Drilling Concerns Near Finger Lakes Wineries

Economic boom for New York or environmental disaster?

by Hudson Cattell
Marcellus Shale
The dark green area represents the Marcellus Shale formation.
In the second half of the 20th century, the Finger Lakes wine region of New York became a tourist destination. Visitors come by the thousands to drive the winding country roads, look at the scenery—vineyards stretching down hillsides toward clear blue lakes—and to taste and buy the area’s award-winning wines.

Yet many winemakers and grapegrowers don’t realize the full extent to which clouds gathering on their horizon could potentially change that bucolic landscape, discourage tourists from coming and make growing quality grapes and wine much more difficult. Those clouds are the possible impacts that widespread use of a new, natural gas-drilling process may have on the area.

This process, high-volume hydraulic fracturing, often called hydrofracking or simply fracking, involves forcing a combination of water and chemicals under high pressure through a well and into shale deposits to break up the rock formations and drive the gas up to the surface. While hydrofracking is not new, horizontal drilling under high pressure is, and the process has made it economically feasible to extract gas that is trapped in the shale. 

It is possible that as many as 1,500 to 2,000 new wells will be opened in the Finger Lakes each year. Not surprisingly, opinion is sharply divided about whether this kind of drilling should be permitted in New York state. Those in favor cite the huge economic impact it would have on the economy; opponents say the drilling could result in environmental disaster.

The gas-rich shale in the Finger Lakes is part of a black shale formation known as the Marcellus Shale, which extends from West Virginia to the northeast through Pennsylvania and into southern New York state. In some areas it is as deep as 7,000 feet; in others, it is exposed at the surface. Geologists estimate that the entire formation contains between 168 trillion and 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. To put that amount into perspective, the consumption of natural gas in the United States is about 25 trillion cubic feet per year.

A horizontal well is created by drilling vertically to a depth just above the rock formation containing the gas. Using special tools, the hole is then curved horizontally through the gas-bearing rock as far as several thousand feet. The fracking process requires large amounts of fresh water, and in each fracking between 3 million and 4 million gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals are forced down the well to fracture the shale. One question not to be overlooked: Where will these millions of gallons of water come from?

About one-third of the fluid used in fracking is forced back out by the out-flowing gas, but at that point it is toxic waste, because it has picked up hydrocarbons, heavy metals like arsenic, and radioactivity from the shale. This toxic waste must be disposed of—a major problem that involves not only where to put it for environmental safety, but how to get it there.

Traffic is a concern in rural areas like the Finger Lakes. If tanker trucks with a capacity of 5,460 gallons of fluid are used in conjunction with an average fracking of 3.5 million gallons, 640 tanker trips will be needed to haul fresh water and 320 for wastewater. The total is 960 trips for each well. Multiply these figures by 1,500 or 2,000 wells, and the amount of fresh water required and the amount of wastewater that must be disposed of is staggering. The toll on area roads would also be heavy as a result of this amount of truck traffic.

Windfall or environmental disaster?
If there were no negative environmental concerns, the benefits of permitting hydrofracking would easily outweigh such problems as traffic, noise or ozone air pollution. One estimate is that the economic impact for New York state of a site with 300 gas wells could be $1.4 billion annually. In Pennsylvania, where fracking already is taking place, a Penn State study calculated that drilling in 2010 would create 98,000 new jobs and add $14.7 billion to the state’s economy. 

New York Gov. David Paterson already has publicly stated his support for the drilling as a way of bringing economic benefits for his financially troubled state. Not only could the output of the new wells be taxed, but leasing mineral rights on state lands would bring in royalties from the gas exploration companies. Approximately one-third of the land in the Finger Lakes already is under lease for mineral rights, and these property holders and landowners who might eventually sign leases could benefit as well. Broome County and other counties are advocating drilling and contemplate billions of dollars in revenue from all sources including additional business for hotels and restaurants. Proponents also point to the contribution drilling could make to U.S. energy independence.

Environmentalists and others, however, contend that the impact of drilling could lead to irreversible damage to the environment. Fracking requires chemicals to be added to the water for a variety of purposes including the reduction of friction, preventing the growth of bacteria or corrosion of pipes in the wells and the use of gels to carry the fracking fluids into the fractures and make sure they stay there. 

The gas exploration companies consider the chemical mix they use to be proprietary information, but while they have declined to identify all of the chemicals they use, they have testified to the use of benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. Of the more than 200 different chemicals that have been analyzed, more than 95% have adverse side effects ranging from brain damage and birth defects to cancer.

Congress is becoming involved. On Feb. 18 of this year, Rep. Henry A. Waxman and Rep. Edward Markey, chairmen of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, announced the start of an investigation into the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on the environment and human health. One of the triggers for the investigation was an admission by Halliburton that it used more than 807,000 gallons of seven diesel-based fluids for fracturing wells in 15 states.

Another concern is radioactivity. New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation analyzed 13 samples of wastewater brought to the surface from drilling and found that they contained levels of radium-226 as high as 267 times the limit for safe discharge into the environment, and thousands of times more than the federal limit for human consumption. Further testing may or may not confirm these first analyses, but radon has been a known problem in the Finger Lakes.

Waste disposal, then, is a real problem. If between 1,500 and 2,500 wells are drilled, as many as 3 billion gallons of wastewater will have to be disposed of. In the past, New York has had many deep, vertically drilled gas wells that required little water use in drilling. Many of these are now empty, and one suggestion put forth is to use these as storage wells by pumping wastewater under pressure into them. Another option being considered is to have the wastewater processed at sewage plants in New York. Less attractive, if radioactivity is involved, solid material may have to be transported to a nuclear waste site. There are many questions about waste disposal methods that would have to be worked out.

Accidents happen
Statistically, it is very likely that there will be some leaks, spills or accidents, and this is what has alarmed environmentalists and many other citizens. In the Dimock area just across the New York state line in Pennsylvania, several spills have occurred that have seeped into a creek, and drinking water in several homes has been found to contain metals and methane that leaked underground from a well site run by Cabot Oil and Gas. These incidents, plus an 800-gallon spill from a truck that overturned, have not gone unnoticed by those in the Finger Lakes.

The gas-exploration companies, needless to say, are a powerful force in lobbying for permission to start using high-volume hydraulic fracturing, and they tend to downplay any negative risks. For example, Chesapeake Energy, one of the major gas companies, states on its website, “Chesapeake always looks for safe, secure drill sites. We also strive to identify sites that minimize disruption to the neighborhood or environment, while still producing the most minerals for royalty owners, which include homeowners, school districts and municipalities.”

Government and politicians are caught in the middle between those who put the economy uppermost and their opponents, who put environmental safety first. One agency that is squarely in the middle is the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, which, in addition to safeguarding the environment, has a legislative mandate to expedite gas drilling. This has led to a fear in the minds of some environmentalists that what occurred in Pennsylvania may happen in New York: Some drilling may be permitted while the environmental impact is still being studied.

In the Finger Lakes, it has taken time for awareness of the problem to be translated into action. The wineries have not banded together to organize a joint response, and most of the organizations getting involved are towns, villages and local groups of concerned citizens. The Keuka Lake Association, formed in 1956 to protect Keuka Lake, is playing a leadership role. The association has taken the position that a need and a right exists to extract natural gas from underground wells, but the expectation is that it be done in a manner that does not harm area aquifers or nearby lakes, and does not pollute the air or the land. 

The organization is committed to take any and all allowable actions to convince Chesapeake of two things: first, not to dispose of waste near the Finger Lakes, and, second, to insist that the company develops a method to safely extract gas without the use of harmful chemicals and the production of toxic waste. Among the actions the association is calling for is to have citizens write letters to legislators, newspapers and Chesapeake Energy.

Art Hunt, owner of Hunt Country Vineyards in Branchport, N.Y., is a director of the Keuka Lake Association and a member of its committee on Marcellus Shale concerns. His family has been on the same land for six generations, and he speaks eloquently about the area. “People seek out Keuka Lake to enjoy the unspoiled beauty of the area and the pure water. Many of us who live here take it as a given.” 

He adds, “If an accident occurs on the lake road, how long would it take for 6,000 gallons to run into the lake? If, after a period of time, it is discovered that the material pumped underground is leaking into the aquifer or the lake, we could suddenly become the next highly visible Superfund clean-up site. Right now it’s getting to be critical. It’s like a freight train that has slowed down, but is still coming.”

Grapegrowers and winemakers are being encouraged to get more information and become more involved with their local governments. Domestic natural gas production can help our country reach energy independence, but, as Art Hunt points out, gas companies should not be allowed to risk polluting the water, ruin roads or do irreparable damage to agricultural businesses such as vineyards and wineries.
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