Dr Ron Bishop’s comments on draft Supplemental GEIS

Dr. Ronald E. Bishop
Cooperstown, NY

December 30, 2009

Attention:  dSGEIS Comments
Bureau of Oil and Gas Regulation
NYSDEC Division of Mineral Resources
625 Broadway, Third Floor
Albany, NY  12233-6500

To Whom It May Concern,

Please accept my comments regarding the Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement for the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program:  Well Permit Issuance for Horizontal Drilling and High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing to Develop the Marcellus Shale and Other Low-Permeability Reservoirs.

Section 2.2 Public Need and Benefit

I note that economic benefits data are limited to a 5-year time frame and are nearly entirely speculative.  A more appropriate time frame would be 50 or more years, including the period after which natural gas reserves (and related revenues) have been exhausted.  Refusal to estimate (or even acknowledge) the “bust” phase that follows any projected industrial “boom” constitutes a failure to thoroughly assess the overall economic impact of this industry statewide.
In this context, it is noteworthy that gas wells in the Barnett Shales, projected to produce for 30 to 50 years, have exhibited catastrophic production decline (in spite of repeated hydraulic fracturing) after 4 to 5 years of operation (1), with overall productive life spans of only 7 to 10 years.  This suggests that technologies for recovery of gas from shales are immature; therefore, widespread application of the current state of the art runs counter to NYSDEC’s mandate to efficiently exploit the state’s natural gas reserves.  A thorough assessment of public benefit (also reflected in Section 4.4.3 Potential for Gas Production and Section 5.16.3 Production Rate) must address this issue.

Section 2.4.6 History of Drilling and Hydraulic Fracturing in Water Supply Areas

The statement, “No documented instances of groundwater contamination are recorded in the NYSDEC files from previous horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing projects in New York.”  is scandalous.  These kinds of projects represent a tiny minority of gas wells developed in New York, and so in no way reflect NYSDEC’s history of regulating this industry.  Numerous instances of soil and groundwater contamination caused by the gas industry were recently documented by Toxics Targeting, Inc., primarily using sources available to (or maintained by) NYSDEC (2).  Equally spurious was the statement, “The reported Chautauqua County incidents, the majority of which occurred in the 1980’s…, could not be substantiated…”  Many of these incidents occurred in the period from 2000 to the present, and were substantiated not only by the Chautauqua County Department of Health, but also by the US Geological Survey.  My own poll of New York county health officials pointed to other incidents where gas drilling appeared to impact water supplies in Allegany, Chemung, Genesee and Steuben Counties (3).  In light of such evidence, this section of the SGEIS should be stricken and replaced with a realistic assessment of gas industry culpability for collateral damage.

Section 3.2.1.1 SGEIS Applicability – Definition of High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing

This section minimizes the pervasive issue of scale which, more than any other factor, underlies the need for updated regulations.  Compared to the GEIS’ “typical” volume of 80,000 gallons of fluids used per well, the average horizontally-drilled hydraulic fracturing project will involve over 4,000,000 gallons, 50-fold greater volume than was considered in the GEIS.  I submit that this difference is not merely “significant”; it is enormous.  For example, in spite of technological advances that permit effective additive concentrations one-tenth of those employed 10 years ago, the net result is still more than a five-fold increase in tonnage per gas well.  The accompanying increased risk in transfer-related mishaps (arguably one of the greatest potential hazards of the industry) is, in my view, severely underestimated throughout the dSGEIS.  This is particularly acute where multi-well projects are under development.

Section 5.4.3 Composition of Fracturing Fluids

This section contains gravely serious deficiencies.  First, it is inappropriate for NYSDEC to accept any less than full disclosure from energy companies regarding the chemicals they intend to use in natural gas extraction projects.  Products that are not completely described should not be permitted to be used in New York.
The catalog of health concerns noted by NYSDOH for each chemical category leaves much to be desired.  Ecological impacts of the various chemicals are entirely omitted, and some important human health effects are missed as well.
For example, one of the bromine-based biocides, 22-dibromo-3-nitrilopropionamide (DBNPA) has been shown to be extremely toxic to aquatic organisms.  In fact, DBNPA is damaging or lethal to trout, bay oysters, Mysid shrimp and Daphnia magna (so-called “water fleas”) at concentrations below its chemical detection limit (4).  The dSGEIS segment on health effects from microbicides was summarized thus:  “Toxicity information is limited for several of the microbicidal chemicals.”  This level of scientific scrutiny is dangerously inadequate for an agency charged with promoting public and environmental safety.
Worse yet, some information provided in this section is misleading.  For example, acetylenic alcohols, including propargyl alcohol, are inappropriately grouped with simple alcohols and glycols.  This group is summarized in the dSGEIS thus: “Exposure to high levels of some alcohols (e.g. ethanol, methanol) affect (sic) the central nervous system.”  Consider the toxicity of propargyl alcohol (5):  this chemical (inhaled or absorbed through the skin) induces a range of ailments that include multi-organ failure.  A sensitizer, it elicits increasing responses to decreasing exposures, and symptoms can recur months or years after all exposure has ceased.  Propargyl alcohol is widely used as a corrosion inhibitor; therefore, no discussion of health effects is adequate that fails to warn potential exposure victims about this additive.
A major question is completely omitted in this section.  No one understands, and no one at NYSDEC proposes to investigate pre-existing organisms in deep rock structures, including target formations.  What archaea, bacteria and algae currently live in these strata?  What is their value to society via biological, pharmaceutical or medical research?  How are they affected by the drastic changes imposed on their ecosystems by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing?  NYSDEC should inventory, protect and develop these natural resources.
Finally, after describing (albeit incompletely) probable health effects from carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, reproductive toxins, and potentially lethal compounds planned for use at rates of hundreds or thousands of pounds per project, this section ends with the statement, “As mentioned earlier, the 1992 GEIS addressed hydraulic fracturing in Chapter 9, and NYSDOH’s review did not identify any potential exposure situations associated with horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing that are qualitatively different from those addressed in the GEIS.”  I submit that size matters here; a massive difference in scale requires an adjustment in regulatory approach in the same sense as different care is needed for a tiger than for a house cat.
Based on the deficiencies of this section alone, I would recommend withdrawal of this draft supplement to the GEIS for oil, gas and solution mining.

Section 5.11.1.1 Subsurface Mobility of Fracturing Fluids

This section and the associated Appendix 11 register a glaringly flawed assumption:  that fracturing fluids are being pumped into dry rock formations.  Analysis of flowback fluids clearly indicate (dSGEIS Table 5-8 and Section 5.11.3.1) that rock strata including target formations are filled with salts-saturated water, i.e. brine.  The ability of deep rock formations to accommodate additional non-compressible fluids may well depend on their ability to direct them into faults, abandoned wells or other, more porous strata.  This consideration, along with accounting for repeat hydraulic fracturing, should guide a fresh attempt to model the subterranean flow of fluids introduced at high pressures for natural gas extraction processes.

Section 5.12 Flowback Water Treatment, Recycling and Reuse

This section contains some of the most optimistic operational projections in the entire dSGEIS.  Several of the modular technologies mentioned in this section are annotated, “Modular … units have been used in the Barnett Shale.”  This might be better phrased, “… have been tested in the Barnett Shale”, because none of them are in widespread use anywhere in the US.  I suggest a more realistic set of assumptions that anticipate that 10% of flowback fluids will be reused / recycled, and the rest will require transport to distant disposal sites.

Section 5.13 Waste Disposal; 5.16.6 Brine Disposal; 5.16.7 Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials in Marcellus Production Brine

Gas well flowback fluid is currently classified as “industrial waste” under state code (Article 27, Title 9, Paragraph 371.1. (e) (2) (v)).  However, 18 of the 69 compounds (dSGEIS Tables 5-8, 5-9, 6-1 and 6-2), as well as radionuclides (dSGEIS Appendix 13) reported in flowback fluids are listed in New York as hazardous substances.  Therefore, the NYSDEC commissioner should, by his authority under Article 27, Title 9, Paragraph 371.2 (b) (2), reclassify gas well flowback fluids as hazardous waste.
Permits for high-volume gas well development projects should not be issued unless and until intrastate infrastructure designed specifically for treating their hazardous wastes is built and functioning.

Chapter 6 Potential Environmental Impacts

Conspicuously absent from mention here are the potential impacts of residual infrastructure that remains in the ground when gas extraction activities are completed.  No complete inventory, let alone hazard assessment of abandoned oil and gas wells in New York has been assembled to date, and no long-term follow-up assessments related to proposed development are suggested in this dSGEIS.  This constitutes  a major failure in operational planning.

Section 6.1.1 Water Withdrawals

Large parts of the Southern Tier of New York situated over developable shale gas deposits lie outside regions regulated by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, the Delaware River Basin Commission or New York City’s West of Hudson Watershed.  NYSDEC makes no provision for monitoring or limiting water withdrawals in these areas.  This constitutes a major failure in operational planning.

Section 6.1.6 Waste Transport

Manifesting of gas drilling wastes (hazardous by nature if not by state law) should be required for transport by Part 364-permitted haulers.  Description of these loads as “general industrial waste” poses unacceptable risks for emergency responders to roadway incidents.

Section 6.5 Air Quality

This elegantly researched section suffers from a failure to aggregate emissions from a number (several to several hundred) of vicinal gas wells.  Such aggregation is currently being investigated in Dish, Texas (6, 7).  Preliminary results suggest that hazardous levels of benzene, ozone and other pollutants that accumulate in an intensively drilled area can measurably influence the health of people who live there.  NYSDEC scientists would do well to study these data and consider ways to develop commensurate analytical scope in New York.

Section 6.7 Centralized Flowback Water Surface Impoundments

Central impoundments for flowback fluids should not be permitted.  Along with maintenance of pit liners and connecting conduits, maintenance of headspace should be expected to be problematic.  New York has virtually no capacity for treating these fluids (dSGEIS, (Section 5.13 Waste Disposal), and facilities in Pennsylvania are maximally utilized.  With nowhere to go, flowback in New York will build to critical (and greater) mass.  If not contained in rigid containers, this fluid will overflow into surrounding properties.  This would be particularly troublesome during periods of heavy rain or snow.

Section 6.8 Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials in the Marcellus Shale

This section appropriately mentions the frequent occurrence of radiondclides in flowback fluids, but omits any mention of state and federal regulatory incongruities that usually complicate disposal of mixed hazard (chemical and radiological) waste.  This is particularly salient in evaluating future applications by energy companies for beneficial use determinations to permit spreading of flowback fluids on roads (Appendix 12).  I recommend consideration of these complications before any such applications are accepted.

Section 6.9 Visual Impacts

Others may consider the photos of actual wellsites in New York reassuring; I do not.  Even before scale-up to an unprecedented level of intensity, this kind of development in my region of the state should be expected to exert a significant negative impact on hunting, fishing, local recreation and tourism.  Regarding mitigation measures, I submit that “hope and wait until the worst is over” is not a viable strategy.

Chapter 7 Mitigation Measures

Throughout this section, suggestions that NYSDEC personnel should have the opportunity to supervise various critical steps in the development process (eg. surface casing cementing) should be replaced with mandates that agency personnel shall be present for any such operations.  Similarly, language proposing that mitigation steps “may” or “should” be taken should be replaced with “shall be taken”.

Section 7.1.4.2 Sufficiency of As-Built Wellbore Construction; Appendices 8, 9 & 10

Existing regulations regarding the mixing and placement of concrete are incoherent.  Particularly egregious is the requirement that poured and pumped concrete should be left undisturbed in a casing until a compressive strength of 500 pounds per square inch is achieved.  The chemistry of concrete curing is minimally defined as the hydration of calcium silicate.  The rate at which this process occurs depends heavily on several factors that include temperature, water concentration, and the presence of modifying chemicals.  All these factors are in flux with any gas well project:  (1) Temperature varies from as low as 23 deg. F at the surface to as high as 150 deg. F in the target formation – and neither extreme is ideal for curing.  (2) Water and brines are ubiquitous in New York subterranean rock strata, and can either add to or subtract from water available for curing depending on the layer depth.  (3) Commonly added fluidizers and plasticizers all tend to impede curing, but their responses to varying temperatures and water concentrations are not well characterized.
Taken together, these issues make meaningful determination of the time at which concrete throughout a well casing has reached any particular compressive strength practically incalculable.  Further, shock resistance (related to channel or crack formation) is better correlated with tensile than compressive strength.  I submit that the relative success in sealing New York gas well projects to date has been the result of many lucky guesses.  This is not a basis for sound regulation.   I strongly recommend instituting a standard period of time for waiting on concrete to cure, with the specific standard to be set by rigorous investigation of the salient parameters.
A concrete bond log should be required for every surface casing.  Further, specific site conditions under which intermediate casings must be installed should be formulated.

Section 7.1.11 Protecting the Quality of New York City’s Drinking Water Supply

I take umbrage at the notion that my or any other New Yorker’s water supply is less worth protecting than that of New York City.  Even so, the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, in its final impact assessment (8), makes clear that the best of proposed regulations are anticipated to expose New York City’s drinking water supply to substantial risk of serious damage.  Since this is the case, then acceptably safe development of gas from New York’s shales is probably not possible.  My recommended response to this realization is that NYSDEC abort any attempt to update gas development regulations and institute a state-wide ban on high-intensity gas development.

Section 7.1.12 Setbacks

This section is incoherent, lacking clarity about how interacting factors (e.g. occupied dwellings, public buildings, and various water supplies) should be interpreted in terms of setback requirements.
There is no mention of setbacks from abandoned oil or gas wells; this is a major omission.

Section 7.5 Protecting Air Quality

Frankly, major industrialization of a region is incompatible with protecting air quality.  If the goal is maintenance of air quality that is characteristic of New York’s Southern Tier today, then the mitigation measures discussed (not mandated) are doomed to failure.

Section 7.11 Mitigating Road Use Impacts

NYSDEC offers practically no assistance in this endeavor.  Municipalities should receive assistance with posting and appropriate bonding of roadways, and a centralized trust fund should be established to protect private taxpayers from having to pay for roads ruined by energy corporations and their subcontractors.  This section contains no discussion of privatization of gas revenues accompanied by socialization of the risks and costs of collateral damage, let alone any mitigation of this scenario.

Section 7.12 Mitigating Community Character Impacts

This section contains no description of existing community character with which future attributes might be compared.  Major potential impacts omitted from this section include: influences of permanent industrialization, changes in the types and numbers of cottage industries now typical of New York’s Southern Tier, and influences of the “bust” phase of a boom / bust economic cycle.  I recommend that NYSDEC conduct a rigorous examination of existing community character as prelude to an expanded discussion of impacts mitigation.

Section 7.13 Mitigating Cumulative Impacts

There is no meaningful discussion of cumulative impacts in this section, let alone any attempt to describe mitigation measures.  This constitutes one of the greatest failures of operational planning in this dSGEIS.

Chapter 9 Alternative Actions

Option 9-1, Prohibition of Development, is ruled against by NYSDEC on the basis that it would violate state law, which requires development of natural resources.  I submit that, in light of the overwhelming value of resources that would be damaged or destroyed by intensive gas extraction from New York’s shales, it is the sole legal and just option.

Appendix 15 Hydraulic Fracturing – 15 Statements from Regulatory Officials

Hydraulic fracturing has, in my view, metamorphosed from a technically challenging array of methods to release trapped gases from rocks into a caricature of all that is feared about the natural gas industry.  Judged soberly, these methods elevate risk from gas extraction processes primarily by requiring the transport, handling and use of exotic chemicals which would otherwise not need to be moved, handled, or disposed of.  In comparison to these elements of risk, the actual steps involved with “fracking” are anticlimactic – though not risk-free.
Attribution of a specific accident to any single risk factor is always fraught with difficulty, even when that factor is known by the weight of evidence to be significant.  For example, the fact that one of the drivers in an auto accident was intoxicated is not de facto evidence that the drunk driver was at fault.  Still, the drunk driver bears some responsibility.
As this issue has developed publicly, I have observed energy company spokespeople caricaturizing “hydrofracturing” as that demon which is feared by the uneducated public, but which investigators can never make culpable – provided it is considered in the narrowest methodological sense and as a sole causative factor.  I am disappointed that NYSDEC has chosen to perpetuate this caricature.
This appendix demonstrates, more than anything, the extent to which a variety of public officials are willing to collude in half-truths.  While a handful of state officials who were queried acknowledged that gas extraction produces unintentional consequences, all whose responses were included here acceded to the premise – without context, of course – that, under the narrow conditions of the question posed, hydraulic fracturing has never polluted any groundwater.
NYSDEC had the opportunity in an appendix like this to perform a valuable service of education to the public, putting issues with hydraulic fracturing into proper context.  I could not be more disappointed that you chose a different path.

Respectfully,

Ron Bishop
References Cited:

1.     Arthur Berman, “Lessons from the Barnett Shale suggest caution in other shale plays”,
ASPO International Peak Oil Conference, August 10, 2009.

2.     Walter Hang, “Drilling Spills Profiles”, Toxics Targeting, Inc. 2009

3.     Ron Bishop, “Experiences with Natural Gas Extraction:  Interviews with Health Officials
in New York’s Counties”, private communication 2009.  (Attached)

4.     EPA, “Reregistration Eligibility Decision (RED) 2,2-dibromo-3-nitrilopropionamide
(DNPA)”, September 1994.

5.     BPPB Consortium, “Propargyl Alcohol U.S. EPA HPV Challenge Program Revised
Submission”, July 2003.

6.     Jack Z. Smith, “Texas expediting environmental complaints on natural gas operations in
Barnett Shale”, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 23, 2009.

7.     Wilma Subra, “Results of Health Survey of Current and Former DISH/Clark, Texas
Residents”, Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project, December 2009.

8.     New York City Department of Environmental Protection, “Impact Assessment of Natural
Gas Production in the New York City Water Supply Watershed: Final Impact Assessment
Report”, December 22, 2009.