Or what the frack really happened ? The science – including the political science and the geoscience – decided.
Why New York Did Not Get The Fracking It Did Not Deserve
“Success has many parents, failure is an orphan.”
We can summarize why fracking was prohibited in New York with a simple construct – the cost/ benefit ratio – what the environmental risks and economic costs would be to the state and it citizens versus the benefits of shale gas industrialization. Initially, this ratio appeared to tilt very much in favor of fracking – at least in the popular press and in the corridors of power – because the gas industry had grossly overstated the benefits of shale gas development while categorically denying the risks and collateral damage associated with it.
Note the political cost / benefit for the Governor had started out in favor of fracking, given his purported aspirations.
At the outset of the debate, there were few peer-reviewed studies on the hazards of fracking, so the benefit of the doubt on the risks went to the only available experts on the subject, the frackers themselves. The media was dependent on the industry regarding the geology, so the industry exaggerated and said the shale would support tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in tax revenue annually. Some industry insiders were skeptical of those assertions.
At the height of the Shale Mania, few people knew the productive extent of the Marcellus or Utica shales in New York with any certainty. After an SEC rule change in 2008 that liberalized how proven undeveloped reserves could be reported, the oil and gas companies had a financial incentive to overstate the likely amount of shale gas reserves. And they did, in some cases, wildly, overstating both the productive extent of the shale, the amount of recoverable gas, and the economic impact that might have for the state. Ironically, this rule change enabled shale gas financings to take off – at the same time that the mortgage market was melting down due to uncontrolled financial chicanery. Shale oil and gas were to replace real estate as the next speculative bubble. And they certainly lived up to those expectations.
Since there were few studies on the health or environmental impacts of fracking, the industry had carte blanche do deny that there were any problems. Under the advice from the same PR firms that the tobacco industry uses, the shale gas companies denied all health risks. With the promise of a potential fracking bonanza and the absence of definitive health studies, the scales were tilted decidedly in the frackers’ favor.
Unlike other states where fracking was introduced, there were very few oil and gas industry experts that knew enough about the process to not only be skeptical, but bold enough to speak out. The two standouts were Dr. Anthony Ingraffea at Cornell, a former consultant to Schlumberger, and Lou Allstadt of Cooperstown, a recently retired VP at Mobil Oil. Through their persistence in addressing both the technical risks (Ingraffea) and the economic prospects (Allstadt) they were pivotal in tipping the cost/ratio scales against fracking. Add to that a growing body of scientific studies against fracking and an outpouring of popular resistance, and the Governor’s decision seemed inevitable after the fact.
The Stage is Set for New York to Get Fracked. Governor Patterson Throws in the Clutch.
Armed with propaganda manufactured by the gas industry and its paid frackademics – the frackers got the upper hand in Albany. Their lobbyists first re-wrote the state’s compulsory integration law, essentially privatizing the power of condemnation for the frackers in 2005, which was adopted on a unanimously by both houses. New York was teed up to be fracked. When it looked like New York was on a fast track to get fracked, oil and gas companies started leasing land and drilling test wells. This was at a time when gas was spiking at $10 mcf, so the speculative frenzy to tie up land was high. Dory Hippauf has detailed how the frackers had succeeded in literally buying the Pennsylvania governor and legislature, and since the new compulsory integration law had sailed through the New York legislature, they had every reason to believe that New York would be an extension of Pennsylvania politically. That was their first big miscalculation – they assumed that New York was going to be a walkover.
The DEC, under Governor Patterson, adopted the industry’s spacing unit scheme for shale wells, setting the stage for shale gas permits to be issued. Stan Scobie, Adam Law, Chris Burger, Roger Downs, Bruce Ferguson and others raised red flags as to how fracking could proceed in New York. Governor Patterson delayed the process by calling for an update of the state’s Generic Impact Statement (GEIS) regulations, which would govern the well permitting process, regulations that had not been updated since 1992, and which did not anticipate horizontal fracking. This regulatory review process, which was aimed at wells that required over 300,000 gallon fracks, became the de facto “moratorium on fracking” in New York. In theory, the DEC could have permitted shale gas wells under the old 1992 regulations, proposed updates of which from 1997 had been “lost” by the DEC. Former DEC employees argued as much at senate hearings. By choosing not to proceed, Governor Patterson caused New York to become a battlefront of fracking.
Mineral rights lessor Peter Hudiburg became an early outspoken opponent to fracking and helped organized lobbying delegations to Albany with Helen Slottje, Nicole Dillingham, James Herman and Walter Hang to press their case to Governor Patterson’s Secretary of the Environment and to DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis.
The same gas lobbyists that wrote the compulsory integration law subsequently co-wrote proposed changes to the state’s drilling regulations, the draft Supplemental Generic Impact Statement (dSGEIS) to make the regulations as “frack friendly” as possible – paving they way for High Volume Hydro Fracking (HVHF) permits to be issued if they met the generic criteria outlined in the dSGEIS – as written by the fracking lobbyists. The opportunity to comment on the proposed environmental regulations gave the environmentalists time to mobilize opposition to fracking. And comment they did.
Gasland’s Flaming Faucets
At about the same time that wildcat shale test wells were being drilled in New York by marginal shale gas players – Anschutz, Gastem and Norse Energy, problems were beginning to emerge in Pennsylvania. Unlike other shale gas fields, notably the Barnett in N. Central Texas and the Fayetteville in Arkansas, the NE Marcellus in Pennsylvania and New York is particularly vulnerable to methane migration from the well bores. In plain English, horizontal shale gas wells in this sort of terrain are apt to vent gas into groundwater. To compound the problem, the water wells in the area are tapping groundwater, the same shallow resources that are most vulnerable to gas leakage and surface spills. This in contrast to Western wells, which “mine” water from aquifers that have no contact with the surface (other than the water well). These two factors – leaking gas and shallow water wells – results in the phenomena of “flaming faucets” – potable water so saturated with methane that it can be ignited when the tap is turned on. Scenes of flaming faucets and polluted streams were the show stoppers of Josh Fox’s Academy Award nominated documentary, Gasland. The cause of the phenomena was explained by Dr. Ingraffea, citing peer reviewed studies and industry brochures that addressed ways to attempt to prevent such “methane migration.” This was the first really high profile challenge to the industry’s Big Lie of harmless fracking.
Interviews with John Fenton in Wyoming and Calvin Tillman in Texas left no doubt in viewers minds what living in a gas field was like. Distribution through HBO brought the issue to national prominence.
Fertile Ground For Dissent
There were several seasoned environmental groups – both locally, in the Catskills and Finger Lakes region, led by Mary Menapace, Nedra Harvey, Anna Sears, Sara Hess, Hillary Lambert, Yvonne Taylor, Joe Campbell – and on a statewide basis led by veteran activists – Deborah Goldberg, Kate Sinding, and Roger Downs, who, at the Sierra Club, was the first NGO to blow the whistle on fracking. It also was a major media market that could easily skew in favor of the environment. When the NGOs saw what was going on in Pennsylvania – via Gasland or guided tours from Vera Scroggins, Carol French and Craig Sautner, the organized opposition began to mobilize.
Ian Urbina of The New York Times began to cover fracking in his Drilling Down investigative reports. Seeing through the frackers’ smoke screen, the media increasingly focused on negative impacts that had been largely overlooked or hidden by the industry and corrupt regulators. Ellen Cantarow, Tom Wilber, Peter Mantius focused on fracking’s impacts in the Marcellus. Talk show hosts Liz Benjamin and Susan Arbetter began to feature fracking on their shows. Even pro gas blogger Andrew Revkin did some objective reporting on the subject.
Unlike Western shale gas fields, New York did not lend itself to shale gas industrialization – the population density is too great in many areas for fracking to not interfere with someone’s house, and relatively few locals would benefit from leasing their mineral rights. Since New York does not have a large oil and gas sector, the likelihood of local hires to work the rigs was slim, but roundly overstated by the frackers. In short, the demographics of fracking were not good in New York. This equated to a lack of grass roots support for fracking – except in towns controlled by landowners with enough land to lease – and were willing to use their offices to further their own ends.
Fractavists from Pennsylvania, such as Barb Arindell, were crucial to the New York anti-fracking movement. New York City fractavists like Joe Levine were instrumental in lobbying NYC to oppose fracking in their water supply’s watershed. Their opposition led to the Hazen & Sawyer report which Mayor Bloomberg cited to get NYC’s watersheds excluded from fracking in the SGEIS – after all 59 community boards in NYC had passed resolutions against fracking.
Leasing in New York proved to be problematic in many respects. Naive landowners leased too much for too long for too little to companies like Chesapeake Energy. (Some of those landowners are still trying to clear the titles of their land from those bad leases.) Leasing groups, often represented by inexperienced lawyers, held out for too much, and missed out on signing-bonuses that were clearly driven by Shale Mania. Some missed out entirely or chose not to lease. Ironically, it was from this group of land owners that some of the leading “fractavists” emerged – people that had a bad leasing experience or had become skeptical of fracking – by coming into contact with landmen. (Matt Damon’s Promised Land portrayed how landmen were instrumental in disabusing landowners of their fracking illusions. One of the last lines in the movie is “Good luck in New York”).
Let the Geoscience Decide.
Retired systems engineer Jerry Acton, as an exercise in evaluating the worth of his own mineral rights, developed the Acton Model, which would soon prove instrumental in estimating New York’s shale gas reserves, and with cartographer Ben Wunder, mapping where the shale might be economic.
The gaffes in the DEC’s economic estimates came to light when the USGS downgraded the EIA’s shale gas estimates by 80%. The DEC’s estimates had been based on the earlier EIA figures, so the DEC’s economic impact analysis, done by an industry consultant, was overstated and outdated the day it was printed. A classic example of voodoo frackonomics Krys Cail, Jannette Barth and others caught that mistake. If the benefits weren’t there, what was the point of fracking ? Their skepticism echoed Deborah Lawrence’s take on shale plays in general – they were driven more by financial gamesmanship on Wall Street than by geology.
In consultation with retired geologist Brian Brock, Lou Allstadt and myself, Jerry Acton began to apply his reserve estimation methodology to the Southern Tier. In essence, he literally reinvented how non-producing shale gas reserves are estimated – by extrapolating proven producing reserves (in Pennsylvania) into similar geological conditions north of the border. The more wells that were drilled in Pennsylvania, the more accurate Acton’s model became – to the extent that he could predict the likely productivity in areas in Pennsylvania before they were drilled – doing, in effect, the same work as petroleum reserve engineer.
What he found was not favorable to New York’s shale gas prospects. Lou Allstadt had, prior to meeting Acton, come to the same conclusions by looking at the test data on Marcellus and Utica test wells. Brian Brock looked at the geological data, which supported Acton’s hypothesis. Shale gas reserves had been massively overstated by the industry in New York, by as much as 30x. Economist Jannette Barth used this new information to reconsider the economic forecasts that had been attached as an industry-produced addendum to the SGEIS. The geo-economic scales were beginning to tip against the benefits of fracking.
Terry Engelder of Penn State, upon whose work the original hyperbolic New York shale gas estimates had been based, became suddenly dismissive of New York’s shale gas potential as soon as the ban was announced: “New York sits above a small part of the Marcellus anyway, less than 10 percent. (So) the New York state ban is largely symbolic.” QED.
As some wags had said, there was more hot air than shale gas in New York. Over-estimations of shale gas potential were emblematic of the frackers PR campaigns. This reassessment of course, came after the gas industry had invited a hail of criticism, documentaries, negative scientific studies, prime time specials and investigative reporting on its quixotic attempt to get fracking approved in New York – a battle that had taken on worldwide importance.
“Let the Scientists Decide”
The hearings on the proposed fracking regulations, the SGEIS, helped to mobilize the opposition and give them a common goal, to address the regulations, and if possible, ban fracking statewide. At this time, videographers, notably Bill Huston and Cris McConkey began to cover the hearings, the rallies and meetings around the state. Experts on various aspects of the issue – geology, chemistry, health – began speaking tours – Dr. Ingraffea, Dr. Ron Bishop, Sandra Steingraber, Rachel Treichler, Larysa Dykstra.
Cindy Burger, Dr. Adam Law, Dr. Ingraffea and others, including the Medical Society of the State of New York, pushed for a formal health study of fracking. The Cuomo Administration responded by tasking the DOH with a health review – a survey of the literature. In New York, fracking would have to have a clean bill of health before it was permitted. This proved to be frackings’ undoing.
Experts found that there was a lack of scientific papers on the health or environmental impacts of fracking. They set out to correct those shortcomings, and in the case of Dr. Ingraffea and Dr. Howarth, addressed fracking’s biggest dirty little secret – the potency of leaking methane as a greenhouse gas. Their seminal work caught the attention of global warming experts, who, in turn focused their attention on frackings’ massive production of greenhouse gases..
The most outspoken critic of the health hazards was Sandra Steingraber. A cancer survivor, author and expert on environmental hazards, Sandra proved to be the perfect critic of fracking. Articulate, self-effacing, telegenic, sincere, Sandra spoke tirelessly, rallied the opposition, and took the message to a new level – both in the media and in her commitment to go to jail for her beliefs. She saw fracking shale for what it really is – the dirtiest dregs of the hydrocarbon barrel, sufficient enough in supply to permanently cook the planet.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Governor Cuomo cast the debate as a scientific one – to let the scientists decide whether New York would allow shale gas industrialization. This proved to be the key turning factor in the risk aspect of the cost/ benefit ratio. As we would see, the frackers had a handful of fracademics on their side, but the fractavists had the growing preponderance of scientific papers on their side, starting with the late great Theo Colborn’s work on endocrine disruptors and air quality. This body of work was to grow to almost a paper a day before the decision was announced.
And then there were the other sciences involved, the geoscience, the political science and the “dismal science” of economics.
Let the Political Science Decide: Confronting The Governor, The DOH and the DEC
Veterans of prior environmental battles, notably Walter Hang, Julia Walsh, John Armstrong, Wes Gillingham, Clare Donohue and others, knew how to mobilize grass roots opposition, and in the case of Eric Weltman, confront the Governor with protestors at every public appearance. This, coupled with petition drives organized by Bruce Ferguson, Sandra Steingraber and others effectively inundated the Cuomo Administration with protests against fracking. Some of that outpouring, such as Sandra’s “30 Days of Fracking” response to the SGEIS addressed specific regulatory concerns. This effort generated over 220,000 responses. Walter Hang, in turn, focused entirely on what the Governor said would be the definitive science – the Department of Health’s study. Since Walter knew that there would be no way to finish the SGEIS without such a health review, he made it a crusade to address it, getting thousands of petition signatures to that end.
Wherever there was a rally or a speech, intrepid videographers Cris McConkey and Bill Huston were almost always there to record it and broadcast it, including, remarkably, Bill’s video of the final oral arguments on the landmark Dryden & Middlefield Home Rule cases. Their work was augmented by the peripatetic news hound, “Richard Averett” the nome de frac of the shadowy Sheik Yerbouti, who was part of the OPEC/ Russian conspiracy to block fracking in New York, Texas, Poland, the Ukraine, and wherever frackers might congregate.
When local fracking advocates were unable to drum up much support for fracking in New York, they turned to such paranoid conspiracy theories to rationalize the fractavists’ popular successes – as being anything other that what they obviously were: grassroots opposition to fracking.
New York City’s Transformation from NIMBYs to State Ban Leaders
Although Upstate was beginning to mobilize against fracking, recruiting support Downstate was, at first, difficult. New York City’s biggest contribution to the anti-fracking movement was to get fracking excluded from its reservoirs’ watersheds. This created a dichotomy that neither Mayor Bloomberg nor the DEC were able to resolve. In fact, Mayor Bloomberg hypocritically supported the idea of turning parts of Upstate into fracking sacrifice zones, depending on industry “best practices.” This was not helpful to Upstate.
Some wags resorted to showing New Yorkers what fracking would be like in their City. Or, for that matter, at the Governor’s house in Mt Kisco. Fortunately, some New York City celebrities had ties to Upstate, notably Mark Ruffalo, Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, Natalie Merchant, Susan Sarandon and Margot Kidder. They joined forces with Josh Fox, a small army of NYC activists – David Braun, Ling Tsou, Marge Schab, Joe Levine, Ruth Hardinger, Clare Donohue, Denise Katzman and hundreds others – and Catskill area advocates to give the anti-fracking movement some star quality – this effectively helped counter the gas industry’s non-stop barrage of pro-gas advertising. They also helped motivate fractavists in areas that were removed from the gas fields, such as Long Island, but are not immune to the collateral damage from fracking. The greater New York City area became a major center of fractavism, and, since it was Governor Cuomo’s political base, and the world’s largest media market, the City became the definitive battle ground.
Businesses that would be negatively effected by fracking began to organize led by Larry Bennett at Ommegang Brewery, Finger Lake wineries and organic farmers.
As long as the state remained undecided on fracking, towns began to consider using local zoning laws to block the practice. An early paper by Todd Mathes suggested that New York municipalities could use their zoning laws – not to regulate fracking, which is the prerogative of the state – but to prohibit it outright as an heavy industrial use, under their land use ordinances. Simultaneously, Helen and David Slottje came to the same conclusion: fracking could be prohibited in zoning codes. The first town to adopt such a ban was Otsego, it’s neighbors Middlefield and Springfield followed suit, lead by Julie Huntsman, Kelly Branigan, Harry Levine, Henry Cooper, Judge Lang Keith and Nicole Dillingham. Dryden soon followed and was almost immediately challenged by the industry in court. By the time the New York’s high court ruled in favor of the towns, over 120 municipalities had either banned or declared moratoriums on fracking, as mapped by Karen Edelstein. This rendered much of the purported “shale fairway” in New York unfrackable. Those efforts were followed by bans on frack waste dumping and road spreading – all based on the increasing understanding that fracking could be far more trouble than it was worth.
The frack bans and moratoria were a de facto plebiscite on fracking in Upstate. Before the Governor tasked the DOH to be the deciding vote, the majority of Upstate towns had weighed in on the issue and most of the larger population centers, including Buffalo, Binghamton and Oneonta had weighed in against fracking as this map shows; bans in red, moratoria in lavender and movements against fracking in yellow. Absent any support for fracking in Downstate, the political scales were tipping statewide against fracking.
Lack of Meaningful Grassroots Political Support for Fracking
Despite a non-stop barrage of advertising, lobbyists carrying checks to politicians, direct aide from industry groups, including the Koch Brothers, industry sponsored “astroturf” advocacy groups, and a cadre of well-paid fracademics, the advocates of fracking proved to be increasingly unable to respond to the fractavists in any meaningful way. When they did respond, it was more often than not in the form of frivolous lawsuits agains towns that had banned fracking, and perversely, litigation against the DOH and DEC – the two agencies that would be able to greenlight fracking. In the face of ban ordinances, the advocates could only muster non-binding resolutions in favor of fracking. With support for fracking lagging, the stage was set for a show-down – at a time when gas prices were low and the fracking advocates were without meaningful support from the industry.
Tipping Points on the Economics, Science and Polls
By the winter of 2013, the evidence had gone decidedly against fracking. Acton, Brock, Allstadt, Barth and I spoke at Senator Tony Avella’s forum on the economic prospects for shale gas development. Their presentations effectively debunked the industry propaganda that shale gas could be productive in New York – except years hence in a few townships along the border. Not only did they address the geological evidence, but they addressed the surface impacts of regulations on drillable area, and the economics of shale gas development, using industry cost data. Elisabeth Radow addressed some of the more personal costs of fracking, the direct risks to homeowners’ property values, mortgages and insurance. The importance of Radow’s work cannot be overstated, she focused people’s attention on their pocketbooks – what fracking would do to their property values. In a relatively high density state like New York, this became a key argument against fracking.
Their presentations coincided with an unraveling of some of the largest shale gas companies, such a Chesapeake. Under Elisabeth Radow’s leadership, the New York League of Women Voters contracted with two petroleum reserve engineers, Art Berman and Lynn Pittinger, to do an estimate on New York’s shale gas reserves. Their estimate was less than the Acton Model’s. The purported benefits of shale gas went from the industry’s initial hyperbole to very modest amounts indeed, with a commensurate loss of job estimates, projected taxes, etc. per Barth. Not surprisingly, the industry did not counter nor contradict the Berman or Acton estimates with any substantive reports.
At the same time, the science was pouring in. And none of it looked good for fracking, which has become America’s deadliest form of energy, one that produces more radioactive HAZMAT material in a few days than the US nuclear industry does in a year. Sandra Steingraber’s group published a compendium of fracking health risks and the Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy did a statistical analysis of health studies, which were released simultaneously the week before Governor Cuomo’s announcement. This work was to prove decisive in the final decision. The DOH’s report, published the following week, had come to similar conclusions.
In essence, these reports had the same effect on the state, as the Hazen & Sawyer report had on New York City. If New York City should be exempt from having its water supply contaminated, so should the rest of the state.
The effect of all the negative publicity on fracking was cumulative – by 2014, statewide opinion polls showed that the majority of the general public were no longer in favor of fracking. Governor Cuomo’s opponent, Rob Gastorino, ran as a pro-fracker and was soundly defeated at the polls in November. Politically, the stage was set to ban fracking.
The Verdict: Political Science would be the deciding science.
As some pundits predicted, by the time the decision was to be announced, the DOH was is in no position to credibly recommend that fracking was safe, as the industry had lead the public to believe. Indeed the debate had changed to just how hazardous fracking was, and not whether gas wells leaked, but how much the leakage rates had been underestimated. Likewise, the DEC was no longer willing to defend its original economic forecast – which had been premised on what was little more than a geological hoax.
At the announcement, the DEC commissioner explained how the likely productive extent of the shale gas field had shrunken to less than 37% of the original estimates, without taking into consideration well setbacks, local zoning issues or the economically productive extent of the shale. The DOH commissioner explained how almost all of the studies showed how unsafe fracking is, saying that he (like anyone else) wouldn’t want to live in a shale gas field. DEC Commissioner Martens then summarized by stating that the cost/benefit analysis was clearly in favor of prohibition, and that the DEC was going to prohibit shale gas wells under its environmental regulations, the SGEIS.
By the time the announcement was made it had the inevitability of a foregone conclusion: fracking is simply not worth doing in New York, environmentally, geologically, economically, or politically. And that’s the way the announcements were handled – as standard agenda items in a televised cabinet meeting, along with routine discussions of the annual state budget and casino licensing. Just another day at the office for the Governor of New York State.
Announcement at 42:00