The public comment period closes Wednesday on a proposal to open upstate New York State to a controversial natural gas drilling practice known as High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing, or “fracking.”
The period was originally scheduled to close in December, but the Department of Environmental Conservation extended the period 30 days after public outcry for more time. More than 15,000 comments have reportedly been registered to date with advocates on both sides clamoring to make their positions known. But the deadline extension has worked more to the favor of anti-fracking advocates following two developments in the past month.
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The first was a blockbuster report where environmentalists are concerned. In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft report linking contaminated drinking water in Pavilion, Wyo. to a nearby fracking operation—a suspicion long-held by local residents.
The second literally sent shockwaves through the environmental community when on New Year’s Eve a 4.0 magnitude earthquake shook Youngstown, Ohio. The Columbus Dispatch reported a total of “11 earthquakes in the area have been recorded since March” of last year, the most recent being the largest. Experts have tentatively linked the abnormal seismic activity to a fracking well that began operating three months prior to the first registered tremors.
Fracking has been around for more than a century as a means of pressurizing the drilling process of oil and gas wells. It’s referred to as “Enhanced Oil Recovery,” a method required for the most difficult of drilling scenarios, where oil and/or gas are trapped within rock formations.
Once a well is drilled, a mixture of water, sand and, more recently, proprietary chemicals are pumped down the well at extremely high pressure. The mixture bores through the shale to release the gas into the well while the sand and chemical combination help prop open the fracture in the formation. Back on the surface, the gas is separated from the extraction fluids.
It was then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s who insisted that federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 exclude the EPA from regulating hydrofracking, which would have come under the purview of the Safe Water Drinking Act. In doing so, Cheney allowed Halliburton, a drilling firm of which he was formerly CEO, to do an end-run around the regulations and pave the way for the expansion of fracking throughout the country.
Halliburton invented the horizontal drilling process in the 1940s but it wasn’t until the chemical enhancements were added in the 1990s that drillers began to have success extracting shale gas. When drillers set their sights on the Marcellus Shale—considered the largest untapped natural gas reserve in the country stretching from West Virginia to Ohio—states began to see an influx of workers from the oil and gas industry. Residents were cashing in on hefty offers for drilling rights beneath their properties.
Soon thereafter, however, anecdotes involving contaminated drinking water, increased air pollution and public health problems began to surface with residents pointing to nearby fracking operations as the culprit. Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland brought the issue into the public consciousness as the war between environmentalists and the oil and gas industry has reached a fever pitch in New York.
Last week, when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivered his State of the State address, he did not touch upon the fracking issue, despite the presence of scores of anti-fracking protestors outside.
The DEC is still allowing comments through Wednesday on its website.