Before the Massa Meltdown: An interview on the Marcellus Shale

The resignation of Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) two weeks ago was a loss to New York industries dependent on a precious resource: clean water. With energy companies aggressively pursuing gas leases in the state, Massa brought the drilling debate to the federal level. He supported well permitting delays in the Marcellus Shale – a formation many geologic experts are calling the world’s largest natural gas field – to ensure state drilling regulations protect the environment.

Our interview with Eric Massa the day before scandal rocked his political career.

“If we lose access to freshwater, if we have well heads every 10 acres, if we have night flares, if we have the smell coming from sulfuric and sulfur laden chemicals, we are going to drive tourists out of the very area that we’ve spent a generation cultivating tourists to come to,” he said.

Skeptics of drilling fear hydraulic fracturing, a widely used technique to extract natural gas, will ruin New York’s pristine water – which includes hundreds of miles of coastline, 7,500 lakes and ponds, and 50,000 miles of rivers and streams – killing its multibillion dollar tourism industry. Hydraulic fracturing is when well operators inject a mixture of water and chemicals – about two to nine million gallons of water with chemicals making up about one to five percent of the total volume – into wells at extremely high pressure to crack and prop open the shale.

Joyce Hunt, owner of Hunt Country Vineyards in Branchport, N.Y., said she got involved in the gas drilling debate when Chesapeake Energy Inc. decided in the fall of 2009 that it wanted to dispose of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing about three miles from her vineyard in Pulteney, N.Y. The proposed waste disposal site was an abandoned gas well on the west side of Keuka Lake in the center of the wine trail.

“They were going to be bringing up truck after truck, a lot of it from Pennsylvania, to dump the hydro-fracing – the spent hydro-fracing fluid, which is water laced with chemicals, some of them toxic – in a well about eight-tenths of a mile above Keuka Lake,” said Hunt.

Massa discussed plans for the disposal well last February at a public meeting in Pulteney, N.Y. He and other panelists – including Joyce Hunt’s husband and co-owner of Hunt Country Vineyards, Art Hunt; Cornell University engineering professor Tony Ingraffea; and Sierra Club executive committee member and staff attorney, Rachel Treichler, to name a few – opposed the plan, which would pump about 18,000 gallons of wastewater into the well daily over 10 years.

Hunt said opponents of hydraulic fracturing need “all the voices” they can get. Massa was one the “best spokespeople” for New Yorkers, she said.

Massa wasn’t the only hydraulic fracturing skeptic in Congress. Last summer, Representatives Dianna DeGette (D-Colo.), Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Senators Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) – introduced identical bills that would require oil and gas companies to disclose materials in hydraulic fracturing fluids in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. And last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it will spend $1.9 million to study how hydraulic fracturing impacts drinking water.

Derek Wilber, president and wine maker of White Springs Winery located on the northern end of Seneca Lake outside Geneva, N.Y., agreed drilling should be delayed because people “who are busy running a business” need a “better idea” of what decisions are being made.

“I think the bigger battle that’s being waged is on the state level, not the federal level,” says Wilber.

New York Department of Environmental Conservation conducted an environmental impact statement on the use of horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing last year and released its findings for public comment.

Concerned that large corporations sway federal policy, opponents believe they have a better chance of influencing drilling through state officials. But Hunt said she has little faith they can overpower the industry interests. “Just given the way everything has been going lately with corporations being given the same rights as people, I think as individuals we have less and less of a voice in how things go,” said Joyce Hunt. “I think given the number, the power of the oil and gas industry and the money they spend in Washington with lobbyists, it’s tough.”