Seven Miles to Nowhere – Is Bloomberg Doing NRDC Dirty Work?
There’s something fishy happening in the Delaware watershed and we’re not talking trout. Residents of the watershed encompassing the New York City reservoir system and neighboring parts of the Catskills were stunned recently by seemingly unrelated events that, taken together, indicate Mayor Mike Bloomberg may be working with his friends at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to frustrate natural gas development anywhere near the Catskill retreats of its wealthy benefactors and leaders. Such development would, after all, interfere, with its ongoing strategy of the latter of acquiring land on the cheap to create a private reserve under the aegis of open space protection, funding it all through the trading of development rights with the State. Is this far-fetched? Well, you be the judge.
Early this year New York City starting making calls for what can only be called wholly unreasonable buffers around its facilities. The city thanked the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) for its proposal in the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) to ban hydraulic fracturing within its water supply watershed (around 1,900 square miles) as well as everywhere within 4,000 feet of the watershed. One would think this was easily enough to satisfy the city’s always ravenous appetite for land, but that would be wrong. The city always wants more at the expense of the serfs who reside and actually have to make a living in that watershed.
The city claims the DEC ban is not sufficient to protect the resource, suggesting even a small earthquake could cause significant damage to un-reinforced water tunnels. So, now its requested a seven-mile “infrastructure exclusion zone” around critical tunnels and aqueducts, plus (get this) an additional “enhanced protection zone” ranging from two to seven miles beyond that, where natural gas development would be subject to approval of the city. This would take another 277 square miles out of natural gas production with no compensation to landowners. It appears folks who get used to stealing candy from children become very addicted to the practice. This earthquake excuse gives a whole new meaning to the word “crackhead.”
The city’s excuse for these outrageous land grabs is that its own experts concluded regional rock jointing patterns were not adequately disclosed or considered in the SGEIS. It claims “joints are systematic sets of natural fractures that are structural discontinuities in bedrock which can provide a pathway for fluids or gas migration to faults.” It then goes on to note there are two pervasive joint sets in the Marcellus Shale, commonly designated as J1 and J2, and quotes shale gas godfather Terry Engelder (first paragraph) and its own experts (second paragraph) to say the following (emphasis added):
The J2 set appears to break out of the gas shales and populate the rock above those gas shales. This second joint set may appear about 1,000 feet or even as much as 4,000 feet above the gas shale…. There appears to be a strong correlation between fracturing above the gas shales by NHF [natural hydraulic fracturing] and the productivity of the source rock. The correlation indicates a gas column above the gas shale that could have extended maybe 3,000 to 4,000 feet above the Marcellus – although it’s usually not that much. This is what we call the gas halo.
Joint mapping by Geiser and Engelder indicates the widespread presence of joints in Delaware and Sullivan Counties with orientations similar to or somewhat more easterly than the J2 jointing, and may indicate that J2 jointing is widely present in the sedimentary units above the Marcellus Shale near the WOH Watershed Infrastructure. (p. 10).
It proceeds to conclude “This new information on fractures and potential faults as well as the existing information on joint patterns supports the conclusion that the area around the City’s water supply infrastructure is more fractured and faulted than the RDSGEIS (revised draft SGEIS) discloses or analyzes.” Then it makes what might otherwise be called the unfathomable leap to this conclusion:
Given the identified risks to the NYC water supply infrastructure, the 1,000 foot zone proposed in the SGEIS for enhanced coordination with the City is inadequate to protect the water supply. The H-R Tech Memo (report from the city’s experts) evaluated this proposal and states:
Based on the evidence of faulting, the possible reactivation of faulting due to HVHF, and the unprecedented nature of HVHF activity under critical water supply tunnels for a large population, Hager-Richter agrees with the assessment of the JV that a much greater protection than the 1,000-foot buffer afforded in the RDSGEIS is required to protect the WOH Watershed Infrastructure. (p. vi)
In 2009, the City recommended a seven mile, no-drill buffer around the water supply infrastructure to reduce the risk to acceptable levels, based on a statistical analysis of the lengths of known faults and brittle structures (i.e., 90% of the faults were seven miles or smaller). The H-R Tech Memo found this analysis, given the available information, to be a reasonable statistical model.
Where is the connection between the “gas halo” and the seven mile buffer? There is none. If the city was truly interested in protecting its tunnels would it be more concerned with the depth of the laterals, especially given this is where the hydraulic fracturing occurs? Given that most Marcellus Shale laterals are twice the 4,000 feet reach the gas halo can supposedly extend upward, why isn’t the city simply proposing that no laterals be constructed within, say, 5,000 feet of the surface where the tunnels are located? This would be a generous buffer and allow science to prevail, would it not? The city never explains why it jumps from 4,000 feet of depth to more than seven miles of width.
Instead, the city only interjects a reference to an earlier report it prepared and another to the Tech Memo. This, however, is what the Tech Memo actually says:
The JV (joint venture of Hazen and Sawyer, P.C. and Leggette, Brashears & Graham, Inc., the city’s earlier experts) has recommended a seven-mile setback to drilling, measured from the tunnel to the edge of the spacing unit. The JV bases the seven-mile setback on an analysis showing that 10% of brittle structures that intersect the WOH (West of Hudson) water supply tunnels will equal or exceed 7 miles in length. The JV used a reasonable statistical model for the recommended seven-mile setback.
This Technical Memorandum documents additional faults and fractures in the vicinity of the WOH water supply tunnels and found evidence showing that, at least in the case of Blackpool, UK, earthquakes have been conclusively attributed to HVHF (high-volume hydraulic fracturing) operations. Based on the evidence of faulting, the possible reactivation of faulting due to HVHF, and the unprecedented nature of HVHF activity under critical water supply tunnels for a large population, Hager-Richter agrees with the assessment of the JV that a much greater protection than the 1,000-foot buffer afforded in the RDSGEIS is required to protect the WOH NWI (non-watershed infrastructure)
Hager-Richter does not recommend a specific revised setback distance herein because 1) there are too many uncertainties about site specific subsurface geological and geophysical conditions in the vicinity of the WOH NWI, and 2) the condition of the unreinforced concrete-lined water supply tunnels is unknown. The need for extra caution in the vicinity of the WOH NWI is obvious, but what constitutes an acceptable level of risk of damage to the critical water supply infrastructure is more a matter of policy, not geophysics.
This is a rather startling admission isn’t it? The seven mile proposal is not about the science but the city’s own assessment of risk. The endorsement of the setback couldn’t be much weaker. When the recommendation is based on an assessment that someone else’s work constitutes a “reasonable statistical model” and you are forced to qualify your opinion to the effect it’s a matter of policy over science, you know the waffles have been served. This is confirmed by a statement on page 31 of the Tech Memo where it is emphasized:
At this time, there is not enough known about the state of stress and faulting in the vicinity of the WOH NWI and details about the condition of the unreinforced concrete lined tunnels of the WOH NWI to determine whether the tunnels would be damaged by an induced seismic event of the magnitude modeled above.
It is, in other words, all speculation — every bit of it. Moreover, when one goes back a little further to that original JV report prepared in 2009 and endorsed as being “reasonable” it leads to dead ends. That report, entitled “Impact Assessment of Natural Gas Production in the New York City Water Supply Watershed, Final Impact Assessment Report,” refers to an Appendix A and says:
The presence of numerous brittle structures in the regional bedrock is well documented. Presently identified brittle structures that have been mapped in the Catskill/Delaware watershed can extend up to seven miles laterally and up to 6,000 feet in depth.
Leaving aside the 6,000 feet depth, which raises the obvious question of how close these are to the surface where the tunnels exist, this paragraph is footnoted with references to two reports from 2008; one from Hill, et al and another by Engelder and Lash. What do they say on the subject? Well, it’s hard to know because no further details are provided. The only report produced by Engelder and Lash in 2008 is this one, which never addresses either the length of fractures but a search of the Tech Memo, which is supposed to be an update of sorts, refers to an Engelder and Lash report for 2009, but this, too, lacks any mention of fracture lengths. The other reference appears to be a report from 2002 (rather than 2008 as indicated) entitled “Fractured Shale Gas Potential in New York.” And, you guessed it — there is no reference there to anything about seven miles in this report either.
So, where does the seven miles come from? Apparently, the real source is that Appendix A, which the report says “Based on a statistical analysis of identified fractures and brittle structures in the region, 50 percent of the mapped features have lengths in excess of three miles, and more than 10 percent exceed seven miles in length.” However, that report simply introduces a chart (A-3) plotting existing fracture lengths (without regard to depth) and says the following:
As indicated by Figure A-3, the near-vertical and high-angle fractures have a greater than 80 percent probability of being over 1 mile in extent in the region. Several of the “identified” brittle A-6 structures, including some in contact with NYCDEP infrastructure, reportedly extend close to seven (7) miles in length.
This is the fragile basis of the seven mile rule — a plotting of fractures without regard to depth that indicates some may be close to seven miles in length. It all amounts to little or nothing when investigated. The report also states “The Marcellus Shale occurs at depths of about 500 to over 6,000 feet within the WOH region,” giving the incorrect suggestion that fractures would come this close to the surface in areas of exploration but, of course, these areas do not have recoverable gas precisely because the shale is too close to the surface. Therefore, there will be no exploration in those areas and no threat whatsoever.
Why is the city putting its neck out like this with such weak claims? Answering that questions demands asking another. Who benefits? The answer to that one is not difficult when one examines the map. Here’s an ezcerpt:
The proposed tunnel buffers conveniently wipes out mineral rights and the added value associated therewith for virtually all the land immediately surrounding the Beaverklill and Lew Beach area of Delaware, Sullivan and Ulster Counties where the leadership and major supporters of the Natural Resources Defense Council have expensive homes and retreats. The center of this activity has been added to the map for illustration purposes. Various friends of NRDC, including its founders, the Beaverkill Mountain Corporation, the Open Space Institute and the Open Space Conservancy, the leadership of which has been shared by all over the years, have been conducting a major buy up of land and development rights for some time now. They have created a private Harriman Park of sorts for their own enjoyment and have made liberal use of state funding intended for economic development, while trading with the state from time to time to grow their empire and ability to acquire still more land. The New York Post explained the way it all works here. Those purchases are threatened by natural gas development that greatly increases the value of land and development rights these entities would like to purchase, trade and ultimately take off the market.
The city’s proposal just happens to benefit these folks more than anyone and it comes through a Mayor who says natural gas development and hydraulic fracturing are good things for the nation. He’s apparently just fine with it as long as none of it comes near the city’s property or that of his friends and he is able to claim the value of the mineral rights for them without paying anything out to the rightful owners. Interestingly, some of our friends from the other side of the natural gas debate say the same thing about the NRDC. We certainly don’t claim the NRDC as a friend but could it be this organization cares more about stopping natural gas development around the homes of its founders and supporters than anything else? Is it trying to engineer the best deal that can be had from such development as long as it doesn’t impact the home turf? Are the upper Delaware River basin and the mineral rights of landowners who live in Deposit, Hancock and Livingston Manor being sold out for the benefit of the friends of NRDC as it makes a deal to allow development elsewhere — development that is inevitable anyway? Is this what the NRDC is after, recognizing natural gas development will come regardless, and concentrating its efforts on keeping it out of the Catskills so it continue building its retreat haven there?
Well, all of these are certainly strong possibilities. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a friend of NRDC — that we know from various news reports (also see here and here). Does the NRDC influence extend to getting the mayor and his administration to serve as the tip of the sword in getting a deal that carves out the Catskills and upper Delaware River basin from any natural gas development program in New York? We can never know for sure but the ability of this organization to insert itself into decision-making situations is evidenced by the way it got three of its current or former senior attorneys onto the New York Governor’s advisory committee. That didn’t happen by accident. Bloomberg’s stance on gas and his administration’s bizarre attempts to justify a seven mile buffer around the city’s tunnels, a buffer that only impacts those areas of the Catskills where the friends of NRDC happen to own land, suggest there’s more to the story. We’ll be following up with additional information as it becomes available and, in the meantime, some folks are fighting back, valiantly, thank goodness, because the rights of every landowner are at risk from what the city and the NRDC are doing. Stay tuned!