The documentary Gasland, the result of Fox’s research into environmental damage resulting from natural gas fracking around the U.S., won a special jury award at the 2010 Sundance Festival. It will be showing on HBO through 2012, and the Woodstock Film Festival is bringing it to Onteora High School at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 17. A Q&A with director Josh Fox and Congressman Maurice Hinchey will follow the screening. With a vast reservoir of natural gas underlying most of New York State and legislators locking horns over whether to open up the state to drilling, Hinchey has come out in opposition to fracking unless it’s accompanied by rigorous governmental regulation, which is thus far absent.
Despite the gas company’s assurance that drilling would not be invasive, Fox decided to investigate existing drilling sites. He had heard of problems occurring 30 miles away in Dimock, Pennsylvania. “I went there in February 2009,” he recalled, “and found the entire place upside down. It was swarming with huge trucks, people could literally light their water on fire, people and animals were getting sick, and there was an atmosphere of fear and betrayal. After a few trips there, I decided I had to get out West and find out if this situation was the exception or the rule. In Arkansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, and New Mexico, I found a story of contamination and defeat.”
Fracking is a method used over the past 40 years to extend the life of waning oil wells, but only recently has it been employed to extract natural gas supplies that were previously considered unreachable. In underground rock formations such as the Marcellus Shale, which underlies much of New York State, including the Catskills, natural gas inhabits a multitude of tiny vertical cracks in the rock. Vertical drilling would intersect only a fraction of the trapped gas. Fracking involves horizontal drilling, with vast quantities of water injected under high pressure to break open the fractures. Along with the water is pumped a proprietary mix of chemicals (i.e., a secret patented formula, undisclosed to the public) to facilitate the breakage. These chemicals are apparently finding their way into the drinking water of communities where fracking occurs.
Fox’s film documents the results of water testing in Dimock and other drilling locations around the country. “The film is shocking to people,” Fox said. “The regulatory atmosphere is amazingly bereft of thought. The gas companies are exempt from the State Drinking Water Act, the Superfund law, the Clean Water Act — exemptions that were put into the 2005 Energy Bill. People are picking up on the fact that this is a great Bush era environmental scandal.”
Such exemptions, he says, prevent gas companies from being held responsible for contamination or being forced to clean up the disasters resulting from runoff of chemicals. Methods of fracking were developed by Halliburton, whose former CEO Dick Cheney was U.S. Vice President in 2005.
Seeking moratorium extension
Congress is making moves towards repealing the exemptions, but the laws have not been changed yet. In early July, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure voted to remove fracking from the protection of the 2005 Energy Bill, inserting an amendment into the Oil Spill Accountability and Environmental Protection Act currently being crafted in response to the Gulf oil spill. Congressman Hinchey has authored a Fracking Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act that will require energy companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking and will eliminate the exemptions from the State Drinking Water Act. The FRAC Act is still in committee. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a study to determine what risks fracking poses for drinking water.
Gas companies, however, continue to oppose measures to restrict operation and are, in fact, working toward securing rights of eminent domain, already in place in Texas with regard to natural gas pipeline placement. In Pennsylvania, two state legislators have co-sponsored a bill that would impose a tax on the drilling companies while giving them the right to force landowners to lease their land for drilling. The Scranton Times-Tribune reports that both legislators have received campaign donations from gas companies.
New York City, concerned about possible contamination of its drinking water in the upstate watershed, is opposed to fracking in New York State. A moratorium on drilling was imposed throughout the state last year, while the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) conducted an Environmental Impact Study (EIS). When the study was published last fall, it received over 14,000 public comments. The DEC is now sifting through the comments as part of the process of revising the document. Once the EIS is republished, companies can start applying for permits to drill, unless the state legislature renews the moratorium. To pay for the permit-granting infrastructure, Governor Paterson has proposed a severance tax on gas extraction, similar to the tax under consideration in Pennsylvania.
“It’s not likely the DEC will be rushing this,” said Conor Bambrick, a spokesman for Assemblyman Kevin Cahill. “He has been assured that the DEC will be doing its due diligence.” The bill currently under consideration, the most recent of several proposed, would extend the moratorium until May 15, 2011. “This one has gone the furthest and is currently on the Assembly floor,” explained Bambrick. “The regular session has wrapped up, but a few times a year, the legislature comes back to vote on specific issues. If it comes back into session soon, there’s a good chance it will be voted on.”
An extension of the moratorium would give the legislature time to reconsider fracking. “They’ll examine what’s in the EIS and come to a conclusion whether this is what the state should be getting involved in,” asserted Bambrick. “Assemblyman Cahill says it’s something we shouldn’t do unless we can get it right.”
Availability of fossil fuel
Among the forces arrayed against the moratorium are landowners eager to profit from leasing and royalty fees, the muscle of the gas companies, and the constraints of the energy economy. The oil and gas industry touts fracking as a means of extending the availability of fossil fuel supplies for decades, as well as reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil. A science website, geology.com, estimates that if ten percent of the Marcellus Shale natural gas reserves were extracted, “That volume of natural gas would be enough to supply the entire United States for about two years and have a wellhead value of about one trillion dollars.”
Natural gas is also said to be cleaner-burning and less polluting than oil. However, as Gasland points out, that advantage may be outweighed by the environmental impact of extraction. In addition to widespread groundwater contamination, Fox shows the devastation of hillsides as massive trucks and equipment are deployed, razing acres of vegetation at each site. At many locations, poor air quality and noxious odors are reported. People who were grateful for the income from leasing their land now say their property is worthless in terms of resale value.
Due to the vast quantities of water required for injection into the ground, there is concern that fracking has depleted local water supplies in many areas. Because injected water is mixed with chemicals, some of the water is then sequestered deep underground to keep it out of the water table. The portion that returns to the surface with the natural gas must be trucked away to disposal sites. Both actions effectively remove it from the local water supply.
“There’s fracking going on in 34 states,” said Fox. “Companies that go to a new place are saying, ‘It’s not going to happen here the way it did in Texas; it will be completely different.’ I went to as many places as I could. I wanted to find out where it was going well, and what they were doing differently. I didn’t find those places. The industry is attacking the film and saying these are worst-case scenarios. I’ve challenged them — if you have a town with at least 100 wells (which is not a large number — some towns have 10,000 wells) and everyone is happy and rich, then take me there. So far there’s been no response.”++
Gasland will be screened at Onteora High School on Route 28 in Boiceville at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 17, in a special presentation by the Woodstock Film Festival. For more information on fracking, see www.gaslandthemovie.com.