The finding by The Associated Press that thousands of potentially problematic wells remain unaddressed highlights some of the key unanswered questions in the debate over high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing: How will an agency that has been decimated by staff cuts keep up with a veritable gas rush in New York? How much will it cost, and who will pay the tab? And, long after the wells have run dry, who will be responsible for them?
We're hard pressed to see how the DEC, as it stands now, would be up to the task of monitoring what is expected to be thousands of new wells if fracking is allowed. As an AP review of the state's own records showed, about 4,800 unplugged, abandoned wells have been identified in the state, and estimates are that an equal number have yet to be found. These "orphan" wells were abandoned, presumably, by drillers who got what they wanted from them and left the cleanup for society. Neglect of the wells, along with waste pits and storage tanks, has led to leaks of oil and contaminated brine into residential water wells and streams.
The DEC says these orphan wells are a relic of an era before modern regulation. More drilling actually would help cure the problems, the agency maintains, since regulations now under development in anticipation of fracking would require drillers to cap any old wells they find within a mile of theirs.
So, the argument goes, the same industry that dumped this problem on the state will now fix it. And making sure it does will be a short-staffed agency that hasn't been able to track down and deal with these old wells for decades -- and which would also have thousands of new horizontal wells to monitor. Clearly, that's unrealistic. DEC will need to grow if this is to be done right.
We've heard a lot from the industry and its boosters about what an economic development boon fracking would be for New York. Maybe so. But there are things we're still waiting to hear about.
What about an extraction fee -- a tax on the industry for removing irreplaceable resources, to at least cover the new costs to the state? What about a mechanism to assign long-term responsibility for these wells, even if companies go out of business or use legal tricks to dodge liability? What about state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's proposal for a Natural Gas Damage Compensation Fund, paid for by drillers, that would pay to quickly fix problems and help out residents and communities in the event of a well-related problem?
Yes, this would all cost the gas industry more money and cut into its profits. Yes, drillers might find that discouraging. But unlike so many other kinds of economic development, this is one case where the state isn't competing for this business. The gas is here, and this is where drillers want to be, no matter how much they threaten to walk away.
So here's what New York state ought to say to those would-be drillers: Our taxpayers will not pay for the privilege of letting someone else make money.
-- The Times Union of Albany