New York Senate Says Yes to Fracking Moratorium, Pennsylvania Group Tallies Drilling Violations

The New York State Senate overwhelmingly voted to impose a moratorium on shale gas drilling yesterday. Meanwhile, a Pennsylvania report released yesterday found that Marcellus shale gas drillers there have racked up more than 1,400 violations since January 2008.

Drilling in the Marcellus shale, a rock formation rich in natural gas that lies beneath parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Maryland, uses a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. This opens existing fractures in the rock and allows gas to rise through the wells.

Critics of fracking have long been concerned about the chemicals used in the process. Because the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, shale gas drillers don’t have to disclose what chemicals they use. According to the Environmental Working Group, fracking has already been linked to drinking water contamination and property damage in Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

In New York, where the Marcellus shale region encompasses the entire Catskills watershed that provides New York City with all of its drinking water, a virtual moratorium on gas drilling has been in existence since 2008. However, it’s expected to be lifted this year, and new drilling will commence unless the legislature acts.

The Thompson/Sweeney bill (S.8129B), which would place a moratorium on granting new drilling permits until May 2011, has bipartisan support, but the leadership of both the Senate and Assembly have stalled in bringing the legislation to a vote. Up until a few days ago, it was considered all but dead.

Yesterday, however, the legislature convened for a rare summer session, and the Senate voted by an overwhelming margin – 48 to 9- to approve Thompson/Sweeney. The bill goes next to the state Assembly, where it also has bipartisan support. However, it is unclear if the Assembly will vote on it during this special session.

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, a report by the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association said the state has identified 1,435 violations by 43 Marcellus Shale drilling companies since January 2008. Of those, 952 were identified as having or likely to have an impact on the environment. Those included 100 violations of the state Clean Stream Law, 268 for improper construction of waste water impoundments; 277 for poor erosion and sedimentation plans during well pad, road and piping construction; 16 for improper blowout prevention; and 154 for discharging industrial waste, including drilling waste water containing toxic chemicals, onto the ground or into streams.

The report is based on state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) enforcement records obtained through a Right to Know Request filed by the association.

The violations listed in the report do not include violations incurred by drilling wastewater haulers. According to the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, during a 3-day enforcement blitz by the DEP in June 2010, 669 traffic citations and 818 written warnings were issued to trucks hauling Marcellus Shale drilling wastewater.

The Pennsylvania Land Trust’s list of the 25 drillers with the most violations includes East Resources Inc., Cabot Oil & Gas, and EOG Resources Inc. Recently, we have reported on some of the problems these three drillers have had in Pennsylvania.

In July, we reported that some cows had to be quarantined after coming into contact with toxic wastewater from a hydraulic fracturing operation. The pool formed as a result of a leak in a wastewater holding pond on a farm in Tioga County. Eastern Resources Inc. was drilling for natural gas on the property.

In June, another Pennsylvania well operated by EOG Resources experienced a blowout. It spewed gas and drilling fluid into the air for 16 hours before it was capped.

Cabot Oil & Gas drilled dozens of wells in Dimock, Pennsylvania. Problems with the cement casing on 20 of those caused contamination of local water wells, driving down property values and causing sickness. In some cases, levels of methane in some Dimock water wells are so high that homeowners are able to set water aflame as it comes out of their taps. Fifteen Dimock residents whose wells were contaminated are now suing Cabot.

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