Shale Force–Syracuse New Times July 20, 2011

Shale Force.

Shale Force

By Ed Griffin-Nolan  

Bill Fischer moved to Central New York last year to get away from the noise and the risks of hydrofracking near his home in Pennsylvania. He has a simple message for people in Central New York about natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale: “It’s coming, whether you like it or not, so you better be ready.

Relocated here from northern Pennsylvania, Bill Fischer considers himself a fugitive from hydrofrackingBy Ed Griffin-Nolan

Bill Fischer moved to Central New York last year to get away from the noise and the risks of hydrofracking near his home in Pennsylvania. He has a simple message for people in Central New York about natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale: “It’s coming, whether you like it or not, so you better be ready.”

In the basement of the house in DeWitt that Fischer and his wife, Debbie, just bought hangs a framed picture of the home they left behind in rural northeast Pennsylvania. Seen in the aerial photograph the house sits on the edge of a lake that measures 92 acres surrounded by lush forest. Silver Lake, near Brackney, Pa., 14 miles of back roads south of Binghamton, was home to the Fischers for 13 years, until the advent of hydrofracking convinced them it was time to leave.

Fischer is a 64-year-old former New York state trooper who has the mind of a detective and speaks with the authority of a judge.

Since 1980, when a tangle with a suspect led to his early retirement with a disability, he has run his own private investigative firm, William Fischer Forensic Consulting, specializing in the reconstruction of crime scenes. He enlisted in the Marines during Vietnam, serving his time mostly in the Mediterranean.

Sitting on the three-season porch of his new home on a cul de sac just a few blocks from the spot where East Genesee Street crosses under Interstate 481, his aging golden retriever Nellie at his feet, Fischer describes the idyllic scene he left behind just south of the New York-Pennsylvania line. At regular intervals he interrupts himself to talk of his recent passion: long, early summer bike rides through southern Onondaga County. Recounting mornings spent cycling through the hills of Jamesville and Pompey and past the dairy farms of Fabius, Fischer sounds like a man who has discovered a new love late in life. But when he talks about the place he left behind, a wistful sadness emerges in his voice.

“We lived on State Route 167, 100 feet from the road, and 500 feet from the lake,” he says. “It was a quiet country road. I could sit on my porch and watch five eagles fishing the lake.”

Last November, all that changed as Williams Oil Company set up shop to drill for natural gas. Like much of New York’s Southern Tier and a large swath of Pennsylvania, Silver Lake sits atop a rock formation so packed with fossilized vaporized energy that it is frequently referred to as the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. The race to get the gas out of the ground and into a pipeline changed Bill Fischer’s life forever.

“Sixty trucks an hour came by the house, 10 hours a day, for three weeks. Every time they came to the top of the hill they downshifted, sending up a puff of diesel that cooled and then settled back down right in my front yard. That was just to put in the pad. The pad was a mile and a half from the house, directly across from Salt Springs State Park. They planned to place 10 wells on the pad.”

That subterranean rock formation—the Marcellus Shale—is what we share with the people of Susquehanna County, Pa., the place Fischer left behind. The shale is either a blessing or a curse, depending on who you speak with. For Fischer, it depends on how we handle it and, he reminds us, it’s not going away any time soon.

The gas entombed by the Marcellus Shale sits thousands of feet below the earth and the only technology yet discovered that can exhume it—high volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking for short)—brings with it heavy baggage. Fracking involves shooting millions of gallons of pressurized water and sand, laced with chemicals, into the formation. While fracking breaks up the shale and forces the gas up, questions of where all the water will come from, how it will be altered by its use in the process, and what will be done with it afterward remain unanswered. And that’s just for starters.

The Marcellus Shale has the potential to power the Northeast for a generation or more, and to turn the area’s last unspoiled landscapes into industrial wasteland. Royalties from gas drilling can fund our schools and social services and erase our crushing deficits, while creating water and air pollution from which we might never recover. It can divide neighbor from neighbor, upstate from downstate, while bringing an upstate revival that will allow aging families to remain in their homes and even bring young people back to the region. You pick.

At the Crossroads

These and many other concerns are addressed in a massive document that you can read online at html (Please don’t print it out unless you really hate trees). It’s the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation’s answer to the Tolkien trilogy, entitled the Preliminary Revised Draft of the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS).

The report suggests how New York state proposes to govern fracking in the Marcellus Shale, and it tweaks the earlier draft GEIS first released in 2009, responding to the more than 13,000 comments made on that tome. The new report is open for public comment from now through September.

Pressure from legislators has led to a moratorium on fracking that is set to expire this month, and politicians in both Central New York and New York City have persuaded the DEC to declare both the Skaneateles and the Catskill watersheds, which feed water to the Salt City and the Big Apple, respectively, offlimits. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is also conducting a review of the impact of fracking nationwide, and there is pressure in Albany to extend the moratorium until the EPA releases its findings, probably not for at least another year.

Public sentiment runs high against the procedure, even as local landowners continue to sign leases giving companies the right to drill on their land.

Bill Fischer, the bike-riding former cop, comes to us with his simple, fatalistic message. “They’re not gonna stop this industry,” he concedes. “In our area the grass-roots was building up, but the industry was rolling over everybody. There’s just too much money in it.”

In his case the gas company was allowed to drill in spite of his exhaustive organizing efforts. Fischer had banded together with neighbors to form a Silver Lake Watershed Legal Defense Fund. They petitioned the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to declare their watershed “exceptional” and entitled to special protection.

“They designated 52 acres along the Silver Creek as ‘exceptional quality,’ which means no surface water contamination would be allowed,” says Fischer. “We thought that ruled out hydrofracking because of the possibility of leaks contaminating the surface water—but there’s no enforcement.” They went to the Public Utility Commission and won a ruling denying Laser Marcellus Gathering Company, a gas company, the use of eminent domain to take control of land to build a pipeline, only to see the commission reverse the recommendation.

“We saw the handwriting on the wall,” he continues. “It was a risk to stay. Long before this my wife and I understood, based on policies coming out of Harrisburg, that industrial development was going to be allowed, and this {their home in Silver Lake} would no longer be the place we thought it would be. We put the house up for sale and found a buyer in three days.

“Anyone who says, ‘no way, no how, not here’ is not being realistic. It’s not about stopping it; it’s about guiding it in a responsible way. This will necessarily go through in both northern Pennsylvania and southern New York state. The difference will be the amount of profit that will go from the public to foreign corporations.

“Do we develop this for the benefit of the public or for a few people? This is a public resource: The public is entitled to the profits. Here’s a state that’s going bankrupt, and you’ve got a huge amount of wealth that’s being taken to Texas {where many of the drilling companies are located} for the asking. Rather than close schools and programs,” he offers, “use the tax revenue from this industry to revive the state.”

In His Opinion

So how do you make it work for the people? Fischer rattles off policy options covering everything from the macroeconomic level down to engineering basics.

• “Every time they put a hole in the ground in the Marcellus Shale they’re making money,” he says, referring to the oil companies. “There’s so much gas that there’s almost no risk, and the certainty of gas sucks capital out of the market for all renewable energy sources.”

• “Why risk your capital investing in solar or wind when there’s so much money to be made drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale? The only thing that can change that is government policy.”

• “There are things that New York state can do. The gas industry uses public air, water and roads. You can say, ‘This is a public resource and it is to be used for public wealth, to be shared.’ Like they do in Saudi Arabia, like they did in Alaska. This is seen by some as too socialistic. So if you don’t like that, change the permitting process.”

• “Instead of setting a permit price by the depth of the well, put those permits up for auction. Let the market determine the value. And only issue the number of permits that you can supervise. How many wells can you supervise for three shifts a day, seven days a week? Gas companies drill 24/7; we can’t have inspectors who go home at 5 p.m.”

In addition, Fischer suggests that a meter be placed on every well to measure the amount of flowback fluid coming back up from the shale. Right now he worries that the lack of measurement of returning fluid gives unscrupulous companies an incentive to dump their toxic wastewater. If it were metered, the company would have to account for the disposal of each and every gallon. In addition, he suggests, add a chemical tag to each well so that any wastewater found dumped illegally could be traced back to the well operator. Better yet, he says, have the state take charge of all wastewater and process it—for a hefty fee.

While Fischer came here to get away from the hydrofracking controversy and to be closer to family—three of his four children live locally, as do two grandchildren—the struggle for the heart of gasland seems determined to follow him. At a community forum in Fabius in May he was introduced as a “refugee from hydrofracking”; more recently he was part of a delegation visiting state Sen. David Valesky (D-Oneida) to talk on the issue.

“The decision to sell our house wasn’t to come up here. Once we decided to move, this was the logical place to come. There were a lot of tears shed over this, and a lot of secondguessing. I will be second-guessing myself until I die.”

As for Central New York, he says that they are here for good. “We love it here. We’re staying.”

Gas companies, beware. There’s a cop on your tail.