A bill in the New York Legislature that would crack down on a controversial gas drilling technique in the massive Marcellus Shale formation could reach the floor for a vote this week, after being described as a 'no-go' by some observers just days ago.
The legislation, sponsored by two Democrats, State Sen. Antoine Thompson and Assemblymember Robert Sweeney, would impose a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, until May 15, 2011.
"It's not dead," said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). "We are very hopeful that it will be brought to the floor for a vote in both houses tomorrow," she told SolveClimate News.
Hydraulic fracturing uses a toxic brew of chemicals to crack out gas from underground deposits.
If it passes, it would be the first such bill in the nation. Environmental groups warn that without it, New York would usher in a dangerous shale gas "gold" rush — a development that they say would threaten drinking water supplies.
Sinding said the legislation has seen more committed 'yes' votes from both sides of the aisle in recent weeks. The legislature will reconvene on Tuesday for a rare summer session to consider the bill, among other stalled measures.
"By our count, it has a comfortable margin to pass in the Senate, and there's really no question that it would pass in the Assembly," Sinding added.
Katherine Nordeau, a program director at Environmental Advocates of New York, was just as optimistic.
"We think that if this comes to the floor, [it] would pass," she told SolveClimate News.
Republican State Sen. John Bonacic told the Daily Freeman, a local paper in New York's Hudson Valley, that "if it comes before me I am going to support it."
"I personally think there's more than enough votes for the bill to pass," Bonacic said.
Two other Republican lawmakers, State Sens. James Seward and Frank Padavan, have similarly declared their support.
Michelle Blackley, spokesperson for the Independent Oil and Gas Association (IOGA) of New York, a trade group, told SolveClimate News that she "wouldn't speculate on whether there are enough votes."
"We hope there are not," she said, calling the bill "unnecessary."
More Review Needed?
Advoocates say a moratorium is necessary to give the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) ample time to evaluate the risks of groundwater poisoning in the drilling process.
For two years, the DEC has been examining hydraulic fracturing and establishing permit conditions for horizontal wells. A final environmental impact assessment is due in the fall. The first wave of permitting is expected to follow.
"There are very, very serious and, in our view, fatal deficiencies in the analysis that the state has undertaken," Sinding, of NRDC, said.
The IOGA said an interruption in the review would cause great "harm" at this late stage.
"We strongly believe that New York's existing regulations, combined with the pending DEC rule changes, will provide more than adequate protection to New York's natural resources," said Brad Gill, executive director of IOGA, in a statement.
The industry has spent more than $350,000 since May, in part to sink the legislation, according to new figures from Common Cause, a government watchdog group.
Centuries' Worth of Gas
The Marcellus Shale is one of North America's four major shale formations. The subterranean layer of rock extends roughly 54,000 square miles underneath the entire southern half of New York, two-thirds of Pennsylvania and parts of Ohio and West Virginia.
According to geologists, it holds 168 trillion to 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — or up to 470 times New York's current annual electricity needs. It is now suddenly recoverable, courtesy of new techniques in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling.
The process involves blasting millions of gallons of water, chemicals, sand or plastic beads at high pressure deep into wells to fracture the rock and release the gas.
The technology has expanded aggressively in recent years.
A 2009 study by consulting firm PFC Energy said that shale drilling has increased from 1 percent of U.S. natural gas production in 2000 to roughly 10 percent today.
Toxic Water Worries
According to a study by DEC, "fracturing fluids" have been found to contain 260 different kinds of chemicals, many of which are known human carcinogens. However, a good portion of those chemicals are no longer used.
Today, a frack job contains no more than 12 to 15 ingredients other than sand and water, IOGA says.
But water contamination cases are on the rise. Residents living near wells in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Texas and other states across shale country have complained of foul-smelling and discolored water, as well as headaches, nose bleeds, rashes and other physical symptoms.
Advocates in New York fear that tapping the Marcellus Shale would taint the New York City watershed. The area is a source of unfiltered drinking water for over nine million people, or about half the state's population.
The DEC says those fears are unfounded.
"As a result of New York's rigorous regulatory process, the types of problems reported to have occurred in states without such strong environmental laws and rigorous regulations haven't happened here," it declares. "No known instances of groundwater contamination have occurred from previous horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing projects in New York State."
Further, in April, the agency announced that applications to drill in the watershed would require a special case-by-case review. It was a partial reversal of an earlier decision to allow drilling there.
But Sinding said that "nothing short of an absolute ban on drilling in these watersheds is sufficient."
IOGA said opponents are employing "elevated rhetoric and scare tactics" to "shift lawmakers' focus from the facts surrounding natural gas exploration."
Industry Eager to Reap Economic Benefits
In Pennsylvania, over 1,300 horizontal wells have been drilled since 2007, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
New York's industry is anxious for a piece of the action.
"Areas being drilled in Pennsylvania have experienced improved roads and economic booms. Local businesses are having to go over the border, instead of staying in New York State," Blackley said.
According to a new study by University of Wyoming researcher Timothy Considine, called the "Economic Impacts of the Marcellus Shale: Implications for New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia," the State of New York is losing $11 billion in economic output from its hydraulic fracturing holdup.
If the delay continues, those losses could reach $17 billion and 15,000 jobs in 10 years, it said. The study was financed by the American Petroleum Institute, a lobby group representing oil companies.
Critics of the report say it does not consider any environmental costs of a shale boom.
In Jan. 2011, EPA will launch a first-ever, two-year study into the potential adverse impacts of fracking on water quality and public health.
UPDATE (Aug. 4): The New York Senate approved legislation (S.8129B) late yesterday by a 48-9 vote that puts a moratorium on new fracking permits in the Marcellus Shale until May 15, 2011. Assemblyman Robert Sweeney said the vote "opens the way for us" to do the same in the Assembly "where I would expect it to pass with similar overwhelming numbers." A vote in that chamber is expected in September. Kate Sinding, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the Senate's approval a "bold, first-of-its-kind action."