Fracking, the controversial technique for extracting natural gas that energy companies are promoting as America’s path to energy independence, has come to the sunny, idyllic world of Jewish camping.
Four Jewish summer camps have signed leases with gas exploration companies which could allow the deep bore drilling technique — criticized by many experts as damaging to the environment — at their campgrounds by this fall.
Although the leases were signed in 2008 and 2009, an interstate regulatory body has put a hold on natural gas drilling in Wayne County, Pa., where the four camps are located. But that hold could be lifted in September.
The leases, all of which are held by the Hess Corporation, highlight tension between environmental concerns over the new drilling technique, which has drawn opposition from most Jewish environmental groups, and the significant paydays that gas companies can offer the not-for-profit camps.
“This thing is so much bigger than we are,” said Leonard Robinson, executive director of the New Jersey YMHA-YWHA Camps. His organization received $400,000 upon signing an oil and gas lease with Hess in 2009 on a property that houses two summer camps. “We realized this is way beyond us,” Robinson said.
Hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, is a relatively new technology that allows extraction of natural gas from previously inaccessible formations of tightly packed shale. Drill crews sink wells deep into the ground and then drill horizontal bores thousands of feet across the rock. The crews blast high volumes of water mixed with sand and chemicals through the bores, breaking up rock formations and releasing natural gas.
The fracking of a single well creates more than 1 million gallons of wastewater awash in pollutants, including some radioactive materials. Environmentalists worry that this water could escape from the wells and taint nearby water supplies. According to a February report in The New York Times, state and federal documents show that the wastewater is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency has announced a study of the impact of hydrofracking on drinking water, to be completed by 2014.
In the meantime, the technology is already being used extensively in Texas, Arkansas and other states. The most promising target for hydrofracking in the Northeast is the Marcellus Shale, a massive geological formation covering parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Though the technique is currently banned in New York, wells have been drilled in parts of Pennsylvania.
The Marcellus Shale sits beneath both New York’s Catskill Mountains and Pennsylvania’s Poconos, the dual epicenters of Jewish camping. During the summer, the two areas draw thousands of young Jews from throughout the Northeast to the tens of Jewish summer camps in each area, as well as many other children attending nonsectarian camps.
Of about 30 Jewish summer camps that sit above the Marcellus Shale, four told the Forward that they had begun negotiations with gas companies and never signed deals or, in one case, ignored a query from an interested firm.
Another four Pennsylvania camps told the Forward that they had signed deals with gas companies. Those are Starlight’s Perlman Camp, which is owned and operated by B’nai B’rith; Camps Nesher and Shoshanim, which share a property in Lakewood and are owned and operated by the New Jersey Federation of YMHA and YWHA, and Camp Morasha, an independent camp in Lakewood.
B’nai B’rith and the New Jersey Y camps signed leases with Hess in 2009, while Morasha signed a lease with Chesapeake Appalachia, L.L.C. in 2008. Chesapeake later transferred the Morasha lease to Hess.
The technology used in the wells could allow extraction of gas without any well pads being placed on the camp properties. But the drilling companies do have the right to drill wells at the camps — in some cases, during camping season.
The terms of the agreements with Hess included significant paydays for the camps. The B’nai B’rith Henry Monsky Foundation, the affiliate that owns and operates Perlman Camp, received an $115,248 bonus upon signing the deal in August 2009. Assuming that Hess chooses to allow the lease to run its full term, bonus payments to the organization by 2015 would total $1,005,648. The organization would also receive 20% of net profits on gas extracted from the site. The New Jersey Y camps, whose property is much larger than B’nai B’rith’s, would receive bonus payments totaling $3,486,372 by 2015, plus 20% of gas profits.
Morasha’s lease is less lucrative. The camp is entitled to only 15% of profits on gas extracted from its wells, and received only a one-time bonus payment upon signing. The size of that payment is not listed on lease documents filed with the county recorder of deeds.
It is difficult to estimate what the royalty payments will come to in dollar terms before the wells are drilled. But hydrofracking advocate Timothy Considine, a professor of energy economics at the University of Wyoming, said that if the wells in Wayne County prove as productive as those in neighboring Susquehanna, they could be exceedingly profitable. “The royalty incomes are very significant,” he said.
It remains to be seen how the not-for-profit camps will use these new revenues. Harrell Wittenstein, director of camping services for B’nai Brith, said he had not yet considered this issue.
No drilling activity has taken place yet at any of the camps. All are located within Wayne County, which saw intensive efforts by gas companies to secure leases beginning in 2007. Those efforts slowed dramatically in 2009, when an interstate agency called the Delaware River Basin Commission effectively blocked new hydrofracking wells in areas draining into the Delaware River as the commission considered new regulations.
In December, the DRBC issued a draft of those regulations, which must be approved by the agency’s commissioners — the governors of New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and a representative of the federal government. A DRBC spokeswoman said that a vote would not come before September.
A spokeswoman for Hess said that it was too early to say how long it would take to begin drilling after the DRBC settles on its new regulations.
All three of the camp leases contain some provisions to mitigate environmental risks. The gas companies have promised the camps to repair or replace their water supplies if they become contaminated due to drilling, and the leases also force gas companies to select surfaces for drilling and construction in ways that minimize erosion.
The New Jersey Y and B’nai B’rith leases, whose terms are identical, are based on a mega-lease negotiated by a landowners group called the Northern Wayne Property Owners Association. Robinson said he chose to work with the owners group because of what he saw as its commitment to environmental safety.
Robinson said that many of the landowners working with the NWPOA were dairy farmers. “The dairy farmers are very concerned about every aspect of raising cows and getting proper milk out,” he said. “They had a lot of conditions put in that the gas companies did not want put in originally…. We felt that if we tried to negotiate our own deal at that point, we couldn’t get as many safeguards in.”
But while the NWPOA lease includes extensive sections spelling out gas company obligations to reclaim utilized land and barring the gas companies from injecting saltwater or wastewater into wells without permission, it fails to explicitly bar companies from drilling during camp season — a protection included in the Morasha lease.
Robinson said that Hess told him that they wouldn’t drill during the summer. “You think we want to be all over the press, here we’re coming in when kids are there?” Robinson recalled Hess representatives saying.
Wittenstein, the B’nai Brith camping services director, also said that the drilling would not interfere with camping. “The natural gas companies cannot and do not want to interfere with the current business operation on the property,” Wittenstein wrote in an e-mail. “The camp season, when children occupy the grounds, is 7 weeks and the camp operations only occupies 90 of the approximate 332 acres owned by the Henry Monsky Foundation. They want to place the well pads so that they create the least liability for the corporation and do not interfere with ongoing business.”
The New Jersey Y and B’nai B’rith leases bar drilling activity within 500 feet of existing structures and allow the camps some say over where the drill pads are placed. They also require that the gas company choose locations that do not “unreasonably interfere” with the camp’s use of the property. The Morasha lease keeps surface operations 1,000 feet from existing structures.
Hydrofracking in Pennsylvania has not been without recent incident. In April, 10,000 gallons of hydrofracking fluid spilled over a well’s containment berms in Bradford County. Some of the fluid made its way into a nearby stream.
In a telephone conversation with the Forward, Robinson defended his camp’s decision to sign a Hess lease, saying, among other things, that he felt he had no choice under Pennsylvania law. Gas companies, he claimed, could eventually force landowners to take payment for their resources if enough of their neighbors signed. But in fact, such laws don’t apply to Marcellus Shale wells, though they do affect other areas of the state.
Stephen Saunders, a Scranton, Pa.-based attorney who specializes in oil and gas law and in environmental law and represented B’nai B’rith during its negotiations with Hess, said that Robinson’s misconception was a common one. Some of the agents seeking leases on behalf of the gas companies, known as land men, were known to misrepresent the Pennsylvania law in order to convince landowners to sign, according to Saunders.
Activists say that the camps signed their leases before public furor over hydrofracking reached its current peak, and before information about the practice was widely available. “They probably didn’t understand what they were doing,” said Mirele Goldsmith, an environmental psychologist who last March wrote an opinion piece in the Forward that said some Jewish camps were being approached by gas companies and argued that the camps should not to accept the deals.
But in recent months, concerns over fracking have escalated. Reform Jewish Voice of New York State, a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, supports New York State’s current moratorium on the practice. (Gov. Cuomo has indicated that he will seek to lift the ban in parts of the state.) In a statement, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, a program of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, also expressed reservations about hydrofracking.
“COEJL supports increasing our energy independence in ways that also protect the environment,” wrote Sybil Sanchez, COEJL’s director, in an e-mail to the Forward. “Hydrofracking is of particular concern because of the number of unknown chemicals used, the impact it has on local residents and their access to clean water, and the overall destructive nature of the process.”
One activist said that the actions of the camps, and of the parent organizations that control them, is inherently political. “These companies are putting lots of money into lobbying,” said Rabbi Daniel J. Swartz, spiritual leader of Temple Hesed in Scranton and vice president of the Pennsylvania chapter of Interfaith Power and Light, an environmental organization. “You have to understand that once you sign, you’re contributing to those businesses, you’re contributing to those businesses and their profits and all the things that they’re standing for.”
B’nai Brith spokeswoman Sharon Bender said that her organization has no position on hydrofracking.
Robinson denied that signing the lease constituted a political act. “We don’t send lobbying letters, we don’t go to lobbying events, we don’t do anything to encourage it or not encourage it,” he said. “In the end, they’re going to do what they want to do.”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.