What Do Friends Need to Know about Fracking?

What Do Friends Need to Know about Fracking?

Margaret McCasland, Ithaca Meeting

Fracking is an imprecise term that means different things to different people. So the rest of this article will use “HVHF” (high-volume hydraulic fracturing). HVHF is an unconventional form of gas drilling used to extract gas that is tightly embedded in tiny pores. While “tight shale” formations such as the Marcellus and Utica usually contain some propane and/or butane, the gas is primarily methane—the true name for “natural gas.”

“Conventional” vs. “unconventional” is an industry distinction for the extraction of all fossil fuels: coal, oil, or natural gas.  Conventional extraction is what we are usually think of: traditional coal mines or drilling rigs that tap into large pools of oil and/or gas. However we’ve already used most of Earth’s conventional fuel sources, so unconventional extraction is more common, including mountaintop removal coal mining, deepwater oil drilling, tar-sands oil—and HVHF gas drilling.

It takes much more equipment, energy, and money to extract unconventional fuels, and many of the true ecological and economic costs get externalized to local communities and to global ecosystems. Thus we need to call for a rapid, massive build-out of renewable energy sources, paired with major energy conservation and efficiency programs, so that a truly safe supply can meet a reasonable demand.

Before I tell you more about HVHF, I will address a few reasons why you should care:


If you don’t live over a drillable section of the Marcellus Shale, why do you need to know anything about HVHF?

Because most of New York State will be affected directly or indirectly–including NYC.

Much of central and western New York lies over the Marcellus or Utica shales. But a wider area is targeted for waste disposal.

Water treatment plants in many parts of the state (from Watertown in the north to Auburn and Cayuga Heights in the Finger Lakes) have accepted or have considered accepting drilling waste water in their sewage treatment plants–plants that were not designed to remove heavy metals, radioactivity, or most chemicals. (The City of Niagara Falls rejected a plan to treat waste in a specialized waste water treatment plant.)

The gas industry hoped to use deep injection wells in NYS for both NY and PA waste water, since much of Central and Western NY lays over porous formations that could, in theory, absorb waste water.  In January of 2010, an injection well was proposed for Pulteney, but was halted because of the potential to contaminate nearby Keuka Lake, in the heart of NY’s wine country. Injection wells are permitted–or denied–by the EPA, with input from the DEC and local officials.

Drill cuttings include the rock cores from the thousands of feet through which each well is drilled (which naturally includes heavy metals and radioactive materials) plus the added “mud” (which includes added chemicals and lubricants). NYS declared drill cuttings to be “industrial waste” and so drill cuttings from PA have already been coming into NYS multi-purpose landfills, instead of being sequestered as the hazardous waste the cuttings actually are (especially from the more radioactive Marcellus formation).

Air pollution from drill rigs, compressors, processing stations, pipelines leaks, and constant truck traffic will affect areas well beyond drilling pads, resulting in ozone and toxic particles, as well as greenhouse emissions. Because of drilling, some rural areas now have more polluted air than major cities. Ground-level ozone reduces plant yields and thus would be one more threat to Downstate’s “foodshed.”


Because water is life and accidents happen and water flows down hill.

From the Great Lakes and the Finger Lakes to the reservoirs in the Catskills, New York has much of the best water in the world. Leaking well casings, truck accidents, leaking wastewater ponds, and flooded drilling pads have already happened in PA. But even “standard operating procedures” will slowly release endocrine-disrupting chemicals into our watersheds.

NOTE: prohibiting drilling-related construction projects from being done very close to the NYC and Syracuse reservoirs protects them from construction sediment, which would require filtration in a best-case scenario. These setbacks do not protect reservoirs from toxic spills or from routine “non-point source” contamination.


Because dilution, it turns out, is NOT the solution to pollution.

Many chemicals previously thought safe in the parts per million are now known to harm human health in the parts per billion (ppb). Neither drinking water pre-treatment plants nor wastewater (sewage) plants can remove all the chemicals, minerals, or water-borne radiation associated with unconventional drilling. The technology exists for specialized plants to treat contaminants associated with gas drilling, but it is too expensive (and energy-intensive) to use widely. But most of the contaminated water is not recaptured for treatment or safe disposal.


Because gas drilling is a boondoggle, not an economic boon.  

Extractive industries give a short-term economic boost to a few sectors, but long-term economic costs to many sectors. Even if there are no accidents at drilling sites, the introduction of widespread heavy industry will damage tourism, wineries, wildlife-related activities and agriculture, plus raising rents at the same time it reduces real estate values.


Because gas is a fossil fuel with a high impact on Global Climate Disruption.

 “Natural gas” is methane. Burning methane at the point of intentional combustion does release less CO2 than burning coal does. The problem is all the methane that leaks up at every stage up until that point. Being a gas, and being extracted, processed and transported under pressure, a lot of methane does leak. When released to the atmosphere, unburned methane traps 1900% more heat than CO2 does. And HVHF releases far more unburned methane than conventional gas drilling does.


Because “Energy Independence” will come at a price.  

Once pipelines connect NY gas to the global market (LNG export terminals are in process), prices will be set globally, not domestically. While demand will keep much gas here, we will be paying much higher prices. And unconventional drilling is only profitable at these higher prices.

And you are a gas customer even if you don’t use gas in your home: more and more of NYS’s electricity is from gas-fired plants.


More than you want to know about HVHF:

High-Volume (Slick-water) Hydraulic Fracturing with horizontal drilling (horizontal HVHF) was developed in the late 1990s as part of deep water oil drilling. This form of unconventional gas drilling was not widely used in the US until after the federal Energy Act of 2005 exempted it from many provisions of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Safe Drinking Water Acts (AKA the Halliburton Loopholes).

An older, less intensive form of hydrofracking was developed by Halliburton in the late 1940s for use in vertical wells. Horizontal HVHF uses much more water than conventional hydrofracking (on average 5,6oo,000 gallons vs. 20,000 to 80,000 gallons). Slick-water HVHF also uses a different mix of chemicals than the older methods. However many of the chemicals used in conventional gas drilling

HVHF is the only way to remove gas locked in tiny pores. It shatters the shale, releasing gas into the newly created cracks. The initial fractures are caused by explosive charges, followed by millions of gallons of chemically-treated water that are forced into the rock under high pressure, creating many more cracks.  

Because gas is released only from sections of the shale that have been fractured, each drilling pad has 6–12+ wells, each with a horizontal arm running thousands of feet in a different direction.

Each well is usually “stimulated” several times to keep the gas flowing. Every time a well is stimulated, millions of gallons of water are contaminated both with chemicals added on the surface (biocides, surfactants, etc) and by heavy metals and organic compounds found in the shale, many of them toxic in the parts per billion. Marcellus shale also releases radioactivity into the water. Small amounts of flow-back water can be recycled, but most water is left underground, forever lost to the water cycle.

In order to justify bringing in the extensive infrastructure needed to extract, process, and transmit methane extracted using HVHF, gas companies need to have as many multi-well drilling pads as possible in the same region.

The price of gas is currently low, so drilling in PA is proceeding at a slow pace. Many pads have just one well drilled, in order to tie up leases until extraction becomes profitable. Drilling will be done much more intensely once the pipelines are connected to export terminals and even domestic users need to pay global prices. As prices and profits rise, the pressure to drill in New York will increase.


PLEDGE to reduce the need for HVHF gas (and your overall energy demand) at: <sustainabletompkins.org/programs/marcellus-challenge/>



 General Background on Fracking:

            New York Times: Drilling Down: the risks of natural-gas drilling and efforts to regulate this rapidly growing industry (with archive of original documents). <www.nytimes.com/interactive/us/DRILLING_DOWN_SERIES.html> 

            Oil and Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) www.earthworksaction.org

            Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy <www.psehealthyenergy.org>

            Pro Publica: <www.propublica.org/series/fracking>

            Video of industry experts and PA residents  “The hidden cost of the US hydraulic fracturing – fracking – boom” <www.youtube.com/watch?v=nCyHS7fKmXI>

            More Links:            <www.tcgasmap.org/

Economic aspects: 

            Susan Christopherson, ed. The Economic Consequences of Marcellus Shale Gas Extraction.  http://devsoc.cals.cornell.edu/outreach/cardi/ (click on Publications, then CaRDI Reports)

Engineering of gas drilling:

search for You Tube videos of Anthony “Tony” Ingraffea (also via psehealthyenergy.org)

Gas drilling in NYS:



             Haudenosaunee Statement on Hydraulic-Fracturing: The Haudenosaunee are the Six Nations of central, western and Northern New York: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. HETF is the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force.

< hetf.org >             From the home page, click on “environmental,” then scroll down to the March 4, 2009 Statement on Hydraulic-Fracturing

Human Health:

            Theo Colborn, PhD www.endocrinedisruption.com/chemicals.introduction.php

Oil and gas Accountability Project (OGAP) http://earthworksaction.org/publications.cfm?pubiD=143

Leasing:          < fleased.org/>


 Quaker Minute:         Energy Sources and Right Relationship with Earth” (response to HVHF drilling and other forms of extreme extraction): Ithaca Monthly Meeting  <ithacamonthlymeeting.org> (click on Earthcare Committee page)

Radioactivity:            James Ring’s testimony to the NYS DEC. Special Delivery? Spectra pipeline could bring radon to NYC stoves. <http://saneenergyproject.org/>

Water quality and testing: <http://communityscience.org/>