State of the Planet

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DRBC Gives Tentative Go Ahead to Fracking in PA — New York Skips the Meeting

According to the Delaware River Basin Commission, over 15 million people—about five percent of the nation’s population—rely on the Delaware River Basin for “drinking, agricultural, and industrial use.” New York City alone gets half its water from reservoirs located on tributaries of the Delaware.

Natural gas well. Source: arimoore on flickr.
Natural gas well. Source: arimoore on flickr.

It’s no understatement, then, to suggest that the commission—a regional body that was given authority to manage the river in 1961—holds enormous power and responsibility for the health and well being of a lot of people.

Given that responsibility, it was a surprise to learn that DRBC representatives from New York State didn’t even show up to a recent meeting in West Trenton to vote on allowing water-withdrawals for exploratory hydraulic fracturing wells by Stone Energy in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, according to a commission press release.

Voting members of DRBC include Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and the federal government. New Jersey and Pennsylvania voted to allow the withdrawal; Delaware voted against. New York, the press release said, was not present, due to out-of-state travel restrictions from budget cuts.

The DRBC permit was a first step for Stone Energy, an independent oil and gas company, to begin drilling in Wayne County. The permit stipulates that the company cannot withdraw any water until it receives separate DRBC approval for its natural gas well pad itself; the commission is planning to release regulations regarding natural gas drilling by the end of the summer for public review.

So what’s the big deal? Hydraulic Fracturing or “hydrofracking” is a highly controversial natural gas mining technique that involves injecting sand and toxic chemicals, along with millions of gallons of water, thousands of feet into the earth to break up underground shale formations and release trapped gas deposits.

Hydrofracking in its most basic form has been around for decades, but recent advances in technology have revolutionized the process. New techniques now make available huge stores of natural gas that were inaccessible only a few years ago. It is no exaggeration to say that hydrofracking has been a radical game changer in the energy industry over the last decade, even if most of the public is completely unaware how pervasive it has become.

U.S. Shale Resources. Source: Energy Information Agency
U.S. Shale Resources. Source: Energy Information Agency

Hydrofracking and the controversy around it were chronicled in the recent documentary film Gasland. In the film, dozens of citizens from around the country gave chilling accounts of how their land, homes and drinking water were severely contaminated by nearby hydrofracking gas wells, and how the citizens suffered from severe acute and chronic health problems as a result. The film contains numerous shots of people in different parts of the country lighting their methane-infused tap-water on fire and in one case a nearby stream literally bubbled with flammable gas. The film also documents how rapidly the practice has spread nationwide.

In the Northeast, the greatest fear is that hydrofracking could contaminate drinking water supplies for millions of people, most notably in New York City. The controversy has become a huge political issue in New York State, with a number of downstate politicians calling for a statewide ban on the practice.

A report [pdf] from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s office titled Uncalculated Risk: How plans to drill for gas in Upstate New York could threaten New York City’s water system, traces the dangers. The report sites studies a 2004 study by the Environmental Protection Agency as well as research by scientists at the Endocrine Disruption Exchange in Paonia, Colorado that highlight the risks of hydrofracking chemicals to human health.

Unfortunately, the exact formulas of the chemicals gas companies inject are proprietary, so no one knows exactly what is being shot into the ground, or how much.

But according to the EPA report, so-called “frac-fluid” can include boric acid and theylene glycol, which “can cause kidney, liver, heart, blood, and brain damage through prolonged or repeated exposure.”

Scientists at the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, who were able to obtain samples of frac-fluid, “have found some 250 different chemicals, 92 percent of which had one or more health effects including skin and sensory organ toxicity, respiratory problems, neuro-toxicity and gastrointestinal and liver damage.”

Uncalcuated Risk chronicles the frightening record of hydrofracking in numerous states, including Alabama, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Ohio, West Virginia, Wyoming and Utah. Problems included numerous spills of frac-fluid, and serious incidents of water contamination near hydrofracking drill sties.

The list of individual incidents is too long to list singly, but include hospitalizations from drinking benzene-contaminated water, water poisoned with anti-freeze chemicals, exploding farmhouse wells, exploding toilets, rare tumors, poisoned goats and llamas and, perhaps most shocking of all, a house in Ohio that exploded from flammable tap water. (Methane had been pushed into the water due to pressure caused by nearby hydrofracking).

New York City water is currently among the purist in the nation and New York is one of only four cities in the country not required to filter its water. If the watershed were ever polluted, filtering the water supply would cost billions. But New York isn’t the only place affected. As the Gasland documentary shows, hydrofracking is national, putting communities across the country at risk.

The natural gas companies will tell us that the dangers of hydrofracking are overblown, but if the Deepwater Horizon disaster should have taught us anything, it’s to take the assurances of oil and gas companies with a grain of salt. A new oil industry study says that there may be as much as $2 trillion worth of natural gas in shale deposits in New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

What use is an interstate commission if members can’t attend meetings because of out-of-state travel restrictions? Given the potentially severe environmental consequences of drilling–and the enormous profit motive of gas companies to do it–is it too much to ask that those who are responsible for protecting our watersheds at least show up for important votes?

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13 years ago

[…] creates a huge risk for groundwater quality.  My colleague Lakis Polycarpou earlier wrote a great piece about this important […]

13 years ago

[…] as the recent documentary Gasland showed, hydrofracking presents a serious risk to water, as the millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals it takes to frack a well […]