Go to any dinner, party or gathering of friends here in Sullivan County, and the topic of conversation inevitably turns to gas drilling. In case you’ve just come back from Antarctica, and haven’t had the chance yet to pick up a local newspaper, Sullivan County sits at the eastern edge of the Marcellus Shale, widely considered the richest natural gas find in the U.S. The gas industry is salivating at the prospect of the billions of dollars in profits they anticipate from extracting that gas, located so close to the densest population centers in the country. (Energy and investment blogs and websites refer to it as the ‘Marcellus Play’. The Marcellus Shale actually extends from Ohio east to western New York and south to West Virginia, but the richest section is considered to be right here under good old Sullivan County and our neighbors to the immediate north and west.)
“Land men” (their term, not mine) have been quietly scouring the area since sometime last year to get large landowners, primarily farmers, to sign gas leases. In the last few months, the leasing has intensified and the ‘Marvcellus Play’ is getting wider media attention (including a number of articles in the NY Times). Public awareness (which includes elected officials) about gas drilling was almost non-existent at the beginning of the year, but has been growing, and is now like a tsunami. The public, our elected officials, and various environmental advocacy groups are struggling to ramp up quickly on what could be the biggest change to ever roll over the upper Delaware region. (I say ‘roll over’ because the Federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 not only exempts the gas industry from most local oversight of their drilling activities, but also from the Federal Clean Air and Clean Water acts. Thanks Dick Cheney!) Even the two key water protection entities in the Upper Delaware basin, the 4 state Delaware River Basin Commission (chartered with protecting both the quality and quantity of water in the Delaware River, the source of drinking water for a number of major cities including Philadelphia) and the NYC Department of Environmental Protection / Catskill Watershed Corporation (responsible for NYC’s water supply) have been blindsided and are now rushing to evaluate the impacts of gas drilling. (The reason water is key to drilling is that 1 to 2 million gallons of water are required to drill each well. The water has to come from somewhere and has to be disposed of after drilling.)
One of the biggest problems right now is the lack of good, objective information. How many wells will there be? Is drilling safe? What are the environmental impacts? The lifestyle and community impacts? The impact on our infrastructure? Listen to spokespeople for the gas industry, or the New York State Dept. of Environmental Protection (responsible for issuing drilling permits and inspecting well operations) and drilling is benign, safe and generates only prosperity and happiness. Listen to the drilling foes, and its an evironmental Armageddon that tears communities asunder and leaves a toxic soup in its wake. People who visit different areas where drilling is already active come back with widely varying reports — some operations seem to be poster children for land raping horror, while others seem to be relatively innocuous with happy famers collecting royalty checks. Its like the proverbial blind men describing the elephant.
I think it is safe to say, though, that the gas industry has no other motivation than profits. They’re not stakeholders in our communities and when the gas runs out they’ll be gone. They have deep pockets, political connections and armies of well paid lawyers. They’re Goliath to our David. We have to act, and act fast, to organize the resources to protect our interests.
I don’t know what that is yet. I don’t think many folks here do. I”m not sure where to hang my hat yet on this issue. But like many folks around here, I need to learn a lot more.