Anticipating the future of shale gas development in NY: Dispatches from the field where science meets politics

I’ve been reporting on shale gas for four years now. A trip through upstate New York this week reinforced the notion we are still in the early stages of a story that is gaining steam nationally, even as low natural gas prices have, for now, damped the industry push to open New York for shale gas drilling.

I visited the University of Rochester (New York) and Hobart William and Smith (in Geneva, New York) as part of a book tour for the debut of Under the Surface. Academia is a fertile place for ideas, of course, and I encountered plenty of them growing forth in all directions regarding the impact and future of shale as development. In Rochester, I met with professor Karen Berger and her colleagues from the department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. In Geneva, I met with Lisa Cleckner, director of the Finger Lakes Institute, and professor Beth Kinne and other faculty atHobart William and Smith. I also met with members of the community who attended my respective talks at each school. This trip gave me a great feel for the complementary relationship between schools and community in cultivating ideas. Here are a few thoughts from my notebook.

On the question of the cumulative impact of shale gas drilling on water quality locally and regionally: Any attempts to quantify that will be fruitless without a lot of field work prior to the industry’s arrival. Much of the stuff that poses concerns about water quality are naturally occurring in the ground, including metals, salts, methane, and radio active isotopes. Fresh water aquifers, lakes, and streams tend to have some of these elements, but they become a problem when drilling creates conduits for non-potable elements to travel from gas baring zones and layers below the aquifer, where they tend to be more concentrated. There is little argument that drilling can agitate ground water conditions. But without a comprehensive and reliable baseline to set a given sample in the context of the broader natural history of a given spot, it’s hard to prove what is caused by industry and what is not. Ideally, communities will be able to chart the chemistry of their water resources with field tests, and by searching historical records to create a data set that serves as a baseline, against which future changes can be measured. But mobilizing the resources to do this is a monumental task. Geneva and the Seneca Lake region is beginning to do this, with the help of the Finger Lakes Institute, by recruiting students and teachers who can contribute to the science through class projects.

Regarding public health: The needs of a given community in the midst of a drilling boom, and the science available to address those needs, do not always match up. This doesn’t just happen. It takes planning and funding. A good example is the EPA investigation of water quality in a gas field in Dimock, Pennsylvania. The EPA is offering residents hundreds of pages of analytical results, but nobody to interpret them. As one researcher told me, “People see a list of compounds and values next to them, and it’s very unsettling. What does it mean?” The results do tell residents that – at the time the samples were collected – the water was deemed potable, with some exceptions. But without a working knowledge of the ever-changing dynamics of the entire water system, the results have limited value in charting long-term changes in the water system that signal health risks over time.

On the geology of the Marcellus in northern Pennsylvania and the Southern Tier of New York: Public knowledge of the comprehensive geological picture, and various subtleties that may lead to an abundance of methane migration problems in one area but not another, is scarce. Companies spend a lot of money getting a competitive advantage through seismic surveys and other means, and they are not inclined to share that information. The lack of a detailed public understanding and mapping of “thrust faults” in northern Pennsylvania and the Southern Tier of New York is one example. Thrust faults are breaks in the bedrock where one section overrides the other, allowing a greater chance for interplay between geological zones, which can be aggravated by drlling.

I also met with community members who brought different perspectives to the table. Where the academicians by nature and training are interested in the questions and process – pulling everything apart and looking at it critically -- local residents tend to be interested in the answers and affirmation of their concerns and views. Who do we believe in following the conflicting scientific and economic evaluations of the risks and rewards of the industry? How will drilling affect my land, my health, my economic status, or the nature of my community?

In short, this trip brought me to the crossroads of science and politics, which is the very place that policy is born. We hear a lot of talk about science-based decision making. But lets face it. Scientists don’t make policy. Politicians do. You can take heart in this fact if you have faith in our system (which I do). Politicians, while drawing fire from skeptics, do not work blindly. And you can bet they are gauging the mood of voters during an election year. This includes special interests, of course. But special interests are diluted by the intense grass roots influence on the discussion taking place at town halls, city councils, homesteads, and the Ivory Tower.

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