Way back nearly a decade ago, when then-VP Dick Cheney was convening secret talks with the Energy industry that culminated in, among other things, the Halliburton loophole that exempts oil and gas exploration activities from our major environmental protection laws, we were all clueless about the evolving high volume horizontal hydrofracking method of gas extraction being tried out in the arid West.  Just like the rest of us, most of our federal agencies have been playing a game of catch-up as the industry has stealthily moved forward, keeping much of the detail about this extreme energy exploration under wraps.  Like rural communities where farm families signed leases before realizing what the industry intended to do, some of our federal agencies have been slow to recognize some of what the industry has been up to.  Just as communities begin to speak up, now that more is known about fracking, so, too, bureaus of the federal government focused on more than just minerals extraction are beginning to issue information relevant and related to the new technique and its infrastructure.  This week brought news from several agencies.

The agency perhaps most directly connected to mining of oil and gas is the USGS, the United States Geological Survey.  The USGS had initially inventoried the “unproved technically recoverable” gas in the Marcellus Shale in 2002 at a low, 2 trillion cubic feet for the entire formation.  Later, influenced by extremely high projections by individual scientists, most notably Terry Engelder, who were familiar with the new technique for unconventional extraction, the Energy Information Agency used an estimate of 410 trillion cubic feet.  Again– these are “unproved technically recoverable resources,” with no effort made to determine whether or not they can be recovered economically.  By 2011, though, the USGS had come to understand the capacity of new techniques, and did a revision of it’s earlier estimate– the estimate was raised, but, nowhere near the inflated claims of Engelder, who estimated even higher than the EIA, at 489 trillion cubic feet.  The USGS scientists slashed the EIA estimate by 80%, bringing the Marcellus unproved technically recoverable reserves estimate down to just 84 Trillion cubic feet.  A trillion here, a trillion there, pretty soon your head is spinning.  To put it in perspective, the annual usage of natural gas in 2011, in the US, was 24,316,368 million cubic feetBloomberg notes that the new Marcellus estimate brought the total from the previous assumption that there was 17 years worth of gas, as measured by US total demand in 2011, down to 6 years’ worth.   If that is the kind of thing that would send you straight for the wind turbine blueprints, well, you are not an oil and gas company.  Instead, we began to hear hyped estimates of the truly massive amounts of gas to be had in the deeper Utica shale gas formation.  Once again, gas companies touted a century’s worth of gas to be had…. a Saudi Arabia of gas….

And, once again, the USGS scientists are bursting their (asset price) bubble. This week, a new report from the USGS puts the technically recoverable resources at 38.2 trillion cubic feet for gas, and 208 million barrels of natural gas liquids (the “wet gas” section produces some useful chemicals along with the gas).  Or, in US-use years, about 3 years’ worth or so.  Again, no estimates made by this agency, which does geology, not economics, as to the cost of getting those reserves to the surface– either in dollars, or in environmental damage, or in human and livestock health effects. They do, however, helpfully map the areas where the gas and liquids are most likely to be found.  The “sweet spot” in New York State is fairly limited.


Other federal agencies have also been busy trying to catch up, and check up, on the new extreme gas extraction method.  The National Science Foundation does this kind of work through academic researchers. This past week, it was announced that a public health expert would join an NSF-funded interdisciplinary team looking at fracking effects on communities.  University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus announced that Chair of the Colorado School of Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health, John Adgate, would be added to a team of experts studying “ways of maximizing the benefits of natural gas development while minimizing potential negative effects on ecosystems and communities.”  The team, as a whole, has a 12 million dollar grant from NSF.  Other colleges and universities involved include the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, University of Michigan, Colorado School of Public Health, and California State Polytechnic University Pomona.  In general, it seems a good thing that the NSF and/or the researchers decided that public health issues should be addressed…. although, with the Medical School that the researcher hails from being named after the billionaire owner of Anschutz Energy, one could have some concerns that the most rigorous inquiry might be avoided….

Another federal agency that focuses on some of our precious natural resources is the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  This week, in the Oneonta area, that agency commented to another federal agency, FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, on the potential impacts of the proposed Constitution Pipeline Project.  The Oneonta Daily Star reported:

In a comment sent to the Federal Energy Regulator Commission on Friday, a Fish and Wildlife field supervisor, David A. Stilwell, raised over-arching concerns about the need for the $750 million project slated to carry gas from Pennsylvania to Schoharie County through a largely underground pipe 30 inches in diameter.

“Project documents indicate that the full capacity of the pipeline is currently under contract,” Stilwell wrote. “However, it is not yet clear where the demand is for the gas that is being extracted in Pennsylvania. Nor, has it been explained how the exiting pipeline infrastructure fails to provide adequate service.”

Stilwell then pointed to existing pipelines that he said carry gas from Pennsylvania to the New York City area: Tennessee Gas 300, the Stage Coach to Milennium Route and Texas Eastern.

“The FERC should require a more thorough review of these projects as alternatives for delivering gas to southeast New York,” he said. “Adequate information on project purpose and need should be provided by the EIS (environmental impact statement).”

Would the extraction industry rush to put in infrastructure not currently needed in advance of opening up NYS to shale gas drilling?  Stranger things have happened.

In addition to the above news, some little-heralded news took place in Owego, NY– documentation including maps and pictures on Marcellus Effect blog.  Drilling began on a Marcellus Shale gas well.  Since this particular well is vertical, not horizontal, it does not need to wait for a DEC permit until the SGEIS has been finalized and the new NYS regulations on HVHF go into effect.  Yes, Virginia, they ARE drilling the Marcellus in New York.  Now.