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Official Seeks Ban on Drilling in New York Portion of Marcellus Shale

A New York official, joined by several environmental groups, is calling for a ban on natural gas drilling in the state's section of the prolific Marcellus Shale to protect its watershed from potential contamination.

Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer and the environmental groups are concerned about the drilling process, known as "hydraulic fracturing," that uses chemicals under high pressure to stimulate natural gas production. Stinger contends that hydraulic fracturing poses a high risk of leaking toxic and carcinogenic chemicals into the upstate reservoirs that hold New York City's drinking water.

He released a report citing two dozen incidents in nine different states of potential severe public health dangers where this type of drilling has been allowed to proceed.

"This practice is both environmentally and economically unsustainable, and should be ruled out unequivocally by [New York Gov. David Paterson's] administration and the state legislature," said New York City Councilman James F. Gennaro. "The 'drill baby, drill' era is over. We will continue to fight to protect our pristine, unfiltered drinking water supply from this ominous threat."

The environmental groups calling for a ban on gas drilling in New York State are the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice, Riverkeeper Inc. and the Sierra Club.

Deborah Fasser, a spokeswoman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York (IOGA), said no permits to drill have been issued in Sullivan County in southeastern New York, where New York City's watershed is located. In fact, she said only a couple of permits have been issued to drill in New York's portion of the Marcellus Shale, and they have been placed on hold until the New York Department of Conservation issues a generic environmental impact statement on the impacts of hydraulic fracturing. Fasser said the producer group hopes that the environmental report will come out this summer.

Trillions of cubic feet of natural gas -- some estimate as much as 500 Tcf -- lay thousands of feet underground in the Marcellus Shale, which stretches from West Virginia to New York. The Marcellus Shale includes all or parts of 28 New York counties.

While the chemical mix varies from driller to driller, most "hydrofracing" fluids appear to involve toxins, including benzene and toluene, according to Manhattan Borough. When a well is functioning, some of the hundreds or thousands of barrels of the "frac-fluid" mixture of water and chemicals remain in the well, where it has the potential to leak into groundwater supplies, it said.

The IOGA, however, says 99.5% of "fracturing fluids" consist primarily of water and sand. The remaining 0.5% contains three primary additives -- a friction reducer, similar to canola oil; a bactericide, like chlorine used in swimming pools; and a lubricant, similar to those found in personal care products, according to the producer group.

The issue of whether hydraulic fracturing contaminates water supply may rear its head in Congress this year. Fracing is a key type of well stimulation that's used in virtually every natural gas well drilled in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency in 2004 said there was no risk from fracing and the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted fracing from the provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, but there is speculation that congressional Democrats may seek to reverse previous policy and introduce federal regulation into the mix (see NGI, Jan. 5).

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