Audience Q&A About Marcellus Shale Drilling at Recent Landowner Meeting in Binghamton, NY

At the conclusion of the meeting titled “Marcellus Shale in Our Community: What’s in it for All of Us” held on Friday evening March 4th at the West Middle School auditorium in Binghamton, NY, the audience of about 200 people was encouraged to ask questions of the panel. Below is a list of the questions asked, and the answers received. The answer to the last question of the evening was an eye-opener for MDN, and should be for any landowner in New York.

Q: A couple of articles recently published in The New York Times talk about the dangers of radioactivity in drilling wastewater (fracking fluid). Is that a concern? And how would New York address it?

A: One of the panelists, Richard Nyahay, a geologist and manager of geology for New York State with energy company Gastem, said there are elevated levels of radioactivity in fracking fluid from naturally occurring substances in the ground, but that the levels measured in fracking fluids are not hazardous to health or the environment. Bob Williams, a panelist and one of the leaders of the Windsor-Colesville Landowner Coalition, said that he had asked this question of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The DEC said that wastewater disposal, including standards and testing for radioactivity, is covered in the new proposed regulations that will govern drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

Q: What about sediments and run-off from drilling sites where land is cleared and drill pads installed? There is a concern about plugging up drainage ditches and run-off into area waterways which ultimately could raise sediment levels in the Susquehanna River Basin.

The panelists said that all drill pads, under proposed New York regulations, would be required to have a sediment control plan to prevent erosion into ditches and streams.

Q: Returning to the issue of wastewater disposal, how will that work in New York?

A: In New York, drillers have to use qualified and certified wastewater treatment plants for fracking fluid.

Q: Will natural gas prices for consumers go lower if New York starts producing large volumes of gas from the Marcellus?

A: Yes! The closer the gas is to those who use it, the lower the price because it needs less handling and transportation. Tapping the Marcellus would give New York an abundant supply of low cost natural gas.

Q: Does the DEC have enough manpower to regulate all of the new wells that would be drilled should drilling in the Marcellus begin?

A: Panelist John Holko, president of Lenape Resources, Inc., an oil and gas drilling company headquartered in Alexander, NY, said that when a company files a permit with the DEC, they must pay for the permit in advance—with the application. So the money the DEC receives from the permitting process  alone will give them enough revenue to hire the staff they will need to review the permits and perform inspections. Bob Williams added that in his conversations with the DEC, they have told him they simply will not grant any more permits that they can comfortably handle. The DEC will not allow more wells than it can regularly monitor and inspect.

Q: How do we get the word out, how do we get the facts about drilling and that it can be done safely, to our lawmakers? And to our neighbors who are unsure about drilling, and to those who currently oppose drilling?

A: By holding meetings like this. Also, landowner coalitions regularly talk with—have meetings with—elected representatives in Albany. Those who support drilling must be vigilant and must continue to voice their support for drilling in the Marcellus.

Q: Returning to the issue of radioactivity, we already have high levels of radon in our state. People have it in their basements. Will drilling increase the radon levels and create a hazard?

A: Geologist Richard Nyahay replied that as fracking fluid comes to the surface, it gets ventilated—exposed to the air. He asked, How do you get rid of radon in your basement? You ventilate it—expose it to air. Radon has a very short life in the air before it dissipates and becomes harmless. Drilling in the Marcellus will not create more radon problems.

Q: What about challenges by local towns to control or stop drilling within a local municipality?

A: Michael Joy, a practicing attorney and professor of oil and gas law at SUNY Buffalo, said such laws will not stand up in court. There is a long line of case law and appeals. In New York, local municipalities cannot “modify or extend” state regulations on drilling in any way—whatsoever. A law passed by the Town of Afton (NY) was mentioned. That law limits the number of trips per day trucks involved in drilling operations can make on local roadways. Joy said the only exception that local municipalities have with regard to creating laws about drilling activity is roads—local governments can create regulations and laws concerning damage and use of roads. However, the Afton law is written so that it discriminates specifically against the drilling industry. A law cannot be crafted to target a specific industry or business at the exclusion of all others, which Joy says is the case with the Afton law. When and if drilling begins, it’s quite likely the Afton law will be challenged in court and according to the panelists, would likely be overturned.

Q: Could there be well pads every 10 acres across Broome County and other Marcellus areas of the state? That is what some are saying.

A: John Holko of Lenape Resources  said, “No!” He explained that technology continues to improve each year. Drillers now drill longer lateral (horizontal) lines. Above ground one drilling pad can serve many lateral lines. According to Holko, in the near future, drillers will be able to access gas from 1,200 acres from a single well pad. He added that gas companies want to stay in business. They do not want to tear up roads and stick well pads across every single hillside to destroy the scenery. Bob Williams, representing the landowner perspective, said while landowners desire to work with drilling companies, landowners should use lawyers to write restrictions into their contracts specifically to ensure there are not too many drilling pads, that any damage to roads or land is repaired, etc. Michael Joy said there are spacing laws in New York to prevent crowding of drilling pads.

Q: Has New York State lost momentum because we have not allowed drilling to begin? If drilling were allowed in New York starting tomorrow, would drilling companies even show up and start to drill?

A: Panelist and attorney Michael Joy answered this question. He responded that yes, drillers will show up and start to drill, but it won’t be a “land rush” like it has been in Pennsylvania. That is, the response to New York opening up, he predicted, would be “muted”. As evidence of his opinion, he talked about the twice-per-year large conventions held in Houston for independent oil and gas producers across the country. He said that at those meetings, “no one is talking about New York” and that New York is persona non grata (the Latin phrase meaning “an unwelcome person”). If the energy companies that do the drilling are not talking about or making any kind of plans to drill, that’s a sign there’s not a whole lot of interest—at least right now. A sobering bit of honesty to end the meeting.