Published February 29, 2012
Federal Scientists Warn NY of Fracking Risks
Wednesday, February 22, 2012
By Dusty Horwitt, Senior Counsel
The U.S. Geological Survey has warned New York state regulators that their
plan to allow drilling and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the
Marcellus Shale could endanger private water wells, municipal aquifers and
New York City’s drinking water supply.
The assessment of the USGS, widely regarded as impartial and authoritative
on drilling issues, intensifies pressure on Gov. Andrew Cuomo not to proceed
with a drilling plan drafted by the New York State Department of
Environmental Conservation. Cuomo has pledged to “let the science and the
facts make the determination, not emotion and not politics.”1
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has separately written New York
regulators arguing that they are ill- equipped to regulate a boom in shale
gas drilling and have limited financial means to enforce the numerous new
regulations they have proposed. The EPA has raised additional concerns,
among them, that the state has understated the severity of radioactive
pollution associated with drilling and doesn’t know how such contaminants
would be disposed of.
Officials at the Department of Environmental Conservation are now
considering whether to modify their plan to address the federal agencies’
reservations and about 60,000 letters from local governments, independent
scientists, gas drillers, property owners, environmental groups and other
interested citizens. Once the state agency has concluded its review, which
could wind up as soon as this spring, the issue goes to Cuomo’s desk.
The stakes for New York taxpayers are enormous. The Department of
Environmental Conservation has estimated that if New York City’s drinking
water supply is contaminated by drilling, cleaning up the water would
require a water filtration plant costing at least $8 billion, with a yearly
operating expense of $200 million.2 Even then, city officials have said
there is no guarantee that the water could be purified. If water supplies of
other population centers are tainted, the cleanup costs would soar higher.
As now written, the state plan projects that tens of thousands of natural
gas wells could spring up along the New York portion of the Marcellus Shale,
a vast underground formation that stretches along the Appalachian chain as
far south as Kentucky. Most of the wells are likely to deploy a relatively
new shale-drilling process called high volume hydraulic fracturing and
horizontal drilling, which typically involves injecting millions of gallons
of water laced with chemicals into the ground under high pressure, aiming to
crack shale rock and release natural gas trapped in small pockets.
The USGS, the federal government’s expert on the geology and hydrology of
oil and gas drilling, advised New York regulators that their plan is flawed
in several respects. Among them:
The state’s proposal to prohibit drilling inside a 500-foot buffer
around aquifers that supply major municipal water systems “is
one-size-fits-all and may provide only partial protection to these
A similar 500-foot buffer for private water wells and springs “affords
limited protection” and “does not take local geohydrologic conditions and
topographic setting into account.” The USGS added that “changes brought
about by drilling, including water quality changes, can be felt rapidly at
significant distance from a disturbance – especially if a domestic well is
[downhill] of a well pad.”4
Pressurized fracturing fluids could migrate through underground faults
and impact an underground aqueduct that carries drinking water to New York
City. The USGS said that “the possibility of damage to the aqueduct from
hydraulic-fracturing operations is an issue of concern” and deserves more
A map displayed in the state’s draft plan “grossly under-represents the
number and extent of [natural] faults in the Appalachian Basin of New York”
where shale gas drilling would occur. Ground that is riddled with
underground faults could channel pollution from drilling into underground
“Only scattered and incomplete information is available” on underground
freshwater sources that could be polluted by shale gas drilling. The USGS
said the state plan should require drilling companies to maintain detailed
logs that would identify and protect these aquifers.7
Drilling too close to water sources
The USGS went to some lengths to dispute the state agency’s premise that
drilling could be safely conducted 500 feet from water supplies. The federal
agency said that in some cases, it might be necessary to prohibit drilling
within five square miles of aquifers to avoid polluting them.8
The USGS position is bolstered by documented cases in Colorado, Ohio and
Pennsylvania, where natural gas and related contaminants have polluted
underground water supplies at distances much greater than 500 feet.
In 2004, Canada-based Encana Corp. improperly cemented and hydraulically
fractured a well in Garfield County, Colo. The state found that the poor
cementing caused natural gas and associated contaminants to travel
underground more than 4,000 feet laterally. As a result, a creek became
contaminated with dangerous levels of carcinogenic benzene. The state of
Colorado fined Encana a then-record $371,200. Despite more than seven years
of cleanup efforts, as of last September, three groundwater monitoring wells
near the creek still showed unsafe levels of benzene.9
In 2007, a natural gas well fractured by Ohio Valley Energy Systems
Corp. in Bainbridge, Ohio, caused natural gas to contaminate 23 nearby water
wells, two of which were more than 2,300 feet from the drilling site.10
In 2009, several natural gas wells drilled by Houston-based Cabot Oil
and Gas Corp. in Dimock, Penn., polluted water wells used by at least 19
families, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Cabot has disputed the finding. At least three of the water wells were
farther than 1,000 feet from the gas wells. For about two years, the
Pennsylvania DEP ordered the company to deliver water to the families. Last
December, Cabot stopped the deliveries after the DEP ruled that the company
had met its obligations under a state order. Affected families were forced
to scramble for new sources of water. Filmmaker Josh Fox, actor Marc Ruffalo
and others donated bottled water that met some of the families’ needs. The
federal EPA recently found dangerous contaminants in well water in Dimock
and ordered a resumption of water deliveries for four of the families.
Pennsylvania officials have declined to extend public water lines to the
affected families, estimating the cost at $12 million.11
New York City water aqueduct threatened
The USGS concluded that under the state plan, hydraulic fracturing fluids
could reach and damage New York City’s West Delaware Aqueduct, an
underground tunnel that brings drinking water to the city from reservoirs in
the Catskill Mountains. Naturally occurring fractures “may potentially
provide pathways for the migration of pressurized fluids over significant
distances,” the USGS wrote. It suggested that the state’s proposal to
require site-specific permits in a 1,000-foot zone around the aqueduct might
prove inadequate.12 The USGS focused only on threats to the West Delaware
Aqueduct, one of several underground aqueducts that carry water to New York
City from the Marcellus Shale region.
An earlier assessment commissioned by New York City’s Department of
Environmental Protection also concluded that drilling might endanger the
West Delaware Aqueduct and other tunnels that carry the city’s water, for
reasons similar to those cited by the USGS. The city’s DEP found that
naturally occurring underground pathways near the tunnels “can extend up to
seven miles laterally and up to 6,000 feet in depth.” It added:
“The vertical and lateral persistence of these features in conjunction
with the potential for failed casings or other unforeseen occurrences could
result in significant surface and subsurface contamination of fresh water
aquifers, as illustrated by incidents in other well fields, most notably
documented in Garfield County, Colorado (migration of toxic formation
material through subsurface fractures) and Dimock, Pennsylvania (migration
of natural gas to the surface via improperly cased wells). Similar
mechanisms could permit migration of material into the fresh water aquifers
that comprise the NYC West-of-Hudson watersheds and present potential risks
to water quality and tunnel lining integrity.”13
Based on this assessment, the city agency recommended several preventive
measures, including barring drilling within seven miles of several aqueducts
and a drilling ban within two miles of other water tunnels.14
Underground faults, water supplies unmapped
The USGS raised serious questions about the state’s significant undercount
of natural faults throughout the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation. If
drilling and hydraulic fracturing were permitted directly underneath faults,
the federal agency said, contaminants could flow upward into underground
aquifers. It noted that there are generally far more natural faults in
bedrock overlying the Marcellus Shale than elsewhere.15
In a study that focused on the Marcellus Shale in New York and Pennsylvania
and was published last year by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers
from Duke University reported finding levels of natural gas an average of 17
times higher in water wells close to active natural gas wells than in water
wells in non-active drilling areas. The most likely cause, they said, was
leaky well casings, but they also raised the possibility that some gas
migrated through “extensive fracture systems” in rock above the shale
formations. Another factor, they said, might be gas migration through many
older, un-cased wells abandoned during 150 years of drilling in Pennsylvania
and New York.16
USGS urges better reporting
The USGS said that the depths of underground drinking water sources are not
well documented and must be established so that drilling companies can
design casing and cementing to prevent migration of gas or saltwater into
underground drinking water supplies. The agency faulted New York state
regulators for failing to require drilling companies to map underground
fresh water and salt water sources and, as well, shallow gas formations
before they drill extensively. It called these determinations critical to
the design and installation of effective casing and cementing.17
Cuomo should emulate Maryland’s O’Malley
The USGS assessment makes clear that New York is not ready for shale gas
drilling on any level. Given Cuomo’s commitment to science, it is hard to
see how he could come to a different conclusion. Cuomo should halt the state’s
drilling plan and let scientists like those at USGS continue their work so
that New Yorkers can know whether high volume hydraulic fracturing and
horizontal drilling can be conducted safely before drilling begins.
That’s essentially the approach Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has taken. His
administration has embarked on a detailed study of potential drilling
impacts, to be finished by 2014. Until then, O’Malley has committed not to
allow gas drilling companies to deploy this controversial technique in
Maryland’s portion of the Marcellus Shale.18
Meanwhile, the EPA is conducting a nationwide study on hydraulic fracturing’s
impact on water and a separate inquiry in Pavillion, Wyo., where the agency
concluded in a draft report that hydraulic fracturing likely contaminated
groundwater on which the community relies for its drinking water and
By proceeding with drilling in the face of warnings by USGS, the EPA and
other experts, “Cuomo would be betting nothing of significance will go
wrong,” Albany Times-Union columnist Fred LeBrun wrote in a Jan. 15, 2012,
column. “Given the enormity of the possibilities, that’s a dumb bet.”19
Will Cuomo make a multi-billion-dollar gamble with the state’s drinking
water and the health of New Yorkers? The up side, in the form of jobs and
revenues from gas production, is modest. The down side, if anything goes
wrong, is incalculable. Why chance it?
1. Thomas Kaplan, Millions Spent in Albany Fight to Drill for Gas, New York
Times, Nov. 26, 2011.
2. See NYDEC SGEIS, supra note 9, at 6-47.
3. U.S. Geological Survey, New York Water Science Center, Comments on the
Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement 6 (2012).
4. See id., at 7.
5. See id., at 20.
6. See id., at 10.
7. See id., at 1.
8. USGS, supra note 3, at 6-7.
9. URS Corp., Phase I Hydrogeologic Characterization of the Mamm Creek field
Area in Garfield County (2006), http://cogcc.state.co.us/ (follow links for
“Library” and then “Piceance Basin”) (prepared for Bd. of County Comm’rs,
Garfield County, Colo.); Colo. Oil & Gas Conservation Comm’n, Order No.
1V-276 (Sept. 16, 2004), http://cogcc.state.co.us/ (follow link for
10. Ohio Dep’t of Natural Res., Report on the Investigation of the Natural
Gas Invasion of Aquifers in Bainbridge Township of Geauga County, Ohio 6,
46-7 (2008); Bair, E. Scott, et al., Expert Panel Technical Report,
Subsurface Gas Invasion Bainbridge Township, Geauga County, Ohio 3-113
(submitted to Ohio Dep’t of Natural Res., Div. of Mineral Res. Mgmt.); Ohio
Dep’t of Natural Res., Order Number 2009-17 (Apr. 14, 2009) (see attachments
11. Consent Order & Settlement Agreement in re Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. (Dep’t
Envtl. Prot. Dec. 15, 2010); Consent Order & Settlement Agreement in re
Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. (Dep’t Envtl. Prot. Nov. 4, 2009); Laura Legere, DEP
Drops Dimock Waterline Plans; Cabot Agrees to Pay $4.1M to Residents,
Scranton Times-Tribune, Dec. 16, 2010,
Laura Legere, Outside Groups Deliver Water as Sides Spar over Drilling,
Scranton Times-Tribune, December 7, 2011.
12. See USGS, supra note 3, at 19-20. N.Y. City Dep’t of Envtl. Prot., Final
Impact Assessment Report, Impact Assessment of Natural Gas Production in the
New York City Water Supply Watershed 39-40 (2009) [hereinafter NYCDEP]. N.Y.
State Dep’t. Envtl. Conservation, Supplemental Generic Envtl. Impact
Statement on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program, Well
Permit Issuance for Horizontal Drilling and High-Volume Hydraulic fracturing
to Develop the Marcellus Shale and other Low-Permeability Gas Reservoirs
ES-6 (2011) [hereinafter NYDEC SGEIS].
13. NYCDEP, supra note 9, at 39-40 (2009).
14. See id., at D-3. Paul Rush, Dep. Commissioner, Bureau of Water Supply,
N.Y. City Dep’t of Envtl. Prot., Before the New York City Council, Committee
on Envtl. Prot., Sep. 22, 2011. N.Y. City Dep’t of Envtl. Prot., Comments on
the Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement on the
Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program 2 (2012).
15. See USGS, supra note 3, at 9.
16. Stephen G. Osborn, et al., Methane Contamination of Drinking Water
Accompanying Gas-Well Drilling and Hydraulic Fracturing, 108 PNAS 8172-76,
8175 (2011), http://www.pnas.org/content/108/20/8172.
17. USGS, supra note 3, at 1.
18. Martin O’Malley, Governor of Maryland, Executive Order 01.01.2011.11,
The Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative, June 6, 2011. Accessed online
February 20, 2012 at
19. Fred LeBrun. The Keys to the Kingdom, Albany Times-Union, Jan. 15, 2012,