Cornell Hydraulic Fracturing Expert Headlines First Meeting of New York Residents Against Drilling (NYRAD) in Vestal, NY

Ingraffea_Anthony Nearly one week ago, on March 31, MDN attended the kickoff meeting of New York Residents Against Drilling (NYRAD) at the Vestal Public Library in Broome County, NY. No, MDN is not anti-drilling! We attend to listen and learn. The drilling debate is increasingly political in tone. Those of us who support drilling need to listen to those in our communities who oppose it—as a courtesy, to be sure we have not missed important information that informs our own opinions, and so we understand our opponents’ arguments in this debate—to be able to intelligently respond to their (often inaccurate and overhyped) accusations.

The meeting room at the Vestal Public Library was filled to capacity for the meeting with about 120 people attending. Local news media was there, as well as cameras from (presumably) NYRAD themselves. MDN observation: As was the case when DISH, TX Mayor Calvin Tillman recently visited, there were a number of balding men with gray-haired ponytails in the audience. MDN continues to posit the theory that many 60s hippies have found a new cause célèbre that now energizes them—gas drilling.

The meeting was opened by a NYRAD official who introduced the evening’s main speaker, Professor Anthony Ingraffea. Dr. Ingraffea is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University. His Ph.D. is in rock fracturing mechanics. He has done twenty years of research on hydraulic fracturing for companies like Schlumberger, Exxon and the Gas Research Institute. If anyone knows how rock fracturing works, it is Dr. Ingraffea. I eagerly anticipated what he would say about hydraulic fracturing and whether or not the process contaminates water supplies, a commonly leveled charge by drilling opponents.

Dr. Ingraffea is an accomplished speaker. He is equal parts comedian and expert, and he knows how to “work a crowd.” I can easily imagine that he’s a favorite professor at Cornell, one whose classes fill quickly. In his opening remarks he admitted he feels passionately about the issue of drilling in New York State, and that he is opposed to it. He opened his talk with a technique often employed by those who are anti-drilling. He mentioned he loves fishing for trout in New York’s streams and he asked the audience a question: “Would you like to keep fishing in New York State?” The implication is that if drilling begins, trout fishing is finished. It’s a non sequitur—a statement that does not follow from the premise. In the course of his presentation he never once connected any dots that drilling activity would lead to poisoning of streams and the end of trout fishing. This was a tip-off that the evening might disappointingly hold more emotional statements rather than factual statements. Unfortunately, that’s exactly how it turned out.

Early in the talk Dr. Ingraffea referred to “Gilmore’s 4 Stages of Boomtown Attitudes.” The most recent studies of small communities experiencing rapid growth and change due to energy exploration was conducted in the Western United States in the 1970s and 1980s. From those studies came an academic theory which attempts to show the stages of attitudes experienced by people in regions affected by rapid change—from being in the middle of a “boomtown.” MDN was able to find a copy of Gilmore’s 4 Stages online and believes it is identical to the version shown by Dr. Ingraffea:

Gilmore’s 4 stages of Boomtown Attitudes

1. Enthusiasm
Concentration on Positive Impacts
Negative impacts are either unknown or dismissed
Lots of pro-industry spin, but little objective knowledge

2. Uncertainty
Town starts to change
Realization that negative impacts have arrived, and might grow
Begin to Research/Analyze Situation, however few resources to draw upon
Industry and State Gov. claims nothing can be done
Pro/Anti growth divisions emerge within the community

3. Near Panic
Industrial Activity and impacts develop far faster than expected
Town starts to change dramatically (what happened to my community?)
Residents become confused, angry at officials and each other
Gov. Services overloaded – officials ill-equipped, unprepared
Realization that increased revenues will not match expenditures
Any ongoing planning efforts are found to be misdirected, under-funded

4. Adaptation
Core problems are identified
Planning and mitigation strategies are developed
Residents become solidified in their beliefs
Development opponents start to accept situation
Sense of Progress develops despite overwhelming impacts

Dr. Ingraffea said that New York State is at Stage 2, and Pennsylvania, where Marcellus drilling has been going for about two and one-half years now, is at Stage 3 and is “sort of out of control” at this point. He said the single biggest point of ignorance on the part of everyone, pro and anti-drilling, is the scope and scale of what is about to happen. He believes the number of people, the amount of equipment and the number of drilling operations that will descend on New York is staggering beyond our wildest imagination.

MDN Comment: The Gilmore “Boomtown” study does appear interesting and have good lessons to learn. But Dr. Ingraffea and others are using a study that is 25-30 years old. They make no allowance that we have learned something in that period of time and instead presume we will repeat the Gilmore pattern in a Pavlovian fashion.

Dr. Ingraffea next listed his reasons to “prohibit the immediate, intense exploitation” of Marcellus shale gas in New York State. His reasons include:

  • Landowners represent about 2 percent of the general population in New York State. They should not be “greedy.” Landowners (the 2 percent) owe us (the 98 percent) the right to wait “until everyone is ready” for drilling to begin.
  • If drilling begins now, there will be “loss of life, habitat, income and infrastructure.” We will lose that “Finger Lakes quality of life.”
  • Drilling in the Marcellus will prolong the “inevitable shift to renewable energy sources.” He said that all of the gas in the Marcellus doesn’t add up to a drop in the US energy bucket anyway, so why bother?
  • Natural gas burns carbon dioxide and will further overload the atmosphere and cause global warming.
  • Finally, we should prohibit drilling in New York until the Federal government develops a national energy policy. That is, the good Doctor seems to prefer a central command and control economy where the Feds call the shots.

Next we were treated a variety of facts and figures about drilling:

  • Broome County, NY will be “ground zero” for Marcellus drilling in New York State when/if drilling begins.
  • There are several different shale layers running through the Northeast. Marcellus is one, the Utica Shale is another (much deeper). Marcellus Shale is about a mile underground and is relatively thin, about 100 feet high. The rock is packed tightly and must be fractured to allow the gas to escape.
  • Dr. Ingraffea said that fresh water must be used to frack wells, and that the wastewater from drilling cannot be reused. (MDN comment: This runs counter to published reports of drillers using sewer wastewater as one source of water. And other reports of Marcellus wastewater plants treating flowback and recycling it for drillers to use again.)
  • The average cost to drill and complete a well is $4.5 million per well.
  • The average landowner in New York State who has already signed a lease owns about 70 acres.
  • Each drilled well “drains” about 80 acres—that’s one mile long by 300 feet on either side of the mile long horizontal hole.
  • There are about 3,000 gas wells in Pennsylvania now.
  • Commenting on the estimate that there will be 2-4,000 gas wells in Broome County when/if drilling begins, Dr. Ingraffea said, and I quote: “BS.” He believes the number will be closer to 6-8,000 wells, possibly more.
  • Dr. Ingraffea believes that landowners who lease their land should put aside a portion of their lease and royalty payments in a fund “just in case” an accident happens to their neighbors’ land. (They “owe it” to their neighbors.)
  • He says the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by diesel trucks taking water and sand to drilling operations should be counted against natural gas, and if it is, natural gas is not as “clean” a fuel as advocates claim.

In his closing comments, Dr. Ingraffea finally got to his main objection to drilling in New York State—flowback. What do you do with the waste that comes from drilling? There’s a lot of “nasty stuff” that comes out of the ground from drilling, including the chemicals put into the ground during drilling. He talked about storing flowback and having it potentially leak into the environment and the ensuing catastrophe that would cause. He conveniently did not talk about an entire industry set up to deal with just this issue—taking in flowback and wastewater from drilling—treating it, and either recycling it back to drillers for reuse or disposing of it safely into the environment (after testing). It is a highly regulated and monitored business. But nothing about that from the good Doctor.

During a question and answer period after his talk, Dr. Ingraffea returned to a theme he espoused a number of times during the evening. It was a telling statement he made: “Greed is not a family value.” He was saying, implicitly, that if a landowner leases his or her land, that person is being greedy and should be ashamed. When he uttered his little one-liner, he actually got applause and people saying “that’s right!”

Here is what MDN learned that night. First and foremost, we learned that hydraulic fracturing, the very thing Dr. Ingraffea is an expert in, is safe and does not pollute water supplies. At no time during the night did he say a word about fracking being “unsafe” or a threat to water supplies. He implied it may be unsafe with his cute fishing story. But he never once said, “This is how fracking pollutes water.” Why? Because it doesn’t.

We also learned that if you teach at an Ivy League school with some letters after your name and are a good public speaker, there are plenty of sycophants who won’t bother to listen to the substance of what you say and think you’re brilliant for having said nothing.

And we learned that many (not all!) who oppose drilling despise and detest hard-working poor people. In many cases, the land belonging to those 70-acre landowners was passed down from previous generations. And the current landowners work their fingers to the bone, often getting jobs “off the land,” so they can pay taxes to keep the land! Now these hard-working people have an opportunity—something safe and legal—to leverage an asset they possess, so they can make a few bucks. And what do people like Dr. Ingraffea say about them? They’re greedy. They need to wait. They OWE everyone else.

Bottom line: MDN was not impressed with Dr. Ingraffea’s heavy-on-showmanship presentation. Spare us the sweeping “end of the planet” hyperbole and instead support your dire predictions with facts.