Noted energy expert, environmental Luddite and hypocrite Robert Kennedy, Jr., aims to stymie natural gas drilling in New York State by hyping unrealistic and irrational fears of environmental contamination. At issue is the method used to stimulate production in gas wells known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking". Truth be told, Kennedy and the greenies would find something objectionable in anything an energy company would propose.
The Kennedy family fortune has its roots in the ethanol-importing business, although the ethanol in question was potable and not fuel-grade. Robert Kennedy, Jr. is a Harvard-educated environmental lawyer (law degrees from UVA and Pace) and general counsel of an environmental watchdog organization called Riverkeeper. His association with Riverkeeper began in 1983 as a result of 1,500 hours of community service that was suggested to him by a Federal judge.
Ironically, Kennedy derives income from the Arctic Royalty Limited Partnership, a trust created from two family-owned oil companies in order to minimize tax liability. Robert has also opposed the Cape Wind Project, a commercial proposal to build a large wind farm in Nantucket Sound, near the family compound in Hyannisport.
Western New York has long been a natural gas producing region. What's new is the Marcellus Shale (well, not new; it's been there for hundreds of millions of years, but was only recognized as a potential resource in the last few years as a result of new technology). A recent report by Penn State University researchers detailed the economic impact and job-growth potential of the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. As it turns out, the area of prospective development in the Marcellus covers not only most of western Pennsylvania, but nearly all of West Virginia, part of eastern Ohio, and the southern tier of counties in western New York.
Development means thousands of jobs in drilling, constriction and production. Development means income to the landowner in the form of royalties - 1/8th or more share in production, in addition to lease payments. Development means increased tax revenues to the State in the form of permitting fees, severance taxes, property taxes and direct and indirect income taxes.
Dozens of companies already have applications to drill at numerous New York sites and just need the state's approval. That could touch off an economic boom throughout southern New York, creating thousands of jobs in many of the state's most depressed regions.
Consider: While Paterson put the brakes on drilling here last year, Pennsylvania pushed full-steam ahead. Rigs quickly went to work, and the payoff is coming. A recent Penn State study predicts that Marcellus Shale development will pump more than $14 billion into the Keystone State's economy in this year and create nearly 100,000 jobs. Next year, natural-gas production could yield $800 million in state and local tax revenues.
Last year, New York Governor David Paterson gave lip service to supporting gas drilling in the economically distressed region by streamlining the process for obtaining a gas well drilling permit. However, Paterson also imposed a one-year moratorium on new drilling so that the Department of Environmental Conservation could study the issues. One year was up in July, and now the DEC study will not be released until this fall.
The environmental red herring is the well-stimulation process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking". Fracking subjects gas-bearing formations to enough pressure to induce fractures, or cracks in the rocks, then injects sand or other material into the cracks to prop them open. The frac becomes the high-permeability highway that enables gas molecules to make their way out of the tight reservoir matrix and into the wellbore.
Further advances in technology enable the drillers to turn the wellbore into a horizontal attiude, often penetrating a half-mile or more laterally into the zone. Horizontal wellbores, and advances in fracking technology, have opened up gas shale plays nationwide, in the Barnett of Texas, Haynesville of Louisiana, Fayetteville of Arkansas, Woodford of Oklahoma, among others.
In any case, New York has some of the nation's strictest environmental regulations, which would apply fully to Marcellus drilling.
Note, too, that the country has more than six decades of experience with the process. As Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) notes, hydraulic fracturing has helped produce 7 billion barrels of oil and 600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from more than a million US wells. It is now used in about 35,000 wells nationwide, with minimal impact on local surroundings and no environmental problems.
"In hydraulic fracturing's 60-year history, there has not been a single documented case of contamination," Inhofe noted.
Oil and gas wells are constructed in every jurisdiction with protection of the fresh groundwater resource as a key design parameter. Hydrocarbon zones are normally separated from the deepest possible fresh water zone by many thousands of vertical feet of impermeable rock.
Natural gas is nearly the ideal fuel. It burns clean and with substantially less carbon dioxide per unit energy than wither coal or oil. It is inexpensive relative to oil, and most importantly, abundant and domestic. It can be an important step toward true energy security for the U.S. for decades to come, if we don't let the Luddites and the NIMBYs say "No, We Can't" to development.