Several days ago I posted a diary pointing up a story from the Albany Times Union with this catchy headline: Toxic gas-drilling technique - "Hydrofracking'' plan raises questions about water safety in state. It seems there's a new technique that can get natural gas out of shale that's now economically viable - but with significant risks of poisoning ground water in a watershed that supplies millions.
Since the original TU article, there have been several followup stories. (more below the fold)
If you go to the first diary I posted about this, you can find out quite a bit about the risks of the drilling technique: toxic chemicals in the water supply, toxic run off, surface water drained in large amounts, and tricky leasing deals. Further, it's not just about New York State: the rock layer in question stretches across several states in the eastern U.S. while the technique can be (and has been) used anywhere suitable deposits of gas bearing rock are to be found. Where it has been used, it's not been good to put it mildly.
The Times Union ran a follow up story 7/23/08 about the bill sitting on the governor's desk that would 'unleash the hounds' so to speak by setting up a 'legal' framework to let the gas companies drill. Here's a relevant chunk of the piece:
The bill, which overwhelmingly passed both the Assembly and Senate last month, is decried by groups like the New York League of Conservation Voters, which warns that waste water from the technique, known as "hydrofracking" could taint groundwater with a brew of hydrocarbons and other toxic chemicals.
Natural gas companies are racing to lock up drilling rights in the state as the price of natural gas increases along with other fossil fuels. The companies hope to drill in an area of western New York and the Southern Tier where underground gas deposits are trapped in a deep layer of rock known as Marcellus shale. Marcellus shale could contain enough natural gas to supply two years of U.S. demand, energy experts say.
Hydrofracking involves drilling underground up to 9,000 feet into shale formations. A high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals is sent down the well, where it fractures rock and releases the gas bubbles, which are drawn up through the well.
The water -- up to 6 million gallons for each well -- is then extracted and stored in open pits for later treatment as toxic wastes. The U.S. Department of Energy lists produced water from gas drilling as among the most toxic of any oil industry byproduct.
An editorial in the paper the same day had some advice for Governor Paterson, who replaced Eliot Spitzer as governor only a few months ago. Slow down, governor advises Paterson to not be in a hurry on this, despite revenues the state really needs with a slowing economy.
...The state doesn’t know exactly what’s in the water, although it says it eventually will. It doesn’t know how or where the contaminated water will be treated. It hasn’t determined where all the water will come from, or what impact that demand will have on the environment or drinking water. Nor are state officials aware of hundreds of instances in other states where toxic chemicals from such operations have contaminated water supplies.
The state admits it may need more legislation and resources to properly regulate this new industry, but even that is still under review. In other words, New York isn’t sure it has adequate authority or manpower to oversee a process that it’s all too ready to streamline.
Local governments, meanwhile, have yet to assess the impact of this sudden burst of activity on roads, air quality and water supplies. They haven’t even figured out how to tax the operations.
So, what did Governor Paterson do? He signed the bill. He made a lot of promises and issued some directives - but that's a long way from actually having a working, well thought out plan of action.
ALBANY -- Gov. David Paterson signed a law Wednesday that makes it easier for natural gas companies to use an environmentally risky underground drilling technique, promising his administration will also give regulators more power to prevent damage that has occurred in other gas-producing states.
"This new law will ensure greater efficiency in the processing of requests to permit oil and gas wells, while maintaining environmental and public health safeguards," said Paterson in a statement.
Natural gas companies are racing to lock up drilling rights in the state as the price of natural gas increases along with other fossil fuels. The companies hope to drill in an area of western New York and the Southern Tier where underground gas deposits are trapped in a deep layer of rock known as Marcellus shale.
However, the environmental protections that the governor promised are not contained in the law. Rather, they consist of future plans for beefed-up regulations at the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Paterson ordered the DEC to update a 16-year-old regulation -- a generic environmental impact statement that addresses gas drilling -- to reflect the perils of the current drilling technique, known as hydrofracking.
It's hard to describe this as anything other than a capitulation to the energy industry. The Federal Government can not be relied on to provide oversight, not under Bush, and certainly not with John McCain and the whole GOP pushing a "drill everywhere" agenda to make up for decades of failure on energy policy. Paterson may have made promises, but bluntly speaking he has yet to demonstrate either the political clout or the determination to do anything besides chow down on the anticipated revenues. New York State's well documented addiction to big money interests rather than sound public policy is on display here.
This isn't just a New York State problem.
The nature of extraction industries is such that they inherently can not be trusted to 'do the right thing.' They exist to exploit finite resources, extract them with as little expense as possible, sell them for as high a price as the market will bear, take their profits, and walk away when the resources are all used up. Preventing environmental damage, cleaning up after themselves, following health and safety regulations - these are all things that reduce the bottom line. They have a huge incentive to act badly, and only regulation by government effective enough AND vigilant enough to enforce that regulation can hold them in check.
Well, we've all seen how that's worked out in practice lately. But, in case you needed another horrible example, the Times Union had a headline front page story today laying out how the Federal and State governments allowed
hundreds thousands of pounds of extremely toxic mercury to be broadcast into the air for years. It seems while coal burning power plants have had to start cleaning up their act on this, cement plants have been slipping through the cracks.
ALBANY -- Federal environmental officials failed to stop cement plants from releasing unsafe levels of toxic mercury despite repeatedly being sued by environmentalists for disobeying federal law, according to report issued Wednesday.
Such lawsuits led the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reveal this year that cement plants sent nearly 23,000 pounds of mercury into the air nationwide -- more than double what the agency had reported just two years earlier, according to the report by Earthjustice and the Environmental Integrity Project, two not-for-profit environmental groups.
The report also named the Lafarge North America cement plant on Route 9W in Ravena, just west of the Hudson River, as the nation's fourth-largest emitter of mercury among cement plants.
The plant emitted 400 pounds of mercury annually from 2004 through 2006, a figure first reported in February by the Times Union. It is the state's largest source of mercury, equivalent to emissions from four of the state's largest coal-fired power plants.
America faces huge challenges - too many of them of our own making - and not the least of our problems is that the government that takes our tax money, sends our kids off to war, and rules over us isn't really our government at all. Not judging by whose interests it seems to protect best anyway. We have a shot at turning things around this election, but it is a battle that never ends.