Editor's Note: For some background on hydrofracking in the Finger Lakes, please read our previous post on the topic.
By Art Hunt, Owner, Hunt Country Vineyards
In the fall of 2009, as a member of the Board of Directors of the Keuka Lake Association, I was appointed to a new committee to study the process of “hydrofracking.” It was being proposed in the Finger Lakes to extract natural gas from a shale layer located beneath the area. Hearing that “hydrofracking” is a much more intense and complex process than the current process of extraction, we were anxious to learn more about it. We had heard reports of major disruptions to farms, roads, streams and water wells in northern Pennsylvania where they had already begun hydrofracking.
The gas industry literature explains that the word “hydrofracking” is short for high-pressure, high-volume, slick-water, horizontal hydraulic fracturing.
In December of 2009, it was discovered that Chesapeake Energy, the largest natural gas exploration company in the country was planning to pump hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic hydrofracking waste water into an old gas well located above the shores of Keuka Lake. Why would they want to do that? We needed to learn more about the entire process of hydrofracking.
Most people are familiar with the way natural gas has been extracted in the past. Many landowners have had gas leases in the past. Many still do. Up until now, gas drilling was fairly safe and the disruptions were generally worth the inconvenience because most people knew they were temporary and had few long-term detrimental effects on their land. Besides, if gas was found, landowners (usually farmers) would eventually receive some royalties that would help with the bills and make it easier to stay in farming. People also knew that the money was temporary and the well would eventually run dry and it would be capped and done with.
Rarely were there problems with ruined water wells and poisoned land. There was only a small amount of water used in the drilling operation then. The most common problem was the large amount of salt in the cuttings (material brought up during drilling) and the brine that was recovered. Even if the brine ran onto the ground, it eventually was washed away by the rain. Usually the brine and cuttings were trucked away to somewhere else. When the well ran out of gas, people went back to the way things were before. Few people have a problem with this type of gas extraction.
A few years ago, it was discovered that a layer of shale beneath this part of the country called the Marcellus Shale has a huge amount of natural gas embedded in it and the recently developed process of hydrofracking might be used to extract the gas. The process had been used in Texas, Colorado and Wyoming in similar rock strata.
Now, when the gas companies hydrofrack a well, the process is nothing like the drilling done in the past. For example, instead of 1-2 acres of land bulldozed for the wellpad, it is now 6-10 acres leveled. Instead of one vertical well drilled per pad there are now 4-12 wells drilled horizontally from a single vertical well. Instead of a handful of trucks of water per well, there are now around 10,000 truckloads of water, chemicals, sand and equipment per well pad (average 8 wells per pad times 8,000,000 gallons water per well divided by about 6,000 gals. per truckload).
All that water is mixed with sand and chemicals, many of them toxic. This mixture is pumped down the wells under extreme pressure to fracture and pulverize the shale layers. About half of the poisoned mixture is forced back out of the well by the pressure of the gas released from the shale. It now also contains high levels of salts, heavy metals and pulverized, often radioactive, shale mud. It is now called “flowback” or “produced water” (information from American Petroleum Institute). There is currently no practical large scale way to completely decontaminate this “produced water.” Thousands of additional truckloads are currently needed to haul it somewhere else.
The gas, oil and coal companies are now exempt from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act by an act of Congress in 2005. The bill was passed by Congress under pressure from Vice President Cheney and the energy lobby. Before running for Vice President, Cheney had been CEO of Halliberton. (This act referred to as the Halliberton Loophole since Halliberton created the process, supplies the chemicals and is paid by the drilling companies to do the hydrofracking.)
Every other company and person in America must abide by the EPA Safe Drinking Water Act, but the gas companies can frack in many places with impunity. They’ve dumped “produced water” in rivers and they’ve dumped it on the ground. The gas companies have tried putting the produced water through municipal water treatment plants. It killed the bacteria in the plants. It passes through with the toxins still intact. These treatment plants were not designed to process these pollutants. (Univ. of Pittsburgh study)
Officials in other states frowned upon these practices so the gas companies are injecting some of it down old wells under high pressure into deeper layers below the Marcellus layer. This injection process has been associated with thousands of small tremors in Arkansas and Texas ranging up to 4.0 on the Richter Scale. The injection in these areas has been temporarily halted.
If we ask the gas industry people about hydrofracking, they say they have been doing hydrofracking in New York State for over 40 years. This is a very misleading statement. They have been pressurizing some vertical wells using relatively small amounts of water -- sometimes mixed with sand -- over the past 40 years. For the last 40 years the gas companies were not doing high-volume, slick-water horizontal hydrofracking using millions of gallons of water per well mixed with chemicals and sand. This was first used according to the gas industry starting in 1999. Unfortunately, our state legislature representatives and some of our congressmen have been fed this false information and fiercely repeat it. They don’t even acknowledge the difference when the facts are explained it to them. I wonder where their campaign money comes from?
Luckily some of the DEC staff people do understand the difference.
Some of you may have decided not to renew your gas lease and are relieved that you won’t be drilled on. I applaud you for that. It is a great first step. However, in New York, we are bound by the “Unitization” rule. This means that the gas companies can determine a 640 acre (square mile) area that they define as a unit and they only have to sign up 60% of the land in the “Unit” and they can draw the boundary lines to suit themselves.
This means that a gas company may still drill under your property from your neighbors leased land and possibly destroy your clean water. They can locate the rig as close as 100 feet from your house, if your house is near your property line. Often the gas companies’ representatives, known as landmen, tell the landowner that they are the only one in the unit who has not signed a lease. This is often completely false.
Remember this: Even if you sign a lease and then change your mind, you can cancel the lease if you do it within three days and return any money they gave you at signing. Unlike before hydrofracking, once they decide to drill into the Marcellus shale on your farm, your farm is entirely under their control. It becomes an industrial site. There will be constant noise, trucks, fumes, dust as well as occasional spills, accidents etc. 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for years on end.
With thousands of trucks traveling each day, the roads are almost impassible at times. There is a lot of dust, mud and toxic fumes. Few visitors will likely venture near these areas. Those of us who depend on visitors will soon be out of business as will many other businesses that benefit from tourism. If they drill on or near our vineyards, we will likely not be able to work the land or sell the contaminated fruit.
According to DEC records, over the years, a significant number of gas wells have eventually contaminated local water wells, aquifers or streams. Hydrofracking increases these odds. If our goal is to continue to grow grapes or produce wine, and live in this beautiful unspoiled region where we take clean water and air and fertile land as our right, we need to refuse to lease our land to these gas companies until they can develop new methods that are safe, or, go back to older methods that were safe and do not destroy our way of life and our land.
We need to take this position, if we want our children and grandchildren to be able to live here and grow healthy food for a hungry planet.
I’ve read a couple of books recently about the coming shortage of fresh water. Most of the farming in the western United States is irrigated and those areas are starting to run short of water. Within a generation, most of that production will have to be grown somewhere else. Here in the Finger Lakes we have some of the cleanest, most abundant fresh water in the world. We have a temperate climate and fertile soils. Many of us believe this region is destined to once again become the breadbasket of the Northeast. Farmers will soon be able to make a good living growing food again. We cannot afford to lose another acre of farmland here to gas wells or to developers.
The gas companies say that hydrofracking in New Yorkwill help make America energy independent. We will be able to stop importing oil from the Middle East. With the hydrofracking already being done, there is now a surplus of natural gas and the gas companies are shipping it overseas as fast as they can build export terminals.
It’s not really about America’s future, it’s strictly about maximizing corporate profits. Many of these companies are owned completely or in part by foreign companies already. Many of the energy companies pay no Federal income taxes and receive billions in tax credits. Does that make sense for America? If we as Americans are serious about ending our dependence on fossil fuel and the Middle East, then we need to cut out the government subsidies and tax credits to the largest richest energy companies in the world and invest those billions in renewable energy research and energy efficiency right now. This will truly create millions of permanent local jobs!
Now, I know that the official policy of the Farm Bureau has been pro-drilling. That policy was established before widespread information was known about what really happens to your farm with hydrofracking. I believe we can change this grass roots policy if we simply show up at the local policy execution meetings and vote.
Believe me, I know how difficult it is at times to make ends meet on a farm and have many friends who had to sell their farms. But we are now reaching a time in the world’s history when the world can no longer feed itself. Recently, grain and food prices around the world have been rising dramatically. Unusual weather events have disrupted growing cycles. We see the beginnings of a new food movement already. Yates County has the largest percentage of organically farmed acreage of any county in the state and among the most diverse types of crops. More people want to know where their food comes from and the “Buy Local” trend is growing.
However, just like food from Japan now, several food store buyers have already announced they may not buy food from areas where hydrofracking is being done. This would devastate many of our farmers if hydrofracking were allowed in the Finger Lakes.
Another consideration about whether to lease your mineral rights is the policy of some banks not to loan to property with gas leases on them. In Pennsylvania, a number of banks are curtailing new loans. Chase and Bank of America and several smaller banks have already made that policy. Others I’ve talked to in New York do not currently have any restrictions, but are telling me they are discussing the situation as they contemplate the risks.
Please don’t consider taking the risk of destroying your farm forever and possibly even your neighbors' land for a chance of quick cash.
A few years from now the gas companies will move on leaving you and the ruined land behind. The money will be gone and so will your children's future. The Native Americans have a saying: “Whatever decisions we make today, they should always have in view the seven unborn generations whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground.” - Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace
Our family has been on this land since it was cleared in the early 1800s. My grandfather was the third generation. My grandson is the seventh. It is not such a long time.
My term as a director of the Keuka Lake Association has ended, but my concerns about hydrofracking continue -- and grow. If hydrofracking is allowed in the Finger Lakes, it is clear to me that the disruption to roads and farms will decimate tourism and its related businesses. Wineries that rely on visitors will soon fold. The local economy will shrivel. After a decade or two, the gas and the drilling rigs will largely be gone and we will be left with much land that is no longer farmable and many areas with poisoned soil and water. Who will be responsible for repairing the damage and cleaning up the mess? How will we make a living then?
Do keep this in mind as we each weigh the possibility of some short-term cash for a few, against the possible long-term loss of the value and the use of our land forever.