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

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

Considering the prevalence of natural gas in Chautauqua County, it might not come as a surprise that Chautauqua Institution is located right near active gas wells. The Chautauqua Golf Club, located across the street from the Main Gate, contains gas wells on its grounds, said Doug Conroe, the former director of operations at Chautauqua.

“They connect into the gas grid and the gas pipe system, and then we get royalties and use them as supplemental income to the Institution budget,” he said.

There are additional gas wells within 3 miles of the Institution located on Institution-owned, undeveloped land, Conroe said. He said there have been no reported incidents or cases of contamination from the natural gas extraction, which is done using conventional methods.

If Gov. Andrew Cuomo had not banned high-volume, horizontal hydrofracking, Conroe said, the area surrounding the Institution could have been impacted, though the likelihood of a direct impact on the Institution would have been low. He said the reason for the ban is largely because the practice is so new.

As a member of the Chautauqua County Environmental Management Council and the Chautauqua County Water Quality Task Force, Conroe attempts to remain neutral about the issue, though he does have his opinions.

He cited several concerns that could have arisen, which included where the “millions of gallons of water” required for pumping would come from and how the leftover water, which contains radioactive material, would be disposed of and transported.

“There’s a huge environmental impact,” Conroe said. “Can you do it in a way that will be OK? Perhaps, but there certainly are a lot of questions that remain to be answered.”

Conroe is not the only Chautauquan who is skeptical of the necessity of the new practice.

Enid Shames, a New York City native who has been coming to Chautauqua for  more than 20 years, has protested fracking and other environmental causes through an international organization called The Raging Grannies.

The Raging Grannies is composed of older women dressed in stereotypically “grandmotherly” clothes who promote “peace, justice, social and economic equality through song and humor,” according to the group’s website.

“We protest for the good of the community and the good of the state,” Shames said.

She is concerned about the impacts of HVHF because of the gallons of water required for the practice and the potential for contamination from the chemicals used during pumping. She has protested against the issue in North Carolina, where she said HVHF was being done.

“There’s never a time in your life that you can’t speak out for what you believe in,” she said.

Mike Hogan, who runs Hogan Energy Consulting in Lakewood, said the focus on the environmental impacts of the process of fracking, both conventional and unconventional, is misguided.

“Hydraulic fracking is a relatively small part of the whole picture to develop a well,” he said. “I won’t deny that there have been some issues in Chautauqua County and other places, but they were not a result of fracking, but of a cement failure in a surface casing, a bad practice or other failures. But no one’s perfect. And it’s not a mass issue.”

He said the industry’s environmental track record has improved over time, largely due to issues brought up by the environmental community.

“Ten years ago, our industry took a lot of things we did for granted,” he said. “We’ve not only improved the methodologies but the testing, so that we can use better technology and test that situation before we drill ahead. The risks have dramatically reduced, and that’s a result of the environmental community testing us.”

But Conroe said the industry’s weak environmental track record raises concerns. Considering the way the state has handled issues of contamination in the past, not always having sufficient inspection personnel on hand, he is not confident that it would be able to adequately address an environmental or health problem caused by HVHF if one were to arise.

“If you don’t have an inspector there to guarantee quality, shortcuts kind of happen,” he said. “I’d rather take my risks elsewhere and look at other alternative energy sources — each day we’re getting better and better alterative energy sources.”

Glenn Wahl, a part-time geology professor at Jamestown Community College, said despite any improvements to the safety of natural gas drilling, natural gas is still a fossil fuel, the burning of which contributes to climate change.

“Conventional drilling is a little better than unconventional, but any fossil fuel at this time we need to cut down on,” he said. “That’s another deception of the industry. They’re spending literally hundreds of millions of dollars trying to dissuade the public on climate change, and partially it’s succeeding, sadly enough.”

Audrey Dowling, a Mayville resident who said her father’s water source was polluted by natural gas, praised Cuomo’s willingness to stand up to the natural gas industry, as she fears there might be HVHF throughout the county today if he had not banned it.

“There were a couple places where they were ready to rock and roll with fracking,” she said. “You would hear the noise, see the trucks on the road.”

Beyond the economic impacts HVHF could have on the county if the ban is lifted, she believes people have a responsibility to protect the earth.

“If we’re allowing things to go into our creek that kill the wildlife, everybody loses,” she said. “Especially if [pollutants] worked their way into Chautauqua Lake. We all know the lake is having some problems, and it doesn’t help when you have toxic things coming in from the feeder creek. This area is so beautiful and natural, and I think it’s really important to keep it that way.”

Editor’s note: Due to a pagination error, part of the final line of the first installment of this series was omitted from the Aug. 12 issue. The story appears in full at chqdaily.com.