disposal of the fluid that is a byproduct of the fracking process, which is believed to have caused earthquakes near Youngstown when pumped back underground and poses additional risks to drinking water.
Different states have taken different approaches when it comes to regulating fracking. Pennsylvania has been among the most willing to allow oil and gas companies to drill, while New York has had a moratorium on fracking that may be lifted in February. Last year, Vermont became the first state to ban fracking; California, meanwhile, is now poised to be the next state to see a fracking boom; lawmakers in the state, which currently does not require fracking companies to disclose the contents of their fracking fluid, are set to hold a hearing to examine fracking regulations in February.
#5 The future
Barring a massive environmental catastrophe, the fracking industry is expected to continue growing at a rapid pace. Environmentalists have complained that Obama administration has largely allowed the industry to operate with impunity; The Republican Governors Association and the Republican Attorneys General Association complained in a letter to the president in December that the Interior Department should abandon a draft plan to require drillers on federal and Indian lands to disclose the contents of fracking fluid.
In 2014, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to release the first comprehensive national study on the possible pollution of drinking water from fracking in 2014. While we don’t yet know what will be in that report, it’s almost certain that the fierce battle between environmentalists and industry over allowing and regulating fracking will continue long after it is released.
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