A plan announced this week to use propane to begin developing shale formations in New York state will test technology, law, politics, and policy with the latest twist to the controversial fracking issue.
It begins with leaders of a coalition of landowners in Tioga County who have reached a deal, in principle, with gas companies to develop 130,000 acres over the Marcellus and Utica shales. That deal would give landowners a working interest in wells developed by eCorp, and GasFrac Energy Services to use propane fracking to begin exploring the formations in the Southern Tier of New York. The intention is to prove both the worth of the formations and new technology to produce them. eCorp has developed the Stagecoach natural gas storage fields – a network of empty wells injected with liquid gas -- in the Southern Tier of New York. The company’s technical, logistical, and geological experience in the region will serve the project well, according to Chris Denton, an Elmira lawyer who helped broker the deal. The Stagecoach facility, in Steuben County, stores liquid petroleum gas (LPG) that would supply gas fracking operations in nearby Tioga County.
If all goes according to Denton's plan, the partnership between landowners and industry will be able to bypass a moratorium on high volume hydraulic fracking that began with the shale gas boom in New York in 2008. Since then, state regulators have been developing policy for the process used to fracture shale and extract gas with pressurized chemical solutions. Unresolved issues over water consumption, pollution, and waste disposal have been the target of fracking critics and given rise to a national environmental movement to stop shale gas production.
New York state regulators have met with the Tioga County landowner group and company officials to discuss the propane option, said Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Conservation. An agency statement provided by DeSantis this morning offers both an encouraging nod to the plan to frack with propane, and an open door for more regulatory review. DeSantis cited a clause in the SGEIS – a policy document to oversee fracking which is still in draft form after nearly four years of work and revisions -- that states propane fracking “not only minimizes formation damage, but also eliminates the need to source water for hydraulic fracturing, recover flowback fluids to the surface and dispose of the flowback fluids. As a result of the elimination of hydraulic fracturing source water, truck traffic to and from the well site would be greatly reduced.”
DeSantis then added in an email: “Our review may require additional information and additional SEQRA analysis, including an EIS, if warranted.” A State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) and an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) are both time consuming and costly processes that would require public input and surely be a prime target for protesters and activists opposed to onshore drilling.
Reaction among drilling proponents and opponents to the propane fracking plan has been predictably divisive. Drilling advocates said the propane technology would eliminate the issues associated with water withdrawals and contamination that have been the focus of environmental resistance. Denton, a featured speaker at many landowner meetings, has long held that problems are related to bad actors in the industry and landmen who mislead landowners and enable unfair leases, rather than the extraction process itself. Mishaps and accidents are preventable through strong and enforceable contracts that hold operators accountable. The deal with eCorp and Gasfrac includes strict land use provisions, Denton said, and having landowners involved directly as owners adds a critical level of control over the operations.
Opponents say gas fracking is another unproven and hazardous technology falsely portrayed as environmentally friendly by an industry notorious for withholding information. Tony Ingraffia, a Cornell University engineering professor who specializes in fracturing mechanics and a former industry consultant, is now among the industry’s most outspoken critics. Regardless of what agent is used, shale gas development will disrupt entire regions, according Ingraffia’s assessment. Fracking with methane requires a set of logistical problems that are no less risky than fracking with water, sand and chemicals, he said, including “large quantities of additional, but different chemicals,” compressors, and truckloads “transporting hazardous material, not water.” He added that LPG fracking does not address the problem with brine and other waste produced from gas wells; methane migration, a common problem that has plagued shale gas wells in Pennsylvania despite upgrades in well casing standards; or the impact of global warming from natural gas that is burned as fuel and escapes from the ground during the production process.