When I first began writing about the anti-fracking movement in New York, I was told I must interview James “Chip” Northrup, a Texas oil-investor-turned-anti-fracker with a home in Cooperstown, New York, and another in Dallas, Texas. “Chip,” I was told, had an insider’s knowledge of the industry and was a frequent speaker on the subject in local forums as well as in national and international media.
I found out that he was about to lecture in an Upper New York State village on a mind-deadening topic—decoding the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) 1,500 plus pages of guidelines for the industry. This was in October 2011, when the DEC’s public hearings on the “Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement” (SGEIS) were about to begin and community members and activists needed briefing on how to comment. Few in New York could do better than Northrup.
He walked in early at the little café where I was to interview him over dinner before the talk—tall, lean, a boyish face under a thatch of pale blond hair. As another reporter wrote recently, he looked “like the kind of guy you’d get from central casting if you were trying to make a Western movie.” The Texas drawl fit the package and under level blue eyes he had a smile that kept appearing as he spoke. Behind that charm was a caustic, take-no prisoners attitude about the industry and its proponents, and detailed knowledge about things I’d had no inkling about—set-backs of gas wells from houses, well casings, “frackonomics” and details about corruption within New York’s DEC.
The following interview is drawn from conversations I’ve had with Northrup between October 2011 and January 2013.
Q. You’ve compared fracking with a bomb. Can you comment?
A. When you take the amount of energy involved in a shale frack, it’s the equivalent of a thermobaric bomb. In 1969, the Atomic Energy Commission actually exploded a nuclear bomb in the Mancos Shale in Rulison, Colorado. It made a big hole in the shale but the gas was too radioactive to sell and they closed the hole up. Ironically, the shale is radioactive itself. That’s how you find shale on a well log, you’re looking for radioactivity. And what comes back up in the fracking flowback is radioactive because it’s coming back from the shale.
Q. How would fracking disrupt daily life if it happened in New York State?
A. The first things that arrive are the land men. They come in and they sign mineral leases with landowners. And they try to sign them as cheaply as they can and with terms as onerously favorable to the gas industry as possible. So the land grab is the first disruptor. That’s where the scamming starts. It’s very disruptive to the town, the people’s lives, thousands of bad leases have been in litigation in New York State. The brilliance of [Matt Damon’s film] Promised Land is it focuses on the land men, the first aspect of the activity.
The second thing is the seismic crews. They go in and “shoot seismic.” That means they set off dynamite in the ground to record the sound waves from the strata when they’re looking for the shale. There are no regulations in NY State for seismic testing. You can shoot seismic blasts anywhere. Let me back up and say there are no regulations for land men, either, in New York. There are no standards at all, no licensing. They don’t even have to record the leases they sign. They’ll sign up the mineral lease and it’ll be kept a secret.
The third thing you see are the trucks. They build the roads out to the well pad. They travel in convoys. There are thousands of them. They just tear the roads and the whole place up. There are no state standards in New York for that kind of activity. The state has no way to cover the damages they’ll do to state roads, because New York is one of the few places on the planet that does not tax gas at the wellhead.
A town or a county can recover damages that the convoys do to roads. They can’t recover the damages done to cars, to windshields and axles. But they have to enact road use agreements. If they don’t do this they won’t recover the damage to the roads.
The next activity is the drilling and the fracking of the well itself. If you live near one of these well pads it’s gonna basically ruin the value of your farm or house. It doesn’t go on forever but it goes on long enough to ruin the value. If you’re in the process of refinancing or just living there, it’ll ruin the property. If you’re unfortunate, it’ll crater your mortgage, or if you’d need to sell the house, you can’t sell it.
Setback is the distance of the drilling rig from the house, 500 feet. There is no setback in New York from a warehouse or a school or daycare center or hospital or a filling station. If the house is uninhabited or under construction there is no set back of a shale gas well in New York State. Zero. It could be ten feet.
Q. Even at 500 feet, could you compare that with Texas?
A. In Texas the setbacks are done by towns. They are municipal setbacks.
The standard setback is about a thousand feet. But let me get to the real punch-line here. The setback is from the drilling rig. But on each of these sites there are open pits, compressors, generators, gas processing plants, trucks and there are no setbacks from any of that from a house. The rig has to be 500 feet away, but an open pit or a generator could be right next to your house or a church or a daycare center. There’s no setback of any of the industrial infrastructure, which remains after the drilling has ended.
The other thing is getting rid of the toxic radioactive flowback. But by now, how much else do you really want to know to say, “Umm, I don’t think I like that.”
Q. What would fracking do to Cooperstown?
A. It would completely ruin Cooperstown’s economy, which is based on tourism and health care. It would be the end of Cooperstown. Which is why the village of Cooperstown, which is in the Town of Otsego, was the first township to have banned shale-gas drilling. [The organizers] looked at this—Julie Huntsman was the leader—and they said, ‘This would ruin this place.” Then other towns followed.
Here’s the catch, the big trade-off. If the surface value is worth more than the mineral rights—that is, the built environment, businesses, the organic farms, the vineyards, the houses—then there’s absolutely no reason to be shooting up the place with shale gas wells. It’s just a given you’re going to ruin the surface rights, the built environment, the water supply.
If on the other hand the value of the surface rights and the water is basically useless, then you have an economic argument in favor of gas well drilling. It’s why you see gas wells and oil wells out in West Texas where there are no farms, houses, nothing. But these shale gas wells are not compatible with most land uses in a place like New York State, and that’s the biggest understatement of this interview.
Q. I was particularly struck by your remarks to an interviewer a year ago about well casings. Can you comment?
A. When you understand how a well is constructed, it’s very simple. The casing is the steel tubing in the well that transports the gas up to the surface. But that is not the problem. The odds of the steel casing bursting or leaking is pretty low initially. Over time, since it’s a ferrous metal, it’ll all rust out and leak. But initially that’s not a big problem. What is the problem, then? The problem is, is that the steel tubing is surrounded by cement, not concrete, not reinforced concrete. Raw cement without aggregate, the closest approximation would be plaster. So what does the plaster do? It’s not gonna support the steel any more than the steel can support itself. All it does is, it plugs the hole up. You pour plaster down and it has the effect of holding the steel tubing upright and also plugs the hole. But the cement as it cures, it shrinks and it does not stick to the side of the well bore. And it allows gas to vent up inside the well bore. Not in the steel casing but between the cement and the well bore. Gas is coming up those well bores into groundwater. I’ll repeat that: gas is coming up into the groundwater and that’s why you get it coming up. The DEC says, we’ll make you have two casings or three casings. That’s not the problem. This leaking or venting is going on outside the casings. You could put in seven casings but the leak would still be happening outside the casings.
Q. Could you also comment on well failure?
A. About 5 percent fail almost immediately. But the real problem is not that they fail catastrophically like the BP Gulf disaster, but they deteriorate rapidly and start venting gas up into the groundwater. They can build them really well but they don’t age well. They never were designed to last long and the reason why is, these shale wells only have an economic life of four or five years. Why would you build something to last 50 or 100 years if it’s only going to be productive four or five years?
Q. Is the four to five year life invariable for all fracking?
A. They can re-frack them [the wells] and extend their productive life, but it doesn’t always work. They can run it out for ten years but under few circumstances much more than that. If they had to last 100 years they’d have to use stainless steel. But now, whatever’s on sale in China, they stick in the ground.
Q. I attended a conference recently where a woman from Cabot Oil & Gas said, “Oh, we’ve taken care of that. We’re making better cement.”
A. Whenever you raise an issue they’ll say ‘We’re working on this.’ But let’s address this. They do have better cement. They put plasticizers in to keep it from having this problem. But they cannot keep the cement from pulling away from the well bore. Think about what the well bore is like. It’s drilled with grease, with drilling mud. When you’re finished drilling the well, you basically have just a big greasy hole in the ground. There’s no disclosure of what they put in drilling mud, which is used to cool the drill bits, and bring cuttings back up. So now you have this big greasy hole in the rock that can go on for miles. So now the cement has to stick to every square inch of the surface of that greasy rock, and they have to do that down to the angstrom level. A methane molecule is only 3.8 angstroms wide. (An angstrom is one ten-millionth of a millimeter). If you have a crack of five angstroms [in the cement] and it’s gonna vent gas. Remember, gas is lighter than air. It’s like helium. It’s not whether or not it will leak, it’s how much, how soon.
Q. You’ve talked about “frackonomics” in your writing and in your previous interviews. Could you talk about it briefly here?
A. The expert on this is really Deborah Rogers. Art Berman has also commented on this extensively. But frackonomics is very simple. It is very very easy to mislead the public, politicians and investors. It’s because the initial production, the gas produced immediately, can be extraordinarily high, it’s called the “IP” or initial production, it can be eye-popping. But the production declines very very quickly. What happens is, it gives unscrupulous operators like Chesapeake the opportunity to mislead people about how productive an area is going to be. It happens every time a new field is opened up. It’s always overstated initially. There’ll be a rush, and then most of the area that’s defined—like the Marcellus—is not going to be economically productive. It’s almost a guarantee that it’s going to be hyped. And everybody knows this and they forget it about every time there’s a new field.
Q. If the Marcellus is slated to be unprofitable, why would companies start drilling in New York State?
A. Well, they will not. This is a kind of real irony. The Marcellus in New York State is dry gas, it’s methane. It doesn’t have much ethane, propane or butane. Those “liquids” command higher prices. The price of methane is depressed, there isn’t much incentive to go for more dry gas in New York State. Drilling has been cut back by more than 50 percent in New York State because those are dry Marcellus Shale wells. They’re pulling rigs out of that area by the border. So why would you go prospect, what would be the rush, just on the other side of the state line? The short answer is: there is none. And based on the geology, the area north of the border is going to be less lucrative than south, where they’re pulling rigs out.
So what’s the rush of getting the regulations when they’re not gonna come knocking at the door.
The only thing driving this is politics at this point. Much more so than any need to prospect for gas. Cuomo is being pushed into permitting shale gas wells when such wells are uneconomic to drill. The prospects for the Utica are no better in New York than the Marcellus. And like the Marcellus, the Utica is likely dry in New York, based on results form test wells. So we are left with pressure from gas lobbyists as the driver.
Q. Before Governor Cuomo allows fracking, the DEC has to draft regulations. Then Cuomo approves them. Could you talk about the DEC?
A. In most states there’s a state agency for minerals management for issuing gas-well permits and regulating drilling. And there’s a totally distinct and autonomous environmental agency which has oversight over gas wells. So if there’s a problem you complain to the environmental agency, which is autonomous from the minerals management agency. In New York it’s the same agency. Meaning the DEC acts as both the minerals management agency and the environmental agency. As a practical matter, the environmental function gets compromised.
When you go to the DEC to talk about oil and gas or fracking, you know who you see, or talk to? You call up and say, “I want to talk about the regs—because I’ve done this!—You don’t meet with a chemist or an epidemiologist or a toxicologist, a hydrologist or an environmentalist. If you go high up on the chain, you meet with the head of well permitting! You go there, you’re concerned with water pollution and air pollution and you meet with the guy who issues the permits and with his attorneys. If you’re lucky you meet with Allison Crocker, y’know, big tall good looking gal. Allison Crocker is the one who Chesapeake sends their drafts to. When Chesapeake wants wording changed in the SGEIS, they go to Allison Crocker.
Q. Could you talk about the DEC’s regulations? [These “final” drafts were just issued after over three years of massive public protest about the agency’s draft guidelines. See further details here.]
A. The DEC in New York is required by law to show any scientific studies, any statistics, any studies at all, that it has used as the basis for its regulations. That’s a state law. In the SGEIS [preliminary to the final regulations] and in the proposed regulations they just issued, the DEC does not cite any studies whatsoever. No papers, no science, nothing. It has no references, no science at all. So what’s it based on? They basically just made it up with input from the gas lobbyists. Some of these regulations are literally copied verbatim from the lobbyists. They FOILED the meetings with the lobbyists [requested records under the Freedom of Information Act] and [found out that] the lobbyists were feeding them with industry wording. [See further details here.]
Q. Do you think it’s likely that Cuomo will OK fracking? If so, what will happen next?
A. There’s no doubt about it. I’m sure he will. I don’t think people realize that the only difference between Cuomo and [Pennsylvania Governor] Corbett [who immediately allowed fracking in Pennsylvania in 2008] is that Cuomo’s a better actor. You can be charitable and say they’ve bought into the shale game, whatever. But they’ve just been co-opted by the gas lobbyists. When you look at what the DEC proposed as regs. and what’s missing, the fingerprints of the gas lobby are all over it. They wrote the regs.
Let me give you just one example. In the September 2011 draft of the regulations, an open pit for storing drilling mud or flow-back, the requirement was for the fluid to be at least two feet from the [top] of the pit—the distance is called the “freeboard.” And guess what the freeboard is in the new regs? Nothing. Zero You can fill the pit up to the brim. You know what would happen if it rained real hard? The gas industry wanted it to be zero. And the DEC changed it [to] zero for the people that paid them.
Q. If the DEC is just going to rubber-stamp industry anyway, why ask people to comment on the regulations?
A. The short answer is, you have to expose this corruption. In commenting, we’re given the opportunity in the hearings—three committees in the State Assembly are having hearings on these proposed regulations and that’s an opportunity to expose the corruption. That is what Tony Ingraffea and Sandra Steingraber are doing, they’re publishing their responses on the proposed fracking regulations. To the press. To journalists. That’s what I’m doing.
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Ellen Cantarow has been a journalist for the past 35 years, and a published writer since the late 1960s. Her writing on Israel and Palestine has appeared widely for three decades, and has been anthologized. Her more recent writing on the environment, especially on the impact of fracking on grassroots communities, appears regularly at Tom Dispatch and has been reprinted at EcoWatch, CBS News, The Nation, Salon, Alternet, European Energy Review, Le Monde Diplomatique, Al-Jazeera English and many more.