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A needed baseline in New York’s Marcellus Shale

Public opinion polls show that New Yorkers increasingly favor responsible development of the Marcellus Shale’s enormous natural gas resources.

But despite rising support, the issue of whether to open the Empire State’s portion of the Marcellus is attracting opposition, including celebrity activists.

In such cases of public disagreement, it is more important than ever for sound science to inform and guide our energy policies.

One recent study from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) provides just such sound science and facts about naturally occurring conditions in the region. Since New York has not yet experienced shale gas drilling, the USGS analysis captures a picture of conditions prior to such energy production taking place. Its analysis will serve as a helpful scientific baseline if New York decides to lift its moratorium.

The USGS findings may come as a surprise to some. In a study of water wells in New York, the agency found:

  • More than half of wells sampled (53 percent) had detectable levels of methane. 
  • Nine percent of New York water wells had methane concentrations that the Office of Surface Mining says signify an “action level where the situation should be closely monitored.”
  • And 2 percent of the water wells sampled had concentrations considered ignitable, requiring immediate action to mitigate danger of explosion.

Why are these scientific findings important?

Because, as the director of the USGS notes, “citizens need to be aware that methane occurs naturally in some groundwater systems.”

That’s worth noting because critics often cite a now-discredited example of methane in water supplies from the 2010 film Gasland (the so-called “flaming faucet“) that wrongly portrayed the methane as related to hydraulic fracturing. As the former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection puts it, “The USGS findings of methane in New York water wells are pre-gas drilling and have nothing to do with gas drilling.”

If New York eventually does permit shale gas development, the scientific monitoring done by USGS prior to any drilling will have established a critical monitoring benchmark.

That should go a long way to improving the public’s understanding of the impacts energy production may have on their communities.


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  1. Ward Reed says:

    Thanks to Exxon-Mobil for a fascinating and informative series of posts.

  2. Ward Reed says:

    Thanks to Exxon-Mobil for a fascinating and informative series of posts.