Sunday, March 30, 2014

NYS DEC Hunting Down Orphaned Wells: Some Horse-Trading, Anyone?

Borrowed from the NYS DEC Minerals Division's 2010 annual report.
Well, now, this is interesting:  Minerals Division staffers with New York's DEC have spent the last year or so, delving into historical records and making on-the-ground visits — to see if they can locate hundreds of orphaned wells, most from very old, pre-regulatory oil and gas drilling.

So far, it looks like a struggle.

The original hit list would have totaled nearly 2,000 wells once coded on the state's computers as status "unknown" — essentially meaning there's a partial record of their existence, but nothing in the files showing they were ever appropriately plugged, and perhaps no reliable record of who originally drilled them, or who disappeared or went out of business technically owning them.  (And certainly no annual operator reports coming in — now, or if ever.)

As of March 30, 2014, the DEC's database shows they've so far found precise locations for only 93 of them ("unknown located"), but failed to find 449 ("unknown not found").  There are still currently records of 1,396 "unknown" wells left to go through.  And there are another 2,092 "inactive" wells, possibly with the potential to lapse over time into the "unknown" grouping.

The DEC's track record suggests they're only going to be successful about 20 percent of the time they go looking.  (Just an aside here:  It seems to me like this could be an interesting volunteer job for New York's overlapping communities of hikers or geocaching/GPS enthusiasts — especially out in Western New York, where the majority of these wells are undoubtedly situated.)

I first noticed some clues to this project back in February 2014 — but only because I happen to occasionally take a look at new records, or changes to old records, in the state's database of some 41,000 at least partly known oil and gas, storage, solution salt, geothermal, and other wells

There's been no press release.  But I did ask the DEC what was going on, and got back some confirmation in a recent email exchange with DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes.

The starting point for this well-finding project can be dated to about March 25, 2013, when the state's database started receiving re-coding changes to allow for these more finely distinguished categories of "unknown located," or "unknown not found."


Everything having to do with oil and gas in New York is inevitably going to be interpreted through the lens of the state's ongoing stalemate over fracking, which now dominates all popular understanding and misunderstanding of the business.  Tracking down lost wells is the regulatory equivalent of looking through stuff accumulating in a household attic.  And, as in domestic life, there's really only a few motivations which would trigger this sort of new activity.

First, New York's now 6-year-old flat-footedness with regard to the shale gas revolution (triggered by the technological advance of high-volume hydraulic fracturing, coupled with horizontal drilling) has had the unfortunate side effect of essentially also closing the state for much old-school oil and gas development activity.  You can't legitimately blame this downturn exclusively on New York's political incapacity to find a way to govern fracking; it's really more of an incapacity to govern coupled with fracking's changed economics for this branch of the resource extraction enterprise.  Drillers are still permitted to drill traditional, even horizontal, wells in New York, but the fact of the matter is they've largely responded to both economics and the state's permanently temporary shale gas moratorium by moving on to better prospects out of state.

New York's state of drilling decline, as illustrated by two charts from the DEC Minerals Division's most recent, 2012 annual report.
While New York has never ranked as a very big oil and gas player within the Appalachian basin, the state's traditional oil and gas permitting, completion, and production statistics since 2007 or so, without doubt, prove this decline — as illustrated by the charts I've inserted above.  All this has occurred contemporaneously — and, some might say, ironically or maddeningly — with boom times in PA, OH, and WV.  From a managerial perspective, this situation has also left New York's small group of publicly employed oil and gas patch specialists with much less work to do.  And so, now, they've got some time on their hands to tackle this back-burner job involving orphaned wells.

That's one interpretation.

Secondly — and I know this might seem unlikely to some — it's possible there are still some forward-thinking politicians and bureaucrats remaining in New York who can envision a future when the state does, in fact, slowly start permitting new shale gas wells, probably just in Southern Tier towns which can sustain political majorities that are willing to accept greater localized economic activity in exchange for greater localized impacts.  These new shale gas permits could be granted partially in exchange for a new requirement that non-mom-and-pop operators either plug, or pay to have plugged, one or more old orphaned wells, for every new one they want to drill.  This could be done, even if the new wells and the to-be-plugged old wells are situated counties apart.

That's another interpretation.

This is what I would call part of a horse-traded, compromise solution to the state's current political conflict over fracking.  And I admit there is some question as to whether compromise and horse-trading are still viable strategies in New York's new political environment, which has gotten very all-or-nothing.  As in days of old, under this scenario, neither side would get exactly what it wants.  The anti side wants a permanent drill ban (some even want to outlaw old-school wells, which have never before been the subject of much controversy).  And the pro side wants regulated drilling, but without too much added expense in the form of taxes based on production (New York already has this, collected by local governments), high permitting fees (New York already has proposed higher state fees to cover the higher costs of regulating shale gas), or over-the-top operational requirements (New York already has been touted as proposing the nation's toughest drilling regulations for these new kinds of wells).

Adding to such a compromise a long-sought solution to the orphaned wells problem seems like a slam-dunk idea that only extremists will inevitably argue against.  But first you would need to have a list of orphaned wells that are ready and waiting to get this work done.  The last time such a hit list was reported, in the Minerals Division's 2010 annual report, officials said they already had 500 priority plugging jobs in mind, waiting to turn up either a responsible party or sufficient public funding to get the work done.


Orphaned wells are a legacy problem going back all the way to the 1800's.  Like underground tanks at old gas stations, or industrial toxic waste sites now commonly re-branded as brownfields, orphaned wells are a made-for-crisis-journalism story, and the issue has been previously covered in unflattering detail (such as by Brian Nearing of the Albany Times-Union in a long report appearing Nov. 8, 2010, and also by Mary Esch of the Associated Press out of Albany, circa Sept. 26, 2012, in a story which appears to have been prepped by anti-frack activists, after having combed through the state's reports).

The orphaned wells break down into a hierarchy of trouble:

First, and hardest to deal with, are an unknown number of old wells that the department doesn't yet even know about, but which come to light by the handful each year — sometimes due to on-the-ground discoveries by landowners or developers, and other times possibly through newly turned up historic records.  The last time the DEC issued a guess on this was in its 2010 annual report, when they noted their database carries at least partial records for about 40,000 wells, but that the total universe of wells ever commercially drilled since the 1820's was estimated to be as high as 75,000 wells.  How they arrived at this larger number, they didn't leave a trail to.

Secondly, there are a number of old wells for which the department has only partial historical or locational clues, but no currently reliable info as to owner.  Again, most of these have been coded as "unknown" and are now being looked for.

Thirdly, there are old, presumably located wells for which the state may have a driller's name or the last known owner of record, but is no longer receiving annual status reports.  I believe most of these are coded "inactive," but I admit I didn't check out this distinction in detail while I had the DEC on the line.

There was a long time period when oil and gas operators didn't need drilling permits to spud a well in New York, or in most other fossil fuel-bearing states.  The private sector instead simply convinced landowners to sign leases, and then it was free to go to work (if it ever got that far).  In modern times, however, all state regulatory programs include record-keeping and financial security requirements so that there's always a responsible party kept on the hook for eventual plugging and abandonment.  As of the end of 2012, DEC was holding $23.88 million in collateral against this sort of work getting done on the relatively new wells, once these reached the end of their economic life.  To comply with the law, and to spring these funds from escrow, industry plugs between about 146 and 323 wells annually, judging from just the last three available annual reports.

But there's no obvious private sector entity on the hook for those old wells, a small proportion of which are found to be causing surface or groundwater pollution with either fossil fuels or brine.  (Or they could pollute the environment down the road.)  And there's little public or private funding available to plug them.  At the end of 2012, the DEC's plugging fund for orphaned wells had only $158,642 in it, sourced largely from a $100 fee paid by new drillers on every new well permit.  Estimates of plugging costs have ranged between $5,000 to $50,000 per well, so you can see this kitty won't get you very far.

Between 2010 and 2012 (the last year in which a Minerals Division annual report has been issued), DEC instead lined up federal funding from the U.S. EPA to plug between 22 and 43 wells each year, and to reclaim the surrounding sites.

The bottom line is that — at the rate the government is going — it's going to take nearly a century to get through this job.  And that's assuming no additional wells are orphaned, or turn up as orphans, down the road, which is not a good assumption.

So you can see where a resourceful environmental agency might plan to exploit industry's avowed interest in drilling for Marcellus, Utica, or Upper Devonian shale gas within New York in order to rectify the sloppiness of this same industry's past operations.


Here are the fruits of my query on this with the DEC, taken verbatim from a March 5 and March 25 email replies from spokesman Peter Constantakes:

What's all this about?

"DEC has been reviewing historical files and conducting inspections to identify the location and status of old wells.  This effort will help to quantify the scope of orphaned wells that potentially would be plugged. This is an ongoing project.  When we have significant information on these wells, we will make the information available to the public."

How is the DEC going about finding these wells?

"These inspections involve collection of field-instrument measurements, including latitude and longitude coordinates using handheld GPS units, and visual inspection, which complement GIS (desk-based) and other electronic information reviews.  Inspectors have spoken with landowners and some of these landowners have supplied information regarding the well location.  Staff may also use a metal detector to locate an unknown status well."

Do these wells have a paper record in the form of a filed well plat?

"The vast majority of these wells have no plats on file because they were drilled prior to the adoption the law regulating this activity.  Some wells were reported in old publications and were not in DEC well drilling records."

Which grouping is on the hit list?

"The DEC is working on the list of wells coded as "Unknown" in the database.  This is an ongoing effort that will likely take several years to complete."

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Green Party Whack-A-Mole: Fight Pipelines, Then Freak Out About Oil Trains

Ursula Rozum of the Syracuse-area Green Party was given a blank slate as "guest columnist" to take on a new crisis — the risk of moving crude oil by rail and barge — in the Post-Standard, March 16.

I originally started a reply, optimistically thinking I could keep it within the paper's 250-word limit on letters to the editor.  But of course that didn't work out, so I'm sticking it here.

Here's what I don't like about this:  Rozum refuses to accept responsibility for the fact that she's the one that whacked the mole in the first place.

More domestic oil going by rail and barge through New York State is a supply-and-demand response to two contemporaneous phenomena:  The technological advance of fracking
(which Rozum never once mentions, but is of course against) credited with now producing much more North American oil, and political conflicts waged by the left that kill or delay new pipeline construction, notably Keystone XL (a fight which Rozum of course supports).

Keystone, when it's built, will serve as the primary takeaway infrastructure for the product of both oil sands out of western Canada, and also fracked shale oil out of North Dakota's Bakken field, all headed toward already-built refineries on the Gulf Coast.  Environmentalists have fought Keystone from the beginning, and they're still at it, even though the battle is now finally winding down in the face of reality.  The only trouble is that ceaselessly waging this kind of ideological war has unintendedly worked to push much more oil to travel (for the time-being, and more unsafely) by rail and barge through such far-flung places as Albany, NY — a fine kettle of fish over which the irony-challenged green contingent now finds itself also freaked out. 

Similarly, there's now a proposal afoot from Pilgrim Pipeline Holdings to avoid conflict over all that Hudson River barge traffic by building a new oil pipeline out of Albany, to be routed either within or closeby the southbound Thruway corridor, toward the concentration of existing refineries in New Jersey.  Are the greens gonna come out in favor of that?  (Sorry — I amuse myself.)

Don't get me wrong — I'm all for learning from such catastrophes as at Lac Megantic, Quebec, and for beefing up the federal regulations governing oil transport by rail.  What I'm not in favor of is Rozum and her allies escaping any blame for having helped to cause this very crisis.  Rozum simply doesn't take ownership for the consequences of her own battle, but instead winds up coming out against everything and anything that has to do with fossil fuels.

Fracking?  She's against it.  Oil trains?  She's against them.  Pipelines?  Opposed.  More propane storage in Watkins Glen?  Not on her watch.  Doing away with asthma and acid rain from a coal plant at Ithaca's suburb of Lansing by re-powering with natural gas?  Not even that.

If you act against fossil fuels in your own life, that's fine with me.  I hope Rozum and her supporters are paying extra to buy all-renewables electricity, rather than the coal-frack-nuke mix that National Grid and most third-party energy providers sell.  (Though something tells me the market share for this sort of boutique energy consumption is far lower than even the Green Party's most recent election returns.)  And I hope they've also capped their natural gas service at home and at work, and are heating just with that all-renewables electricity, or maybe some firewood, or maybe some geothermal, or maybe some conservation.  (None of this hurts anybody else, but something tells me this also remains a pretty fringe effort.)  I hope they're also either riding a bike, or plugging in an electric car at home.  (Again, admirable, and harmless, but so far of limited impact.)

If you've got the time and the money for this kind of thing, it's within your justly wielded power as a consumer, and more green power to you, I say.

But it's gonna take a helluva lot more than consumer choice, enhanced passenger train service, or taxpayer-subsidized renewables to make up for all the fossil fuels (and nuclear, and industrial wind power, and hydropower) that are marked for "nyet" by all the various branches of Rozum's green army.

When you argue against something that benefits the rest of us, you also implicitly argue for the inevitable consequences.  To me, those who politically throttle North American fossil fuels development at the choke-point of certain key developments (such as fracking, or Keystone) simply wind up favoring more imported oil, more imbalanced trade, more military conflict overseas, more environmental risk, more domestic unemployment, and more tax and cost-of-living expense for we 99 percent.

The bottom line is that Rozum and her team are partly the source of my country's unemployment, poverty, dead soldiers, and needless environmental risk.  You ask me, I think she should just own it, and revise her arguments accordingly.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Constitution Pipeline Exec: Feds Moving,
But Now Permitting Delays from NYS DEC

Here's some stuff buried several pages deep inside a Q and A occurring Feb. 20, 2014 — between stock analysts and Williams Partners' CEO Alan S. Armstrong, on the occasion of WPZ's Fourth Quarter 2013 earnings call.

You should be able to read the whole deal without a subscription here, if you're really all that interested.

I've highlighted some interesting parts in bold — having to do with the 120-mile, 30-inch PA-NY Constitution Pipeline, a job originally proposed February 2012, and as of Feb. 12, 2014 at the stage of having a draft environmental impact statement formally released by the feds.
Brad Olsen - Tudor Pickering: Just one last one on Constitution and Atlantic Sunrise. Constitution kind of stood out as the only Northeast pipe project involve a significant laying of newbuild pipe, and the Atlantic Sunrise, at least from the map you've provided, it appears as though that project would also involve some significant new pipe from kind of the Leidy Line down towards Station 190. And I guess is there anything from the Constitution process that's maybe something that could be applied to the Atlantic Sunrise process, or is something where as long as you're laying significant newbuild pipe, there will be some regulatory risk of delays and what have you?

Alan S. Armstrong - President and CEO: I will tell you that on Constitution, the real issue we're facing right now, from a regulatory issue, really relates to the New York DEC, not to the FERC and so, the nice thing about Sunrise is it does not go through the New York area, so we're not faced with that same regulatory issue. On the FERC side, I would just tell you, they're continuing to push through, you saw the Constitution Draft EIS, so we're very thankful for the FERC continuing to try to do their part to accelerate these projects and we continue to work well with them and we certainly have some – a lot of discussions, communications we need to do in New York to find the right answers and right solutions there as well.

Timm Schneider - ISI Group: Lastly for me on Constitution is guess what are some of the big moving parts around the in-service state whether it's going to be kind of end of '15 or early '16 and how are some of the conversations going with producers in that part of the woods?

Alan S. Armstrong - President and CEO: Well you know that there is a Constitution system that’s fully contracted as you know and so the discussions are really more around what all we can do jointly to accelerate the permitting process. Really, the permitting is the issues I mentioned earlier. The FERC has certainly been constructive and they are pushing things along, but there are some permitting requirements in the State of New York that for various reasons can be a bit of a barrier. And frankly, I think we just got to work towards the right solutions that meets everybody's needs on that, and I still remain confident that we can do that. I think it's very clear politically that the infrastructure is desperately needed to serve the New England markets, and I think that bringing that to light clearly and firmly will help bring some reason to getting past some of the permit issues that we're facing right now.

Timm Schneider - ISI Group: So, was that more at the state level or was it actually landowners challenging rights-of-ways?

Alan S. Armstrong - President and CEO: No, it's state permitting issues.


If —
for reasons of either ideology or self-interest — you're against this pipeline, there might still be enough time remaining in which to flash-mob the NYS DEC, encouraging the agency to continue doing its well-practiced thing, making things as difficult as possible for the developer.

— for reasons of either ideology or self-interest — you're for this pipeline (possibly a resident of a northeastern blue state, trying to pick your jaw up off the floor, having just received yet another Winter 2013/2014 utility bill), you better just shake out of it and move along.

Nothing to see here.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

NY Media Step in as Cuomo's Left Guard:
Fending Off Upstate's Suit for Shale Gas

My favorite pic from an Oct. 2012 Albany rally by New York landowners for drilling — and for all the associated economic benefits, including jobs.  Faced with a new lawsuit against Gov. Cuomo from essentially this same base, the Albany Times-Union and other upstate media are now, as predicted, going the extra mile to marginalize this constituency.
Mainstream reporters in New York are already bringing out the long knives in an effort to protect Albany's dysfunction (desirable, for some) — by trying to explain away a legal challenge from 70,000 pissed-off Upstaters, who want to get drilling already.

On the lefthand side below, for purposes of bitterly sarcastic criticism, I've set out every word of the Albany Times Union's coverage of news that the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York has now filed a long-threatened lawsuit against the Cuomo Administration
If the TU is offended by this and wants to sue me for copyright infringement, I plead with them to bring it on.

The JLCNY's case seeks to compel New York State to (
phrasing it bluntly)... either shit or get off the pot on the fracking question — which has been hung up exactly six years as of Feb. 15, 2014, the anniversary date of industry's first-ever request for a full-scale, in-state shale gas drilling permit.  The lawsuit was filed the day before, Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, though I can't see that many reporters or editors availed themselves,
in their word play, of such cheap, readily accessible irony.

The piece below is by TU environmental beat reporter Brian Nearing, and it's one of the finest, most-instructive examples I've ever seen for how to spin obligatory coverage of an inconvenient news development.  Truly, they should teach this stuff at Syracuse University's Newhouse School, or down at the journalism program at Columbia.  Any young person — training to work in journalism that's gotta be either spun left, or spun right, depending on the editor, the outlet, or the market — should be paying close attention to Nearing's A-plus effort.

Nearing writes for a readership area that has virtually no direct economic stake (or even an environmental stake) in the outcome of New York's shale gas battle (except possibly for the issue's impact on the persuasion and regulatory industries, which are both pretty big in Albany).  And so he's been free to get totally out hand, and few have been around to object.

Well, I killed my damn Sunday objecting.  Here, let's take a paragraph-by-paragraph look:

Gov Cuomo sued to force gas fracking start

Suit also seeks to end environmental review

By Brian Nearing

Updated 9:07 pm, Friday, February 14, 2014

Landowners who want to make money from natural gas hydrofracking on their land on Friday sued Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his commissioners of health and environment over the more than five years spent by the state without coming up with a decision to allow the controversial drilling technique.
Notice that the headline and subhead are calibrated to be firstly about raising either alarm or dismissiveness among the newspaper's perceived base, and only secondly about challenging a dysfunctional process (which would seem worthwhile for too many readers).

Then the landowners' big-picture assertion — that their economic situation has been wrongfully impaired by Gov. Cuomo's politically motivated indecision over shale gas — is actually immediately used against them.  Really, it's a nice twist.  In fact, nowhere in the entire article are the landowners (and their land-poor supporters, such as me) treated straight-forwardly as a class or faction of New Yorkers who are legitimately fighting for their personal economic interests, as well as for their communities' economic interests in jobs, income, taxes, opportunity, and so on.

The plaintiffs just "want to make money."  And this supposedly shameful motive flows not from drilling, or property rights, or a technological revolution, or developing a natural resource, or even supplying demand with resource extraction — but "from natural gas hydrofracking."

(Oh, how could they?  See, that's what you're looking for.  Whichever way has the most persuasive punch, that's the way you want to run with it.)

Then the lead closes with the old standby "controversial."  If you as a media professional personally don't like something, you just throw in the word "controversial."  Nobody can argue with it, because it's not untrue.

However, you don't have to use the word "controversial" every time it's available and true, and nobody will ever check.  So, for instance, many reporters decline to routinely describe Obamacare as "controversial," and many New York outlets decline to describe Cuomo's "Safe Act" as "controversial."  (It's a pretty handy trick for all the kids out there.)

One last bugaboo:   Nearing — incorrectly, but possibly for the 7,000th time in NY — describes fracking as a "drilling technique."  Fracking may be accurately described as a technique used by drillers, but it's not a technique for actually drilling the hole; drilling the hole is done first, and fracking just the bottom part of that hole is done afterwards; so fracking is really a "completion technique."  (Okay, okay — you're right, I'm going to have to give up on that one.)
Filed in state Supreme Court in Albany County, the lawsuit accused Cuomo of delaying a decision for "his own political expediency" and sought to force the state to end an ongoing environmental review that would allow drilling to begin in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale that runs through parts of the Catskills and the Southern Tier.

It was filed by the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, a Binghamton-based, pro-fracking group that claims it has 70,000 landowners in 14 counties as members.
Bloody masterful!

You don't want to offer any full paragraphs from the JLCNY's extensive media outreach effort, in which several representatives offered full quotes giving their gist of their case.  (What did you train for — stenography?  Way too straight-forward!)

Instead, use scare quotes around plucked phrases from the group's assertions; it comforts readers by letting them know whose side you're on.  Then describe the environmental review as "ongoing" (rather than "stalled," or "long-delayed" — which are actually more truthful — because, see, "ongoing" makes it seem completely understandable that all this continues to take so long).  And then throw the Catskills in there (because everybody loves the Catskills, even though only a small part of the Catskills are expected to fall within the feasible Marcellus shale zone).

But, wait, there's more:  Describe JLCNY as a pro-fracking group, not pro-drilling, and certainly not pro-development.  Because it's scarier that way.

Then use the word "claims" to cast doubt on the group's representation of a large number of widely dispersed upstate people.  Don't do any actual journalistic work, like maybe asking the group for a membership accounting.  For starters, you don't really want to know.  Just dismiss it with the word "claims" — much cheaper, much simpler, and much more effective that way.
The coalition is being represented by the Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation, a conservative legal group with a history of advocating for fossil fuel issues and that has been financially supported by energy companies including ExxonMobil and Texaco.

Here, we leave out the fact that JLCNY can be documented as having spent a full year raising $111,000 from its own grassroots by the time it got this case started.  And we leave out, for the time-being, the fact that the group has been guided for an even longer period of time by its own Binghamton-based lawyer, Scott Kurkoski — who, in fact, still signs just above MSLF as co-counsel.  Instead, we attribute the entire effort to the arrival of the conservative outsider MSLF, which has historically been financially supported by Big Oil and Gas.  (See?  It's not that hard, once you get into the swing of things.)
Fracking relies on a high-pressure blend of water, chemicals and sand pumped a mile or more underground to break apart gas-bearing rocks. Opponents claim it can harm air and water quality, but supporters say the process is safe if done properly.

The issue has turned into a political firestorm in New York, where polls show a narrow majority oppose fracking.

Well, Nearing did here actually say "opponents claim" — I guess that's something.

As for the rest of it, the reporter could just as truthfully have reported public opinion polls as showing New Yorkers statewide are split on fracking.  Or that some polls have shown a narrow majority of upstaters in favor of drilling or fracking, while statewide it's generally been a narrow majority against.  Or that most poll results are entirely dependent on the wording of the questions:  "Drilling" or "shale gas" — okay, I guess, maybe; "fracking" — oh, no, that's bad, right?

But that's no good for Nearing's purpose.
Other plaintiffs against the state include Schaefer Timber & Stone, a Deposit, Delaware County company owned by Adolf and Larry Schaefer, which held a 93-acre fracking lease in Colesville, Broome County, with bankrupt Norse Energy Corp.; LADTM LLC, a group including Schaefer that now holds the energy rights to the property; and Kark Family Trust, in Fenton, Broome County, which also holds gas leases in Colesville with Chesapeake Energy Corp.

Any knowledgeable reader from PA, WV, OH, or even NY would be well within his noggin to ask — What in the Sam Hell is a "fracking lease"?  And why does the reporter think any landowner would be accurately described as "holding" it?

Let me just serve briefly as your Native Guide in order to explain the willful ignorance that has long plagued New York on this terminology:  A "fracking lease" is the exact same legal contract as what has been described everywhere else in the capitalist world — since Col. Drake struck oil in Titusville, PA, in 1859 — as an "oil and gas lease."  However, anti partisans in NY call them "fracking leases" because that's scarier, and it triggers a desired emotional effect, which sympathetic reporters have seized upon.

(Similarly, even brine produced from traditional natural gas wells is now "fracking waste"; pre-frack drill cuttings are likewise now "fracking waste"; natural gas delivered by pipeline is now "fracked gas" — a phrase which I've even used, for its pointedness in certain situations; pre-frack freshwater impoundments at drillsites are now "fracking ponds"; and trains carrying crude oil originating out of North Dakota are now "fracking trains."  Also, if it's crude oil from western Canada, it's from "tar sands," not "oil sands."  If anybody challenges you, you can always say, "It's just semantics."  Get it?  Got it?  Good!)

Also, on my second point — "holding" — I admit there is massive public confusion on this, especially in the Northeast U.S.  But here's the real deal:  The landowner or mineral rights owner "signs" or "grants" or arguably even "sells" the lease; the exploration and production company (or the driller, if you want to just tell it like it is) "takes" or "holds" or "buys" the lease.  Afterwards, the lease is understood, alone or with others, as a "leasehold" held by the driller, while the landowner or mineral owner has a royalty interest, which is valuable only if the job moves forward in time, and succeeds in producing fossil fuels.

It may seem confusing for journalists, but there is a large number of landowners in Upstate — many of them with college educations, and many of them without — who have already figured all this stuff out on their own (though it's true they haven't yet benefited much from this self-education).

Even if it's just dead-wrong, however, it's more persuasively effective for a journalist to smear a landowner as "holding a fracking lease."  So that's what the reporter is up to here.

(Nearing is actually correct, on the other hand, in describing LADTM LLC as "holding" the energy rights to a particular property; that's because that entity as mineral owner hasn't been able to lease those rights, due to the political and regulatory situation in New York, which has soured virtually all private sector interest in getting things started through the first step of buying leases.)
In addition to Cuomo, the lawsuit also named state Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens and Health Commissioner Nirav Shah, who since September 2012 at Marten's behest has been conducting a health study of potential health risks from fracking.

The lawsuit calls the health study "nothing more than an excuse" orchestrated by the governor to avoid making a decision.

DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Both the DOH and the DEC have repeatedly (and without much success) tried to correct media reportage that Shah's assigned task is a "health study."

It's a "health review" — put simply, a second look at the DEC's draft SGEIS by the DOH's Shah, whose bureaucratic underlings already long ago weighed in.  This is in order to see — in the context of all the science that's continually flying around out there — whether the DEC's plan, which inconveniently actually proposes regulated drilling and fracking, misses any opportunity to be more protective of human health.  (Or, if you prefer, whether the DEC's plan misses any unmitigatable, legitimate threat to public health — which, if so, would presumably immediately put a permanent kibosh on the whole exercise, at least in New York.)

However, anti's always call it a "health study" because that phrase helps explain why the job (vowed by Shah a year ago to be done in a few weeks) could possibly be so complicated and take so long.  Sympathetic reporters such as Nearing (and, notably, public radio's Karen Dewitt) chronically get this wrong, and it's because these reporters have spent so much of their time talking to opponents, their language and their understanding of reality have been profoundly distorted.

Nearing also ignores a key legal question raised by the landowners' case:  Has the DEC strayed beyond its legislated powers in handing off this job to the DOH?
In a Jan. 31 letter to Martens warning that a lawsuit would be filed unless the state ended its environmental review quickly, Mountain States lawyer Jaimie Cavanaugh, joined by landowners coalition lawyer Scott Kurkoski, wrote that Martens was "duty-bound to promote the development of oil and gas resources in New York state." They also accused Martens of violating the State Environmental Quality Review Act by asking for a health study.

Again, notice the usefulness of scare quotes surrounding out-of-context, plucked, partial text.

See, that way, you imply disposal of the arguments, without ever allowing that the litigants may actually have a legitimate, underlying point or two.  Does the DEC have that assigned mission under the state's own resource conservation law?  Does the state's environmental review apparatus allow for buck-passing and indefinite delay, whenever that's desperately needed by state leaders for political purposes?
Formed in 1977 with financing from the late conservative beer billionaire Joseph Coors, the Mountain States group is headed by William Perry Pendley, a former federal energy and minerals official under President Ronald Reagan and who has publicly compared environmentalists to communists.

Pendley last month vowed to sue the federal government if the Bureau of Land Management enacted proposed rules that would require disclosure of chemicals injected underground during fracking, as well as set tougher standards for demonstrating well bore integrity and managing flowback water that returns to the surface with the gas.

The foundation has filed lawsuits seeking to weaken affirmative action, racial quotas in hiring, and the Voting Rights Act.

Yee-haw!  Independent research!  Outside the bounds of what a partisan faction is trying to feed the media! 

This, I like to see.  It shows spunk, work ethic, and initiative.  But I also like to see that kind of effort applied in a fair, even-handed way.

So, for instance, when a partisan group financially supported by the wealthy, anti-drilling Park Foundation is trying to feed the media something, reporters should tell us a little bit more about that.  In those cases, though, Nearing has historically offered nothing but the sound of crickets.  I just searched the TU's still-online archives for "Brian Nearing" and "Park Foundation," and — though I can't vouch for whether my methods are forcing the newspaper's computer to give me truly accurate results — I didn't find a single hit.  "Brian Nearing" and "fracking," on the other hand, seems to get you 70 possibly relevant articles.

In the case of JLCNY vs. Cuomo, however, we can see that Nearing has gone the extra mile to wiki up some dirt on MSLF and its leader Pendley.  This is in order to cast maximum aspersion, and to call to mind well-worn bogeymen for eastern liberals:  Financial backing from Coors, and the dude worked in the Reagan Administration — that explains everything that some people think they need to know; Pendley is said to be on record as having red-baited harmless greens; to be against any disclosure or standards for fracking on federal lands; and, to top it off, he's against equal opportunity for the various races and sexes.  Wow!

See, to do this right, you need to have enough sense to also withhold certain information, even if it's right there in plain sight on Wikipedia.  You need to understand there are simple, explanatory facts that must be left out:  MSLF is a $2 million per year operation, which is not that big in the national context of leftward or rightward NGO's, constantly duking it out over environmental issues.  But the organization's legal challenges have been important enough to frequently go to the federal appellate level, and beyond that to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it sometimes wins, and it sometimes loses.

A couple few remaining things, and I'm sorry that I have again wound up running so damn long, sticking all this at the end. 

First — given six years of Nearing's (and others') preposterously unbalanced regional media coverage — is it any wonder that New Yorkers are split on fracking?

The anti side has truly done a masterful job in demonstrating the political power of this kind of pressure —
on some level, professionally organized, but coming across to the media as carried out by a sympathy-inducing, grassroots army of the panic-stricken.  This campaign has been positively welcomed as a legitimate crusade, or as an interest-heightening crisis, by the likes of the TU's Brian Nearing, public radio's Karen Dewitt and Susan Arbetter, Gannett's former Tom Wilber, Capital New York's Scott Waldman, and many others.  But true balance with the full context — true balance with the rest of the story — has been given a valiant attempt by pretty much only one reporter statewideJon Campbell of Gannett.  And even he could do much more, and much better, in my estimation.  (On the other hand, the anti effort has been unfairly dismissed in full by only one primary voice, Fred Dicker of the New York Post.)

I urge anyone to simply compare how this issue is covered by most of PA versus, say, most of NY; or by public radio in PA versus public radio in NY; or by Binghamton, NY, versus Albany, NY; or by Campbell versus Nearing.  It is truly remarkable that all this disparity in fact and tone and angle is supposed to flow out of objective coverage of essentially the same issue.

For two, going back again, the TU's headline reads, "Gov Cuomo sued to force gas fracking start" (whereas Southern Tier Gannett — after blacking out their own reporter's coverage for two whole weeks — went with the much more reasonable, "Southern Tier landowners sue Cuomo over fracking delay.")  I neglected to point out that TU's version of reality may be accurate and truthful in terms of politics and motivation, but it's inaccurate and untruthful in terms of law and procedure

Here's why:  The DEC is already fully empowered to eviscerate the current legal assertion from landowners — by simply declaring the SGEIS to be finally finished, even with a conclusion that no regulatory scheme can possibly adequately protect New York's environment, however you want to define it, from shale gas development.  (They would have some explaining to do to get there — standing alone among some 30 states which are already regulating exploitation of this resource, including such blue locations as Illinois and California — but that's all it would take.)

So this case from the landowners (along with a parallel effort from the bankrupt estate of Norse Energy) is truly throwing down the gauntlet, or rolling the dice, on very technical grounds.  It demands procedurally only that New York just decide already, one way or the other, as compelled by the state's environmental review law.

Of course, there is a subtext:  If Cuomo finally effectively says, "Sorry, no, I misspoke — this is not really about the science, and we're not really open for (this kind of) business," then there will be a large number of parties that will have some new legal arguments to make.  But these folks believe themselves to be held up from making this very different kind of case, due to the current stalemate.

Lastly, like it or not, there is still such a thing as a Bill of Rights in this country, including ownership of property rights, operating inside a partially free market.  Furthermore, there are still a few thinkers kicking around out there, such as William Perry Pendley of MSLF, who attribute much of the standard of living in the United States to the long-slogging exercise of these very freedoms.  That sentiment may seem, to youthful ears, quaint or conservative or both, but it's not extreme, and it's not something that New York — the one-time Empire State, birthplace of IBM and Xerox, and home to Wall Street — can so readily dismiss without showing itself to be a total horse's ass.

Of course, there are inevitable conflicts, and courts have long been assigned to balance the rights of individuals (even vilified political minorities), against whatever highly politicized definition of the "public interest" might work its way forward, so as to eliminate or limit these rights.  If this sort of elimination winds up happening in New York over the shale gas issue — not through the arguably just realm of objective regulation, but rather at the hands of an emotional mob, urged on by wealthy ideologues, and unchecked by media, government, or the courts — that will unquestionably be an injustice.

And the lesson of history is you simply don't do that to people without eventually having to pay for it, one way or the other.  That's been proven true by both the American Revolution and revolutions within America — movements for abolition, civil rights, women's rights, and the list goes on.  In this narrow, provincial case, it will also be proven true for upstate landowners as an oppressed class.

Frankly, I just think these people deserve way better.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Gloves Off in Censorship Fight Between JLCNY and Binghamton Press

Smartphone pic of the indexed and time-stamped opening page of the lawsuit informally known as JLCNY vs. Cuomo — yes, on the fracking thing.  Delivered to me and the world by Twitter at 11:25 a.m. today.  The Binghamton Press and several sister Gannett papers wouldn't run a story on this lawsuit until they had proof.
In a comment today, Feb. 14, that's buried beneath a prior post from me here, Joint Landowners Coalition of New York Spokewoman Susan Oliver (not to be confused with a WPX Energy spokeswoman by the same name) has gone public with an accusation stemming from an unsatisfactory sit-down session with a key Binghamton Press reporter (now former) and editor from several years ago.

This is Oliver's comment:

"My husband and I met with Tom Wilber and metro editor Ed Christine a few years ago to address the paper's bias and we'll never forget what Christine said: 'In your lifetime, you'll never see drilling in NYS; maybe your kids lifetime, but not yours.'"

[Added Feb. 17, but without bothering to update the whole post:  I've let this quote from Ed Christine sink in for several days now.  Ordinarily, I would have something to say about it.  And this would certainly be an appropriate, transitional place to do so.  But my mouth is still hanging open.  And I think my best plan is to just let these words similarly hang.  In fact, I've now hung these words, at least for the time-being, on the opening banner of my blog — as motivation for ordinary people in Upstate New York...  But now let's move on with the rest of this story.]

This morning, the JLCNY finally formally filed its lawsuit against Cuomo on the governor's perpetual dodge to a decision on fracking.  The lawsuit was again dutifully reported by Gannett's Jon Campbell in an electronic post dated yesterday, Feb. 13, at 6:15 p.m.

However, as of 10 a.m. today, Feb. 14, I still don't see it reported online in Gannett's electronic platforms serving Binghamton, Elmira, or Ithaca.  (It did make the news at Gannett's Rochester outlet, however.)

I'm already tweeting about it, and this is what we have back so far:

So it looks like JLCNY must actually personally deliver to the Binghamton newspaper's headquarters
a time-stamped copy of the actual filing in order to get into their own local papers.

You wouldn't think the news-gathering business would be made so cumbersomely bureaucratic by those on the inside, who are employed to go up against bureaucratic stone walls every day.  But — for some newsmakers, on certain topics, and at some papers — it is.

Anyway, I'm sure these last, petty, knuckle-headed hurdles will be surmounted by the landowners, sometime today.  Helluva way to treat statewide news-making readers from your own circulation area, but that's what "unbiased" community journalism stands for nowadays.


Better get it notarized, though — certificate of authenticity, and all that.

And, if the handoff of this paperwork actually happens in person, I'd like to get a copy of a photograph of this historic occasion.  I could certainly run the picture here. 

Possibly one of those classic "Grip and Grin" shots, with a big blow-up of the paperwork, and maybe some Valentine's Day visuals — yes, that would be cool.


More on this dispute, as the day wore on:

At long last, the story "Southern Tier landowners sue Cuomo over fracking delay" was posted in Binghamton (and presumably the other papers) at 1:42 p.m., Feb. 14.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Quietly Re-Routed: Kinder Morgan's Tennessee Gas Pipeline Northeast Expansion

This is page 16 from a Kinder Morgan presentation given before the Northeast Gas Association concerning the company's Tennessee Gas Pipeline, which has for decades run all the way into the Northeast U.S. from the Gulf Coast.  You'll have to click the JPEG into a new window to see it all clearly.  The source PDF is electronically dated Nov. 30, 2012, and its opening page shows a presentation date of Dec. 3, 2012.  What's of particular note to me is the routing of the then-conceptual "TGP Northeast Expansion — Bullet Line," which is rendered as a solid blue line between the Township of Wright, Schoharie County, NY (an interconnect between multiple pipelines, including the still-proposed Constitution Pipeline), and the terminal point at Dracut, Mass.
Interesting situation here:  Between late 2012 and early 2014, the proposed routing of a major new natural gas pipeline requiring ground in New York State can be shown to have been quietly and fairly radically altered.

But nobody noticed.

Above is a Scribd embed of the full PDF from which this early map is taken, in case you're really interested.

Above is a Scribd embed of the much more current Tennessee Gas Pipeline Northeast Expansion plan, affecting what the company internally references as its "200 Line."  It is from a Kinder Morgan PDF electronically dated as last modified Jan. 24, 2014.  It was originally (and very helpfully) put into the public domain by the Town of Tyngsborough, Mass. (along the NH line), along with some additionally useful documentation obtained from the pipeline developer.

(After I tweeted multiple links to this public documentation — in an effort to trigger media recognition that this Massachusetts development also necessarily involved New York — Scott Waldman of Politico's Capital New York outlet, now a pay site, re-posted this map, and dishonestly declared it to have been "obtained by Capital."  I just love these guys.)

But what's notable is the new location of the expansion plan, especially on the New York side, marked in purple with dashed white.

Previously, we can see that TGP planners were contemplating a loop around the western and northern ends of the Albany NY metropolitan area in order to move more natgas to the Massachusetts state line.  That would have been virgin ground, for all I know owned by wealthier-than-average exurban Albany folks. 

Now, we can see that they're hoping for a much more simplified scheme of digging up the existing right of way — running along the southern end of the Capital Region, through parts of Schoharie, Albany, Rensselaer, and Columbia counties — and either adding pipe, or replacing smaller existing pipe with bigger pipe.  Most of these landowners are unlikely to be happy with the impact, but it won't be anything they haven't already lived with for years.

It looks to me as though, in the intervening year or so, the private sector took a hard look at the political reality of New York's ongoing Constitution Pipeline fight, the Watkins Glen LPG storage fight, Spectra's expansion fights downstate, the overall statewide frack fight, and the state's bitter history of long and involved long-distance electricity transmission fights, etc. — and they decided to try the more politically palatable plan of staying inside the lines of their existing utility corridor.  That's not what they're proposing to do in Massachusetts, but at least inside NYS, they propose to stay within the lines.  Syncs up in a way with what Gov. Cuomo said in the last State of the State Address about streamlining electric transmission plans that re-use existing rights of way.

A question still unanswered by a shockingly unsophisticated New York press:  Whether TGP's existing easements in the Capital Region of New York may be already so broadly written as to cover this expanded capacity, or whether the developer must go back to the current landowners and offer to pay for modifications/enlargements.  Just because I like landowners, and I like out-of-state money getting spent in New York, I'm hoping for the latter.

Here's an excellent summary of New England's building, seasonally relevant campaign for adding way more pipeline capacity.

The bottom line is that the powers that be in northeastern blue states want and need more natural gas — for economic, environmental, and reliability reasons.  Only trouble is the New England states can't get it done without triggering NIMBY fights both at home and in New York.  This demand for more natural gas is largely psychologically and popularly disconnected from at least half of this same population's negative view of drilling and fracking, which is where most new natural gas actually comes from.  That may not make any logical or ethical sense to me or to you, but it is what it is.

Monday, February 10, 2014

New York's State of Drilling Decline 2012

The NYS DEC Minerals Division's annual report for 2012, which I linked to in this tweet, is internally dated as last modified Feb. 6, 2014.  I just noticed it today, popping up on the DEC's web site (though I suppose the files could have been posted sometime late last week or over the weekend).

This represents further primary source information detailing New York's State of Drilling Decline — occurring concurrently with a shale gas boom occurring in other Appalachian Basin states.  It's basically an illustration of what happens when technology changes, causing the economics of resource extraction to also change, but the government's regulatory response is 5 1/2 years late, and millions of dollars short, on account of overheated political conflict, coupled with zero leadership.

As in prior years, this stuff is unlikely to get much notice.  There are few observers around with the free time to call attention to it, or to digest, analyze, and remark upon.  And it gets filtered out of most media outlets' news dragnet, because there's just not much of an audience for things that a lot of people simply don't want to hear.