In August 2008, Christopher Bianchi began receiving inquiries from energy company Lenape Resources of upstate New York, which expressed interest in prospecting for natural gas on Bianchi’s 21 acres in Gilbertsville, New York, for $100 per acre. About the same time, art critic Silvia Kolbowski and architecture scholar Kenneth Frampton, who spend their weekends at a home on 23 acres in Wayne County, Pennsylvania, fielded a similar query from Chesapeake Energy that offered 15 times that rate. Both properties sit atop the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation that extends from West Virginia and Ohio to the Southern Tier of New York, and contains as many as 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
New York State is already home to 13,000 gas wells, according to Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) spokesperson Yancey Roy, and some of those sites drill the Marcellus Shale. The state’s most recent drilling applications, from the likes of Chesapeake Energy and Nornew, take fresh advantage of the Marcellus Shale’s potential. The recent spike in energy prices and access to the Millennium Pipeline have inspired the latest wave of prospecting, and this time round, companies will deploy newer methods of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to tap into the natural gas deposits.
Hydraulic fracturing is a controversial process. At least a million gallons of water mixed with sand and a proprietary chemical formulation—the details of which are exempted from the Clean Water Act—is injected into the drill site to rupture the rock and release the natural gas trapped in its pores. Although a 2004 study by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that hydraulic fracturing was effectively safe, groundwater samples drawn from a natural gas field in Sublette County, Wyoming, last year proved that hydraulic fracturing had contaminated it with high levels of benzene and other carcinogens that threaten public health. The Sublette County incident was the first to be recorded by a federal agency; investigations by smaller groups have yielded many more examples of underground contamination, as well as surface spills.
The drilling applications in question would put gas wells not far from one of New York City’s largest drinking-water reservoirs. And while year-round residents of the Southern Tier and rural Pennsylvania might be ambivalent, weekenders from New York City are vocal in their call for more stringent environmental protection. “The question of our relationship to the land, particularly at a moment when the ecological aspects of buildings are at the top of an economic agenda, should not be left only to environmentalists,” Frampton told AN. This constituency has further reason to protest drilling, due to concerns about contamination of New York City’s watershed, the reservoirs of which currently support the population without filtration. City Council environmental committee chair James Gennaro has come out firmly against drilling within the watershed.
Falling energy prices have quieted activity for the moment: Chesapeake Energy recently rescinded its offer to Kolbowski and Frampton. In New York State, many companies are waiting on the DEC as it prepares an environmental impact statement concerning horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, mandated in a bill signed by Governor Paterson last July.
The inevitable rebound in prices, though, continues to fuel debate surrounding gas drilling, and currently both sides are staking claims in the fight. In February, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in favor of a municipality’s right to use zoning to determine drilling locations. Yet also last month, the Environmental Working Group revealed that New York’s DEC has not conducted tests of surface or underground water for contamination by hydraulic fracturing. And according to Joe Levine of New York–based Bone/Levine Architects and co-founder of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, drilling has just begun at the so-called Robson Well in Wayne County; the Delaware River Basin Commission is deferring jurisdiction on the effort, since the drilling is not technically tapping into the Marcellus Shale.