In an effort to present various views on hydraulic fracturing, a panel of experts spoke to the public at Barnard College in New York City last Tuesday night. Known colloquially as fracking or hydrofracking, hydraulic fracturing has been regarded by many as a potential threat to New York City’s drinking water supply. The mere possibility that the industry could contaminate drinking water for America’s most populous city was enough to cause the New York State legislature to place a moratorium on new drilling until after the environmental impacts of the process can be more closely examined.
The three panelists at Tuesday’s event — which was hosted by Barnard’s EcoReps — included Paul Gallay, Executive Director of Riverkeeper, John Conrad, President and Senior Hydrogeologist at Conrad Geoscience Corp., and Caswell Holloway, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. With the moratorium — officially enacted by the state legislature on December 1, 2010 — set to expire in June or July, panelists represented the concerns of environmentalists, gas industry advocates and city planners respectively.
Holloway in particular was adamant that his role is to examine the issue narrowly through the lens of city interests.
“The stakes here are high,” he said. “Nine million people rely on [the city’s] water supply. Our major concern is, should this activity occur within New York City’s watershed?”
Various studies differ, but the U.S. Department of Energy reported that the Marcellus Shale Formation — the massive natural gas deposit underlying at least six U.S. states — contains an estimated 262 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas. The U.S. uses about 24 trillion cubic feet of natural gas annually. Holloway said that the portion of Marcellus shale coinciding with New York City’s watershed is only six percent of the total supply. Calling it the $20 billion question, he urged simply not developing natural gas wells near portions of the Delaware River watershed that could potentially impact the city’s water supply — just to be on the safe side.
“Right now, New York City’s water is unfiltered, and filtering it would cost between $19 and $20 billion,” he added.
Conrad said he would like to see compromise between different parties at odds on the fracking issue, arguing that based upon current demand, the U.S. needs to triple its supply of natural gas over the next 30 years. Positing that the issue has become polarized and stakeholders’ positions hardened, he said fracking can be done safely in New York if done correctly.
“I think fear makes for bad policy, and there’s a balance to be struck here,” he said.
From the environmental corner, Gallay weighed in, stating unequivocally that he felt fracking cannot be done safely. Comparing keeping the process clean and safe to trying to catch smoke with a butterfly net, he also objected to beginning widespread gas development in a state he said does not have a uniform policy on the practice. Gallay predicted lawsuits waged against the state by energy companies unhappy with the lack of consistency, but he also promised that his organization would sue the state for having an inadequate regulatory structure.
“If someone tells you, ‘We’re perfectly safe!’ then they ask for exemptions from regulation and won’t tell you what’s in their fracking fluids, don’t believe them,” he said, to cheers from many of the 50 or so people in the audience. “Frankly, I think there’s enough data to show that this is not doable.”
Using another colorful metaphor, Gallay equated fracking with burning the furniture to heat the house, decrying what he described as the low employment rate scare tactics used by the gas companies in economically depressed areas of the state. He said that stream degradation issues in neighboring Pennsylvania have arisen from that state’s tendency to assume more risk in order to extract natural resources.
Summing up NYCDEP’s position, Holloway said: “There is a political element to [fracking], but first and foremost, this is about science and safety.”