Natural Gas: A symbol of Chautauqua County or an overvalued fuel?



Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on natural gas extraction, including high-volume, horizontal  hydrofracturing in western New York state.

One early morning 20 years ago, Audrey Dowling received a panicked call from her elderly father.

“I asked him what was wrong, and he said the cows woke him up early in the morning. They were bellowing,” she said. “He went out to see what the problem was, and their water source had 10 to 12 inches of white, gelatinous gunk with a crusty, dark top.”

Dowling’s father owned 52 acres of land in Bemus Point, across Chautauqua Lake from Chautauqua Institution. A World War II veteran, he had refused to sell his property to oil and gas companies in the 1950s when the natural gas boom hit Chautauqua County. But the people who lived up the hill from him had sold their property.

Dowling’s father investigated the source of the material in his creek, which feeds into Bemus Creek and eventually Chautauqua Lake. At the top of the hill, on his neighbor’s property, he saw the same material spilling over the walls of a containment well and into his creek. He confronted the neighbors, who were drilling for natural gas.

“They said to him something to the effect of, ‘We know we’re wrong, old man, and we’re working to fix it,’ ” she said. “They did stop it, but not until a bunch of stuff had gone down that creek.”

After that day, Dowling’s father had to get his water trucked in from outside sources and was never compensated for the harm done to his creek. Today, Dowling said the creek has turned brackish and lacks the organisms it once did.

Natural gas extraction for commercial purposes began in Chautauqua County in Fredonia, when William Hart drilled the first successful gas well in 1821. As of March 19, 2014, the date of a Chautauqua County Legislature Meeting on natural gas drilling, there were more than 3,500 active natural gas wells throughout the county.

High-volume, horizontal hydrofracturing, commonly known as “unconventional” drilling or “fracking,” is a new method of natural gas extraction. Conventional reservoirs tend to be more porous, which allows gas and oil to flow easily. Unconventional reserves, which have become accessible over the last 10 years due to newer technologies, are “fracked” because they have a lower permeability and therefore more water and energy is needed to obtain the gas.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned HVHF in New York state in December 2014, but Dowling believes conventional natural gas drilling, which she said polluted her father’s creek, poses problems, too.

Dowling is not alone.

Starting in the early 1980s, the county investigated 142 conventionally drilled natural gas-related complaints, said Bill Boria, a water-quality specialist for the county, at the 2014 legislature meeting mentioned above.

“Of all of those that we have investigated, 21 we could say were linked to oil and gas well activity. Eleven, we’re not too sure about,” Boria said. “We needed more information to make that determination. But, for the most part, if you look at how many wells are in the county, it’s a pretty good track record.”

Dowling, however, is skeptical that this is an accurate representation of the issue. Her family never complained to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation about the problem, believing they could solve the issue themselves, and she said the DEC can be slow to respond to complaints.

“I have a feeling that, if you bother to complain, you probably had a problem,” she said. “I don’t think you’d randomly complain just because.”

Tim Hull, the vice president of the Appalachian Division of Empire Energy, oversees natural gas wells in Chautauqua, Cattaraugus, Erie, Seneca, Wyoming and Allegany counties. He said there have been no problems with conventional drilling in his experiences and that the state has over-regulated the natural gas industry, calling the ban on HVHF a “foregone conclusion.”

“HVHF has been done safely in other states,” he said. “The state proposed regulations that would have addressed the concerns people had [about it]. In our opinion, there was never an honest look at [unconventional] fracking. There were studies done, but the studies the politicians didn’t like, they ignored, and they took on other studies that were largely done by environmental groups or people who were opposed to hydrocarbon production.”

He said HVHF and conventional drilling are very similar processes.

“There’s nothing different with the fracking they banned to what has been done thousands of times in Chautauqua County with the exception of the size of it,” he said.

Glenn Wahl, a part-time geology professor at Jamestown Community College, said the risks associated with the two practices vary significantly. HVHF wells have a higher well casing failure rate, which could release methane gas, arsenic and other chemicals into groundwater, he said.

“In Pennsylvania, there have been hundreds of cases of contamination from those wells,” he said. “This new kind of fracking has had such a high failure rate, along with other issues, that it’s got people trying to do something to stop it.”

Wahl and other organizers in the area have attempted to establish local bans on HVHF because they believe Cuomo’s statewide ban is “about as tenuous as it could be.”

“We haven’t been all that successful [with bans] because we have a strong gas and oil business in Chautauqua County,” he said. “Whenever we would try to do something, the oil folks would send their employees to cause intimidation and whatnot. It took them a long time to realize that we’re not talking about banning conventional drilling, but about banning the new kind.”

Even though surveys indicate most New Yorkers support the ban, Wahl believes the pressure to lift it is great. There is also room for loopholes. In Tioga County, a group of landowners have applied for a permit to perform HVHF using pumped propane gel, rather than pumped water.

“Technically, that would be legal. It would circumvent the state ban language,” Wahl said. “And propane fracking has most of the same problems that regular fracking has.”

Additionally, he believes the long-term, local economic benefits of HVHF have been exaggerated.

“In order to get money from investors, you have to produce a lot, and when you produce with these kind of wells, production declines very rapidly,” Wahl said. “Whereas [conventional] wells could keep producing after 20, 30, 40 years, the new kind only produces for a few years.”

For many years, Wahl supported HVHF.

“My geology background kind of comes with the territory that you’re supportive of fuel extraction,” he said. “It wasn’t until I read hundreds of government agency reports that I realized fracking is not what the industry really says it is. There’s been a big development of propaganda that is misleading the public about what it is and what it does, that says it never contaminates water and is perfectly safe.”