How Jim Gennaro, councilman-geologist, questioned fracking to death

James Gennaro. (William Alatriste, via New York City Council flickr)
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Two Augusts ago, City Councilman Jim Gennaro held a press conference outside his office in Queens and called for a yearlong moratorium on a natural gas drilling technique—formally called hydraulic fracturing—in the New York City watershed. Four members of the press attended, and it "barely moved the needle on the summer news meter."

He kept talking about it, though. For some time, almost no one was listening.

As speculation about possible drilling sites upstate gained momentum, and the drilling process—also called hydrofracking or fracking—looked like it might really happen, more and more elected officials in Albany and New York City got involved. Finally, this month, the New York State Senate approved a moratorium on the process until the State Department of Environmental Protection has more time to study what effect it would have on the New York City watershed. This is on top of the two-year study on the environmental impact of hydrofracking begun by federal Environmental Protection Agency this spring.

Gennaro, a 53-year-old with a bachelors degree in geology and environmental science, has the retail political skills of a research scientist; he speaks quickly and tends, sometimes, to ramble a little. He also gives the impression of being genuinely enthusiastic about rock formations.

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He is skeptical that any amount of study will make fracking workable in New York.

In a recent interview, he said, "As a geologist, if this were to be done safely—if that were even possible—there would have to be certain geological conditions that I think would have to apply for where this could be done."

Gennaro and other opponents of fracking in New York have raised the issue's visibility in part by pointing to the disastrous effects the practice has had in a number of Western states that have allowed it, and in Pennsylvania, which shares the same source of gas as New York State, the Marcellus Shale formation, which runs from the Southern Tier to West Virginia, and west to part of Ohio.

Between Gennaro’s 2008 press conference and the State Senate vote, the call for a moratorium until further study, or in some cases an all-out ban, was taken up publicly by Chuck Schumer, Michael Bloomberg, Representative Maurice Hinchey Scott Stringer, and Christine Quinn, among others officials, as well as Pete Seegar and Mark Ruffalo, .

It has also developed significant public opposition; earlier this month a public hearing in Syracuse was postponed because of security concerns.

The fracking-related pollution of the drinking (and washing) water of many of the Pennsylvania families that leased their land was reported in Vanity Fair and ProPublica (on a continuing basis) and most famously in Gasland, a film that won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance. In the movie, filmmaker Josh Fox visits many homes where the water is visibly dirty, tangible smelly, and in some cases where tap water pouring out of the faucet can not only be lit on fire but sustain a flame. (Some of those scenes can be viewed in the trailer.)

Gas companies find land to drill on by paying significant sums to lease it from landowners, many of whom live in areas where the local economy is not particularly robust. But once the water is contaminated, the land becomes worthless.

That lesson apparently resonated with New York State officials.

Earlier this month, Attorney General and presumptive governor Andrew Cuomo released POWER NY, a report laying out his energy strategy for New York State. In it, and later in comments in Binghamton, where he faced protesters, he said about hydrofracking that he would wait to see the results of the studies before deciding whether and under what conditions it should be allowed in New York. The report was generally well-received, notwithstanding reservations of some environmental advocates about the weak language on hydrofracking, but Gennaro thinks it was the right thing to do.

“What the A.G. said—I thought his statement was not at all inconsistent with what even the leading environmental groups have said about it,” Gennaro said, naming Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council. “What responsible people in public office are saying, what I have have said, and the environmental groups said and what Andrew Cuomo said is: We need the science.”

“As much as I may want to prejudge,” he said, “their main mantra is to do the science, do the analysis, make a determination as to whether there is an even an agreement that is environmentally acceptable that can be struck for the use of this technology.”

In traditional oil and gas drilling, it’s important to have certain conditions in order to drill straight down: ideally an impermeable surface (like clay) over a permeable rock (limestone or sandstone), and a hard source rock (usually shale), where the oil comes from.

“You know, we’ve been drilling in this country for a long time, and most of [the locations with ideal conditions] have been tapped,” Gennaro said. “The reason that fracking is coming into widespread use is that one.”

In hydrofracking, “you don’t need those conditions,” because “you’re basically going in there and blowing [the shale] apart,” said Gennaro.

Done well, a traditional well needs no “stimulation,” which means using chemicals to get the oil to come out of the ground, but hydrofracking depends on stimulation. Enormous amounts of water, mixed with an enormous number of unnamed chemicals (companies are, at the moment, not required to disclose what is in the fluid—one of the issues addressed in proposed federal legislation) are shot into the ground to push the gas out of the rock.

“This is really done without regard to fracking chemicals that can migrate to who-knows-where,” Gennaro said.

“If you do it too close to the surface, if you’re blowing this black shale apart like a mile and a half down, and there’s no [layer] of rock or clay, then there’s nothing to stop that from permeating all the way to the surface.”

The source of the gas would have to be far enough below the surface that it wouldn’t seep into the drinking water and “that would severely restrict where that could be done,” Gennaro said.

Hydrofracking is expensive, and when oil and gas prices are low, it isn't worth the cost. But high energy prices make fracking financially possible, motivating energy companies to offer ever-higher incentives to upstate landowners upstate; it was around the 2008 spike in oil prices that drilling companies began aggressively trying to tap the Marcellus Shale in the Western Tier.

Part of Gennaro’s opposition to hydrofracking in its current form stems from the fact that it benefits from a loophole in the 2005 energy bill that frees it from many federal regulations, most notably the Clean Water Act. (This story has the perfect villain, at least in Democrat-dominated New York: it was Dick Cheney that pushed the loophole through and it’s known as the “Halliburton loophole” because Halliburton is one of the main companies that does hydrofracking.)

“They have a free pass—freedom from environmental responsibility,” Gennaro said. “If this industry were such that if it were regulated by the government, you would see a much different industry.”

Hydrofracking has come up as part of the current energy debate in Washington, with a bill, the FRAC Act, introduced in both the House and the Senate in June. The legislation is currently in committee. The Senate bill is sponsored by Bill Casey of Pennsylania, and was introduced by Chuck Schumer (Kirsten Gillibrand also signed on). The House bill was introduced by a congresswoman from Colorado, Diana Degette, and supported, currently, by 20 members of the 29-member New York House delegation (though one of them is Eric Massa, who has since resigned for reasons related to a different kind of fracking).

“States that have developed their own standards in absence of federal standards—that movie [Gasland] is Exhibit A that those regulations aren’t nearly strict enough," Gennaro said.

The lack of federal regulations, Gennaro said, allows gas-drilling companies to “go and find states that will drink the Kool-Aid.”

So far, not New York.