Drill Finger Lakes Drill?

As natural gas drilling expands in the Finger Lakes region, some wineries fear potential pollution
May 14, 2010

The Finger Lakes region of New York is known for its wineries and its pristine beauty. But below the picturesque landscape lie large deposits of natural gas—encased in a large shale formation that runs from West Virginia to New York. While some natural gas drilling is currently underway, many residents fear plans for more could have a chilling effect on tourism and wineries.

"My family has been here for six generations, and I want to continue farming for another six," said Art Hunt, owner of Hunt County Vineyards and president of the Keuka Lake Association, a preservation group. "No way do I want to jeopardize that." While drilling would bring huge economic benefits to the region, Hunt has worried about potential environmental damage since gas company leasing agents began acquiring land in the area several years ago.

A 2002 United States Geological Survey calculated that the Marcellus shale layer, a formation running below central New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, could contain up to 168 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. The best drilling is where thick shale lies at minimum depths—Pennsylvania and New York. Drilling accelerated in Pennsylvania starting in 2005, and now gas companies are buying more and more leases in New York.

Shale produces high-quality natural gas but is not naturally permeable; it is difficult to get the gas out because the pores and fractures that occur naturally in the rock are small and unconnected. Therefore, natural gas is recovered through a process called horizontal, high-volume hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as "fracking." A portion of the well is sealed off, then a mixture of water and chemicals is injected at very high pressure. The mixture fractures the rocks and pushes them open. Sand is dumped into the fractures to keep them open when the pressure decreases. Just the right amount of sand will be permeable enough to allow the gas to be pumped out of the shale.

What concerns residents is the use of chemicals in the fracturing. According to the New York Farm Bureau, 99 percent of the liquid or gel mixture is water and sand. But the concentration of chemicals in that one percent is unknown; the gas companies do not release the information. Some of the chemicals are radioactive materials such as radon, which can leak into the water supply if not disposed of properly.

"One concern has been the millions of gallons of waste water," said Lindsay Wickham, Area Field Supervisor for the New York Farm Bureau who spoke to the Seneca Lake Wine Association at a recent meeting. "But many companies are recycling the water onsite, and it's not the issue many thought it would be. In fact, [according to the Department of Environment Conservation], there has not been one case of high-volume hydraulic fracturing polluting a water well or aquifer."

Wickham also explained the huge economic impact that drilling could have on the region. Three years ago, a report estimated that the sheer volume of natural gas in the shale near the Finger Lakes, at a 10 percent recovery rate, could supply natural gas for the New York area for 21 years. Prices for leasing land over the shale in Pennsylvania have increased from $50 per acre to $5,000 to $6,000 depending on the thickness of the rock. The royalty rate for gas recovered increased as well, from the standard 12.5 percent to up to 25 percent. He told of one farmer making $2 million a year off royalties.

But economics aside, locals and "anti-frackers," those opposed to hydraulic fracturing as a natural gas recovery process, worry that the expansion of drilling has the potential for environmental disaster. Not only is there a threat of polluted water supply from radioactive chemicals and the drilling waste water, but pipelines must be built and truck traffic must increase on local roads to ship the liquefied natural gas to major markets. Combined with the actual drilling wells, which by statute must be 640 acres apart, opponents worry that an area now touted for tourism will turn into an industrial work zone.

"This is one of the most beautiful areas of the country with water so clean you can drink out of [the lake]," Hunt said. "Transportation of all the water needed will destroy the roads. How will that affect wine tourism and agriculture? I'm not opposed to responsible drilling but they can't just barge in and take over."

Both sides of the debate, however, do agree that surface contamination is the biggest threat, one that could affect wineries, residents and natural gas companies alike. Hunt, with the Keuka Lake Association, is pushing for stronger regulations to avoid immediate and long-term problems. He argues that the current report on drilling is "lacking in safeguards and testing," but the state will propose new regulations in the next year, before any new drilling permits are issued.

According to the New York Farm Bureau, drilling near Finger Lakes wineries is still several years away. "The wine industry is not going to be a big part of this," said Wickham, who worked in the industry for 20 years. "In terms of heavy-duty drilling, it's years away from the wineries."

"Some winery owners were very concerned about fracturing and other chemical practices. Surface contamination has the potential to be the most detrimental," said Paul Thomas, executive director of the Seneca Lake Wine Association. "But it seems Albany is taking great pains to make sure it is done safely and responsibly."

Environment United States New York Finger Lakes News

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