Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told a House subcommittee recently that a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing could be the “Achilles’ heel” that kills the natural gas industry. Like many others, Mr. Salazar sees natural gas, which America has in great abundance, as cleaner and more climate-friendly than coal or oil and a useful transition to alternative fuels. But he also fears, as we do, that public support for drilling will diminish unless the industry and its state and federal regulators do a better job of making sure the gas does no harm to drinking water.
Hydraulic fracturing involves blasting water, sand and chemicals into underground rock formations to unlock the gas they contain. The technique has been around for many years and has been used, mostly without incident, in hundreds of thousands of natural gas wells. But the risks have multiplied as the wells are drilled deeper and stretched vertically and horizontally to get at remote deposits. A single well can cough up a million gallons of wastewater laced with carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium.
The technique has become especially controversial in Pennsylvania, the epicenter of a big push for natural gas locked in the Marcellus Shale, a formation stretching from West Virginia to upstate New York. Ian Urbina’s recent series in The Times found that conventional wastewater treatment plants in Pennsylvania could not prevent radioactive contaminants from entering rivers that provide drinking water for millions of people. The series also identified many instances of poor regulation.
At the urging of Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency has begun an investigation of hydraulic fracturing’s effect on the environment. An earlier E.P.A. study in 2004 was superficial and skewed toward industry. The oil and gas companies provided much of the underlying data, and there were few onsite inspections. This time the study must involve rigorous field testing. It must also be thorough and transparent.
There is a message here for New York State as well. Albany has been dithering for years over whether to allow increased hydraulic fracturing, and under what conditions and rules, in New York’s portion of the Marcellus Shale. The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation is nearing the end of a revised environmental impact statement that is due on June 1.
Given all the new information, this is a ridiculously short time frame. The department — which hasn’t even finished processing comments from a 2009 study — needs to get it right. We would hope that it prohibits drilling altogether in two watersheds that supply millions of people with unfiltered drinking water, while imposing the strictest possible drilling standards elsewhere. The two watersheds are the New York City watershed, which covers one million acres north and west of the city and provides drinking water to 8.2 million people, and the smaller Skaneateles Lake watershed near Syracuse.
The issue here is not whether the country should be drilling for natural gas, which is an important source of energy as well as jobs in places like Pennsylvania and New York. The issue is whether it can be done safely.