During hydrofracking, the drill bit begins to bore vertically but then is turned horizontally to cut through the fractures
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||American cities divided over
benefits of natural gas drilling
By Tony Favro, US Editor
13 November 2009: Mayors have been the vanguard of the green movement in the United States. Their city governments have led the nation in such areas as weatherizing buildings, creating green jobs, adopting alternative fuels, and creating new tools for sustainable land use and development. Mayors have overcome significant impediments to advance their environmental initiatives inadequate funding, a skeptical public, and obsolete zoning and building codes, to name just a few.
A new process for extracting natural gas hydraulic fracturing or “hydrofracking” -- highlights the opportunities and challenges of going green for hundreds of communities in eastern United States.
| Drilling for gas | Drilling for dollars | Costs & concerns | New York City |
Drilling for natural gas
Natural gas, which is largely methane, is a clean-burning fuel compared to coal or oil. The United State Geological Survey estimates that nearly two trillion cubic feet of natural gas is contained in a geological formation of Marcellus shale the size of Greece extending through the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.
This reserve, if tapped, would expand the natural gas supply in the US by nearly 40 per cent. Until recently, however, the technology wasn’t available to drill economically.
The natural gas is trapped within the spaces and fissures of the mile-deep layer of shale. These fractures are vertical and thus often missed by traditional straight-down drilling. During hydrofracking, the drill bit begins to bore vertically but then is turned horizontally to cut through the fractures. Large volumes of pressurized water, chemicals, and sand are then pumped into the well to increase the size of the existing fractures, create new ones, and release the gas.
Drilling for dollars
A 2008 study by the Pennsylvania State University estimates that the natural gas could have an economic benefit of US$1 trillion and create 100,000 new jobs in the next decade.
Thousands of private landowners have already signed leasehold agreements with gas companies to allow drilling on their property. The leases typically allow gas companies to clear land and build roads, pipelines, power lines, and retention ponds. Landowners reportedly receive $50 to $3,000 per acre and an average 15 per cent royalty for drilling rights. This is welcome income to many families in a region that for decades has struggled economically.
Many mayors are supportive of the potential economic boom for the local economy. Mayor Don Ziegler of Horseheads, New York (pop. 6,500), a community situated over potentially productive wells, said proudly of the many local leases, “Little old sleepy hollow Horseheads is now on the map.”
Officials in other cities are more circumspect. In nearby Cortland, New York (pop. 18,700), Mayor Tom Gallagher and the Common (City) Council are debating publicly what one council member calls the “ethical decisions” regarding hydrofracking. For example, should the city sell municipal water to assist the drilling companies? Hydraulic fracturing requires one to five million gallons of water per well. As a councilperson noted, “If the city were to sell water and environmental hazards happened as a result of that sale of water, it might not be worth the potential costs.”
Costs and concerns
The United State Geological Survey says that nearly all of the fluid injected into wells during hydrofracking returns to the surface, including 15,000 gallons of chemical byproducts per each 3 million gallons of water. The waste material is typically diluted and released into waterways or stored temporarily in on-site ponds, potentially contaminating groundwater and surface water. Many mayors and environmental groups are advocating for more state and federal regulation of the release, processing, and storage of used drilling fluids.
Drilling operations may also impact public services. For example, increased truck traffic to haul water, chemicals, equipment, and waste can accelerate wear on roads and bridges. Children of new workers may attend public schools. Since natural gas revenues are generally not taxed at the local level and the vast majority of leaseholds are on private property, it is unclear if municipalities will be able to generate enough new revenues from the gas operations to pay for increased public services.
States and municipalities are looking for ways to participate in any natural gas windfall. In 2008, Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell lifted a five-year-old moratorium on new drilling and opened bidding for gas and oil drilling rights on state forest land. The lease revenues will be dedicated to park, conservation, and recreation projects throughout the state.
Generally, local governments that are considering leasing their public lands to gas companies seem to be proceeding cautiously. Dozens of mayors, such as Gerry Jennings of Albany, New York (pop. 94,000), have set up advisory committees to examine the issue. More are awaiting the decision of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
New York City
Mayor Bloomberg has not spoken for or against gas drilling on city property. On the one hand, he has praised natural gas as a fuel that pollutes less than coal or oil but he also says that if hydrofracking risks polluting the city’s watershed, he will fight it.
The New York City watershed provides 1.2 billion gallons of drinking water to 9 million consumers each day. The watershed covers 1,500 square miles in rural upstate New York. The water is piped to New York City and other communities within the watershed via hundreds of miles of aqueducts and tunnels.
In 1997, New York City reached an agreement with the federal government over the treatment of drinking water. In exchange for a waiver from federal laws requiring filtration and to avoid the construction of a $10 billion water filtration system the city agreed to implement strong watershed protection programs at a cost of over $1.5 billion.
The stakes are high. Hydrofracking in the watershed could produce an estimated $300 million in revenues for New York City and the smaller communities within the watershed. It could also degrade one of America’s greatest environmental assets.
Mayor Bloomberg’s decision will likely decide the debate on hydrofracking for many mayors and municipalities,
Once again, American cities are the crucibles of change. Mayors must find a balance between the economic prosperity promised by hydrofracking and environmental stewardship.
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