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2009-10-06

Environmental Battle Brews in New York over Natural Gas Drilling

Guests

Albert Appleton, Former commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and former director of the New York City Water and Sewer System. Teaches courses in sustainability and economics at Hunter College and Cooper Union.

Brad Gill, Executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, an oil industry trade group which supports drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

Joe Levine, co-founder of the groups Damascus Citizens for Sustainability and NY-H2O.

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Last week, government regulators opened the door to natural gas drilling inside the Marcellus Shale watershed, which supplies drinking water to some 15 million people, including nine million New Yorkers. Stretching from New York to Kentucky, the shale is believed to hold some of the world’s largest deposits of natural gas. Proponents say the drilling will boost the nation’s economic recovery and reduce dependence on foreign oil. But environmentalists are warning the drilling could contaminate New York’s water supply as it has in other states. The proposed regulations are now open for public comment until the end of the next month, followed by a final decision early next year. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: For our last segment, we turn to what some are calling the biggest environmental battle in New York State history. Last week, government regulators opened the door to natural gas drilling inside the Marcellus Shale watershed, which supplies drinking water to some 15 million people, including nine million New Yorkers. Stretching from New York to Kentucky, the shale is believed to hold some of the world’s largest deposits of natural gas.

Proponents say the drilling will boost the nation’s economic recovery and reduce dependence on foreign oil. But environmentalists are warning the drilling could contaminate New York’s water supply as it has in other states. The proposed regulations are now open for public comment until the end of the next month, followed by a final decision early next year.

For more, we’re joined by three guests. Here in our firehouse studio is Joe Levine. He is a co-founder of the group Damascus Citizens for Sustainability and NY-H2O, which oppose the gas drilling.

Albert Appleton is the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and former director of the New York City Water and Sewer System. He currently teaches courses in sustainability and economics at Hunter College and Cooper Union and works as an international consultant on water issues.

And joining us on the telephone is Brad Gill. He’s executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, an oil industry group that supports drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Al, let’s start with you. The significance of this decision of government regulators to open up the Marcellus Shale?

ALBERT APPLETON: Well, it’s not a decision to open up the Marcellus Shale as such. It’s a decision to say — it’s a claim, because it’s actually not a decision yet. The comment period is going —- it’s a claim that the Marcellus Shale drilling, as it’s currently conducted, can be done with adequate safeguards for the environment and the Upstate rural economy. This is a claim that appears to be wrong both on facts and interpretation.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, explain first what is the Marcellus Shale and what’s at stake here.

ALBERT APPLETON: Well, the Marcellus Shale is about a 6,000— to 9,000-foot-deep layer of 600-million-year-old shale that is trapped in an enormous amount of natural gas. They’ve always known this. But until they developed horizontal drilling and essentially drilling by fracturing, they weren’t able to get the drilling out.

The problem that — what is at stake here is, well, that the natural gas that is derived in environmentally benign ways is a terrific fuel. Natural gas — shale fracking to obtain natural gas is such a — has so many environmental impacts that the cost to the environment and the cost to the rural economy outweigh the benefits of the natural gas, as we are currently doing it. So the real question at stake, from an economic point of view, is, are we going to subsidize, through externalizing environmental costs, the fracking of natural gas formations, or are we going to try and develop a more sustainable natural gas policy?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And explain exactly how does New York’s water system currently work.

ALBERT APPLETON: New York City’s water system currently works by — it’s a surface water system that collects rainfall and runoff from an area about the size of the state of Delaware. Unlike most of the systems in the world, this water is so pure that we don’t have to filter it. We merely have to treat it with chlorine and do some other statements. And this saves the City of New York billions and billions of dollars and gives it the world — the quality for which it is famous worldwide. So, and the Marcellus — and natural gas drilling in the New York City watershed would completely transform that. The bill for New York City would be billions of dollars annually.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re also joined on the telephone by Brad Gill. He’s the executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York. Can you respond to some of what Al is talking about?

BRAD GILL: Sure, I’d be glad to.

One thing I’d like to point out, and Al might argue this point, but drilling is not new to New York State. And when references are cited from other states, where problems have occurred, I just want to point out that there are very significant differences between the regulations under which we operate in New York as opposed to some other states. And not only have we historically operated under very stringent guidelines, and in fact the most stringent in the nation, but we now are going to be operating under a new set of guidelines that will specifically be tailored to Marcellus development, exploration and drilling. And those just were released last week, of course, about an 800-plus-page document that’s very comprehensive, a very, very tough set of regulations. Industry is going to have to comply with these. And at first gloss, in looking at these regs, there are some significant controls and measures in here that will be in the, I’m sure, the permit requirements for drilling that will safeguard the water supplies.

And the other thing is, I’d just like to point out, that we have drilled in wetlands and aquifers and watersheds for years in New York State and frack wells for years in New York State, for decades. And so, while some people say, “Yeah, but those are vertical wells; they’re not horizontal Marcellus wells,” the individual processes remain the same. And really nothing about a horizontal borehole, that’s deeper, makes it any more of a threat than what we’ve been doing safely for years.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Joe Levine, you’re co-founder of the group Damascus Citizens for Sustainability. Respond to some of what Brad Gill was talking about.

JOE LEVINE: I did have a little bit of difficulty hearing what he was saying.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. I apologize for that.

JOE LEVINE: However, a couple of things really jump out at me. You know, this issue that they’re going to treat New York special, and they’re very comfortable with that, as well, I don’t know what that says about the industry at all that’s been running roughshod over the rest of the country and doing a lot of damage to a lot of areas. It used to be said that it only happens out West, and it’s different here in the states — in New York State. However, they’ve been operating in Pennsylvania, and there are incident after incident. And, in fact, when he says that they’ve been operating successfully in watersheds and sensitive water areas, there’s also, you know — suspicious, given that a Freedom of Information request by Environmental Working Group proved that there were no records kept about accidents that happened on drill sites. So, at least that’s what I heard Mr. Gill say, and that’s what I can respond to. But it’s, you know, ludicrous that now New York is going to do it better.

And one has to understand that this technology is intrinsically contaminating. The injection of toxic chemicals — and, by the way, I heard Brad Gill speak months ago, and it wasn’t so long ago that he said that there were no chemicals used in this process; it was only sand and water and soap. And this has been proven to not be the case. And in fact there have been over 350 toxic chemicals that are injected with millions of gallons of water, taking that water out of the water supply, injecting it into the ground, contaminating aquifers. The air pollution is whole different subject we could talk about, and that’s serious, as well. But these toxic chemicals have also been confirmed to be related to a lot of diseases that people are experiencing out West, wildlife and livestock. The disaster —-

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And what specific areas around the country?

JOE LEVINE: Well, most recently, the news is coming in from Dimock, Pennsylvania, where water wells were contaminated, and livestock are getting sick, and people don’t have -— they can’t use their water anymore. And the landscape degradation is severe.

The most — this past spring in Philadelphia, their water supply system was turned off for a month from the — from contamination of the —-

ALBERT APPLETON: Pittsburgh.

JOE LEVINE: In Pittsburgh, I’m sorry, from the contamination of the Monongahela River as a result of trying to put toxic waste water from drilling operations through the water filtration system that empties into the rivers.

And the most recent event is in Dunkard Creek, where this watershed, a thirty-eight-mile stretch of an incredibly biodiverse watershed, the best in the region, is now contaminated. A hundred and sixty different aquatic species used to live there. And there’s a gigantic fish kill of, you know, hundreds or thousands of fish there. And this was the life of the people in the community in Dunkard Creek Watershed. So the accidents are moving across the country wherever the drilling has occurred.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Brad Gill, you’re the executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association, can you explain or just respond to some of what Joe has been talking about?

BRAD GILL: Yeah, I’d be glad to.

One thing I’d like to point out is that there’s a lot of, I think, misinterpretation of the word “contamination.” He referenced Dimock Township, Pennsylvania. There’s been some unfortunate incidents there that I would term an accident. We are an industry. It was a surface handling issue. It was not a result of a contamination from a frack job. “Contamination” would denote chemicals in drinking water supplies. That has not occurred in Dimock Township. In Dimock, it was an issue with methane gas, which occurs very naturally across New York and Pennsylvania. There are numerous cases of people with methane gas in their water supplies that have nothing to do with oil and gas drilling, no drilling for miles and miles. So we’re in a naturally fractured basin here, and that happens very, very often. Occasionally, that can happen as a result of natural gas drilling, where you’ll get methane in the water supply, but that is not contamination. That is not frack fluids, like Joe was referencing.

And again, I’d like to point out that, like anything else today, an exception will seem to grab the headlines. So when you think about 1.3 million wells across the nation have been fracked and about 900,000 producing today, and you can name several incidents that aren’t true contamination, but methane-charged water.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Al Appleton, can you respond to some of what Brad Gill is saying? And also, are the proposed safeguards enough? Can drilling be safe?

ALBERT APPLETON: Well, let me take the second question first. Drilling can be safe if you have enough safeguards. Those safeguards have to be site-specific. Drilling in a watershed is not acceptable, because -— let’s say you just have one percent accident rate. Let’s say Brad is right, and he is, that the vast majority of wells proceed without incident, although, as Joe has rightfully pointed out, the records on incidents are really terrible, even so, if you just have one percent of these wells go south, then you’ve got a major problem for drinking water, because these fracking fluids are so toxic.

Now, Brad said that, you know, that there hasn’t been a lot of deep well pollution. But these contaminants get spilled, lost, midnight disposal. I mean, he didn’t mention Dunkard Creek, which is an indisputable case of fracking fluid trashing an entire water system. But it’s the frequency that matters. That he can come up with anecdotes that says most of these wells are safe, and then we can come up with anecdotes of specific positions, matters less than the fact that the rate of accidents only needs to be very small to contaminate a water system or a water source, either whether it’s for drinking water or for environmental activity.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And Joe Levine, the oil and gas industry is largely exempt from the Clean Water Act. Can you talk about what’s happening in Congress right now, the so-called Frack Act that’s put forth?

JOE LEVINE: Well, our New York State Congressman Maurice Hinchey has — was the primary sponsor of a bill, and co-sponsor is Diana DeGette from Colorado, and that is the Frack Act. And the intention is to reinstate the Safe Drinking Water Act to this process. And it has to do with the injection of toxic chemicals into the ground that’s either part of drilling or other operations of disposal.

I would like to go back for a second just to, you know, mention his comments about Dimock. You know, we’ve had people go to Dimock and try to speak to the folks who live in Dimock and whose water has been contaminated. The people in Dimock are scared. They’re trying to get their water tested, and it’s not that easy. So there’s a lot of things that go on that Mr. Gill isn’t referring to. And once again, these events are not reported. They’re very difficult to trace. And in some cases, it’ll take years to actually discover. But you can’t inject these kinds of highly toxic chemicals, carcinogens, mutagens — and the list goes on and on — you can’t inject those into the ground, contaminating aquifers, and expect nothing to happen. It’s intrinsically a contaminating operation, not to mention it’s industrialization of the Upstate region or any region where it’s done.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: I have to get Brad Gill’s response. Your thoughts on some of what Joe is saying here?

BRAD GILL: Well, regarding the industrialization of the region, I’ll just address that first. I think people are concerned that it’s going to be turned into an industrial moonscape, and you’ll see wells everywhere. That won’t happen for many, many decades, and it would never be the way many people are portraying it to be. There are over 5,000 wells drilled in Chautauqua County alone, for example, 11,000 wells drilled in Allegheny County, New York. And these are beautiful areas, rolling hills, much like southeastern New York, that have been unaffected by, you know, the density of drilling. So, as far as industrialization, I would prefer to view it as a positive economic boon for the area. And environmental protection is not —-

I’m sorry, can you hear me OK through -—

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yes.

BRAD GILL: I’m hearing some feedback. Hello?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yes, we can hear you.

BRAD GILL: OK.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We just have ten seconds.

BRAD GILL: Environmental protection and development of natural gas reserves are not mutually exclusive. And we’ve proven that, and we will again, hopefully in New York here.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Al Appleton, ten seconds, just your final response?

ALBERT APPLETON: They aren’t mutually exclusive, but that doesn’t mean that it could be done every place. End of story.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, we want to thank all three of you for being with us. We’ll continue to follow this story. Al Appleton is the former commissioner of the NYC Department of Environmental Protection and former director. Brad Gill is the executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York. He joined us on the phone. And Joe Levine, thank you for joining us. Joe is co-founder of the group Damascus Citizens for Sustainability.

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