I grew up in Broome County, NY, down by the PA border, and my parents still live in scenic Whitney Point. Broome County is one of the areas affected by a huge environmental controversy, because it sits on top of the northern bit of the Marcellus Shale formation, which contains huge amounts of natural gas. For years, this has been deemed too difficult and expensive to extract, but gas prices and drilling technology, specifically hydraulic fracture drilling where they pump large amounts of water down the hole to break up the rock and let the gas escape, have moved to a place where it’s beginning to be developed. Tension between the desire for energy and money for a region that’s been shaky economically for as long as I’ve been reading the news, and concerns about environmental and social effects of exploiting the gas deposits is THE issue in local politics right now.
Thus, when I saw an AAAS meeting session titled Fractures Developing: The Science, Policy, and Perception of Shale Gas Development, I said “I have to go to this.” The speakers looked kind of balanced: one guy from a state agency, one from an energy consulting firm, and a sociologist from RPI. It seemed like it would cover most of the bases.
I would’ve been better off skipping it, because all it really did was to piss me off.
I missed the start of the first talk, but the speaker, John Martin, is apparently no longer with NYSERDA, but has started his own energy company. The basic message of his whole presentation was that drilling is essential because society as a whole needs the energy, while the negative effects are confined to a few local communities. He talked about the environmental regulations governing the situation, but presented them as basically an annoying hassle that only served to raise the price of drilling the wells. He repeatedly referred to the need for companies exploiting the gas to “look good,” in a way that suggested this was just a tedious bureaucratic hoop that needed to be jumped through.
The second speaker, Anthony Gorody, works for an energy consulting firm, so I was expecting him to be kind of a dick. He didn’t disappoint. The whole message of his talk was that concerns about the environmental effects of hydraulic fracture drilling are completely misplaced and overblown. He said again and again that the gas-bearing shales are a mile or so deep, and there’s no way for any of the crap they pump into the rock down there to get up to the shallow level where most of the people in the region get their drinking water. He attributes the cases of drinking water contamination in Pennsylvania (where this sort of drilling has been going on for a while) to gas seeping out of shallower layers, and making its way through imperfectly sealed concrete well casings to the drinking water level. He said that none of the documented instances of drinking water contamination came from the fracking process, but were natural contamination from other layers of rock.
His whole presentation had a very peevish tone that was grating right from the start. It was also almost completely irrelevant to the real concerns of the communities. Even if every word he said was absolutely true, that doesn’t change the fact that drinking water has been contaminated by drilling in the Marcellus shale, and that it would not have been contaminated if the wells hadn’t been drilled in the first place. The exact mechanism by which the contamination gets in the water is not really that important to the people who now need to have water trucked in to their communities.
The sociologist, Abby Kinchy from RPI, was a breath of sanity. She gave a very nice presentation laying out the real concerns of people in the affected communities, based on interviews and focus groups with people both in PA where drilling is already happening, and in NY where the issue is still being decided. She laid out both the environmental arguments– risks to drinking water, hunting, and fishing– and the social argument– changes in the general character of the communities, increased traffic and industrial development, and economic inequality. I would’ve liked some more numbers, but that’s just because I’m a physicist.
I probably should’ve left at the end of her talk, but I wanted to see if people would challenge them in the Q&A session. which they did– most of the people who asked questions pushed back hard against the pro-drilling position. The response they got was condescending and deliberately obtuse, and just dickish all the way around.
Gorody was the worst by far. One person pointed out the irrelevance of his argument to the actual concerns, whereupon he repeated his argument that “simple physics” dictated that nothing could possibly make it up from the deep levels. When that failed to convince, he started throwing around names of hydrodynamics equations, and asserting that while gas could move up from deep levels, liquids would not. When somebody pointed out that in addition to natural gas, the process extracts large amounts of brine from the deep rocks, which would tend to suggest that liquid can, in fact, move up the well, he asserted that it couldn’t make it into the rock. When it was pointed out that his whole argument depended on the concrete casing being flawed, he repeated his claims a few more times.
Then he attempted the charming tactic of asserting that the people who were complaining about the contamination of their drinking water had probably had contaminants in their water all along, but had never had their water tested until it looked like they could extract money from the gas companies. Kinchy actually stomped on that one from the panel, pointing out that while there may have been some gas dissolved in the water before, the people she talked to had seen their well water change from clear and drinkable to fizzing, foul-smelling, and brown water. That’s not a minor change, indicative of some sort of gold-digging operation.
I left before the whole thing had wrapped up, because it was that or start throwing stuff at Martin and Gorody. Honestly, their presentations made me more convinced than ever that we need strict regulations governing the development of the shale. While the gas will inevitably be extracted (unless somebody comes up with a cheap and readily manufactured solar cell with 60% efficiency tomorrow), if the people running the operation are assholes to this degree, they deserve to be positively mummified in red tape.
I had been planning to go back to the hotel to pack up and check out following that session, but I was so annoyed that I needed to go to some better talks, so I went to the LHC session, which I’d been planning to skip. And, really, if your policy session is so condescending and dickish that I seek out particle physics talks as an antidote, you’re doing something wrong.
(The LHC talks I saw, from the ALICE and LHCb experiments were excellent, and not at all condescending and dickish. Of course, they’re the least hyped of the LHC experiments…)