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Frack Watch: May 2012 

Under the Surface: An Interview with Tom Wilber

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Tom Wilber didn’t set out to develop a broad knowledge in the controversy surrounding hydraulic fracture drilling in New York and Pennsylvania. But he has nevertheless done so, primarily through his work as a reporter for Binghamton’s Press & Sun-Bulletin newspaper. For the past half-dozen years or so, Wilber has produced dozens of articles on the subject, with virtually every aspect of the fracking business in the Twin Tiers falling under his scrutiny.

Now, Wilber has collated this knowledge into Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale (Cornell University Press), which will be published later this month. Wilber looks at the fortunes of the different families involved: Some have struck it rich, others have seen their water and land ruined.

If you’re new to the fracking debate, and even if you have a strong working knowledge of this issue, you will come away having learned something new. Wilber provides a thoughtful, and carefully researched, look at the upsides, as well as the potentially catastrophic downsides, of the impact this new form of gas drilling could have on one of the world’s most pristine watersheds.

In Under the Surface, you mention how the expansion of drilling (in Pennsylvania, especially) has outpaced regulators' ability to keep up with it. How big an issue is this?

There has always been some natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania (and in western New York), but shale gas is an order of magnitude larger than we’ve seen, in terms of the number of square miles that it covers, in terms of the well density, in terms of the number of wells, and all of the related operations that go with it—pipelines, infrastructure, compressor stations. And it’s pretty much a matter of public record that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection didn’t just add a number of staff when this issue came up. They were behind; there was a lag time.

And these types of agencies are frequently understaffed to begin with, are they not?

Yes, especially now with state budgets the way they are. It’s a chronic problem across the board in government. So, you have this huge operational surge on the one hand, and you have the limitations on staffing on the other. It’s really a pretty simple equation.

Many readers of your book will be surprised at the sheer volume of liquid waste a single well produces. Just how big a problem is this?

You have all this water and fracking solution going down into the ground, and this is two to five million gallons per well. This is done initially; it’s called well stimulation (to get the gas flowing). So, that’s one well, and each drilling pad can sustain up to six wells (with up to one pad per square mile).

Now, a lot of this comes back up out of the ground. Some of this is brine [saltwater] contaminated with various other constituents, heavy metals, and chemicals. One of the things that got me really interested in this was the industry’s denial, all along, that there were problems, and that they characterized this stuff as being harmless household products. They would try to obscure the fact that salt, if you have a lot of it and no place to put it, can cause ecological problems. They were misleading along those lines, all the way.

As to what we do with all of this waste, and how much there is (and where it ends up going), no one has a really good feel for that. The regulators, as I talk about in the book, especially in New York State, will say, “It’s all regulated. Don’t worry about it.” And in Pennsylvania they’d say much the same thing.

But one of the important things to remember is that the industry is exempt from hazardous waste regulations; so, if this stuff was produced by another industry—microelectronics, for example—it would be classified as hazardous waste. So the industry doesn’t have the same limits when it comes to disposing of it.

In Pennsylvania there has been some movement to say, we can’t just run this stuff through municipal treatment plants anymore, because we don’t know what’s in it. To treat something, you have to know what’s in it.

Gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale has been likened to a gold rush. And, at the same time, the industry is saying that it will leave the Marcellus Shale if regulations become too stringent. How serious is their threat?

That’s a company line, and it’s something they use to their advantage. But, if there’s gold in the ground, they’ll get it. If the gold is too hard to get, or it’s not really gold after all, or the type of gold they thought it was and it doesn’t have the value, then they’re not going to get it.

Just how worried should New Yorkers be when it comes to the potential negative impacts of drilling?

Given the level of awareness now, I think that they should be less worried than they were a couple of years ago. I really think this is one of the biggest [environmental] issues now, since Love Canal, or No Nukes, or PCBs in the Hudson River. It’s on everybody’s radar screen.

I have a lot of faith in open government to do the right thing. And if there’s true transparency, and people really understand the dynamics of everything involved, I’m not too worried about it over the long haul. If there’s a lack of transparency, regulation, and oversight, then I think people should be worried about it.

But I also think we’re moving in a very positive direction now. We’re not there yet, but in terms of transparency, and how shale drilling is much different from a lot of other economic development, I think we’re moving in the right direction—primarily because of the work that activists do to raise our awareness of it.

Editor's Note

The Marcellus Shale natural gas field extends from New York through West Virginia, and, if reports are correct, contains 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, making it one of the biggest gas depositories in the US and a much needed new energy source.

Recent advances in drilling techniques—hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling among them—have made it economically feasible to extract the gas from the hard-to-reach Marcellus Shale. These drilling techniques are controversial, especiallly as the chemicals used to extract the gas are held as proprietary material by gas companies and communities where fracking is underway in other states are experiencing water contamination. As the debate over if, when, and how fracking comes to New York continues, we'll be reporting on it every month.


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