Readers Write: Legislative action needed to ensure LI aquifer protection for geothermal wells

Readers Write: Legislative action needed to ensure LI aquifer protection for geothermal wells
NYSDEC Table 1

We all want to protect Long Island’s drinking water. It’s precious, a source of life, unique. Unlike many NY communities including NYC that rely on surface water, reservoirs, and rivers, LI’s several million rely solely on aquifers.

The Long Island Commission for Aquifer Protection estimated up to 5,000 geothermal wells were on LI in 2020, seventy percent were open-loop, the vast majority under 500ft deep and not regulated by DEC. Numbers increased since.

An EPA colleague I worked with once said NYDEC “has written off the Magothy.”  For geothermal wells I agree, we’ll get to this shortly.

LI’s three main aquifers from surface down are the Upper Glacial, Magothy, Lloyd. Rain and surface water replenish them.

The Upper Glacial was deposited in the last ice age and comprises what we see at the surface, LI’s topography and morphology. It’s very productive but shallow and so very prone to contamination from surface sources.  It’s the source of most Magothy contamination, from which contamination can and does reach the Lloyd in places.

Some 70% of LI’s estimated 500MGPD water use is Magothy water. Wells also draw from the Upper Glacial and Lloyd.

The Lloyd is most protected—tapped as a last resort; a moratorium on drilling into it was put in place in 1986 but the DEC can lift it. (NYC keeps trying.)

The DEC permits monitoring wells and water supply wells, permitting covers location, drilling/completion standards, O&M, life-cycle issues including abandonment, closure.

Geothermal wells are another matter and especially a problem for LI because Albany has not legislated, and DEC does not regulate wells under 500ft.

Worse, a NYSERDA admits this: “Further, regulation of the business model for owning and operating these systems remains a threshold issue for New York State.

The issue should be addressed by the legislature to remove uncertainties and to provide a roadmap for geothermal development.

Legislation should enable geothermal to scale rapidly within a financially sustainable business model.

Whether geothermal follows a regulated model like electricity and natural gas distribution, remains unregulated, or a hybrid combining regulated and unregulated elements is a critical issue that will define how geothermal technology develops in the state.”

DEC only requires well permits for wells that produce over 45GPM, and geothermal wells more than 500ft deep.

For closed-loop geothermal wells of any depth, no permitting, registration, exams, or reporting are required.  (So, no life-cycle issues).

For open-loop wells up to 500ft deep, only a preliminary notice and well completion report must be filed.  (At best after the fact and far from comprehensive.)

DEC’s Table 1 shows what it all means.

A “closed-loop system” uses HDPE piping installed in drilled and grouted wells that conductively exchanges heat energy with the ground via circulating water or water/antifreeze mixture through the piping system.

An “open-loop system” are wells that extract and use groundwater directly as a heat-exchange source then return the heated or cooled groundwater directly back to the aquifer.

The systems are dual purpose, cooling buildings in summer, supplying heat in winter.

They’re efficient.  Expensive to install but have a 30+ yr life and are cost-effective, very low O&M costs compared to oil, gas, or standard AC. Large buildings can really benefit.

Again, geothermal wells under 500ft have no DEC requirements except to use licensed drillers, need no permits, have no well maintenance and lifecycle requirements, not even to cover closure and abandonment when wells are not used, damaged, nor even when an overlying building is sold or demolished.

DEC must address these issues, must know geothermal well locations, and identify information on an updated and searchable GIS database.  We’re running pretty blind.

No wells into the Lloyd, unless necessary for monitoring or remediation.

DEC’s 500ft one-size-fits-all doesn’t work.  A 500ft well in Hempstead will only reach the Magothy, the same 500ft (or less) will pierce the Lloyd in much of North Hempstead.

We should especially be concerned about open-loop wells.  Closed-loop wells are much more protective of aquifers because there’s no contact with aquifer water and system fluid leaks—intentional or not—are easily detected by system pressure drops and automatically shut down.

Noting a worst case, I managed a mega Superfund site in New Jersey where it a major company apparently used open return wells to dispose of waste fluids and spent solvents creating a 20-mile groundwater plume throughout an entire valley.

Let’s not forget how our aquifers were contaminated to begin with.

Open-loop systems extract water then reinject it back into the aquifer which alters groundwater flow laterally and vertically. And will spread any existing groundwater contamination laterally and deeper.  I really don’t like the idea of open-loop wells in LI aquifers in general.

Closed-loop wells don’t alter groundwater flow.

Because New York dropped the ball jurisdictions are left hanging and must develop their own geothermal requirements, not all are, standards and codes across the board are not consistent which results in a fragmented patchwork of aquifer protections. Not a good way to ensure the sustainability and reliability of LI’s drinking water.

LICAP provides guidance and is a good overarching program, but it’s not enforceable, comprehensive enough, nor universally applied. DEC regulations are enforceable and could comprehensively cover all LI but don’t exist.

Town of Brookhaven developed comprehensive geothermal requirements, well standards, maintenance, distance of wells from property lines, abandonment and well closures, but allows open-loop systems.

Town of Hempstead appears to allow both systems but its website and permit application are not exactly clear. Hempstead allows unwise liberties with our aquifers and doesn’t address the range of life cycle issues.

East Hampton bans open-loop systems.  LICAP recommends the same but it’s not binding.  North Hempstead has a moratorium on all geothermal systems.

In 2020 the Suffolk County Water Authority recommended banning open-loop systems.  Nassau County could recommend and even codify comprehensive public regulations and spare its jurisdictions the time, expense, and confusion, but so far appears to be silent on the matter.  And so it goes, on and on.

Post 2020 we’ve had multiple incentives and funding programs promoting geothermal, offered by State, PSEG, and the federal IRA.

USDOE’s March 2024 report makes it clear that regardless of what Albany and DEC do or don’t do, there’s a large federal approach pushing things. DOE has a one-size-fits-all program that puts all of New York including LI on a schedule for massive phased geothermal development by 2030–2040 and outlines federal funding goals.

Per DOE’s plan once money is readily available business and commercialization necessarily follow.  It’s how things work.

DEC says a minimum of 7000 unregulated and abandoned oil and gas wells need to be addressed, we really don’t want to face messy problems from thousands of unregulated geothermal wells down the road.

The genie is out of its bottle.  NY must take the lead and coordinate comprehensive aquifer protections lest things really get out of hand and we have a myriad of separate ill-timed, misdirected approaches that are too little, fragmented, too late.

Leaving jurisdictions to cobble their own standards is wasteful, costly, piecemeal, duplicative, and begs pressing issues facing LI’s aquifers. Time is critical.

Stephen Cipot

Garden City park

The author worked in oil, gas, and mining for a Fortune 500 multinational, is a retired USEPA project manager and a geologist, works with several civic organizations, and is appointed to the Town of North Hempstead’s Climate Smart Communities Task Force.  All volunteer.

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