Local governments may not have much control over gas drilling development. But they can see that their roads are protected.
Aside from property taxes and the latest antics of our governor, the hottest topic of conversation in the checkout line of Candor, New York’s four-aisle grocery store is gas drilling. Across the border, just a few miles into Pennsylvania, companies are drilling hundreds of wells into the Marcellus shale. Lucky landowners are signing lucrative leases – some worth up to $6,000 an acre. Money like that, say the farmers, could put a new roof on the barn and make up for the skimpy milk checks.
Though there’s gas drilling in New York, the Marcellus “gas rush” has not happened. At least not yet. It won’t happen until the New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) approves new regulations for the type of horizontal drilling that is used in Marcellus and other shales.
Permits are a few months away but that hasn’t stopped energy companies from planning for the future. Over the past 11 months one company has applied for 11 drilling permits in our town while a competitor has filed for14 permits a couple towns to the west. They want to be the first ones drilling into the Marcellus shale, a layer of compressed clay, 380 million years old, estimated to hold more than 500 trillion cubic feet of hydrocarbons.
The Marcellus is one of a number of shale fields now being drilled for gas. Thousands of rural communities are facing the same future as Candor. (See the map on the next page.)
Pick up a chunk of Marcellus shale and you immediately understand why energy companies are interested in it: it’s dark, like coal, and leaves a greasy smear on your hand. The problem is that the shale is “tight” – the particles in the stone are small, trapping natural gas in tiny pores. And those pores aren’t well connected.
The best way to get the gas out of the shale is to break it apart using hydraulic fracturing (fracking), pumping water and chemicals into the well bore under extremely high pressure. And that takes lots of water – millions of gallons –that will have to be trucked to the drill site. How many truckloads? About 900 during the fracking process, which can take up to a week, and not pick-up trucks either; 18-wheelers hauling 5,000 gallons at a time will bring the fresh water to the drill sites and, later, haul the flowback and brine away.
That kind of traffic puts a lot of wear and tear on rural roads, says Jim Goldstein, town supervisor of Lebanon, in Madison County, NY. Goldstein knows. He’s seen this kind of activity before. It wasn’t the Marcellus shale that attracted drillers, but gas in the tight sandstones: Herkimer and Oneida. In the past four years there have been 60 gas wells drilled in his town alone.
The roads tell the tale.
Since 2007 Lebanon’s roads have received some $550,000 in repairs to damages caused by gas drilling activity. Due to Goldstein’s efforts and hours of negotiations with a drilling company, taxpayers aren’t paying the costs. Instead, the drilling company, Nornew Inc., is footing the bill.
It wasn’t always like this, says Goldstein. “In 2002 we knew nothing about gas,” he said. That was the year Goldstein learned about a proposed $30 million pipeline project that would connect his town to another small town in the next county.
“I learned that there were already actively producing gas wells in our town,” Goldstein said. They hadn’t shown up on his radar because they weren’t paying taxes and the heavy truck traffic hauling drilling rigs, construction equipment and water tanks were damaging the roads.
“There was a period of four to five years when Nornew would not communicate with us,” Goldstein said. The company ignored e-mails and would not return phone calls. Finally company representatives agreed to meet with the municipal officials to hammer out an agreement on how to repair the roads. They agreed to repair the oil and stone roads damaged by their heavy rigs.
After 18 months of debate, Nornew agreed to a $30,000 bond. Eventually, Goldstein said, the company wanted to do some road bores and the town wanted to negotiate a better road agreement. In the fall of 2007 the company and town finally signed an agreement that requires Nornew to restore roads at their own cost. The company also agreed to notify the town two weeks in advance of road use and consult with the highway superintendent on the best route for truck traffic. The company agreed to do a pre-use road inspection and another inspection after they were finished drilling. Then the company would repair any damages using town-approved contractors.
“We were the first ones to deal with this problem,” Goldstein said. Although he is happy with the results, he says that the impact on his town has set them behind about 15 years with respect to taxes and funding.
Local governments in New York have little jurisdiction over gas drilling. The one aspect of the drilling boom that the state’s towns can control is truck traffic on local roads.
Unfortunately, my town board hasn’t learned Lebanon’s lessons. We seem to be spinning our wheels on a road use agreement. Last November a group of citizens and town officials began working on a draft road use agreement. The draft – sent to the town board back in January – outlines the process an energy company would take prior to drilling.
Before any activity begins, the energy company would work with the highway superintendent to develop a designated truck route. The company would also prepare a road survey and, if the selected truck route includes seasonal or gravel roads that are unable to withstand the kind of damage anticipated, the company will make improvements needed to accommodate heavy trucks.
“Bridges and culverts are a big issue in this town,” says Candor’s highway superintendent Kevin Noble. He should know, seeing how he maintains the 14 bridges that Candor owns. He estimates that it would cost a minimum of $1 million to repair a bridge destroyed by the heavy traffic expected during drilling. Noble suggested that drillers consider alternate routes that would avoid crossing the bridges, construct a truck by-pass to the bridge or pump water from one side to the other so the trucks wouldn’t have to drive across. Those ideas were incorporated into the draft.
In the past two months, however, the town board has made no progress on passing a final ordinance. “They’re just spinning their wheels,” says Chris Curkendall, who shepherded the development of the road agreement. “At this rate it will be eight months before we pull this thing together. Other towns are having conversations with drilling companies and we’re still on page one!”
But Curkendall isn’t giving up. Instead, she’s challenged the town board to hold a special workshop — and not leave Town Hall until their work is done.
Sue Heavenrich lives in New York State and writes the Marcellus Effect blog.