moving right along (on fracking)
May 2, 2013
During two Mondays in April, I witnessed policymakers carefully scripting the undoing of Western Maryland.
Some would say they are determining best practices for fracking in the state, but that’s not how it looks from the audience.
The state’s 15-member Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission, which Gov. Martin O’Malley appointed two years ago, is examining what regulations could be put in place to make fracking safe. Or wait, maybe regulations to reduce the risks of fracking. Or to figure out the acceptable risks of fracking. Or the unacceptable risks.
In February 2012, the commission — operating without a budget but with money found under couch cushions at the state Department of the Environment (MDE) — hired Dr. Keith Eshleman, from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s Appalachian Laboratory, to review methods around the country and come up with a list of best practices for fracking in the state. Eshleman and Andrew Elmore, a UMCES assistant professor, produced a 173-page report that includes 121 “best management practices.”
Over the last two Mondays in April, the commission discussed that report as well as an early outline of best practices that MDE and the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are developing based on the Eshleman report. “All [of Eshleman’s] recommendations are going to be considered,” said Brigid Kenney, senior policy adviser with MDE. The departments will accept, modify or reject the recommendations after considering practicality, feasibility, ability to implement, she said. The report will be released in May, and the public will have 30 days to comment.
But even before Eshleman could explain his report, tension surfaced. Actually, tension is a strong undercurrent at all of these meetings. One faction of this commission would have been content to start fracking a couple years ago because it trusts industry to pretty much get this right. This faction, which includes a representative of Chevron, a state senator and a Garrett County commissioner, seems to view all this talk, talk, talk as a lot of foot-dragging. The other, perhaps outnumbered faction frequently voices concern for the region’s rivers, air quality, trout, forests, water wells, soil, tourism. Think swimming, hiking, camping, kayaking, sledding. Think water for drinking and growing food, clean air for breathing, uncontaminated soil, stable climate.
At this first meeting about best management practices, commissioner Paul Roberts, who grows grapes and makes wine at Deep Creek Cellars in Garrett, wanted some clarification from Kenney: “Is the state willing to conclude we can’t do this, even if regulations are in place?” he asked. Kenney said that the decision about fracking was “independent of the regulations” and that departments would not issue permits if fracking were found to be unsafe.
Commission member Nick Weber of Trout Unlimited said he was concerned about failure rates for the wells’ cement casings — estimated in recent Cornell University studies to range, in the first year alone, from 5 to 9 percent, or 1 in 12. Those casings are the barrier between the aquifer and the toxic fluid used for drilling. They also prevent methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from escaping the well bore. Such failure rates, for “anything else in our lives, [are] very large,” he said. Weber, who was a scientist with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, also asked how the state would determine what exactly is an “unacceptable risk,” a criterion mentioned in the governor’s executive order. “I’m completely in the dark about how that goes on” at DNR and MDE, Weber said.
After a bit more discussion about whether studies on health, economics and traffic could be complete by 2014 and what this or the next governor might do, commission member Sen. George Edwards said, “My understanding is that the purpose of this commission is to come up with the golden rule for drilling.” The commission should not be concerned about whether this or the next governor wants drilling, he said. “We need to keep on track what this commission is supposed to do.” He said technology constantly evolves, so the commission needs to come up with the best available practices and update them over time. After that, monitoring is key. “And if something happens, you can cut it off quick enough to prevent a bunch of impacts,” he said.
Commission Chairman David Vanko, a Towson University dean and professor of geology, said he had read about Ohio truckers dumping fracking waste: “It’s those bald-faced breaking of the rules we want to deal with.”
Commission member Harry Weiss, a Pennsylvania attorney, said “there’s never enough money for enforcement.”
The questions about what the commission is supposed to do and what constitutes “unacceptable risks” were not addressed further.
For the record, the governor’s executive order creating the commission charged it with figuring out “WHETHER [my bold, italics, capitalization] and how gas production from the Marcellus shale in Maryland can be accomplished without unacceptable risks of adverse impacts to public health, safety, the environment and natural resources.” Whether the state will drill is a question only the outnumbered faction consistently raises.
A number of environmental and health organizations, including Food & Water Watch and Environment Maryland, wrote O’Malley last week to raise alarms about the direction the commission seems to be headed: “We suggest a different approach: that you provide clear direction for the Advisory Commission and lead the way to a future where fracking is never allowed in our state, so there are no harms to mitigate in the first place.” Chesapeake Climate Action Network is circulating an on-line petition, urging the governor to assess the risks of fracking before writing the regulations.
Also last week, MDE Secretary Robert M. Summers posted a letter to the public on the commission website in response to “many emails” from people who have been told that the commission assumes that fracking is inevitable. “This is not true,” he wrote. “No decision has been made about whether hydraulic fracturing should be allowed in Maryland, and MDE is proceeding methodically and cautiously to develop stringent regulations that will protect Marylanders in the event hydraulic fracturing is allowed.”
At his presentation, Eshleman emphasized that he would not recommend whether drilling should go forward. Nor did his report deal with climate forcing, public health or economics, which are supposed to be covered in future reports. (The governor included $1.5 million in the budget to cover these studies and monitoring of water in Western Maryland). His task, he said, was only to suggest best management practices. But Eshleman’s report includes several warnings about fracking in Maryland. For example, it notes that “the lack of comprehensive, data-driven studies of the impacts of [fracking] … present a significant impediment to recommending best practices on the basis of this criterion alone.”
The report also says:
“We believe that it is inevitable that there will be negative impacts from [fracking] in western Maryland (and perhaps beyond the state’s borders) and that a significant portion of these ‘costs’ will be borne by local communities. Heavy truck traffic on local roads, noise and odors emanating from drilling sites, conflicts with outdoor recreation, diminished tourism, reduced biodiversity, and deterioration of air and water quality are some examples of the types of impacts that are likely even under the best of circumstances. While difficult to quantify in economic terms, these ‘costs’ will ideally be greatly outweighed by the benefits of increased economic activity—otherwise it is very difficult to make a case that [fracking] should occur at all.” [again, my bold, italic]
The report recommends, among other practices, drilling in dense clusters, so as to minimize land disruption. This would require “forced pooling,” which the state doesn’t have the power to enforce. Under forced pooling, gas companies could force landowners into leasing gas rights in certain areas so as to contain harm. The report recommends two years of pre-drilling monitoring at each site to determine water quality and map such things as rare and endangered species. It recommends a slow ramping up of drilling “to allow a new regulatory structure and experience in inspection and enforcement to evolve over time.” It also proposes a voluntary comprehensive drilling plan, or CDP, for each site, to encourage “channeling this industrial activity into those areas where fewer of the most sensitive resources are ‘in harm’s way’ and where new infrastructure needs (e.g., roads, pipelines) are lower.” Drillers should not drill near abandoned wells, mapped voids, steep slopes, wetlands, floodplains, conservation areas. The report also includes recommended setbacks (such as 300 feet from the edge of the disturbed area to streams, rivers, wetlands, trails, parks, scenic byways…; 1,000 feet from the borehole to an occupied building). For reference, a football field is 360 feet.
The report also recommended ongoing reclamation. In Pennsylvania, “I saw no evidence of any reclamation going on at all,” Eshleman said. And yet: “I don’t want anyone to think there will be rapid return of the land to something that it looked like prior to any drilling,” he said. The marketing for drilling, he said, is that the company fracks and then restores the land to what it was, but that is misleading. “We saw an industrialization over an existing rural [community],” he said, “and it might be there for 20 or 30 or 40 years” so the company can refrack the wells for the Marcellus or Utica shales.
Feeling reassured yet?
The state agencies’ plan for regulations is still in the form of a preliminary outline — which was displayed but not released to anyone in the audience. But one proposed regulation would require companies to submit a Comprehensive Gas Drilling Plan (CGDP) that would include compressor stations, roads, pipelines, wastewater treatment. Drillers would have to work with a “stakeholder’s group” of local government, park managers, NGOs and property owners, and hold a public meeting about each drilling plan. The state plan also would allow only freshwater ponds, rather than ponds of frack wastewater, and require closed-loop systems (recycling of flowback water as much as possible) and disclosure of chemicals. Companies claiming trade secrets would still have to give information about chemicals to MDE.
Several commissioners asked for a side-by-side comparison of the state’s proposed regulations and the Eshleman report. Otherwise, they said, the commission couldn’t readily determine what was different. “Eshleman should be a baseline for the gold standard,” commission member and state Delegate Heather Mizeur said. Kenney said that would probably be difficult given the organization of the Eshleman report.
Commissioner Roberts questioned any setback less than 2,000 feet – a distance the industry in one instance insisted on to protect its infrastructure. Last year, Dominion Transmission Inc. (DTI) sought and received federal approval for a 2,000-foot buffer around its vast Sabinsville Storage Pool for natural gas in Pennsylvania — to protect it from nearby fracking. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission agreed after DTI said the 2,000 foot buffer was “needed to ensure the facility’s continued safe and reliable operation amidst nearby natural gas horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing activity targeting the Marcellus Shale [my bold] and other possible encroachment activities by third parties.” DTI said it was concerned that fractures could create migration paths for the gas to move out of the storage pool. And FERC concurred, finding that “there has been no model developed that has been used to predict the exact placement and path, width, length and height of a fracture and then to prove, with actual microseismic events, that the fractures were placed where predicted and extended only to the predicted length, width, and height, and no farther.”
In other words, they don’t really know the consequences under the earth of fracking.
“I’m just asking for the same protections for everyone that the industry says it needs for itself,” Roberts said.
He also urged the state to consider that fracking would bring with it more gas lines and compressor stations, which are governed by FERC, rather than the state.
Commission member John Fritts, president of the Savage River Watershed Association and director of development for the Federation of American Scientists, asked about environmental damage: “How is the state going to be compensated for this damage? … Are we giving industry a free pass on this?”
Commissioner Jeffrey Kupfer of Chevron could be relied on to react to nearly every proposed regulation with concern for the “real world.” Mind you, that is the oil and gas industry’s real world. His “real world” has nothing to do with the world of brook trout, unbroken forests, endangered bats and goshawks, grapes growing and children breathing. Various regulations were “very complicated” and “very difficult.” He said “reality on the ground becomes a different story” and asked “is this feasible” and “ is it realistic and in the real world?” Likewise, he said, operating without some waivers from setbacks is “not practical.”
Also rattling around the room were occasional references to the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, a Pennsylvania coalition that includes the Heinz Endowments, a few of the large drillers (such as Chevron and Shell) and a few large environmental organizations (including the Environmental Defense Fund). It has devised a list of 15 voluntary performance standards. But half of the top 10 drillers in Pennsylvania didn’t sign on, and many environmental organizations rejected the premise: that drilling could be done safely, with or without voluntary practices. In addition, one can certainly take issue with the use of the term “sustainable” when describing a fossil fuel.
During a public comment time at the first meeting, Crede Calhoun criticized a “flaw in the process” that “seems to be putting the cart before horse.” Why, he asked, spend all this money and time developing regulations before determining whether fracking is in the best interests of the residents and existing tourist businesses? People who invest in second homes come to Garrett for the long-term. Fracking, though, is the “large-scale imposition of industry on the rural and peaceful landscape.”
Calhoun operates an ecotourism business catering to people who, he said, want to escape urbanization and industrialization. After the meeting, he said that fracking and the tourism industry are incompatible: “All the marketing says ‘Escape to Garrett County.’ What are they going to change it to? ‘Escape to Gasland’?”
–by elisabeth hoffman