Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Quick Comment on an Anti-Drilling Blog:
In Defense of Those Who Protest the Protest

Pro-gas landowners in upstate NY have put together a welcome wagon of sorts — to occasionally greet their frack-fearful counterparts at certain local happenings.  This was part of the display in the parking lot of the Vestal American Legion, just before a traveling group of anti-drilling lecturers took the stage.
On June 22, pro-drilling landowners loosely organized by the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York essentially crashed an anti-drilling roadshow held at the Vestal (NY) American Legion. 

(Technically, "crashed" is not the right word, because the meeting was open to the public.  But you get the idea.)

If you'd prefer to hear about all this in a mocking way that takes the pro-drilling side, go to this post from Energy In Depth's Northeast Marcellus Initiative — where industry is now openly employing writerly firebrands at the level of street organizer, similar to the way that unions, social justice, and other left-wing-activist organizations have long operated.

Or, if you'd rather hear about it in a sympathetically anti-drilling way, check out this post from Sue Heavenrich's generally not-to-my-taste Marcellus Effect — a blog which appears to represent nearly two years of subtly persuasive journalistic labor (and probably very little of it paid for).

Or, if you'd rather hear about it from a professional journalist with theoretically no financial, social, psychological, or ideological stakes in either side of the Late Great Hydro Fracking Debate — sorry, I don't think anybody was there, other than TV people, and I don't consider TV people to be professional journalists, at least not most of the time.

Anyway, comment number three on Heavenrich's blog took me by surprise.  It goes like this: 
Anonymous said...

This militant group that supports drilling known as the Joint landowners colilition of New York, normaly uses direct action type of protest when attending NYRAD events with speakers. They show up disrupt the event and then after NYRAD came out with the clean water signs they bought a bunch of them and placed JLCNY stickers over the NYRAD website printed on the sign. The funny thing was this was the second time at a NYRAD event where the Vestal Police had to show up due the militant type of protest the JLCNY seams to favor. This group seems to have a type of rabies that makes it imposiable to have a dialogue with them.


Councillor, Great Bend Borough
Unless this was posted by an imposter (or, rather, an imposter who's not a very good speller), this appears to have been quickly written — with a typo — by Bret Jennings, whom Google searches show to be an anti-drilling elected official on the Borough Council of Great Bend, on the Mighty Susquehanna, upstream from Binghamton, NY, in Susquehanna County, PA.  Jennings also appears to have a hand in directing the sewage treatment plant down there, and — for the sake of my buddies in Binghamton — I hope he does a better job with that than he does with his pronouncements against pro-gas landowners.

Anyway, it bothered me enough that I wrote in to Heavenrich's blog, and I choose to re-broadcast my remarks here — in order to keep them on record for a little bit longer, and in order to get the word out to fundamentalists on all sides.

NY Shale Gas Now said...

The comment from BrettJ is intriguing to me in the use of such loaded persuasive imagery as "militant," "disruptive," and "direct action" — to describe the fact that pro-drilling landowners organized themselves in order to essentially protest the anti-drilling protest.

If you are committed to the traditions of protest and free speech — as I believe most anti-drilling people are (or would be, if reminded) — then you must accept the fact that ordinary people are sometimes also going to strongly disagree with you — occasionally in noticeable, dramatic (and, yes, even somewhat disruptive) ways.

No, I was not at this meeting. But — frankly, judging from the pictures, and from what I've read about it elsewhere, and from the pro-gas landowners I have met — many of these people are the very same sort of folks as you'd find at a fireman's pancake breakfast anywhere within upstate.

I don't believe taking it to the streets is much a part of their tradition, or part of their fate. (But — the way things are going — who the hell knows.)

But look how quickly the word choices demonize.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

July 1, 2011 — 7 Reasons Why it Won't Be Independence Day For NY's Landowners

IMG_1653 by ad454
Then-candidate Andrew Cuomo, at an Oct. 27, 2010
rally in Brooklyn, a photo by ad454 on Flickr.
July 1, 2011, that's the day, Cuomo said so — the day New York's landowners would finally see some regulatory headway on shale gas.

As this date approaches with a crescendo (and surely passes us by, with one roar or another), I think it's worth reminding everyone of some insufficiently considered recent history in New York State.

As of July 1, folks who happen to wittingly or unwittingly own shale gas under upstate New York will have been restrained in the exercise of their private property rights for nearly three full calendar years, and by seven different shale gas moratoriums.

Seven!  (Yes, it's true, that's including two bans which were proposed, but which were pushed back in the final hours.)

But, still, seven!  It's not a good sign.  Let's break it down.
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A hydraulic battery fracking shale from a vertical wellbore deep within Gastem USA's Ross #1, Town of Maryland, Otsego County, NY, November, 2009.  Many people don't realize that New York doesn't actually have a ban on fracking (which is technically standard operating procedure for completing most modern wells).  But it does currently have a freeze on high-volume fracking.  Reps from the DEC, the DOH, the SRBC, the Sierra Club, and Pro Publica were on site to see this operation, one of the first shale gas tests in New York.  Full PDF here.

The first ban — which was always phrased as a temporary measure — traces its origins to a between-the-lines reading of a July 23, 2008 press release (still online as a PDF here), issued by then-Governor David Paterson.  On the surface, the governor had simply announced he had directed his DEC to update its 1992-vintage environmental impact statement generically covering all oil and gas drilling — in order to address any previously unforeseen, unknowable impacts from the much more involved operations necessary for carrying out the shale gas revolution.

Seems reasonable.  And the words "ban," "freeze," or "moratorium" appear nowhere in this press release. 

But the full ramifications sank in shortly thereafter.  T
he DEC let it be known that it was shelving indefinitely any drilling permit application for any project which envisioned using more than 80,000 gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluid during the well-completion phase.  That was the cutoff — not horizontal versus vertical, and not shale versus any other rock layer — but a basically arbitrary measure of the number of gallons of fluid needed to get the natural gas flowing.  For anything more than 80,000 gallons, the DEC was taking the blanket position that the environmental impacts hadn't yet been sufficiently studied, at least not by the almighty State of New York.  Anything less, you could still get a permit for, and several companies already have.

This First Ban became known as the De Facto Moratorium, because — at least in legal theory, if not in actual business reality — the natural gas industry was still technically free to seek a permit to drill a full-scale well in Marcellus or Utica shale.  The only trouble is, the driller would have to first commission their own site-specific environmental impact statement.  
And then, of course, they would have to have the public hearings, and the public comments, and the second draft, and so on.

[Good luck with all that, in other words.

Another important point worth remembering — but very often conveniently forgotten — is that there was never any deadline to the First Ban.  In fact, as we shall see, this First Ban still essentially lives on as the Seventh Ban.  What's happened is, the DEC's drawn-out, environmental review process fulfilled its underhanded political mission — by becoming a stage upon which anti-drilling activists were given free reign to direct a very public chorus statewide, calling for further delay, which is always a politically easy thing to call for.

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This ban — which is a ban that manages to wind up overlapping all the other bans, just in case the other bans aren't strong enough — doesn't have statewide coverage.  Within NY, it only affects those 2,362 square miles which happen to drain toward the Delaware River, some unknown portion of which — within
Broome, Delaware, and Sullivan counties — likely has any shale gas potential.

Why is this area special?  In this area, there is an extra-added, bonus layer of regulation which New York State allowed to get started, way back in 1961, when it agreed to join the Delaware River Basin Commission.  The DRBC is a federal-state compact formed between NY, PA, NJ, DE, and the federal government, acting through the flood control experts at the Army Corps of Engineers.

On May 19, 2009, the DRBC formally asserted for the first time in its history that it held additional jurisdiction — on top of, or alongside, whatever the PA DEP or the NY DEC might want to do — over all oil and gas development in "its" watershed.

Note that there's a very similar, neighboring river commission, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) — formed by the feds together with NY, PA, and MD — which also contemporaneously asserted that it held rights to additional jurisdiction over gas drilling.  But the SRBC somehow managed to implement its regulatory program within months of starting out, strictly limiting its efforts to a fulfillment of its primary mission of having a say over water use in the watershed.  At this point, the SRBC's water-withdrawal permitting scheme is basically a well-oiled machine which you are more than free to see for yourself, in action, right here, on the web.

The DRBC, by contrast, takes a much more lumbering view of its powers.  The proposed regs are very far-reaching, and yet still under review.  Many thousands of comments have been received.  These things take time.  Like it or not, we must accept that this tangled web of obstruction and delay is, in fact, a policy that's endorsed by a majority within the dynamic imposed by the five-seat roundtable of NY, PA, NJ, DE, and the Obama Administration's Army Corps.

[Something's going on here — something which has not yet been fully reported.  And something which has completely stalled the property rights of anybody owning land in this watershed, PA or NY.  I think it's got something to do with what the rep for NY is being told to do, under Paterson, and now under Cuomo.  If it were up to just Obama, PA, and NY, then we should see drilling already in this area for domestic fossil fuels.]

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Aerial-SkaneatelesLakeLookingSouth2005 by lvanvlee8
South End of Skaneateles Lake Looking Southwest, from a nice collection of Finger Lakes aerials by Bill Hecht appearing on the account of lvanvlee8 on Flickr.  Yes, I do believe the grayer cloudy stuff visible in this unfiltered public water supply is naturally occurring sediment.

It's true this ban is also only a partial ban, geographically, but it's still very significant.

On April 23, 2010, then-DEC Commissioner Alexander "Pete" Grannis announced his agency would essentially keep the original de facto ban in place permanently against any land which happened to drain its snowmelt and rainfall toward the unfiltered drinking water collection systems of the City of New York, or the City of Syracuse.

Whatever the specialists with the DEC Minerals Division might be cooking up with the SGEIS, it wouldn't count in these areas, the political people determined in advance.

What this amounted to was this:  Taken aback by the anti-fracking firestorm then sweeping the public conversation statewide, the Paterson/Grannis Administration had made a half-hearted, too-little, too-late, political effort to soothe the Per Capita Majority.  They announced there would be no shale gas developments allowed in the Catskills areas upstream of New York City's numerous water reservoirs, or in the rural areas of Onondaga, Cortland, and Cayuga counties which are upstream of Skaneateles Lake, where Syracuse draws its water.

I think what they were innocently thinking was — maybe then there would be way fewer New Yorkers who cared enough to spend all their free time, going to war against shale gas.

What's most interesting to me is the preposterous regulatory distinction forming the basis for how they proposed to regulate different areas in different ways.  It ostensibly had to do with filtration of public water supplies — or the lack thereof.  But this very quickly tumbles as a thinly disguised and completely disingenuous excuse.  Beyond hum-drum sediment-control issues, the most alarming of any possible contaminants from a well pad would easily pass through any conceivable filter.  (Salts?  Hydrocarbons?  Glycols?  Forget-about-it!)

In short, filtration is a smoke screen; politics is the true distinction.

[About the filter issue:  NYC and Syracuse — for economic and political reasons, but not for reasons of public health — have long fought federal regulatory pressure to filter their water supplies, in the same way that pretty much every other water department has already been respectfully required to do.  The leaders know that the best way to keep these big-city, money-saving regulatory exemptions rolling is to keep alive the feel-good premise that these water departments were already cooperatively, peacefully, harmoniously, greenly, and sustainably managing all private economic activity upstream, so as to keep the water clean.]

[The word "pristine" is used a lot, along with "precious," and also "pure."  Never mind that livestock, wildlife and certain human individuals I happen to personally know are also routinely "peeing," "pooping," and "powering" their fossil-fuel-powered watercraft in that very same watershed every chance they get.  But — in the same way that Applebee's don't sell the steak, it sells the sizzle — well-educated, well-meaning, and well-paid environmental professionals have been very-much-willingly seduced into routinely bamboozling the unwitting public with the completely unscientific notion that there's something vaguely warm, embracing, and motherly about not filtering your urban drinking water!]

New York State Route 10 by dougtone
Former Site of Cannonsville, a shot taken taken by dougtone on Flickr, while traveling State Route 10 which parallels the Cannonsville Reservoir.  This is upstream of Deposit, NY, on the West Branch of the Delaware River.  Cannonsville was one of two dozen Catskill towns sacrificed in order to supply New York City with water
The mechanism for imposing this kind of majority belief system upon the minority interests of people who owned the land — and upon people who have jobs, and upon people who wished they had jobs — was the same tourniquet which prevented any full-blown shale gas drilling from happening statewide after July 23, 2008:  The DEC was simply going to demand a full-blown environmental impact statement for every job.  The policy people were, in essence, borrowing a trick from the activists — using the environmental review law to do a blunt, irrational, and obstructive job for which it was never originally intended.

[Imagine if neighboring PA insisted on all this paper from consultants — for all the thousands of Marcellus wells that have been permitted to date!]

Cannonsville Shoreline by kmitschke
Cannonsville Shoreline, a photo by kmitschke on Flickr, who writes: 
It smelled like a wet dog so bad, but nobody was in sight!
This is where New York City gets a lot of their water from... 
Note to self:  Don't drink NYC tap water."
Again, like the First Ban, and like the Second Ban, the Third Ban is still in place — although you would never know it by reading the current assaults upon shale gas coming from anti-drilling groups with constituencies in those areas.

Why is that? I ask.

That's because — if there isn't a current crisis, with the Fate of the Earth hanging in the balance — then the anti-drilling groups lose a key reason for their very existence.  Honestly and truthfully calling attention to the already installed Third Ban — the permanent Catskills/Skaneateles shale gas ban — only serves to make their drama seem a tad overwrought, shall we say, in the minds of too many millions of people.  And so opponents don't like to talk about it much.  And — since opponents currently generate or spin probably 90 percent of the information floating around out there, measured by weight or volume, regarding this issue, at least in the Northeastern U.S. — that's why most New Yorkers have completely forgotten that New York State has already taken the New York City (and Syracuse) drinking water question off the table, frackwise.

Whether there was ever any legitimate, novel, or unmanageable threat to this drinking water — it doesn't matter; it's off the table.

Note also that the Third Ban has had no political or legal difficulty in fulfilling its literal objectives.  I think it's fair to say that drilling in these discrete watershed zones — barring some kind of major, apocalyptic, Mad-Max-style global energy crisis — is simply not going to happen anytime soon, because there will be no way politically to go back and change what's been done.  [In fact, the property rights of these private landowners have already been successfully whittled down considerably.  And there hasn't even been a lawsuit (yet), politely requesting compensation.  Amazing, to me, sometimes, the sort of abuse that landowners will put up with.]

Note further that the Third Ban has completely failed to fulfill its between-the-lines objectives:  It hasn't caused the opposition to take a chill pill and settle down on the fracking question.  On the contrary, if anything, it's only given them more ammunition:  Why distinguish between filtered and unfiltered water systems?  Why distinguish between drinking water drawn from the surface, and drinking water drawn from underground?  Water is everywhere.  Land is everywhere.  Why not treat it all the same?  Why not ban everything?  And so on.


In this version of the moratorium, both houses of New York's Legislature got into the act — over two separate months in 2010 — by seeking to answer the clamor from activists for a more definite freeze on fracking.  Legislators by wide margins passed a ban designed to temporarily run until May 15, 2011, a time period in which the body could be expected to be annually in session, running forward, making renewal a convenient rite.

Industry critics asserted the Legislature's sloppily worded measure — crafted without even the slightest inkling of respect for the meanings of various geological terms, or industry jargon, or what it what would all mean in the real world of actual jobs and actual people — would have brought nearly all still-existing drilling to a standstill, mostly in Western New York.
Believe it or not, the ordinarily reluctant NYS Senate went first, Aug. 4, 2010, and the vote was a crushing, 48-9, in favor of the Fourth Ban.  It was a bit of a cake walk, I think, for frack opponents.  In hindsight, industry and the resource owners were caught off guard.  I think it's also fair to say, in hindsight, that this was the wrong thing to do — especially for upstater legislators, and especially for upstate Republican legislators.  But at the time it was politically impossible for these folks to see their way clear to publicly do the right thing.

The NYS Assembly vote came much later, on Nov. 29, 2010.  And the vote was a more realistic, 93-43.  It pains me to say this, but I think those numbers are the real deal.  And that is the work which lies ahead, for anybody who wishes NY could find a way to safely bring the shale gas opportunity to fruition here.


On a Saturday, December 11, 2010, just before leaving office — as though in answer to a public plea I posted here — Gov. David Paterson vetoed the legislature's effort in a bold, intelligent, well-principled move — for which I will remember him fondly, forever-more.  Paterson said what the Legislature was up to was largely symbolic, but with job-killing implications — and that he wasn't going to be the guy to take people's jobs away, for symbolic reasons.

[Thank you, David!]

In the same statement announcing his veto of the legislature's frack ban, however, Paterson softened the blow by creating the Fifth Ban — formalizing the existing administrative ban with an executive order which extended it until June-July 2011 at the earliest.

Incoming Governor Andrew Cuomo later seconded this order, and later still firmed up the deadline for a new Governor's-Eyes-Only draft from the DEC — July 1, 2011.

And so that's where things stand right now. 

But let us not forget that that date would fall at nearly the Three Year Anniversary for the Empire State's having completely balked at the onset of the shale gas revolution.


On June 6, 2011, the NYS Assembly passed 96-46 what I'm calling the Sixth Ban — a symbolic, one-house measure.  Basically, the downstate-dominated, Democratically heavy Assembly renewed the exact same wording of the moratorium that former Gov. Paterson had so pointedly vetoed months previously.  The only difference was they changed the end date to June 1, 2012.  And the vote was 96-46, rather than 93-43.  I am still trying to figure out how to ascertain who changed, or what districts changed.  (Anybody?  Anybody?)

There's a video online here where — at the 5:26 mark, in answer to a reporter's question — Assembly Majority Leader Sheldon Silver, with all apparent sincerity, reveals that his group took this act partly because they actually feared the Cuomo Administration would start issuing drilling permits shortly after the July 1 SGEIS deadline — while they were out of session, and thus incapable of having any influence over the situation.  Clearly, Silver (and these other people in the background with the seriously clenched jaws) is either a really good actor — or else he is the most naive observer to ever gaze upon the political landscape of the former Empire State (and something tells me that's not it).

The follow-through on this Sixth Ban from the 2011 legislature, however, necessarily involved the NYS Senate — rather than an eleventh hour veto from within their own party, sitting in the governor's chair.  It turns out, in the intervening months, the Senate had been so red-shifted by the 2010 Mid-Term Elections that the equivalent frack moratorium bill couldn't make it out of committee.

That fact was not made confidently clear in the minds of the Marcellus shale gas landowners until close to midnight on June 24, 2011.  In fact, the landowners were pestering senators statewide with phone calls and emails for weeks beforehand, right up until the last day.  It was only when the Senate wrapped up business with a gluttony of last-minute bills — including the now-famous Same Sex Marriage measure — that it was clear the frack moratorium would not be in the mix.


Just before the State Legislature finally went home, somebody — on one of the better message boards for knowledgeable upstate landowners — posted a quote from Gideon J. Tucker, a New York City lawyer and newspaperman, who got himself noticed back in 1866 for working this gem into some legal writing:
"No man's life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session."
I mean — how true is that, right?


Bureaucratically, and administratively, simply consider this:  After July 1, 2011, when
Cuomo's seconding of Paterson's executive order runs out of running room, what's to stop the natural gas industry from suddenly fracking New York?

If you are an anti-drilling activist, then you ask this question with much drama and much alarm — because it helps drive home your case for OMG!

But more level-headed observers recognize that, after July 1, 2011, New York State simply returns to the situation under the First Ban — where the DEC is still refusing to issue any permits, while the citizens of New York have another chance to closely examine this situation — with undoubtedly more than 1,000 pages of guidance from professional people at that agency.

I do not doubt — once the DEC's three-year-old analytical labors are released to the public, sometime after July 1, 2011 — that, of course, the shale gas question will be immediately transported back to the cynically angry hearings, the petition drives, the ever-lengthening comment periods, the rough-and-tumble world of wild-eyed persuasion, and so on.

My only doubt concerns whether New York's political process will leave enough room for the citizens of this state to objectively gather all they need to know, and to make up their minds in an intelligent way, with fairness and balance to all concerned — including their own fellow New Yorkers.

Frankly, the story of the Seven Bans leaves me doubtful.

Friday, June 24, 2011

June 2011 Drill Rig Census:
New Record High in PA — 112

Pennsylvania quietly broke another drilling record as of the final full weekend of June 2011 — 112 rotary rigs actively drilling in-state on average for the month, according to the most conservative of the rig counts.

These stats were released at noon central time today (as they are every Friday) by oil field service behemoth Baker Hughes — and yet a Google News check at this hour (it's now about 9 p.m. eastern time) shows not a single Northeastern media outlet has taken notice of this essential, ongoing story.

Pennsylvania's June 2011 rig count appears to mark a continuation of a 29-month-old trend that has consistently run even or upward, except for an apparent Mud Season hitch early in 2011.

Other Appalachian states, during the same period, have not showed much shale gas or shale oil uptick by comparison:  West Virginia had 20 rotary rigs on hand, Ohio was host to 10 of them, and New York 0 — count 'em, 0!

Online records going back as far as 1987 show the oil and gas industry has never in modern times been so busy in the Keystone State — a rush that's mostly tied to a boom in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to produce natural gas from Marcellus shale.  The now-two-and-a-half-year-old push in Pennsylvania is widely attributed to strategic, long-term desires to maintain thousands of leasehold acres — rather than have to purchase these all over again, due to expiration, due to inactivity. 

Despite pretty terrible market values for natural gas of late — with futures still trading at industry-cheating, landowner-cheating, and grandchild-cheating prices of between $4 and $5 per MMBTU — national rotary rig numbers have continued on a non-stop upward trend.  Some of that is due to oil work, which has started to steal some investment from natgas.  But, overall, the rig numbers keep insistently going higher:  In the U.S., there were 1,863 rigs working on average in June a number which has been consistently increasing for two years straight, since June 2009.

In terms of Appalachian shale gas, West Virginia, Ohio, and New York are also touted as holding resources similar to Pennsylvania's — particularly in sometimes overlapping layers known as the Marcellus, the deeper Utica, or the shallower Upper Devonian.  However — in factual defiance of significant media hype, especially quite a bit of ink lately in the eastern part of the Buckeye State — shale gas (or shale oil) development still doesn't seem to be yet showing much definitive uptick in West Virginia or Ohio.

And New York, so sorry to say, has since July 23, 2008 voluntarily put itself under various administrative freezes on any full-scale Marcellus or Utica drilling permits — pending still-ongoing study of the environmental impacts, and the crafting of reportedly tougher rules. 

The chart above runs the data back to October 2004, the month when Range Resources quietly became the first driller in the Appalachian basin to stimulate a horizontal Marcellus well by pumping, under high pressure, a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into the shalebed.  Word of Range's surprisingly successful gas-finding results on this and follow-up wells did not get out widely until January 2008, when geologists Terry Engelder of Penn State and Gary Lash of SUNY Fredonia released a significant re-estimation of the natural gas content of the Marcellus formation.

Over this time frame of the Marcellus shale revolution, the Baker Hughes rig counts are useful in offering a historical comparison of industry's boom or bust response to the varying economic times, geologic fortunes, and regulatory receptions posed by each of these four states.  Drilling in Pennsylvania has nearly without exception been running even or higher every successive month since January 2009, for instance, but in New York, industry's interest in developing landowners' shale gas has been met with a regulatory holdup and a political firestorm.  

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 

Baker Hughes has long kept a tally of active drilling rigs for both informational and promotional purposes.  The counts trace their history to 1944, when they were initiated by predecessor Hughes Tool Company (whose founder Howard Hughes, Sr. invented the two-cone rotary drill bit). The Hughes company realized that its sales force generally knew (or could find out) the location by state or province of every single operating rotary rig in the United States or Canada — even those which weren't (yet) using Hughes tools.

The counts have been consistently maintained ever since, and they have become a barometer for the energy sector, and for the economy generally.

Baker Hughes' rig counts are considered more conservative than those broadcast by other outlets, because they only count active, rotary rigs — highly complex operations which are in the midst of placing substantial economic demands on the service, support, and labor sectors.

Rigs are only counted as active if they are being employed anywhere along the line between "spudding in" (or starting a well) and "target depth."  Not counted are rigs that are in the process of being taken down, moved, or rigged up again, or rigs that are being used to support non-drilling chores, such as workovers, completions, or testing. Most relatively small, cable-tool and truck-mounted setups are also excluded from the census.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Google Books Re-Publishes
Original Geology of New York

Google Books has scanned, posted, and essentially re-published — free to the world — the entire, first-pass Geology of New York, as originally put out in four volumes by the State of New York, circa 1842-1843.

Unfortunately, Google's indexing effort currently runs somewhere between amazingly haphazard, and just plain wrong.  And the scanning appears to have been done by a very single-minded machine — fully incapable of handling any curveballs.  As a consequence, each of the books is kinda tricky to pin down exactly, as to which is which, and what is what.  And, worse yet, numerous pages of exquisite, hand-crafted, 19th century illustration have been mishandled by Google archivists — with their fold-out pages scanned in fully folded position.

(I know, right!?!?)

Despite these flaws, and with hopes for an eventual correction, I have killed an entire Sunday going to the trouble of organizing links to the best-available versions for all four of the New York State Geology books.  I'm new to what Google Books has been up to, but it looks to me as though readers can choose between a hyperlinked version, a plain-text version (searchable, but only one page at a time), or a downloadable image-only PDF.

A full set of original bound volumes for these four books at this writing lists for $1,500 "buy it now" on eBay — from an entrepreneurial seller based in Ithaca, NY.

Each of the books features a single, stand-alone page near the front, which reads as follows:
"The copy right of this work is secured for the benefit of the People of the State of New York. [Subscribed by] Samuel Young, Secretary of State.  Albany, 1842"
This was New York State's original geological survey.  It was commissioned by the State Legislature, and paid for with tax dollars, in recognition of the importance such basic physical realities — and such basic natural resources — posed for human life.  The survey first put boots on the ground in the Summer of 1836, and was more or less wrapped up by January 1842 — except for some last-minute galley shuffling, proof-reading, and re-writes, while the printers waited (no-doubt impatiently, their type and their shops all tied up in the project). 

With 1836 as the birth year for its survey, New York can claim the third oldest such government-funded, theoretically ongoing geological inquiry — after only Britain and France.

It was a different time, back then.

This was 30 years after Lewis and Clark made it back safe from having traipsed the Louisiana Purchase.  And yet the citizens of New York — with their very lives much more closely tied to the fates of agriculture, or to any other form of reliance upon natural resources — clamored for still more information on rocks, soils, trees, flora, fauna, weather, and what-have-you — back here, back home, back east. 

Everything — whatever you could get your hands on, and confidently explain — the people wanted to know.  It was the dawning time for the great agricultural societies, for the land-grant colleges, and for the now-quaint notion that objective, deep knowledge from dedicated, compulsive, subject-matter experts could rise you up, as a society.

[Contrast this rich historical atmosphere in support of scholarship to the desperate situation we find today in the Former Empire State — where the current holder of the 175-year-old title of New York State Geologist has a video of his public lecture on Marcellus shale (drafted on the taxpayer's dime, given in a public lecture hall, at a public college) openly censored by SUNY, working in lockstep with the State Education Department.  But you better not get me started...]

In 1836, to survey New York geologically, legislative planners made some hasty decisions to divide the labor by crudely divvying up the state into four districts, or parts — and by putting a different geologist in charge of each.  The four districts ran roughly as follows:

  • First District — covering 21 counties, basically Long Island and downstate, the Hudson River, the Catskills encroaching westerly toward the Susquehanna, the Capital District, and a northerly finger running up along the divide between Lake George and Lake Champlain. 
  • Second District — formed officially from just seven counties in the North Country and Adirondacks, running between Lake Ontario and Lake George, but sometimes also by explanatory necessity poaching into three adjoining counties, Lewis, Herkimer, and Saratoga.
  • Third District — covering the mid-section of upstate, but west of the Catskills, south of the Adirondacks, and east of Cayuga Lake.
  • Fourth District — covering all west of a line running down the center of Cayuga Lake.
I characterize the four-part division as hasty and crude, because — as it became painfully obvious afterwards — the breakdown forced each of the four authors to re-examine, re-interpret, re-cover, and re-explain the entire sedimentary sequence as it lay exposed here and there in New York.  Stratigraphy was then a relatively new explanatory lens, and there wasn't much yet settled about the nomenclature.  In fact, a close reader can see that these four authors were then engaged in a process of working it out on the fly — reading each others' drafts, and running back to re-write their introductions, quibbling on some narrow point or another.

Chapter by chapter, it all had to be gone through, usually starting with the deepest, oldest, still-findable water-laid rock — Potsdam sandstone (which in New York sits on the metamorphic basement).  (One author chose to cover the layers in reverse chronological order, putting the Potsdam last.)  Layer by layer, the authors would run through all the Ordovician, and all the Silurian, to the shallowest and youngest Devonian layers.  (Or, at least, to the shallowest and youngest Devonian layers not already washed away from New York — a stubborn geological fact which sadly excluded any prospect of finding coal, as they were enjoying in Pennsylvania.)

I know that there is much more to geology than just the sedimentary layers.  But I happen to think this is one of the more interesting parts (along with the impact of glaciers upon the landscape — which seems to have been barely yet guessed at, by the field, in 1842).
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The entrance to Howe's Cave, Cobleskill, NY, as depicted in Prof. Mather's assigned section of the Geology of New York.  This had to have been about what it looked like within a year after Lester Howe's cows revealed the opening — by their preference for the cool, escaping cave air on hot days in the pasture, May 1842.

Geology of New York, Part I, Comprising the Geology of the First Geological District [generally southestern NY], by William W. Mather, Professor of Natural History in the Ohio University, 1843.

The last numbered page on this one is 653, although then there were 46 plates afterwards, which Google has preserved in color as necessary (although here we see the first clues that something has gone terribly wrong with some of the scanning).

Here is Prof. Mather, writing within the Introduction to Chapter 1:
"In developing the geology of the First District of New-York, I have made such progress as my opportunities have permitted; and although little has been accomplished, when compared with what remains open for investigation, the results of these labors may be of some value to the community, as tending to make known the nature of the materials on a small portion of our planet, their position, uses, relative ages, and some of the various physical changes that this portion of the earth's surface has undergone.
"The labor of investigating the rocks in the first district is much greater than in the others, in consequence of their having been broken up by some convulsive action, and turned edgewise through extensive tracts of country, like ice, where broad fields of it crush against each other. This may seem visionary to those who have not investigated the facts of geology; but all can examine the facts in evidence, and draw their own conclusions."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
This is definitely one of the most dramatic depictions of sedimentary geology ever in New York State — the little man, lower left, practically blown away by the columns of Potsdam sandstone, as cut by the Ausable River, at Ausable Chasm, near Plattsburgh, NY.  I've borrowed the image — and reunited it with its caption — from Prof. Emmons' contribution to the four-part Geology of New York — as scanned by Google Books.
Geology of New York, Part II, Comprising the Survey of the Second Geological District [generally northern NY], by Ebenezer Emmons, Professor of Natural History in Williams College, 1842. 

This one ran 437 pages in the original, not counting 15 endplates (only two of which actually appear in the version I have linked here — sorry to say).

Where to start with Prof. Emmons?  The guy either led, or was in on, the first recorded ascent, in 1837, of Mount Marcy — the tallest of the Adirondack High Peaks.  Hell, he named Mount Marcy — in an astute stroke honoring then-NYS Governor William Learned Marcy.  Hell, for that matter, he also named the Adirondacks — being credited as the first to borrow the quasi-derogatory appellation "bark eater," from the Mohawks, applying it to the whole god-forsaken region.

Within the realm of geology, however, Emmons is remembered mostly for having tenaciously stood by the evidence as revealed by the rocks — despite the threat of losing his livelihood, his career, and his place in scholastic history.  Emmons and James Hall (who replaced another to head up the westernmost, fourth district of the NY survey, covered below) were two principals in one of the bitterest, dirtiest disputes in the annals of New World scholarship.  It seems crazy now, to think of it, but these two actually came to legal blows over their differing interpretations of the ages of rocks in the Taconic Mountains, east of the Hudson River.  Lawyers, suits, counter-suits, libel, slander, defamation, and disbarment — you name it — it was all part of the rowdy mix, back in the day.

Emmons was eventually vindicated in having shown that older rocks had, indeed, been flipped over atop younger rocks in an event now known as the Taconic Orogeny.  But, for a time, he was actually legally and politically beaten by the apparently better-connected, more-persuasive Hall — so far as to actually be formally barred from practicing geology in New York State.  He was exiled to North Carolina, which took him on as State Geologist for the latter part of his career.  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, originally the Rensselaer School of Troy, NY, honors Emmons as its own (both alum and professor) with a detailed biography here.

Here is Prof. Emmons, in Chapter 2 of his NYS efforts, attempting to contrast — without too much show of vanity — what little was known of the geology of the Adirondack region, prior to his survey — but in the process one can see that he's taking a swipe at Prof. Amos Eaton, his old mentor at Troy:
"Previous to the year 1837, nothing exact was known of the geology of the Northern District. Mr. Eaton, who was the oldest laborer in geology in New-York, had not extended his observations far into this field. He had, however, represented the McCombe Mountains [now known as Macomb, one of the famous Adirondack High Peaks] as composed of ranges of gneiss, extending from the valley of the Mohawk to the Provincial line, and the intermediate valleys, of limestone extending along their bases and around their northern extremities; and the whole section as being composed of two principal formations, a carboniferous slate, denominated primary, and a calcareous formation, denominated secondary.
"It is sufficiently evident that all this was imaginary; it is even difficult to conceive how imagination could have carried even a partial observer so far from the truth."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -  

Geology of New York, Part 3, Comprising the Survey of the Third Geological District [generally CNY], by Lardner Vanuxem, 1842.
This one ran 307 pages in the original.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 
If you notice there's something wrong with this picture, then you should definitely be working for Google Books.  This is a hand-colored plate — reunited with its black and white caption by me — depicting erosion along the shoreline of Lake Erie.  It's from the back end of Prof. Hall's 500-plus-page contribution to the original geological survey of New York — except, see, the fold-out page was scanned in folded-in position.

This one runs 525 pages in the original print, before tables and figures and exhibits start piling up.

In a section entitled, "Springs Evolving Carburetted Hydrogen And Petroleum (Burning Springs)," I choose to quote Prof. Hall extensively — by way of counter-acting a modern-day misconception, running to the effect that every time you have methane in water, you have a problem caused by the oil and gas industry:
"Springs of this character are numerous in the Fourth District. Sometimes the gas alone is the only product; and in others it is accompanied by petroleum, or liquid bitumen, which spreads over the surface of the water, and can be collected in considerable quantities. These are the 'burning springs' which in our younger days were such a marvel as a part of geographical knowledge.

"...A mile south of the village of Rushville, in Yates county, there are one or two springs which emit a considerable quantity of this gas; and when ignited, it continues to burn as it rises to the surface of the water. It was formerly conducted to a house near by, and used for lighting and warming the apartments. It is a popular belief, that wherever this gas rises, coal exists beneath the surface; and accordingly an excavation was commenced at this place, which of course resulted in disappointment. The geological situation is in shales of the Portage group.

"...In Chautauque county, a larger quantity of the gas issues from springs, streams and pools, than elsewhere in the district. In many instances the gas is accompanied by petroleum, which forms a thin pellicle upon the surface of the water; in other places the gas rises alone, and sometimes the petroleum occurs where there is no visible evolution of the gas.

"Near Forrestville, there is a copious emission of this gas; and it has been in contemplation to convey it to the village, for the purpose of lighting the houses and stores. At Laona there is a stratum of highly bituminous sandstone, and the water, rising to the surface, is accompanied by petroleum and gas. The sandstone appears to be charged with this fluid : it issues from the pores on fresh fracture; and specimens, after remaining for two years in the cabinet, still emit a strong bituminous odor.

"The village of Fredonia is lighted with this gas, which issues from fissures in the shale forming the bed of the stream at this place. During the day, it is collected in a reservoir, and furnishes sufficient for purposes required.

"At Portland harbor, the Light-house is illuminated with this gas, supplied from the margin of a small stream on the lake shore, half a mile northeast of the harbor. The quantity at this place is so great that no reservoir is required ; and I was informed, that during the night, as much passed off by the 'escape pipe' as was consumed.

"Large quantities of this gas issue from the waters of the lake near the shore, for three miles northeast of Portland harbor, and in numerous other places farther north and east. At Buffington's well,* it is constantly rising from the lake near the shore, apparently sufficient in the space of a few rods to illuminate a city. This product will doubtless be turned to important account when the population shall increase, and villages be formed in the vicinity. It could even at the present time be used in the village of Portland harbor, and with small expense conducted to Westfield. The only requisite expense will be the fixtures for collecting and purifying : the supply is constant, and probably inexhaustible.

"This gas doubtless issues from the earth in equal quantities in other places, but they cannot be readily detected except on the presence of water. Along the sheltered banks of the lake, the odor of the gas is constantly perceptible for miles, and its presence is thus manifest when the water is too rough to render its escape perceptible."

[Footnote: "*This is a deep boring (642 feet), made in search of salt water, on the supposition that if the level of tide water was reached, the salt water would be found. This is not the only similar ignis fatuus which has been followed in searching for coal, salt water and the precious metals; neither have these visionary projects ended at the present time."]

Friday, June 17, 2011

Drill Rigs Hug the PA-NY State Line:
But the Earth Knows No Difference

To me, this is a remarkable picture.
It's the red-dotted Northern Tier of counties in Pennsylvania, brushing up against the vacant blankness of the Southern Tier counties in New York. 

Yes, yes, my hometown is there someplace — in northern Broome Co., NY, with Interstate 81 running right through it.

But — more to the point — what this picture shows is the locations of every single actively drilling rotary rig in a key part of northeastern Appalachia for the week ending June 17, 2011 — as reported on this particular Friday (and on every Friday, around noonish) by Baker Hughes, the well-known oilfield services contractor.

Notice that there's nothing going on north of the state line between PA and NY?

And notice, furthermore, that there are no drilling rigs at work beyond the jagged watershed divide between the more westerly situated Susquehanna River, and the more easterly Delaware?

Let us be clear:  So far as Marcellus shale gas is concerned, there is no line of relevant geological distinction here.  There is no significant line of demarkation between shale bed thickness, or pressure in pounds per square inch, or thermal maturities, or organic content, or any of that complicated geological stuff.

In fact, there is perfectly good methane to be produced on either side of these lines between PA and NY, and between the Mighty Susquehanna and the Mighty Delaware.

There are jobs to be had on either side of those lines.  There are deals to be negotiated.  Leases to be signed.  Bonuses to be collected.  Royalty income to be reported.  Taxes to be paid.  Work to be done — already. 

It makes no difference — it matters not.

There is, in fact, no difference between one side or the other of these lines — except for this:  

Human institutions.  





That's all there is. 

The Earth knows no difference.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Chenango County Landowner to
Obama's Energy Dept.:
Drill A Gas Well, Bring A Soldier Home!

[Blogger's note:  This speech was delivered by Susan Dorsey of Greene, NY, on June 13, 2011, in Washington, PA — in front of a panel of experts appointed by President Obama's Energy Secretary Steven Chu.  To me, Chu's frack advisory board was basically asked to sort through all the chatter out there in order to quickly suggest workable and effective ways of improving the safety — and public acceptance — of hydraulic fracturing in fossil fuels production.  But, of course, it has become something of a contest.] 
In the 1980s I lived for eight years with two kids in diapers in a one-room hand-hewn log cabin in Chenango County, NY, with no running water — only a wood cookstove for heat in upstate winters.  I raised kids and chickens and goats and pigs and a HUGE vegetable garden, in order to be self-sufficient.

We had an outhouse and an outdoor water pump.  If windchill was -40 degrees, the water blew straight sideways, while I tried to fill the two five-gallon jugs that I would then carry back to the house — two at a time to balance the load.

So I understand, and also have experienced, what those who would rather have been born 300 years ago PRETEND.

My babies were boys.  Because I lost my husband when I was 23, I have always dreaded losing one of them.

I realize the duty of every American to defend our country, but as the boys grew I never could let go of the fear that they would be called up and — wasted. 

So, I also can empathize with those who fight gas development on the grounds of fear.  It's a powerful emotion.

When I first heard of local gas development, I was naturally skeptical!  I sought every information source available and weighed carefully.

Sending our youth to fight foreign wars so that we can control resources safely out of our view on the other side of the earth is IMMORAL.

You can't ask me to sit on this gas, when in the Bible the Parable of the Talents tells us it's a sin to bury our riches in the ground!  As landowners, we only want the right to develop our God-given resource!  NIMBY's claim the right to institute laws to zone gas development out.

IF they had relinquished their right to CONSUME fossil fuels, we would perhaps be persuaded by their sincerity, rather than outraged at their hypocrisy!

There is a vicious civil war on the streets of every small town around me, and, as you know, war is hell!

President Obama, please, deliver us from this, with an EXECUTIVE decision!

Be a true leader.  A Solomon who calls the obstructionists' bluff by offering to cut the baby in half!  A Moses to LEAD us to the promised land of domestic prosperity by SHOWING the way!

IMPLEMENT a VIABLE energy policy!

Drill a gas well, bring a soldier home!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Former PA Governor Ed Rendell:
NY Should Drill Shale Gas Now

Former PA Governor Ed Rendell had some interesting, insightful, and very-real-world advice for NY Governor Andrew Cuomo during the June 7, 2011, release party for an economic report sponsored by a New York City-based think tank.  

But Google searches as of this writing show no media outlets, and less than a handful of web pages, have teased out any notice of Rendell's recent takes on this topic.  (Full video of the 53-minute floor show is online here.)  All of these mentions have been very brief, and one of them was from the report sponsor itself — the thoroughly conservative, brainy, and bow-tied Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.

I think the lack of media amplification stems from the fact that public officials such as Rendell (and, for that matter, Rendell's former PA DEP Chief, John Hanger, who's now cranking out an excellent blog here) set teeth on edge within either ideological extreme, pro- or anti-drilling.  Their views are feared for being a little too equally critical — a little too loose on deck for either side's do-or-die campaign.  Yes, they may call for strong regulation and for stiff taxation (often in ways which are shockingly frank for the pro-gas propagandists).  But they also refuse to operate in ways which would needlessly choke all economic benefits out of the enterprise of resource extraction.  (That's no longer good enough for the anti-drillers, who — at this point, at least in New York — have now sharpened their demands to call for a shutdown of even old-school, oil and gas patch activity.)

The Manhattan Institute's study, as authored primarily by University of Wyoming economics professor TImothy Considine, concluded that New York State is presently refusing $11.4 billion in statewide economic oomph — the conservatively estimated net benefit attainable from producing less than a decade's worth of its own landowners' shale gas.  Together with 18,000 new jobs that simply won't get created (at least not around these parts), that's the true cost of the present state of ignorance-fueled, activist-manufactured, political panic. 

The study itself got pretty reasonable coverage, such as this article here from Jon Campbell of the Gannett organization, which owns a number of print outlets serving upstate, including several areas directly underlain by Marcellus shale.

But few have taken notice of what Rendell said that day in NYC.

Rendell, now on standby with a PA law firm, is a Big City Democrat, the former mayor of Philadelphia (two terms), and the former governor of Pennsylvania (two terms) — his last hitch syncing up with the first few years of the state's still-ongoing Marcellus shale drilling boom.

Regarding New York State's nearly three-year-old moratorium on shale gas drilling permits...

"If Gov. Cuomo were to ask me my advice about lifting the moratorium, I would tell him the moratorium should be lifted.  There's too much of an upside here for New York, as there was for Pennsylvania, and too much of an upside for America."

On PA's battle over passing a shale gas severance tax, a tax which Rendell originally resisted as governor, but later fought unsuccessfully to enact before his term expired...

"In Pennsylvania, I think the industry is close to killing the golden goose.  They're going to get good support from the legislature and from Governor [Tom] Corbett, who I think unwisely promised that there would be no shale tax.  That has been a cause of heat and loathing directed at the shale companies because Pennsylvania, like many other states, is cutting things, laying off people..."

"The fear and loathing that's bubbling up in Pennsylvania towards the shale drilling could be stopped easily by paying a fair and reasonable tax, which the shale companies are used to paying in every other state in the union.  It makes no sense, and I have told them that over and over and over again."

On the 1,900 environmental violations racked up over the last three years by shale gas drillers, out of which Considine's study reported 7.9 percent were rated by regulators as "serious"...

"Do the math — 7.9 percent of 1,900 means there were 170 serious violations.  Do you know what one serious violation does in the minds of the people of a county?  And in the minds of the people in a surrounding county?  And, with the media today, in the minds of the people in the entire state?" [21:16]

On the Corbett Administration's recent success in ending — without a formal legislative or regulatory re-write — all in-state discharge of treated flowback waters from fracked wells...

"The reason, right now, that major companies are not putting any of the frack water into surface waterways in Pennsylvania, as Professor Considine found, is they're trucking it to [treatment facilities, or deep well injection sites in] Ohio — which, I guess, as former governor of Pennsylvania, ought to be all right with me.  But I don't know what's going on in Ohio." [24:55]

Back to the situation with neighboring New York...

"Nobody has more riding on this than the state governments do themselves, because of the economic uptick...  New York should go down this path because it's so important, and the upside is so great.  But we've got to use care in every way.  And it shouldn't be just the state department of environmental protection that's exercising that oversight and care.  It ought to be the companies themselves." [28:02]

On challenging industry to do better...

"I went down to Houston while I was governor to speak to the natural gas association and deliver the message:  'You are sitting on the golden goose.  The golden goose is ready to hatch golden egg, after golden egg, after golden egg.  But we're not going to kill the golden goose
— not us — not the regulators.  You are.'"

"So this is a good path to go down.  But everyone has to be concerned about making sure we do it in an environmentally sensitive and in an environmentally friendly way, and in a way which minimizes and mitigates environmental damage.  Ten million gallons of contaminated water is ten million gallons too much." [29:25]

On the Pickens Plan...

"We've got to use every resource we have.  Boone Pickens is right.  Renewables, if they are going to help us significantly, they are going to help us significantly in 2025 at the earliest.  In the meantime, we need to take advantage of this.  Boone Pickens couldn't be more dead-on — absolutely." [50:06]

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Methane That's Already in NYS Water:
DEC Has Some Data, But Not a Database

Well Driller by Eric Markwardt
Well Driller, a photo by Eric Markwardt
on Flickr (I asked first).
Albany denizen, computer guy, outdoors enthusiast, and Twitter user Andy Arthur (@AndyArthur) was recently mapping some data from the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, when he hit upon an interesting question: 

Where within the former Empire State have water well drillers been finding unwelcome methane in wells they've drilled for homeowners?

I believe such a dataset, and such a map, would be a very important to organize — prior to the introduction of modern horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to produce shale gas in New York State.

And, it turns out, there is actually an already-existing collection point for this information.

Since January 2000, shortly after the state law governing professional water well drillers was amended, the DEC has on a statewide basis collected so-called water well completion reports from these contractors.  The DEC's program is explained to the general public here.  And the records of certified well drillers, as well as the wells they've drilled so far (not counting Long Island), can be combed online here.  According to DEC reps, the database at this writing holds 85,367 records.

The instructions to certified well drillers for filling out the forms include Section 43, the Well Log.  For every well, in this place on the form, there is room for reporting — in a computer-unfriendly, freehand sort of way — information about issues encountered, such as sulphur, salt, or methane.
Methane — now that's a big issue, currently.

The only trouble is, the drillers' responses in this section aren't ever linked or entered into the database.  And so these reports sit unsorted and unsortable, on either the original paper or an archived scan.  One would have to line up an intern or two to go through the whole stack of 85,000 in order to determine how often well drillers in New York hit methane (and go to the trouble of reporting that fact), and also to get a picture of where methane-in-water might tend to be happening geographically within the state. 

Grant-worthy project, anyone?  Senior thesis, anyone?  Master's project, anyone? 

Methane in water is a centuries-old, naturally occurring phenomenon — non-toxic if simply consumed, but potentially an explosion hazard if allowed to collect unvented within living spaces.  Due to the current political slugfest over hydraulic fracturing to develop shale gas, I think it would be fair to say that the oil and gas industry has recently become popularly blameworthy, at least in the Northeastern U.S., for nearly every conceivable occurrence of methane in water.

To be honest and fair, I'm willing to acknowledge that industry and the regulatory establishment are, in fact, guilty of allowing insufficient casing to cause some water wells to become polluted with methane, either in the short-term or the long-term.  In these cases, the culprit has been drilling, not fracking.  And the culprit has also been shallow methane riding up the outside of the unsealed, external, concrete layer of the casing, not deep production methane escaping from inside the internal, solid-steel, drill-pipe layer.

But — let's face it — to the affected homeowners, and to anti-drilling activists, or to the journalistic community, such fussy factual distinctions are completely irrelevant, and have no impact whatsoever upon the generalized and slurred story line, which basically runs to the effect that the goddamn gas drillers must be obviously routinely fracking up everybody's water with their methane.

Relevance is the key word. 

And relevance, like beauty, appears to be in the eye of the beholder. 

Is it relevant that many rural homeowners have long coped with methane in their water wells — but without ever having any culprit to blame, get mad at, or sue, except simply the unthinking malevolent forces of nature?  Is it relevant that some once-good water wells do suddenly go bad, without any particular human cause? 

I think it is relevant.

Josh Fox does not think so. 

In a video currently censored from You Tube and Vimeo — blacked out for the moment on very thin, copyright-infringement grounds by lawyers working for Fox — Irish instigator Phelim McAleer shot some clandestine, two-camera tape of his confrontation of the director of Gasland at a Q&A session in Chicago.  (The video in its originally suppressed form recently resurfaced on a renegade web site, and can for the time-being be viewed here.)  Fox is shown to dance and deflect when publicly challenged for having left out seemingly key, freely available information — conclusions from experts indicating that the now-famous scenes of flaming faucets which so graphically anchor the premise of his entire film have to do with natural causes. 

It's not relevant, according to Fox. 

Previously known, pre-fracking methane-in-water issues in these areas of Colorado are not relevant.  The water well completion reports (and — for one of these wells — these obscure technical documents show the water well bore was punched directly through a number of layers of shallow, methane-rich coalbed) are not relevant.  The assessment of Colorado's publicly employed experts is not relevant.  These things are no more relevant than the statistics on traffic accidents from Denver, Fox says.

All you need, according to Fox, is a citizen's emotional testimony that before fracking their water seemed fine, and after fracking, all hell broke loose.  That's the smoking gun.  Everything else is irrelevant. 

What is this about? 

To me, this is about the exact spot in the movie where politics, persuasion, and naked manipulation come unhinged from the science, from honest reporting, and from what's actually knowable about the world.

In New York State — where, despite three years of patience by industry, and by the actual resource owners, there has still not yet been permitted the first full-on, full-frack, horizontal shale gas well — there are a number of homeowners who have already gone public with the fact that they have methane in their water. 

Here's a sampling: 

Ithaca anti-drilling activist Walter Hang lined up Frederick Mayer of Candor, NY, to appear on a You Tube video here — with more than 50,000 views as of this writing.  Mayer as a disabled Vietnam vet is clearly a sympathy-inducing character, and the video — amateurish though it may be in its execution — is clearly set up so as to make us viewers feel sorry for the guy.  Here he is, diligently maintaining this rental property for years, and — as of about three years before filming — he now suddenly faces a shortage of prospective tenants, due to the fact that his tap water has turned gassy and flammable.  Mayer blames gas drilling, but the details of timing and proximity are left suspiciously fuzzy, and the NYS DEC people didn't see enough of a connection to even bother sending somebody in person to check it out.

Nowhere within the video's two and a half minutes is there any specific reporting as to the proximity of the closest natural gas well — whether that question is framed historically or recently.  We only hear that they were drilling in Spencer, "which is due west of here."  (For the record, and for what it's worth, my NYS atlas shows "downtown" Spencer is more than 8 miles due west from "downtown" Candor.)  This is the level of detail we get from Hang — who ranks professionally as a computer database expert where his primary business function consists of supplying the banking, legal, and consulting industries with geographically delineated government data on every available piece of environmentally relevant information.  Hang doesn't even bother to let us know which gas well could have possibly caused the problem, and what would have been the chronological sequence of supposedly causal events.  And, again, remember, it can't be fracking, and it can't be shale gas, because New York hasn't yet allowed any drilling to be followed by high-volume hydraulic fracture.  (Unless Hang wants to take the position that Mayer's trouble is coming north, deep underground, from PA — the state line for which my map book tells me is more than 17 miles south of Candor.)

The case of Fred Mayer's flaming kitchen tap was curious enough to interest the Syracuse Post-Standard — even though Candor is 67 miles away by car, and well outside the paper's ordinary circulation or coverage area.  I remember it running as a kind of ominous warning about the dangers of natural gas drilling on the front page, complete with alarming photo, on Jan. 2, 2010 (though they don't seem to keep track of print placement in the online versions).

Documentarians Getzels Gordon Productions found John Larnerd of Owego, NY — one of the Southern Tier's classic retired IBMers — who lit his well water vent on fire for posterity as shown here in a slide-show-with-voiceover on Shale Country.  (Shale Country appears to have been a folksy, industry-funded, once-only attempt to reply to Gasland.)   Larnerd is well-schooled in energy and environmental issues — and even dabbles in producing some solar energy himself — but he very calmly shows he's not freaked out, or ready to mount a political crusade, about the methane in his water.  There's no way to say how many people, by comparison, have seen this interview, but I think it would be fair to say that it's way less than the 50,000 YouTubers getting their blood pressure jacked up looking at Hang's output.  To my knowledge, local media have taken absolutely no notice of it at all. 

Then there was also a case quite a bit further east in Guilford Center, NY [sorry, I can't find a link to any version of the original story which isn't half-withheld behind a subscribers-only doorway] — first publicized by the Norwich Evening Sun, possibly the only upstate newspaper to so far take an editorially embracing view of the prospect natural gas might pose for this region.  (I see that this Guilford Center story has also now been picked up here by the northeastern branch office of Energy In Depth,)  Robert Sandell, a 74-year-old homeowner in that hamlet  — situate on the eastern fringes of Chenango County, within the Unadilla River watershed, a feeder to the Susquehanna — showed reporters pictures and video of himself lighting his kitchen tap on fire. 

What's most interesting to me about this (other than the question of how the hell Sandell ever expects to sell his house in such a small town, now that he's given this very public performance) is the fact that the guy's homestead is so far east within upstate New York's wildcat zone for natural gas development.  Both the Norwich paper and EID-Northeast err conveniently in quoting the Chenango County Planning Department to the effect that the closest gas drilling would have been in Coventry, 25 miles away.  ("Downtown" Coventry is about 11 miles by direct route from "downtown" Guilford Center.)  Much better information can be teased out through state DEC mapping applications freely available online here, where any searcher can reliably show there has been only one oil or gas well ever drilled within Guilford Township, during the entire era of state regulation over this activity.  That would have been the now-plugged Robert C. Wahlberg #1, a 5,500-foot-deep near-basement test spudded by Amoco in 1974 about two miles away from "downtown" Guilford Center.
Eternal Flame Falls - SOOC by wnywaterfallers
Eternal Flame Falls, a photo by Joe Zimmerman
(wnywaterfallers on Flickr) (I asked first).
One last notable case of presumably naturally flowing methane in water involves not a water well — but a waterfall.  Proud Buffalonians — always alert for more local lore with which to wow people from out of town — know it as Eternal Flame Falls, within the Shale Creek Preserve section of Chestnut Ridge Park, in Orchard Park, NY.  There is at least one spot there, on the shaley staircase, where the nooks and crannies are so arranged that somebody discovered you could keep the continuously venting methane on fire for weeks after lighting.  Hundreds of hours of freelance story-telling, writing, hiking, photography, and Bic-flicking have been devoted ever since to keeping this waterfall's fame and flame alive.  (Some great pics and text from a SUNY UB grad student in geology here.)

But, for the most part, Eternal Flame Falls has had absolutely no influence on the debate over hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in New York.

It must be it's just not relevant.