Cooking With Gas: The Hydrofracking Controversy From a Chef’s Perspective

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I got pegged as Mr. Local Foods.

For 20 years it’s been true that you can find me in Union Square just about every market morning, and that my menus at Savoy and Back Forty enthusiastically champion regional farmers. I ask questions about farming practices so I can make choices about taste, but also about the impact my buying decisions have on all living things on the planet.

But truth be told, I am not a locavore. I am a pragmatist. I buy chocolate, coffee, lemons and olive oil from distant lands without an ounce of guilt and in fact with pounds of pleasure. Over time I’ve been able to extend my knowledge base from produce to livestock, seafood, wine, even waste and paper. Sometimes sourcing is complicated. We’ve grappled with the values conflict posed by organic raspberries flown up from Chile or heirloom Berkshire pigs raised in factory farms. And now the time has come to take a hard look at the fuel firing up my stoves: natural gas.

Thirty percent of domestic natural gas now comes from the controversial process known as hydrofracking, an energy- and resource-intensive shattering of shale deposits miles below the Earth’s surface. Governor Cuomo is considering whether to permit it in New York; mid-level development would mean 35,000 wells in our backyard—as many as currently exist in the whole country. Ecologists decry it, but families in depressed counties know that energy companies have already paid out billions to landowners across the state line in Pennsylvania.

I came to this controversy as an eco-chef opponent, assuming instinctively that gas extraction in upstate New York would conflict with my commitment to local farms. But I also came to it as a chef whose glee comes from cooking your dinner with high-BTU fire-powered equipment. And I enthusiastically embraced my landlord’s recent decision to convert from oil to natural gas because after 20 years of warming my dining room with heating oil #2, which invariably either ran out or clogged up on the coldest Saturday night of the winter with no service available until Monday morning, I’d had enough.

But if I and millions of others choose to convert to natural gas, increasing our consumption of limited fossil fuel resources, we must face the larger questions posed by its use and procurement, the so-called collateral damage. When water is permanently contaminated and greenhouse gases are accelerated, can we be comfortable being complicit in this sullying of the planet? Is it worth it? What I learned is that the technology is far more destructive than I ever imagined.

For decades, natural gas has been extracted from vertical wells tapping into accessible pockets of gas requiring not much more than large-scale siphoning equipment. But since 2005, American energy companies have been experimenting with hydrofracking (some just call it fracking, but I prefer the complete term so we don’t forget the hydro part), a new method of extracting natural gas imbedded in sedimentary shale deposits deep underground. The deposits are ancient river deltas dating back to the Carboniferous period 320 million years ago, a time when all of today’s fossil fuels were being created from prodigious plant material being laid down undisturbed year after year for tens of millions of years and compressed under intense pressure.

The extraction process at each well begins with vertically drilling down to the formation and then burrowing horizontally across the shale. Then millions, and I mean millions, of gallons of water—combined with an energy company secret cocktail of sand, biocides and carbon compounds—are shot under extremely high pressure into the shale. Forcing this high-tech slurry into the rock creates a vast web of micro-fractures, allowing access to the gas. This is man-made seismic activity, a shaking and cracking of geologic formations that extend thousands of square miles under multiple states. Once captured in pipelines, the gas is sent to local power plants to generate electricity or it’s piped down to me in the city to cook your dinner.

The whole process is 21st-century magic. But it also might be magical thinking to believe that it is risk-free.

What are the problems? There are too many to go into in depth here but I am going to concentrate on the hydro part of the story. Each hydrofrack well permanently pollutes millions of gallons of water. Today’s 35,000 existing wells around the country require the equivalent of the water used annually by two million people. Once the gas is extracted, 30 percent of this water remains deep down in the shale, permanently removed from the water table and our aquifers, gone forever. How can this make sense in water-stressed regions like Texas, Wyoming and the Dakotas, which have been suffering severe drought conditions for five years and counting? With grain prices at all-time highs, cattle herds dramatically culled and the Mississippi River at nearly unnavigable low levels, it doesn’t.

But even in regions like New York and Pennsylvania that aren’t currently enduring droughts, there is still the question of the other 70 percent. Known as flowback, it returns to the surface radioactive and toxic. In addition to radioactivity, flowback can contain benzene, toluene, naphthaline, formaldehyde and nitrilotriacetic acid—all known carcinogens—as well as added biocides, chemicals whose intention is to kill any bacteria mixing in the hydrofrack swill. Biocides: literally “life killers.” That’s quite an ingredient in this recipe. And you know what Michael Pollan says about eating foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce? Don’t.

Energy companies want to avoid addressing the problem of disposing of this permanently polluted water and our lavishly lobbied governments are happy for those companies to set the standards for water treatment. In fact, New York is considering granting licenses to allow hydrofracking without standards—to be developed later.

Most flowback is held in containment pits awaiting disposal into deep-injection wells, where industry experts say it will be permanently isolated from all groundwater. But containment is a perilously imperfect concept. Factory-farm hog waste lagoons in North Carolina regularly overflow into nearby rivers, causing massive fish kills. Well casings fail; ever heard of Deepwater Horizon?

And of course 50 years after proclaiming that nuclear power would produce electricity so cheap that it would be unmeterable, we are still trying to figure out where to put the radioactive waste. Accidents happen: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, to remember a few.

Hydrofracking spills are becoming common, regarded as just part of doing business. But once leaked, there is no recapturing the contaminants or segregating them. They enter our drinking water and then the membranes of the plants and animals we eat.

When extraction begins it is called a “play.” Sounding more like poker than careful science, the term conjures fast and loose action, a gambit. Some plays work out; others don’t. That might be fine on the gaming table but not with our land and our water. At the moment, there are plays in North Dakota, Wyoming, Texas and Pennsylvania—all with mixed results.

There is a gold rush-like boom economy but there are also serious costs: air pollution, excessive ozone concentrations, earthquakes from injection wells, fish kills, sick cattle and even flammable tap water, where methane—despite promises to the contrary—has leaked into the groundwater. Sounds more like the 10 plagues of Egypt than the clean alternative to coal.

In spite of all this, Gov. Cuomo is currently considering authorizing hydrofracking of the Marcellus Shale, which lies underneath thousands of acres of New York’s best farmland and the watershed for millions of people including everyone in New York City. This is a play we should not ante up for.

Which brings me to President Richard Nixon. I reviled him—for clandestinely bombing Cambodia, for Watergate with his dirty tricks and suppressed evidence, for holding himself above the Constitution and then getting pardoned for his crimes without having to admit them. So much so that when a stamp was issued with his portrait in 1995, I purchased 50 stamps and 50 envelopes printed with a jail scene so that with every lick I could put Nixon behind bars.

But this same Richard Nixon embraced the environmental movement. Between 1969 and 1973 he made environmental impact studies a requirement, created the EPA and passed the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. With these federal enactments (and a lot of grass-roots organizing) the United States began, as a community, to come to terms with the idea that dumping in our backyards or drains wasn’t good for our long-term health or even our near-term pleasure.

A national standard had been set for all U.S. citizens and all U.S. businesses. Ohio coal power plants, whose effluents weren’t causing damage in Ohio but were devastating the forest ecology of New York’s Adirondacks with acid rain, were forced to modify their practices. A beautiful example of why the federal system makes sense.

But guess what? Hydrofracking is exempt from all of these federal regulations. How could this be? Here’s how: Vice President Dick Cheney, former chief of Halliburton Industries, the major supplier of oil and gas services, inserted an exemption for private hydrofracking into the Energy Policy Act of 2005. No federal environmental impact statements, no health assessments, no monitoring of ozone or testing for residues in the water. In one sneakily played hand, Cheney undid 30 years of progress. Talk about Watergate. Who belongs behind bars now? Outrageous.

And if that wasn’t enough, under energy company pressure the federal government agreed to deem the hydrofracking cocktail—the combination of chemicals mixed into millions of gallons of water at each and every well—as proprietary industry technology and exempt from disclosure. This leaves government agencies unable to set safe standards because we don’t know what’s there and the drillers don’t have to tell us. New York is even considering not setting regulations for flowback holding pits of less than 300,000 gallons. Do you want those gallons potentially irrigating upstate wineries and dairies?

If federal regulations under the Clean Air and Safe Drinking Water Acts were applied, would hydrofracking come to a halt? Probably not. But it would proceed with the precautionary principle in place, undergoing careful study, with full health assessments and a broad discussion of what impact the technology will have on our land and water, instead of the regionalized system in place now where one state commissioner can disregard the results from other states.

So what should we do?

Insist that our government have the ecological integrity of Tricky Dick. Write to Governor Cuomo and President Obama to demand federal oversight of the hydrofracking industry on both public and private land. Call for full disclosure of the ingredients in hydrofracking wells so that federal standards can be set and enforced.

But let’s be honest. Even with rigorous oversight, hydrofracking may offer cheap energy for a few decades, kicking that problem down the road, but in the very best-case scenario, it’s pure procrastination.

In the end we must do two things: On the citizen level we need to use less energy and on the national level we must aggressively invest in renewable energy. We passed the 50 percent mark of the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves back at the turn of the millennium, having ripped through it in just a hundred years. Cheney was wrong when he said in 2002, “Energy conservation is a nice personal moral choice but has no place in our national energy policy.”

Obama’s “all of the above approach” must include a true commitment to energy conservation with enticements to reduce energy consumption. We need the federal government to throw its weight behind energy efficiency and commit significant resources to alternative, non-carbon-based energy sources and the infrastructure to supply it.

If all of this means gas prices are higher, then I will pay higher utility bills and pass that charge along to you because that is the real price of dinner. You will be able to dine with the deep pleasure of knowing that your dinner hasn’t added to the ruin of the planet.

And then we will all be able to chant, “Grill, baby, grill.”

Peter Hoffman is chef-owner of two restaurants: Back Forty and Back Forty West. He eats farm-fresh food as his source of clean, renewable energy.



Author Peter Hoffman is just one of the chefs, brewers, winemakers, cidermakers, and farmers urging Governor Cuomo to ban hydrofracking in New York. They’ve signed a petition created by Chefs for the Marcellus, a group of food professionals working to protect our foodshed from the dangers of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

In other states, reads the petition, “leaks and spills have stunted and killed crops and livestock and sickened people. This is of great concern to our community because agriculture, food and beverage production, restaurants and tourism are vital, growing, interdependent economic engines that rely on our famously pristine water and farmland. Governor Cuomo, your leadership in fostering a sustainable green economy and supporting sustainable practices in agriculture, fishing, tourism and food production, not to mention renewable energy, can make our home state an example for the entire country.”

The petition has already been signed by scores of chefs including Del Posto’s Brooks Headley, Porsena’s Sara Jenkins, Gramercy Tavern’s Mike Anthony and Larry Bennet of Brewery Ommegang. Bennet says the brewery may relocate if fracking begins upstate.

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