The state’s environmental safeguards are reflected most precisely in the regulations. Not in the rhetoric of politicians or the generalities of the SGEIS. The Governor of New York has said those regulations would be decided by science. Fair enough. Let’s see if we can find any “science” in the new regulations proposed by the DEC.
The DEC has proposed to increase the setback of a drilling site from 100 feet from a house to 500 feet. The 100 foot setback dates from 1972, and before last week, the DEC had never even mentioned it – not in the dSGEIS, not in the September 2011 draft regulations, which ostensibly were driven by science. But it’s there now – 500 feet from an “inhabited dwelling” or “place of assembly” :
(a) No well pad or portion of a well pad may be located:
(2) within 500 feet from an inhabited dwelling or place of assembly;
((b) All distances noted above are measured from the closest edge of the well pad.”
(Neither “dwelling” nor “place of assembly” are defined terms in Section 560.2 Definitions. Is a school playground a “place of assembly” ? Is a factory ? )
So what changed ? How did 100 feet (ie. nothing) go to 500 feet (damn near next to nothing) ? You can trust the DEC not to tell you. You would have to FOIL it. And when you do, you would probably find out that the 500 feet is something the gas industry proposed that they would accept – after their spokesmen gripe about it at hearings.
But why 500 feet ? Where is the science in that ? There is of course, no science involved. That “Let the science decide” was transparently a political con game. If the DEC is silent on the setback from housing – as it has been up until now – then there was no science involved. The DEC unscientifically let the 100 foot setback stand – and were silent on that, like there is no standards for seismic tests in the proposed regulations – so no science was called for. The only time any setback in that range has appeared in writing is in the dSGEIS, when the DEC referred to gas well setbacks from private water wells (not houses) in the Fort Worth, Texas zoning ordinance and the Colorado state regulations. We commented on it at the time, in the context of water wells:
The proposed gas well setback from a private water well is 500 feet, which is 100 feet less than the setback in the Fort Worth, Texas zoning ordinance – where there are no shallow private water wells. There is no hydrology, no topography, no geology, no science involved in the DEC’s proposed setbacks, only political science. Gassing one water well at a time is apparently acceptable collateral damage for the DEC. The DEC goes to considerable lengths to ignore all the empirical evidence that drilling gas wells is a sure way to infuse groundwater with methane. All water should be protected based on real science, not just political science.http://www.scribd.com/doc/65079406/SGEIS-Water-Setbacks
500 feet from a house is not much – about half the normal setback – compared to other states and most municipal and county ordinances. It virtually guarantees that, if you do not own your mineral rights, the horizontal wells will be going right underneath your house. If you live downslope from a drilling site – which could easily have a dozen wells going over the course of years – that means the fumes and the run-off comes right down onto you. And of course, your water well gets gassed sooner or later. As does your home’s value.
Likewise, the setback of a multi-well drilling pad from a private shallow water well is proposed in the regs. to be 500 feet, without any scientific explanation:
(a) No well pad or portion of a well pad may be located:
(1) within 500 feet from a residential water well, domestic supply spring or water well or spring used as a water supply for livestock or crops;
(b) All distances noted above are measured from the closest edge of the well pad.”
The 500 feet did not come out of a scientific study of groundwater contamination. We know where the 500 feet came from – from a municipal zoning ordinance in Texas – that was the only place it is referred to in the dSGEIS. Arguably, 500 feet might be enough to protect groundwater in a city with a municipal water supply, few private wells and no shallow water wells – as we pointed out in the last draft of the dSGEIS.
Curiously, the DEC’s proposed 500 foot set back from a water well is less than the 600 foot set back Fort Worth’s zoning ordinance. There is no other justification on the draft SGEIS for the proposed 500 foot limit. New York is patterning a critical catch-all regulation on a city with municipal water services in a semi-arid region in Texas. This as it pertains to testing:
“Water Well Testing Preliminary Revised Draft SGEIS 2011, Page 8-58
Of the jurisdictions surveyed, Colorado and the City of Fort Worth have water well testing requirements specifically directed at unconventional gas development within targeted regions. Fort Worth’s regulations pertain to Barnett Shale development, where horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing are performed, and address all fresh water wells within 500 feet of the surface location of the gas well.”
There are problems with this that are obvious. First, there are very few private water wells in Fort Worth – which is entirely served by municipal water lines – in accordance with state law. Of the few private water wells in the city limits (typically golf courses), none are shallow residential groundwater wells – of the type found in rural New York. These Upstate groundwater wells are uniquely vulnerable to surface pollutants – from spills, etc. and from methane migration of gas drilling operations. Texas wells tap deep aquifers – not groundwater. Accordingly, a 500’ set-back that might be appropriate in a municipality in a semi arid part of Texas would be wholly inadequate for Upstate. The DEC ignores setbacks for shale gas wells in other jurisdictions, proposing 500 feet from a house – a setback that would be illegal in many other jurisdiction that regulates shale gas well setbacks.
No peer reviewed studies have ever been done to indicate that a 500 foot setback would be adequate to protect shallow groundwater wells from being polluted. On the contrary, studies that have looked into this have shown gas migration out to as much as a kilometer from the well bore:
In fact, where there was a scientific study on methane migration, the Duke groundwater methane study, that the DEC went out of their way to ignore in the dSGEIE and even tried to debunk the results by invoking an anomaly – an exception that simply proved the rule: horizontal shale gas wells vent gas into groundwater.
In short, there is no “science” to justify a setback of 500 feet from a water well for a horizontal gas well. When it comes down to the environmental safeguards, the DEC hears no science, sees no science, and speaks no science. Except, of course, political science . . .which the DEC understands.