Monday, January 16th, 2017

Wayne County’s geology all but eliminates us from hydrofracking controversy

Although New York is in the midst of the “hydrofracking” debate and discussion, the Wayne County area may have dodged a controversial bullet in the fray.

It seems that the Marcellus Shale, so widely discussed in recent months during the (DEC) open comment period on drilling, is not the same shale that is under the Wayne County area.

What is the Marcellus Shale?
The DEC describes the Marcellus Shale as a layer of deep sedimentary rock, deposited by an ancient river delta, forming the Catskill Mountains. The Marcellus Shale extends deep underground from Ohio and West Virginia northeast into Pennsylvania and southern New York. New York’s portion of the Marcellus Shale is approximately 18,750 square miles and is very deep – over 1 mile below ground.

The Marcellus Shale is a Devonian-age (416-359 millions years ago) shale named after the rock exposure of that age in Devon, England, but it was almost named the “New Yorkian” because of the amazing rocks of that age found in New York state.

From geological maps, the Marcellus Shale tends to run approximately along the route of the New York State Thruway and south. North of the Thruway and up and under Lake Ontario and the Wayne County area, is what is known as “Utica Shale.” That type of deposit is certainly deep enough for drilling, but not as thick, and therefore not as desirable as a natural gas source.

What is Hydraulic Fracturing?
Hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, as the process has been coined, is the creation of fractures within a reservoir that contains oil or natural gas to increase flow and maximize production.

According to the DEC, a hydraulic fracture is formed when a fluid is pumped down the well at pressures that exceed the rock strength, causing open fractures to form in the rock. Hydraulic fracturing allows drilling companies to extract natural gas from shale reserves such as the Marcellus. Natural gas is trapped within fractures between the grains of this fine-grained rock. Staged from a massive platform (towering hundreds of feet above ground), drillers drill down vertically into the shale, turn 90 degrees to drill horizontally (sometimes over a mile in length), and then inject water, sand and chemicals under high pressure to release the gas. The pressurized water forms fractures in the rock, which sand and chemicals then prop open.

What the Scientists think
At a panel discussion with scientists from the Paleontological Research Institutition (PRI) at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, it was learned that scientists do not give opinions only on-going research knowledge.

“The reason we are releasing “drafts” (what they call their published papers) is because we are at a junction point in our research on Marcellus Shale, and we felt we should release what we have learned to this point,” stated Dr. Warren Allmon, director of PRI.

Dr. Allmon explained that, “when Marcellus Shale became a major topic we said: Wow, this is geology in your backyard”.

Dr. Robert Ross, Associate Director of Outreach for PRI agreed with the most recent obsession with the subject of Marcellus Shale. “It is not the most important work we have done, but it is the most urgent”.

“In the absence of information, there is speculation. We were actually stunned at how little was known about the earth science of this issue…we were asked for scientic research, but science works at is own pace, not on anyone’s deadline,” replied Dr. Allmon. “Science does not tell people what to do, but give the information for them to make informed decisions,” he concluded.

“We (scientists) complexify the seemingly simple..the public does not like that…and journalists find their job is to simplify issues for their readers.”

Scientists have been aware of the natural gas in the Marcellus for over 150 years. In Fredonia, in 1821, street lights were powered by Marcellus shale gas. It is the largest basic of shale gas in the U.S, but has been impossible to extract in commercial quantities with conventional technolgy.

The fracturing of Marcellus Shale is an unconventional resource.

Dr. Don Duggan-Haas, an Education research Associate with PRI noted that “all commercial energy production has negative environmental impacts. Environmental impacts are associated with any type of energy, especially when that development is on a large scale.”
Coal is mined in ways that risk human life and dramatically alter the landscape. Wind development can utilize rural landscapes in obtrusive ways with heavy construction in the building of access roads in formerly wild places, with storm water pollution and habitat issues. There are serious concerns about nuclear power, especially related to accidents and the long term management of highly toxic waste material. Commercial scale hydropower appears unlikely to expand in the U.S. using current technology as the flooding of gorges or valleys is required for such generation and destroys human and wildlife habitat.

It is not a simple question to determine the most environmentally benign energy source and the answer may vary depending on location.
“We also need to contexualize the issue – put it in perspective, The answer may just different energy sources are best for the environment (least intrusive) in different areas.

What are some of the Environmental Impacts of Hydraulic fracturing?
There are many environmental impacts associated with hydraulic fracturing, or “hydrofracking.” Among them are, water consumption, wastewater disposal, use of toxic chemicals, climate change, substantial truck traffic, air pollution, noise from the loud, 24 hour hydrofracking operations, potential groundwater and well water contamination, deforestation, roadbuilding and surface water runoff from these large industrial sites. Even induced earthquake activity has been cited as a potential outcome of hydrofracking. According to the PRI, there are presently no known or inferred cases of induced siesmicity in New York resulting from hydraulic fracturing.

During the comments period on high volume hydraulic fracturing to the DEC which, grassroots Farm Bureau leaders from around New York State spoke out. In a Dec. 19 letter to Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, New York Farm Bureau President Dean Norton expressed frustration at recent delays in the process to allow gas drilling to begin in the Marcellus and Utica shale.
In part Norton’s letter reads:

“New York Farm Bureau believes that High Volume Hydrofracturing (HVHF) is critically important to the future of the economy in New York State. At the same time, the state must have the needed staff and the strongest permit requirements for HVHF drilling operations to ensure that farmland, water resources and our communities are not negatively impacted. We believe that the most recent dSGEIS achieves this goal and we have communicated this to the Department of Environmental Conservation.”

In conclusion, the debate will continue in New York State and around the county, but, for now, Wayne County landowners may not have to deal with these type of environmental issues and consequences.