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TO: FROM: SUBJECT: NEW YORK STATE SENATOR GREG BALL BENJAMIN WILLIAMS, MPH STEPS TO MITIGATE THE POTENTIAL HEALTH IMPACTS OF HYDRAULIC FRACTURING IN NEW YORK STATE 9/7/2011
This memo provides background information and recommendations regarding how best to protect the health of New York State (NYS) residents against the harmful effects of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” With energy developers poised to exploit the large reserves of natural gas contained in the Marcellus shale formation under NYS, many important policy questions must be addressed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDOC), Department of Health (NYSDOH), and other executive and legislative bodies in NYS. The recently-developed technology used to unlock these resources poses risks to human health in a number of ways, most notably through contamination of ground and subsurface water supplies and the release of air pollutants, as has been observed in states where fracking has been active for several years. The recently-released draft regulations by the NYSDEC are a strong step towards protecting New York’s water resources, but do little to address the many serious potential health effects of fracking. The Senator’s call for legislative action to regulate fracking is both timely and essential for protecting the health of NYS residents in the short and long term. The specific steps the Senator has proposed addresses several dangerous gaps in current regulation, including the lack of systematic monitoring of soil and water quality and medical remediation for individuals affected by fracking, and are a welcomed addition to the proposed NYSDEC regulations. This memo will provide some background information on the fracking process, an overview of the legal and policy landscape of fracking in NYS, and two case studies from states where fracking has been active for several years to illustrate the types of health and environmental problems that can be expected to emerge if stronger regulation is not adopted in NYS. This analysis will conclude with a recommendation that a health impact assessment (HIA) be undertaken in addition to the Senator’s other regulatory proposals in order to ensure that health impacts are continuously evaluated as fracking development moves forward in NYS.
Fracking Technology and History:
The technology behind fracking involves both established and recent technological developments. At the outset, it is important to address some definitional issues. In this memo, “fracking” is used to refer to a method of natural gas extraction that About the author: Benjamin Williams is a recent graduate of the Master of Public Health Program at The George Washington University, with a concentration in Health Policy. These comments are adapted from a thesis written as part of that program. The author may be contacted at: email@example.com
incorporates two key features: 1) the hydraulic fracturing of underground shale formations using a specialized “fracking fluid,” and 2) the use of horizontal well drilling. While this paper uses the term fracking to refer to this extraction process as a whole, in the following description it is important to distinguish between the separate technical processes of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in order to understand how this technology developed and why it has been widely adopted in recent years. The technology of hydraulic fracturing has been used by the oil and gas industry since 1949 as a means to increase production from oil and gas wells. Although exact numbers are not available due to the large number of energy developers active, it is estimated that there have been 2.5 million fracture treatments, or “frac jobs,” to date, and the method is currently used at approximately 60% of all wells drilled today (with multiple frac jobs performed at each producing well).i The purpose of hydraulic fracturing is to stimulate the release of “tight” oil or gas trapped in subsurface rock formations. After the well has been drilled (in the Marcellus shale, at a depth of 4,000 to 8,500 feet), a pipe is inserted and encased in concrete. A perforating gun is then lowered into the well, and explosives are set off at regular intervals along the pipe to maximize the number of fractures and interlinkages within the rock.ii The hydraulic fracturing process then begins with the injection of a fracking fluid mixture into the wellbore under high pressure. When the fluid reaches the fractures, the oil or gas is agitated and released.iii In order to keep the fractures open, a compression-resistant substance known as proppant is injected into the well along with the fracking fluid proper. This process may be repeated many times at various points along a single well before the oil or gas is allowed to come to the surface. Depending on the size of the well and the composition of the rock, a single frac job can require up to five million gallons of fracking fluid, containing over a million pounds of proppants (usually a mixture of sand and chemicals).iv A proportion of this mixture is returned to the surface in the form of flowback, sometimes referred to as “produced water,” which consists of the original fracking fluid and proppant mixture as well as high concentrations of dissolved solids from inside the well. Depending on the site and methods used, flowback may account for anywhere between 10 to 90 percent of the fluid injected into the well.v While the hydraulic fracturing process has been used to increase the production from oil and gas wells since the late 1940s, the process was not used to access natural gas in shale rock formations until the early 1990s, when the development of new fracking fluid mixtures allowed for the economical extraction of gas from the Barnett shale play in Texas.vi,1 Shale gas remained a marginal player in the energy sector until 2003, when the
The term “play” is used within the industry to refer to different shale formations containing a significant amount of natural gas
technique of horizontal drilling was first applied on a large scale to 55 frac jobs in the Barnett shale play.vii Horizontal drilling is similar to conventional drilling except that, once in the shale rock, the drilling proceeds horizontally, near-parallel to the surface (see figure 1). This technique allows a greater area of shale to be fracked from a single wellhead, greatly decreasing both the cost to yield ratio as well as the surface footprint of the wellpads, leading to a 2.5 to 7-fold increase in the rate of production compared to traditional gas wells.viii The result of these developments has been a 14-fold increase in domestic shale gas production from 2000 to 2010, which as of 2009 provided 14 percent of all natural gas consumed in the U.S., with natural gas making up 25 percent of total U.S. energy consumption, or 21.0 trillion cubic feet (tcf).ix
Figure 1: Natural gas production with horizontal drilling from the Marcellus Shale formation.
The distribution of shale gas plays determines where fracking can take place (see figure 2). The Barnett shale formation in Texas is the longest-running and most productive of shale gas plays, producing 1.9 tcf of natural gas in 2010 – roughly 6% of total U.S. production – from some 15,400 wells.xi Developments in the Marcellus shale, principally in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, produced an additional 180 billion cubic feet (bcf) of natural gas from July, 2009 to July, 2010. The Marcellus shale formation is
estimated to contain anywhere between 168 and 516 tcf of technically recoverable gas, much of it underneath NYS (see figure 3).xii Current plans to develop fracking in NYS are focused on the Marcellus shale, but it should be noted that the Utica shale, which lies underneath the Marcellus formation, also contains a large quantity of natural gas, although much of it is not economically recoverable using current methods.xiii As of 2011, the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimates there are 827 tcf of technically recoverable natural gas in shale formations throughout the U.S., although the proportion of this that is economically recoverable relies on too many shifting factors (e.g. technology, energy prices, investment interest) to be accurately estimated.xiv
Figure 2: Major shale gas plays in the U.S.
Figure 3: Map of the Marcellus shale formation within New York State
Human Health Concerns
The explosive growth of shale gas developments over the past decade has also greatly increased the impact of fracking on communities and natural ecosystems. Although there are many areas of crossover, the health concerns that have arisen can be broadly categorized as air or water based, or else related to secondary effects of development (e.g. noise, traffic congestion, stresses on local infrastructure). In this section each will be reviewed in turn. Water Contamination By far, the greatest single health concern raised by fracking arises from the potential for water contamination, principally from fracking fluid. Although the vast majority (some 99%) of fracking fluid is composed of water and sand, the amount of water needed (up to five million gallons per frac job per well) necessitates the use of tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals for each frac job.xvii Composition of fracking fluid varies and is often in part of whole undisclosed to the public due to a lack of disclosure requirements and the proprietary nature of each company’s particular formulation. However, fracking fluid (in disclosed cases) is known to often contain a number of harmful chemicals. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP)
recently released a list of chemicals used in fracking fluids (although amounts and formulations were not disclosed), and found that several dozen of the 54 chemicals used are known to cause adverse health effects from skin irritation to cancer and nervous system damage.xviii While the health effects of many of the individual chemicals used in fracking are well-established, the link between fracking activity and human health remain opaque. There is substantial antidotal evidence that those living near fracking sites suffer from health conditions strongly associated with toxic chemical exposure, however there have been few substantive studies demonstrating causality, in no small part because the short time in which substantial fracking developments have existed limits the longitudinal data normally needed to establish excess disease incidence and mortality. To understand potential areas of concern, this section will focus on areas where fracking is most commonly alleged to have impacted health or environmental quality. Whether or not a given health claim has a scientific basis, it is important to know what effects should be monitored for in order to both establish safe fracking practices in NYS as well as address citizen concerns as they arise. We will begin with an overview of routes by which contaminated water may enter the environment. Surface Water Spillage and Treatment As noted above, anywhere between 10 to 90 percent of fluid injected into fracked wells comes back to the surface in the form of flowback. This flowback contains the original fracking fluid as well as dissolved salts and radioisotopes from underground.xix The laws governing flowback treatment and disposal vary widely from state to state. The most lenient, such as Ohio, allow fracking fluid to be treated in municipal waste facilities before being dumped into waterways.xx Until very recently this practice was common in Pennsylvania, however, a number of factors including ongoing public opposition, evidence that municipal treatment could not remove some wastes, and the refusal of some waste sites to accept flowback led to an agreement between the gas industry and the PADEP to use other disposal methods.xxi Almost simultaneously, a similar agreement was reached in Texas.xxii Apart from municipal waste treatment, the most common methods of treating and disposing of flowback include evaporation in open air pits followed by solid waste disposal or re-purposing, treatment at specialized processing plants, and underground injection into geological formations. Pennsylvania has recently begun shipping flowback water for disposal in Ohio, which has a much larger number of viable disposal wells.xxiii There has also recently been increased interest in the re-use of fracking fluid, however the economic viability of this practice, as well as the amount of fluid and chemicals that can be re-used, is not known.xxiv It is standard industry practice in most states to initially store flowback in open air
or covered, lined pits near the fracking site for transport to permanent storage, or sometimes evaporation and later separate disposal of solid waste.xxv Contamination of the surrounding environment can take place from this point in a number of ways, including seepage through improperly lined pits, overflow due to rain, breakage of the pit lining or support, and human error. While individual spillage events are usually not immediately harmful to a large area, they can be frequent. Colorado, for example, experienced over one thousand reported spills between January, 2008 and June, 2010, totaling more than 5.2 million gallons of fracking fluid, flowback water, and oil, much of it reaching ground or surface water.xxvi One of the major concerns expressed over fracking is the potential cumulative effect of spills and improperly-treated fluid on the ecosystem, which has not been the subject of any extensive environmental or health study.xxvii The effect on individual communities is presented in the case studies below. Underground Contamination Because fracking in the Marcellus shale takes place between 4,000 to 8,500 feet underground,xxviii each well requires extensive casing to prevent communication between the ground and the fracking fluid and methane flowing through the well. Absent, faulty, and corroded well casings have caused a number of documented leaks, which can migrate upwards into the aquifers as well as the surface.xxix In Pennsylvania, for example, a 2007 study of the water quality at 200 private wells found that 3% exceeded drinking water standards for total dissolved solids, barium, or chloride, with another 5% showing elevated levels, none of which was observed in a similar study undertaken just before gas development began.xxx Both methane and a number of known carcinogens have likewise been found in water wells near fracking developments, often in significant excess of drinking water standards.xxxi While the extent of such contamination is not known due to disparate reporting standards and a lack of monitoring programs, the number of complaints emerging from local citizens suggests that many leaks go undetected and unreported.xxxii Furthermore, in many cases non-disclosure agreements between landowners and industry prevent the collection of detailed data on health and environmental effects.xxxiii Air Contamination Air contamination from fracking can come from many points along the production process (see figure 4). A single rig carries a large amount of equipment, requiring a large number of diesel and/or gas generators, while roughly one thousand tanker trucks are needed to haul the fracking fluid to and from a single frac job, with another thousand trucks needed to haul equipment.xxxiv The industrial activity on the well pad is a source of CO2, nitrogen oxides (NOx), ozone, and volatile organic compounds
(VOCs), while the well itself can release methane into both the air and water.xxxv Areas with a large number of wells have observed increased rates of asthma, COPD, and various types of cancer (although the relative contribution of air and water exposure to increased concentrations of VOCs and other carcinogens is unknown).xxxvi
Figure 4: Estimated total emissions of ozone, NOx, and VOCs from the Barnett shale by source for the xxxvii summer of 2009, in tons per day (tpd)
Community Impact and Ancillary Effects As with the introduction of any heavy industry, fracking often has a substantial impact on communities. Many communities where fracking takes place are small, and have little experience with the scale of operations that fracking entails. A single frac job requires approximately 2,000 truck trips to and from the site to deliver equipment and fracking fluid and dispose of waste (recall that a single well is fracked many times, and an active field may contain thousands of producing wells at once).xxxviii Apart from the emissions, these vehicles generate a large amount of noise and a sharp increases in traffic, substantially changing the ambience of many small towns, and in many cases lowering property values.xxxix The introduction and expansion of support industries (e.g. gas stations, restaurants, hotels) can likewise drastically alter the build environment.xl The impact of non-local workers on community resources such as health care and education also affects the culture and infrastructure of the host community.xli Attending these changes are some economic benefits via job creation and an overall rise in economic output. One study by energy economists from the University of Wyoming and Pennsylvania State University project that drilling in New York could create up to 100,000 jobs in the state, in addition to $1.4 billion in new tax revenues and $11.4 billion in total economic output from 2011-2020.xlii For state as well as local planners, these
benefits are of great interest in light of the economic downturn and ongoing state budget crises.xliii However, as discussed below, these projected economic benefits must be viewed alongside the negative economic effects of fracking, which arise from such secondary effects as damage to health and the environment, increased strain on local utilities and safety net providers, and the opportunity cost of transforming local economies to accommodate the needs of the energy industry. All effects of fracking, both positive and negative, tend to have a transformative effect on the communities they enter, as energy development often does.xliv These include the effects described above, as well as more subjective effects on local culture. Some in the community, particularly those who lease their land to developers, receive a larger portion of the economic gain from fracking, and the resulting wealth disparities and other changes in the social and cultural landscape can be a source of friction in some communities where a portion of the population is opposed to fracking.xlv This is noteworthy in particular due to the strong opposition to fracking in NYS, discussed below. The potential for fracking to lead to such conflicts in communities is an important factor in developing policy options for addressing health concerns, as any successful policy will have to be acceptable to a large portion of the community in order to be effective.
The regulation of fracking has been the source of heated debate since the early 2000s. Although the type of fracking discussed here (including both hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in shale rock) is a relatively new industry, many of the state and federal regulations governing where fracking can take place and how to dispose of waste products fall under existing regulations governing underground resources and traditional gas drilling. This section will provide a brief overview of the current regulations at both the federal and state level, with a focus on recent developments in NYS. Federal Regulation of Fracking The EPA is the primary organization within the federal government with regulatory responsibility over fracking. However, until recently there has been little in the way of federal action to study or regulate the fracking process or byproducts. The first major federal study of fracking, completed in 2004, focused on water contamination. The study concluded that fracking posed “little or no risk” to water resources.xlvi This study was used as the basis for language in the 2005 Energy Policy Act that largely exempted fracking from regulation under the Clean Water Act and from certain provisions of the Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability
Act (a.k.a. the Superfund Act), and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act.xlvii These exemptions have meant that almost all regulation of fracking is done on the state level, leading to disparate standards from one state to the next. While the EPA does not currently regulate fracking, there has been a recent push by individuals, advocacy groups, and some legislators to bring the industry under greater federal control. In addition to new evidence that has emerged on the dangers of fracking, both former EPA officials and environmental and health advocates have noted that the 2004 EPA study suffered from methodological shortcomings, and that the energy industry has overstated the extent to which fracking is known to be safe based on this study.xlviii In June, 2009, matching bills were introduced in the U.S. House and Senate – the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act – which would remove the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption and require companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking fluid; however the bill has not yet left committee and is not expected to be brought to a vote in the near future.xlix Acting within its current jurisdiction, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has announced work on new clean air regulations for fracking developments.l These regulations are not expected to be released until 2012, however, when the initial results of a second, two-year EPA study on the effects of fracking on water resources is released.li Notably, NYS Attorney General Eric Scheiderman has recently sued the EPA (among other federal entities) under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to require it to undertake an environmental impact statement (EIS) to determine the potential damage that fracking development could cause to the Delaware River Basin before development is allowed to take place nearby.lii The Delaware River Basin provides water to a total of 15 million people and covers 58 percent of the New York City watershed. The suit alleges that fracking would necessitate additional sewage filtration capacity for New York City at a cost $10 billion initially, with $100 million in annual maintenance.liii The Delaware River Basin Commission is an interstate compact between New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, and the proposed development along the Delaware river permitted by new Basin Commission regulations would allow 15,000 to 18,000 new wells to be drilled nearby.liv This case is relevant to the future of water and resource issues throughout the Northeast, and illustrative of the complexities of federal and state regulation and responsibility surrounding fracking near water resources. State Regulation of Fracking Because of the lack of significant federal involvement to date, and that because gas-containing geological formations are so varied in depth and difficulty of extraction, individual state approaches to fracking regulation are highly varied. This section will
review the regulations, in place and proposed, that would govern elements of fracking that could potentially affect human health in NYS. While no fracking has taken place in the New York Marcellus shale as yet, regulations are in place pertaining both to gas drilling activities generally and fracking in particular, and continue to be updated. Under current NYS regulations, an operator who wishes to drill and frac a well must submit a permit application that includes a description of the drilling program, maps of the drilling area, an Environmental Assessment (EA) form, and an application fee.lv The EA must provide a description of how flowback will be contained and disposed of.lvi The applicant must also indicate any environmental resources on or near the proposed site such as major aquifers and bodies of water that serve agricultural land and areas containing endangered species.lvii Finally, the applicant must address whether topsoil will be disrupted by activities and indicate any erosion control measures that will be undertaken.lviii The NYSDEC, as the lead agency in developing fracking regulation, is responsible for reviewing and approving these proposals, and requires applicants to both disclose the chemicals used in the fracking fluid as well as provide a “cradle to grave” description of the water that will be used.lix While the above regulations still apply to all proposed fracking developments, NYSDEC very recently released new draft regulations for public comment as part of the Preliminary Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS), in anticipation of the end of the ban on fracking, which expired at the beginning of July.lx These rules are required by the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), which calls for the state to perform an EIA before permits for fracking (or any activity with potentially negative environmental effects) can be issued in NYS, which must include recommendations for mitigating harmful environmental effects.lxi These regulations center mainly on protecting water resources, and put more restrictions on the permitted location of wells than most states.lxii The proposed regulations would ban drilling within 500 feet of any private water well, 2,000 feet of a public drinking water supply, or near the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, as well as on flood plains, in state parks, forest areas, and areas containing endangered species.lxiii The regulations also require that companies disclose the chemicals used in fracking fluid to the NYDEC, although they can request that chemicals constituting “trade secrets” can remain confidential from the public.lxiv In total, these regulations would permit drilling on approximately 85 percent of the Marcellus shale within NYS.lxv While the SGEIS goes beyond many other states in restrictions on drilling near water resources, it is also noteworthy for the issues it does not address. In the thousand page document there is no chapter on human health, no provisions for tracking human health impacts, no mention of effects on vulnerable populations, and no plans to perform an HIA.lxvi While SEQRA is primarily geared towards preventing and mitigating
environmental damage, the Act does empower the NYSDEC to consider public health impacts to whatever extent it deems necessary. As these were not included in the SGEIS, currently proposed regulations cannot be said to be comprehensive with respect to health impacts, and thus do not address the most pressing concerns of many NYS residents. To show the cumulative effects of fracking on communities and inform the policy recommendation below, the following case studies will look at how the factors discussed in this section have impacted two communities where fracking has been active for several years.
Case Study #1: Dimock, PA
Dimock, PA is a small town with a population of 1,400, located north of Scranton, near the southern border of NYS. Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation began leasing land in the Dimock area in 2005. Residents were offered both royalties and one-time payments of anywhere between $250 to $2,500 an acre to allow drilling on their land.lxvii Residents were often told that there was no risk of damage to their property and water. Where a number of neighbors had leased adjoining land, residents were also told that gas would be extracted from their land regardless of whether they sign the lease by a process known as “forced pooling.”lxviii The impact of more than 60 fracked wells on the small town of Dimock was substantial, and has garnered national attention at several points over the past few years, including serving as one of the primary locations featured in the 2010 documentary Gasland. The story of Dimock is like that of many other small towns affected by gas drilling. By 2008, many Dimock citizens had complained that a number of environmental and health issues had emerged shortly after drilling began. These included dizziness, headaches, sores, sick and dying livestock, and brown and sometimes flammable water.lxix Analysis by the PADEP and others of several water wells found high levels of methane, toxic metals, and a number of carcinogens.lxx Following the death of many of his livestock, one resident’s well was found to contain 6,430 times the safe level of arsenic, 1,417 times the safe level of tetrachoroethene (a carcinogen and central nervous system suppressant), 44 times the safe level of benzene, five times the safe level of naphthalene, and high levels of mercury and selenium.lxxi In April, 2009, a truck carrying 800 gallons of diesel fuel turned over, spilling its contents on the land and killing much of the vegetation. In September of that year, up to 8,000 gallons of undiluted fracking fluid leaked from a pipeline into streams and waterways, killing much of the fish and turning the water a dark brown color. Cabot was fined $360,000 by the PADEP for the spill and failure to fix the leak, although no major cleanup was attempted or required.lxxii
In response to citizen complaints, Cabot installed water filtration systems for some individual families and, if complaints continued, delivered fresh water in large tanks.lxxiii However, drilling has had a multitude of impacts that go beyond drinking water, such as lower property values and air quality, and the overall environment created by large-scale industrial operations.lxxiv In November, 2009, 15 families sued Cabot for negligence, breach of contract, and fraudulent misrepresentation, among other charges.lxxv The lawsuit was settled by Cabot in December, 2010. The $4.1 million settlement specified ameliorative measures, including new water systems for affected families, that Cabot was to pay for.lxxvi The settlement replaces an earlier enforcement order by the PA DEP, which would have required Cabot to pay $11.8 million to run a new municipal water line to Dimock.lxxvii Legal battles are ongoing, and many residents with environmental and health complaints have yet to receive any form of compensation. One of the features of the Dimock story that is common among rural fracking locations is the impact on community cohesion. While the amount paid varies widely, some landowners have seen enormous financial benefits from their leases, and will continue to so long as gas is produced and royalties paid.lxxviii Local businesses have also profited from some aspects of the gas boom in Dimock, and have opposed any efforts that might slow development.lxxix In short, the economic impact of fracking, both good and bad, have led to an uneven distribution of risks, rewards, and damages within the community. There is no consensus on the extent of the damage that fracking has caused, and little legal precedent for adjudicating complaints.lxxx For a small town such as Dimock, the scale and speed of development can rapidly change longstanding community dynamics. These impacts will prove important for the forthcoming policy analysis.
Case Study #2: Garfield County, Colorado
Garfield County is located in the northwest portion of Colorado. It is primarily a rural county, with a population of 56,389 spread out over 2,958 square miles.lxxxi In 2000, Garfield county had 200 gas-producing wells,lxxxii which has increased to 8,736 as of July, 2011, making Garfield one of the most drilled counties in the country.lxxxiii Opposition to fracking development in Garfield county has led to a number of studies and serves to further illustrate the real and perceived social impact of the introduction of fracking on small communities. The first serious opposition to fracking in Garfield County began in 2004, when residents began to complain that they were getting sick as a result of drilling activities, primarily conducted by the Antero Resources Corporation.lxxxiv As in Dimock, refsidents near gas developments alleged that shortly after drilling began numerous air and water quality issues arose, including strange odors, discoloration of well water, and, in some
cases, flammable tap water.lxxxv Along with these were numerous health complaints, including skin rashes, bloody noses, headaches, joint pain, worsened asthma, respiratory problems, and sometimes rare forms of cancer (in particular adrenal and pituitary cancer).lxxxvi Unlike most other fracking sites around the country, Garfield County has been the subject of a major study on the human health effects of fracking development (in contrast to those studies that look mainly at environmental effects). While data on conditions before drilling began is sparse, the study provides an evidentiary outline of the various ways in which fracking can impact human health, directly and indirectly, and will inform our policy options below. Researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health performed an HIA at the request of the Garfield County Board of County Commissioners to investigate the potential health impacts of a proposed development in the town of Battlement Mesa based on the observed impacts of fracking on Garfield County as a whole.lxxxvii In consultation with community members, eight areas of concern were identified and studied: air pollution, water and soil contamination, traffic from industry, noise and light pollution, community wellness, economic impacts, impacts on the healthcare system, and accidents and malfunctions. These are briefly reviewed in turn below. On air pollution, the researchers identified a number of potentially harmful compounds released as a result of well operations and increased traffic, including ozone, carbon monoxide, benzene, methane, and a number of known carcinogens; however, the researchers were not able to estimate the extent of exposure or resulting health impacts due to the complexity of modeling pollutant distribution and a lack of monitoring infrastructure.lxxxviii On water and soil contamination, the researchers similarly noted that releases of hazardous chemicals result from fracking operations, but could not be accurately modeled, in large part due to the lack of baseline rates with which to compare water and soil quality readings taken after fracking began.lxxxix On traffic, the researchers concluded that the increased traffic along many previously low-traffic roads would pose a relatively high level of hazard for as much as five years (the expected lifespan of most wellpads), although, again, the risk could not be quantified as the number of vehicles on the road at any given time could not be predicted.xc On noise and light pollution, the researchers observed that many existing wells produced noise on the order of 65 to 85 decibales, high enough to increase risk of several health conditions, including insomnia, hearing loss, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and assorted psychological symptoms (e.g. irritation and loss of concentration).xci The elderly were identified as at particular risk due to a higher rate of underlying cardiovascular disease.xcii Light was also identified as a potential health hazard due to its potential to cause sleep disturbance and irritation, although the risk was too subjective to quantify.xciii On community wellness, the
researchers observed increased levels of crime, drug use, and sexually transmitted infections following the influx of workers and their families, and based on a literature review express concern that there would be additional impacts on rates of suicide and mental health disorders, as well as more subjective measures such as community cohesion.xciv At the same time, some positive effects of gas development were expected, including increased business for support industries (e.g. restaurants and hotels), as well as an increase in taxable income.xcv This was somewhat offset, however, by the resulting need for additional services (e.g. police and schoolteachers). On economic impacts in general, the researchers project that the majority of economic benefits would go to those directly employed in well operations.xcvi This is due in part to the observation that local “boom” economies often have the effect of inflating local prices, both through increased demand and the introduction of “big box stores.”xcvii Similarly, property values, although buoyed in some areas by the influx of workers, are usually lowered overall due to the environmental and community effects of fracking.xcviii In sum, on community effects the researchers project both benefits from increased employment (e.g. lower anxiety due to job security and better care due to increased rates of health coverage) as well as negative effects resulting from increased stress caused by lower property values and higher prices for goods.xcix On impacts to the healthcare system, the researchers projected both positive effects from the increase in health care dollars from employees (many of them with insurance coverage), as well as negative effects from the immediate strain these workers and their families would place on the (relatively limited) county health infrastructure.c Both the positive and negative impacts on the healthcare system were expected to be of a low magnitude relative to other impacts. Finally, on accidents and malfunctions, the researchers found that over a two-year period (2008-2010), county-wide there had been 236 reported spills (reporting is required for spills of greater than five barrels) involving 66,386 gallons of fluid (primarily fracking fluid and flowback), and estimate that any given well could be expected to experience approximately 12 spills of 5 barrels or more over its lifespan.ci The magnitude of the health impact of spills depends largely on content and location, but the potential for widespread damage in the event of a large spill or cumulative damage from many smaller spills led the researchers to classify the potential health impact as high, relative to other effects.cii The Garfield County HIA researchers made 70 specific recommendations to address the health risks identified. Some address general concerns faced at fracking sites nationwide, such as containment of flowback and monitoring of air and water pollutants, while some are tailored to local conditions, such as noise and traffic mitigation on specific roads.ciii While the HIA was limited in the extent to which it could quantify specific health risks due to a lack of longitudinal data and the sheer complexity of the various health determinants under study, it provides a blueprint for understanding these
multi-faceted impacts, and through the data collection and revision process provided a forum for stakeholders from the community to express their concerns.civ The extent to which the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (the primary body in Colorado responsible for fracking regulation and study) will incorporate these recommendations into existing regulations and permit-granting practices is unknown at this time.
Stakeholder and Economic Analysis
The issue of fracking has attracted the interest of a wide range of stakeholders. Those with the greatest influence over the process include Governor Cuomo, the state legislature, the oil and gas industry, NYS businesses, landowners who lease to gas developers, environmental and health advocacy groups, and NYS residents (as individuals and members of advocacy groups). In this section we will look at the positions of these stakeholders, their overall goals, and strategies for mobilizing support for ensuring that regulation of fracking addresses all relevant health and environmental concerns. To begin, it is important to understand the economic nature of fracking and the energy industry in general. While it has been known that large amounts of natural gas exist in various U.S. shale formations for decades, only recently has there been an economic incentive to develop these resources. As mentioned above, the development of horizontal drilling in the 1990s decreased the cost per unit of gas produced, and permitted drilling platforms to be more sparsely distributed over a given area. The market price of natural gas at which fracking is profitable varies greatly from one area to another, but averages between $4 to $7 per thousand cubic feet (mcf).cv Currently, the price of gas domestically is fluctuating around $4.50 per mcf.cvi These price lows are thought to partially be the result of the 2008 recession, as well as speculation in energy markets; in general, the decline of gas yields from conventional wells is expected to drive up gas prices in the future.cvii It is expected by gas developers and some analysts that as the price of oil climbs, there will be a shift to natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that will help to transition the U.S. away from the use of coal for electricity generation and oil for transportation (although it should be noted that gas prices also impact the cost of fracking itself due to the large volume of truck and car traffic required, and other energy requirements).cviii Predictions aside, it is estimated that some 40 percent of US natural gas produced in 2010 did not reach the break-even point for producers.cix Because the margin for gas production through fracking is often very low, there is strong incentive for
industry to resist any new regulation, especially if they require additional expenditures for each well. To give a sense of the impact of regulation, the cost per well currently ranges between $2.5 to $10 million.cx The cost of improved well design, including such additions as improved well casing, is estimated to be $285 thousand per well; surface disturbance mitigation, such as road repair and sound barriers, is estimated to cost $85 thousand per well; finally, additional treatment of flowback water is estimated to cost $350 thousand per well.cxi Because regulation can potentially make the difference between a profitable and unprofitable well, companies involved in fracking have launched a large scale PR effort at the federal and state level to depict any additional regulation of fracking as destructive to jobs and the economy in general, stating that any proposal to introduce new federal regulation would cost the treasury $4 billion in lost royalties, taxes, and other payments, as well as tens of thousands of jobs (although these numbers are not linked to any specific regulatory proposal or economic analysis).cxii In NYS alone, the natural gas industry has spent an estimated $2 million on lobbying from 2005 through the first half of 2010.cxiii One study that is often cited by industry advocates states that additional delay in fracking development in NYS could cost $11.4 billion in lost economic output, $1.4 billion in tax revenues, and 15,000 to 18,000 jobs from 2011-2020.cxiv However, as discussed below, these projections do not incorporate any analysis of the negative economic and social effects of fracking, and thus should not be viewed in isolation. While it is impossible to know what the impact of the pro-fracking campaign has been, the lack of major political opposition from leaders of either party is a sign that political opposition is low. President Obama has supported increased natural gas development from fracking,cxv and as mentioned above there is presently little Congressional support for new federal regulations. Governor Cuomo has likewise been generally supportive of fracking, (although cautious of potential environmental effects), and has not moved to extend the ban on development, which expired at the beginning of July.cxvi NYDEC Commissioner Joseph Martens has also stated that he believes development can now move forward under the recently proposed regulations, although they will have to be revisited after public comment and codified into law – likely by next year – before development can proceed.cxvii Many NYS businesses stand to gain from fracking development. While the overall economic effect of fracking on communities varies, the influx of personnel and industry to an area can be a great benefit to some local industries, such as hospitality and construction, and produces jobs working at wells and in support capacities.cxviii Furthermore, residents who lease their land, depending on a number of factors, stand to gain substantially from both up front leasing costs and royalties. In the general population, there are a sizable number of citizen stakeholders who support fracking
development; in a recent poll, 45 percent of NYS residents favored fracking development, 43 percent opposed fracking, and 13 percent were unsure.cxix While some industries and individuals stand to gain from fracking, it is necessary to look at the broader economic impact of fracking on communities. Energy developers often promise substantial economic benefits from the introduction of fracking, however, several studies show that many of these benefits are short-lived and concentrated in a few sectors. A 2008 report from Headwaters Economics found that, from 1995 to 2005, the average rate of growth in personal incomes in energy-focusing (EF) counties was 2.3 percent, compared to 2.9 percent in peer counties.cxx EF counties were also found to be less economically diverse and to have greater wealth inequality than their non-EF peers.cxxi Another popular selling-point of gas developers – that development will lead to local job-creation – is also often overstated. While the introduction of gas drilling does lead to greater activity in some local sectors, such as hospitality, many of the jobs related to gas drilling itself go to out of state workers – in Pennsylvania as much as 70 percent of gas-rig jobs.cxxii Finally, the economic benefits versus costs of fracking in New York State have not been subject to any rigorous analysis.cxxiii It is possible that the net economic benefit of fracking is entirely offset by other factors such as damage to local waterways, declining property value (as seen in our case studies), damage to roads, higher utility and social service utilization, higher health care costs, and reduced economic robustness. Without a full analysis of all effects from fracking, the economic benefits advertised by developers tell only one side of the story, and should not be used as the sole basis for major policy decisions. A number of citizen-based advocacy groups have formed around the issue of fracking. In NYS these include Residents Opposed to Unsafe Shale-gas Extraction, the Coalition to Protect New York, and No Fracking Way. These groups are supported by various state and national advocacy groups, such as Citizens Campaign for the Environment and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Recently, a group of 47 groups petitioned Govorner Cuomo to renew the NYS ban.cxxiv While it is difficult to quantify their impact on policy, public opposition to fracking very likely was a motivating force in the original ban, which had also faced strong opposition in the state Assembly and Senate.cxxv The debate over fracking is notably polarized. In general, proponents claim that fracking is a safe, proven technology that can be deployed without damage to the environment or hazard to humans by following existing state regulations.cxxvi Opponents claim that fracking is an inherently dangerous industrial activity that has and will continue to cause an unknowable amount of damage to the environment with correspondingly harmful human health impacts unless heavily regulated or banned entirely.cxxvii Governor Cuomo has apparently sought a more moderate position, and in
this vein the following policy analysis and recommendation will attempt to strike a balance between these extremes. As this overview has shown, there is a sizable gap in scientific knowledge demonstrating either the dangers or the safety of fracking. However, it should be emphasized that the lack of knowledge in this area cannot be reasonably interpreted as indicating, as industry advocates often claim, that fracking is without risks, or that any risks that exist are not different from those inherent to the rest of the energy industry. There is clearly a quantitative, if not qualitative, difference between fracking and traditional oil and gas extraction methods due to the sheer number of wells that must be built and the amount of fresh water and chemical additives needed for each frac job. As many studies on the matter have concluded, much more research is needed before any judgment can be made on all the potential health effects of fracking. Given this, the analysis below will seek to find a middle ground that respects both the potential dangers of fracking as well as the potential economic benefits, as both have evidence to support their view and both are represented by powerful economic, social, and political stakeholder interests.
Conclusion and Policy Recommendation
The Senator’s proposal to legislate greater regulation of fracking is an important step towards ensuring that human health and the natural environment do not suffer as a result of natural gas development in NYS. Based on this overview, it is recommended that the Senator include in his proposal a directive for the NYSDOH to perform a comprehensive health impact assessment (HIA) like that performed in Garfield County. This document should provide a thorough overview of the various routes by which health may be impacted by fracking development, and provide recommendations to minimize and/or mitigate negative health impacts if they occur. HIAs are an increasingly popular tool in public health that have been widely utilized by Departments of Health and other organizations worldwide.cxxviii The cost of an HIA averages from $10,000 to $150,000 and above, depending on the length and breadth of the investigation,cxxix and can take up to six months per iteration.cxxx The HIA conducted in Garfield County took just under two years to produce its second draft.cxxxi While an HIA for NYS could be expected to be more involved than that for only one county, in principle many of the overarching issues related to fracking (e.g. aquafir contamination and air emissions) could be addressed on a broader basis. This option goes further to address the lack of standardized information on fracking and directly addresses the issues we can expect to emerge as fracking moves forward in NYS. While an HIA can be a complex and costly undertaking, there are many advantages to this option, especially at this point in time. Most importantly, an HIA like that conducted in Garfield County would help greatly to disentangle and illuminate the
many potential impacts of fracking. Oftentimes, both those for and against fracking limit their focus to a subset of issues, such as water or air quality, to the exclusion of other effects, and this can be seen in the range and scope of studies that have been undertaken to date. The 2004 EPA study on fracking, for example, looked only at the risk to water resources, and did not include any analysis of human health risks. Nevertheless, this study has been presented by many in favor of fracking as evidence that there are no significant risks to health from the practice. Likewise, the recent SGEIS, although said to be comprehensive with respect to potential issues arising from fracking, makes little mention of health impacts specifically, and proposes no regulations designed to protect or monitor human health. Omissions such as these in major, policy-making studies, make accurate risk assessments all but impossible, and very likely lead to further polarization between those for and opposed to fracking. One of the major benefits of an HIA, beyond the scientific data it would provide, is its potential to bring together stakeholders. At the beginning of the HIA process and before each revision, stakeholders from both sides can be given the opportunity to review and publically comment on the data analysis and research focus. This process was used to both provide a forum for stakeholder participation and gauge stakeholder positions during the HIA in Garfield County.cxxxii By initiating this process, the DOH would help to mitigate the ongoing impression by many residents that their concerns with respect to the health effects of fracking are not being addressed, and to avoid more cases like Dimock, PA, where lack of community involvement has contributed to litigation and community protest. At the same time, it would provide an evidentiary basis for any future regulation that might be needed, or an existing rule that should be rescinded. If initiated soon, the preliminary results could be available before the first wells are expected to be drilled in NYS, which will likely not be until next year at the earliest.cxxxiii The document could help to meet the demands of environmental and health groups opposed to fracking and allow gas developers to move forward on schedule. This option strikes a balance that will not interfere with the activities of the NYSDEC, and will help Governor Cuomo to meet calls to protect air and water resources. The actual HIA can be conducted by the NYSDOH or contracted to a third party. Some of the foremost experts on environmental health work at state universities and for private firms in NYS, and a request for proposal (RFP) could be issued to allow researchers to compete for the project, either as a wholly independent contractor or in partnership with the DOH. The RFP can be made to specify that the study look at multiple dimensions of health impacts, as in Garfield County.cxxxiv The cost of this policy option will vary depending on the length and comprehensiveness of the HIA, but some estimates can be made. The Garfield county HIA has had a reported cost of approximately $400,000 over roughly two years.cxxxv Using this as a baseline, and
recognizing the added complexity of performing an HIA on a state rather than a county level, we estimate the cost of an HIA of comparable detail to the Garfield County HIA to be between $500,000 and $700,000. For this policy option, a study period of no less than two years is called for in order to allow for adequate data collection and public comment, although a draft may be produced in as little as six months from the beginning of the study period. If areas of particular concern arise during the study period, this project can be extended indefinitely as needed, or else the data used to inform more focused studies on the health effects of fracking by the NYSDOH or other research bodies. Although HIAs are, in principle, neutral scientific undertakings, there is a risk of political blowback resulting from this policy option, mostly from the natural gas industry itself. This was the case in Garfield County, where the largest portion of comments received was from Antero Resources, which were overwhelmingly negative with respect to the report’s recommendations, citing the lack of extensive quantitative data.cxxxvi Pressure from industry may have played a role in the decision by the Garfield County Board of Commissioners not to extend the HIA contract past the second draft (and thus the document was never finalized).cxxxvii Given that industry support may be crucial to ensure the long-term viability of the project, the initial stages of the project should be designed to ensure that all stakeholders have the opportunity to comment and make recommendations as to the course and extent of the research to be conducted. Even with active stakeholder involvement, however, based on the experience of other jurisdictions it is a near certainty that a HIA will be criticized as unnecessary by industry advocates. At the same time, we can expect any hint of new regulations resulting from this study to attract additional criticism on the basis that they frustrate cost projections and pose additional barriers that will reduce the profitability of fracking, along with the economic benefit to the state. These criticisms are to be expected as part of any undertaking that has the potential to set back natural gas development. However, both the political and social atmosphere of fracking in NYS, which has seen more opposition from citizens and environmental and health advocates than any other state, makes such contention unavoidable, especially in the early years of development. By addressing the issue of health impacts upfront, both the Cuomo Administration and state legislators would quite possibly avoid greater conflict later, which will certainly arise if development results in substantial health impacts, requiring investigation and possibly new regulation. In other words, while the political cost of this option is potentially high, the political cost of not addressing health impacts in the early stages of development may be greater still. Both the health of New Yorkers and the sustainability of the natural gas industry in the state depend on active and ongoing government leadership and stakeholder involvement in ensuring that regulations adequately address health concerns. This ongoing task will greatly benefit from the collection of reliable, state-level data in the form of a HIA.
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Ibid Ibid Ibid Ibid
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Bateman, supra note 38. Ibid
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Ibid, at Part 1 p. 31-36. Ibid, at Part 1 p. 43-44.
Ibid, at Part 1, p. 52. Ibid, at Part 1, p. 53-57. Ibid, at Part 1, p. 57. Ibid Ibid, at Part 1, p. 60-64. Ibid, at Part 1, p. 63. Ibid, at Part 1, p. 69. Ibid, at Part 1, p. 69. Ibid, at Part 1, p. 70 Ibid, at Part 1, p. 70-71.
Ibid, at Part 1, p. 74-75. Ibid, at Part 1, p. 77-78 Ibid, at Part 1, p. 79.
Ibid, at Part 1, p. 12-26
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Ibid, at 17-21
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Witter, supra note 86.
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Colson, supra et al 131.
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