Local News

Beyond the fracking wars, local author presents fact to foster educated debate

By Karen D. Lorentz

Beth Kinne, daughter of Randy and Ruth Kinne of North Clarendon and a graduate of Mill River High School, hopes to shed some light on a national hot topic with the resource book “Beyond the Fracking Wars: A Guide for Lawyers, Public Officials, Planners and Citizens.”

Kinne, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York, holds JD and LLM degrees from the University of Washington and a master of science degree in resource management and environmental studies from the University of British Columbia. She teaches courses in environmental law, natural resource law, global water issues and business law.

Kinne wrote two of the book’s 17 chapters and solicited contributions from other scholars as well as served as editor with fellow lawyer and educator Erica L. Powers. The book was published by the American Bar Association.

According to the preface, “The book was designed to meet a need, nationwide, for information about unconventional hydrocarbon development that lawyers, public officials, planners, and citizens can use as a reference and starting point for further research.”

It grew out of several conferences centered on the “rapid development of unconventional shale gas around the U.S., and particularly in the Northeast where this technology had not previously been applied,” the editors noted.

“The aim was to provide some practical guidance for both sides of the hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, debate,” Kinne said.

Hydrofracking wars

Rather than taking sides, the book addresses various issues from potential impacts of hydrofracturing on the land and local citizens to how it has been successfully used to provide a cheaper energy source in natural gas. In seeking to provide a balanced resource, the book explains some of the earlier bad experiences that led to serious questions about the practice of hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. “fracking.”

Kinne provides an introduction to the technology of unconventional oil and gas drilling in the first chapter. Unconventional hydrocarbon exploration allows for the extraction of natural gas from tight formations of shale and sandstone — basically gas housed in microscopic pore spaces in rock. The well is drilled vertically until it reaches the target rock formation, at which point the drill is turned horizontally and the bore then runs laterally through the formation for a mile or so.

Steel casings line the well bore. In the horizontal portion of the well, the casing is perforated. Fluids, sand, water and chemicals are then pumped into the well at high pressure to induce microscopic fractures in the surrounding rock and to prop those fractures open. When the pressure is released, much of the water flows back out of the well, and the gas escaping from these fractures flows up and out of the well.

In a later chapter, Kinne discusses the ramifications of hydrofracturing on air quality, including not only the problem of releasing methane (a “greenhouse” gas) and VOCs but also the creation of ground-level ozone, a known hazard to human health, which can also damage plants and crops. The book presents information on ways to prevent releasing hazardous chemicals and gases into the air as well as what federal or state regulations exist to protect health and environmental damages.

Kinne recently told The Mountain Times: “Most people understand the ground water issues, or are at least aware of them. The industry is working on this issue. What few people are aware of is the potential for air quality problems, disposal of waste water [a result of the process], and the impact of huge trucks on country roads. A “boom town,” such as Rifle (Colo.), creates another set of problems.

“There was a recent article in the news about air quality problems in North Dakota because of the lack of infrastructure in bringing the products to market, resulting in having to burn (flare) off wells and causing much pollution.”

Due to the many issues raised in the process, Kinne advocates the necessity of “creative management and evolving regulatory strategies.”

Those in favor of hydrofracturing cite the jobs and wealth generated in places like Pennsylvania and Texas, and the relatively clean burn of natural gas versus coal.

However, critics note the water usage, instances of groundwater contamination and surface spills, the greenhouse gas impacts of methane emissions, and the potential release of radioactive material.

Currently, “fracking” remains a controversial gas extraction process. It has been banned in Vermont and France. Other states are considering making it illega, too.

Vermont notes

Although Vermont has passed legislation prohibiting fracking, the state approved transmission lines for transporting natural gas, with a Phase One Vermont Gas Systems transmission line being built from Shelburne to Middlebury with service to residents and commercial locations along its route.

Phase Two of this pipeline, which would transport gas from Middlebury to the International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y., faces opposition in the town of Cornwall where Bruce Hiland, the chairman of the selectboard, says the proposed pipeline would serve fewer than 15 percent of local households. Vermont Gas Systems could accomplish the project through eminent domain although not serving as a public utility for Vermonters, but rather a commercial enterprise to benefit VGS and a business in another state, noted Hiland.

Asked about transmission lines, Kinne said, “Vermont needs to have proper regulations in place before transport pipelines are built.” In Chapter One, she writes: “the location and size of a given pipeline determines whether it comes under state or federal regulatory jurisdiction. Installation of pipelines can create disturbances to farmland, ecosystems, and habitats, and gas lines running through inhabited areas can create human safety risks if not properly operated and maintained.”

Hiland said that if Phase Two were approved, Cornwall wants indemnification from first shovel to any future decommissioning so any problems are paid for by VGS and not by Cornwall citizens. Additionally, Cornwall seeks compensation commensurate with VGS and IP financial benefits. (Hiland said Cornwall does not oppose a pipeline to serve Rutland, another future project.)

Kinne’s observation and Hiland’s position parallel the book’s point that there are many issues which need to be addressed to prevent potential problems, so that communities affected are aware of potential ramifications and don’t suffer future financial costs of any kind. (Currently, estimates of the cost of the transmission lines have gone up, another consideration for proponents who may experience higher gas prices than originally thought.)

Although it is written in a scholarly manner, which tends to be ponderous for the average lay reader, the book is thorough, thoughtful, and particularly helpful in explaining the various processes involved and how they can lead to pollution and environmental degradation. Moreover, it strikes a hopeful note that further research, careful procedures and appropriate regulations can prevent the very real and serious dangers that “fracking” can and has caused.

One example that was helpful to this reader was the explanation that if drilled well casings are not properly cemented, gases can leak into aquifers. This explains instances seen on television where people’s tap water caught on fire (due to gases that leaked into an aquifer).

In neighboring New York, the debate over shale gas drilling is hard fought, particularly in counties sharing a border with Pennsylvania and that sit atop the Marcellus shale formation. The state of New York, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), local municipalities, and citizens are all weighing in on whether to okay “fracking.”

The benefit of a de facto fracking moratorium in New York is that it has given the state time to consider the impacts of hydrofracking and more carefully weigh the economic benefits with the environmental challenges, and attempt to design solutions, Kinne notes.

“New York is lucky that we’ve held off and been able to think about these questions. The threat of water use by shale gas developments is promoting much more careful thinking about who takes what water when and for what. It’s about doing things carefully, planning rather than letting the market decide,” Kinne added.

“Beyond the Fracking Wars” is 350 pages and is available on the American Bar Association website: https://shop.americanbar.org.

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