A few years back my brother paved his driveway. Not the news of the century, but I was kind of sorry when he had it done. I know he was happy to finally have a smooth, blacktopped driveway rather than the rough, gravelly dirt that used to end up as dust on cars and was nearly impossible to shovel during their harsh winters. But I liked it the way it was. Before it was paved, the driveway was covered with fossils. Whenever I visited I came back with several of the best specimens I could find just by traipsing up and down the driveway. I harvested nuggets of sandstone and tiles of shale full of the imprints of shells, sponges and the tiniest of sea creatures that lived and died by the billions over millions of years. For a total rock geek and fossil fanatic like myself, there are treasures beyond number in my brother’s yard, in the culverts along his property and all over the dirt road he lives on way out in the country. That a lot of the easiest pickings now lie under asphault makes me a little sad, but I can still do pretty well if I dig around under his deck or walk up the dirt road to the top of the hill where an old farm lies abandoned and is being reclaimed by the surrounding meadows. The view is expansive, lovely, and full of rolling hills and dairy farms. It’s never been hard for me to understand why my brother has wanted to live down here since he was a kid. And given the geological goldmine under my feet when I stand on that hill, it’s not hard to understand why the natural gas companies love it too. My brother lives in the southern tier of New York State about two hours south of Rochester and two and a half hours west of Binghamton. He lives on top of what some natural gas experts have referred to as the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. His eleven beautiful acres are on the Marcellus Shale.
Named for an exposed outcropping near Marcellus, New York outside of Syracuse, this massive geological formation which extends from central New York to West Virginia resulted from the erosion of sediment from the young, growing Appalachian Mountains, when they were vastly higher than the ancient, worn, contorted peaks we know today. His hillside just north of Pennsylvania, and a little east of the Alleghany Mountains, used to be the bottom of a warm, shallow inland sea starting about 400,000,000 years ago during the Devonian period. Marine fossils such as those scattered by the zillions all over my brother’s land and the southern tier of New York State are not just beautiful remnants of an ancient time to amateur fossil hunters like me, they are beacons to petroleum geologists. Where there is an abundance of dead organic matter, buried deeply and compressed into rock under the right temperatures and conditions for millions of years, there may be fossil fuel deposits. Native Americans in the area discovered oil at the Seneca Oil Spring (only a few miles from my brother’s house) centuries ago. In the region of south central to southwestern New York and the contiguous regions of Pennsylvania, humans have been drilling for oil since 1859. Natural gas drilling has been going on there since the first well was drilled outside Fredonia, New York in 1821, but the huge reserves under the Marcellus Shale were just too deep to reach through conventional methods.
A few years back, a construction crew showed up in the field across the street from my brother’s house, laid down a long driveway wide enough to handle some pretty heavy equipment, and brought in a drilling rig. The rig was there for a while and then one day it was gone, leaving the abandoned driveway and clearing to be overtaken by weeds and tall grass. Old oil derricks and exploratory wells are still common in these parts. But I think this was the beginning of something new.
Hydraulic Fracturing, also known as fracking: A process by which natural gas is extracted from deep within shale by injecting massive amounts of chemicals, sand and water under extreme pressure deep into bedrock. Wells are drilled vertically to depths of 3,000 to 8,000 feet. The shaft then runs horizontally through the shale for several thousand more feet. When the chemical mixture is forced down the well, it sets off explosions within the rock, releasing natural gas which is then captured and sent back to the surface for collection, along with the chemical/wastewater sludge.
The practice is highly controversial given that areas where fracking is rampant such as western Pennsylvania have experienced devastating and potentially irreversible levels of contamination to aquifers, wells and rivers that supply drinking water. You Tube is full of videos showing tap water actually catching on fire allegedly as a result of natural gas drilling nearby. High levels of toxins such as benzene, and radioactive substances such as radium have been documented by the E.P.A. and various independent environmental study groups in the wastewater byproducts of hydraulic fracturing. Depending upon the stringency of local regulations, containment systems run the gamut from sealed tanks to open pools which have leaked into local water supplies. And then there is the potential connection still being studied and as yet unproved, between increases in unusual levels of seismic activity and gas drilling in areas where fracking is now being conducted. The 5.9 centered in Virginia in August that affected much of the eastern United States has been cited as a possible result of fracking about a hundred miles away. Yes, we just might have figured out how to cause our own earthquakes. Or not. But agreement is widespread that setting off explosions deep within bedrock opens up new fissures and widens existing faults. In my mind’s eye, I envision a variation on that old Parkay Margarine commercial. “It’s not nice to fool (with) Mother Nature.” A clap of thunder. A frightened raccoon covers its head.
Although New York imposed a moratorium on fracking, it’s not a question of whether it will be allowed, but when. Governor Cuomo favors lifting the moratorium, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) has fast-tracked the promulgation of regulations under which hydraulic fracturing will be conducted. On September 7, 2011, the NYS DEC released its recommendations for permitting hydraulic fracturing in New York. Despite certain no-drill zones, numerous cases of contamination far from surface wells have environmental advocates, conservationists and your average, run-of-the-mill safe drinking water enthusiasts extremely concerned about the effects of drilling at such great depths on the water supplies of Syracuse, New York City and the entire southern tier of New York. But the gas industry has its allies too. In this economically depressed region where unemployment has hovered at or above the national average for years, drilling promises thousands of new jobs and motivates many people to advocate strongly for tapping the vast energy resources beneath their homes. Local farmers, however, share environmentalists’ concerns about the safety of drilling and long term effects on water supplies and the land itself. There are no simple answers here.
I live in eastern Massachusetts. The rocks are volcanic, igneous and metamorphic. No one’s going to come knocking at my door asking me to sign a gas lease. But a battle is being waged just to the west. A battle for jobs, the environment, and the security a somewhat clean, relatively cheap and, now, thanks to advances in drilling technology, a more accessible, domestic source of energy offers to a nation still dependent on fossil fuels. There’s plenty of work for the lawyers on every side. But I worry about my brother’s peaceful slice of heaven. The very geology of the region that has made it so beautiful and put dozens of fossils on my shelves, could be what dooms it to decline and ruin. This ocean floor and what lies beneath it have been here for hundreds of millions of years and contain wealth beyond what we use to heat our homes. We should tread carefully.