Former DEC Employee Attempts to Spike the Facts Only to Be Sacked by the Truth
Last month, right before the holidays, a retired technician formerly of the NY Dept. of Environmental Conservation submitted a letter to the editor of the Watertown Daily News suggesting there was no doubt that developing natural gas in, and for, New York will lead to the contamination of underground aquifers in New York State. In support of that view, Paul Hetzler cites his years of experience working for DEC in Region 5 – failing to mention that Region 5 includes a part of the state (far northeast) that doesn’t even have any oil or natural gas activity to speak of.
Of course, the major problem with Hetzler’s letter extends beyond the geography. Plainly put, what he says is just not true. A quick review of DEC’s own documents, as well as some historical knowledge of oil and gas production in New York, shows that hydraulic fracturing is nothing new in the Empire State. According to existing data, more than 75,000 oil and gas wells have been developed in New York since the late 1800s; about 14,000 of those wells are still active. Of these, approximately ninety percent have been hydraulically fractured, a process that has been used in New York since the 1950’s.
DEC has regulated the industry — including its safe and continuous use of fracturing technology – over the past several generations and has compiled a pretty impressive record over that span. In fact, as wells were being drilled and completed in the State, its largest city gained its coveted filtration avoidance determination (FAD) which some folks now try to claim will be lost if hydraulic fracturing is allowed to continued. But if that’s true, how did New York City secure that determination in the first place?
While a review of the facts quickly show Mr. Hetzler’s claims to be false, it does provide us an opportunity to review the success of DEC’s oil and gas regulatory program. In Dec 2009, then-DEC commissioner Pete Grannis wrote a letter to State Assemblyman Bill Parment laying out all the specifics of that record – a copy of which can be found here. From that letter, here are a few quick facts as they apply to natural gas production:
- Number of DEC-recorded spills tied to the exploration or production of natural gas: 45
- Out of a total, 30-year spill total of: 354,615
- For a total spill percentage of: 0.0123%
None of this is surprising when you take into account the fact that New York is home to the world’s first commercial gas well developed in Fredonia nearly 190 years ago. Today, the state supports more than 14,000 natural gas wells that have delivered more than 800 billion cubic feet of natural gas to consumers in New York without incident.
And what of these catastrophic well seals that Mr. Hetzler says are bound to fail over time? Well, according to the Ground Water Protection Council and NY DEC, that’s just a bunch of bunk as well. According to a report issued by GWPC in 2009 (commissioned by the U.S. Dept. of Energy), the probability of casing failure/corrosion leading to a groundwater contamination scenario is exceptionally low. Literally an order of magnitude away from what would be considered “rounding error” territory. From that report:
- “Detailed analysis was performed for those basins in which there was a possibility of casing corrosion. Risk probability analysis provided an upper bound for the probability of the fracturing fluids reaching an underground source of drinking water. Based on the values calculated, a modern horizontal well completion in which 100% of the [underground sources of drinking water] are protected by properly installed surface casings (and for geologic basins with a reasonable likelihood of corrosion), the probability that fluids injected at depth could impact a USDW would be between one well in 200,000 and one well in 200,000,000 if these wells were operated as injection wells. Other studies in the Williston basin found that the upper bound probability of injection water escaping the wellbore and reaching an underground source of drinking water is seven changes in one million well‐years where surface casings cover the drinking water aquifers.” (GWPC, DOE; p. 53)
- Accounting for advances in new technology, GWPC believes the practical risk of casing failure leading to groundwater contamination is even less than one in 200,000. From the paper: “It is expected that the probability for treatable groundwater to be impacted by the pumping of fluids during hydraulic fracture treatments of newly installed, deep shale gas wells when a high level of monitoring is being performed would be even less than the 2 x 10 (to the eighth power) estimated by API.”
- New York’s updated draft Marcellus regulatory document includes the same citation, but updates the number to reflect the capabilities of current casing technology: “Using the API analysis as an upper bound for the risk associated with the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids, the probability of fracture fluids reaching a USDW due to failures in the casing or casing cement is estimated at less than 2 x 10-8 (fewer than 1 in 50 million wells).” (SGEIS, released Sept. 2011; page 549 of PDF)
As you can see, New York is host to many historic firsts in the oil and gas industry and has one of the best records of performance in regulating its development. As evidenced by the state’s documents and experience, hydraulic fracturing and natural gas development has occurred in New York for decades. Certainly, the extensive process surrounding the SGEIS, and it’s development, should make New Yorkers even more confident that natural gas development, now as in the past, will continue to be conducted safely with minimal impact to the environment in which it occurs.
Of course, if you happen to come from a region in New York where no oil or gas activity actually takes place, you’d be forgiven for not being fully up to speed on everything the state has done, and continues to do, to ensure safe operations.