Appalachian Basin

Natural Gas In New York, What Does It Really Mean?

Brayton is a former Town of Covert Supervisor and has been a consulting geologist for more than 30 years, including several years experience drilling horizontal natural gas wells in New York State and Pennsylvania.   He is a 63 year resident of the Trumansburg area.

All of the perceived problems or concerns about hydraulic fracturing have relatively simple solutions if you want a solution.   If you do not want solutions the drama which is not a matter of “life and death” will continue.   Hydraulic fracturing has nothing to do with physically drilling a natural gas well; it is the use of pressure and a fluid, usually water, to crack a specific thickness of the bedrock exposed in the bore of a drilled well and place sand grains in the resulting crack to hold the crack open so that any liquids or gases present in the bedrock can flow to the wellbore.  

The fracturing job is designed from the study of the rock mechanics of the specific target layer to stay in the target formation in order to maximize the recovery of the resource present.  The successful fracturing of multiple parallel rock layers in oil wells both in western New York and worldwide over several decades is evidence that hydraulic fracturing does stay in the target formation.

imagesCA1T0647The moratorium in New York State is only on the drilling and fracturing of horizontal shale wells and on fracturing jobs larger than 80,000 gallons of fluid.   Both vertical and horizontal wells completed in bedrock formations other than shale continue to be permitted, drilled and hydraulically fractured in New York State.   For all wells in New York State, the disclosure to Department of Environmental Conservation of fracturing additives has been required since 2008 prior to permit issuance.   The fracturing water that remains in the formation will stay in the formation for the same reason the gas stayed there for millions of years: it is confined by impermeable bedrock.

At many Pennsylvania Marcellus wells all of the fluids and drill cuttings are contained in tanks, as there are no open pits at the well sites.   Large lined ponds serve as clean water storage for several well pads to minimize hauling distances.  None of the horizontal Marcellus fracturing operations I have observed had storage for more than 1 million gallons of water which limits the job size.

The approximately 250 cubic yards (20 dump truck loads) of rock cuttings removed during drilling of a 10,000’ well are hauled to a landfill.   While done as a precaution against environmental damage, at least part of this appears unnecessary in New York State as the Marcellus Shale outcrop is present in a 1-2 mile wide band extending across the Town of Fayette, is present under the north end of most of the Finger Lakes and extends from the Buffalo area to just southwest of Albany.

In addition to the Marcellus, the Geneseo Black Shale is present for miles along the shores of both Cayuga and Seneca Lakes.   The Geneseo Black Shale is the lower half of the Taughannock Gorge and in New York State has natural radioactivity and organic carbon approximately half that of the Marcellus Shale.   If there are any long term health effects from being around the Marcellus or other black shales they must be very subtle.

Looking, from the perspective of someone not schooled in environmental health, at oil and gas field workers who have natural gas in their face on a daily basis, I have met many over the years who worked into their 70’s and 80’s and appeared at least as active and healthy as the general population.

Most of the “issues” regarding hydraulic fracturing are about moving equipment and fluids on the surface and building gas pipelines.    The 500 to 1000 truck round trips per well generate traffic similar to larger farms and construction projects.   While horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing can be conducted several times on the same well pad, they are construction projects not industrial activities because they end.

Light duty secondary roads with inadequate bases and poor drainage fall apart under present traffic and are a concern of local governments.   Many secondary roads in Pennsylvania are so poor they have to be upgraded before moving in the drilling equipment and many miles of roads have been paved at the expense of individual companies.   In short, the roads are in better shape after the drilling and fracturing operations are completed and we expect no less in New York.

Despite planning, safety practice and redundant systems, since people are involved spills of various materials are, as at present in other Upstate New York activities, inevitable.  The easiest solution is not to have present any material that can cause significant environmental damage if released.

How about extending that concept to other activities unrelated to oil and gas?  Fracturing water can be made with biodegradable additives.  Spilling a semi-tanker of saturated salt brine which is equivalent to approximately 10 tons of salt looks pretty minor compared to the amount of road salt used each winter.  I see no reason why we cannot have lake friendly well sites for both horizontal and vertical gas wells as we have lake friendly farms.

All taxpaying landowners in the county benefit when natural gas production is established in that county (it is assessed for taxes), but I think the reader can get my point of view.  Then if you want to get technical lets discuss staging as all horizontal wells are fractured in stages.   I did not realize until recently that the fluid volume per foot of exposed wellbore is frequently less in a horizontal shale hydraulic fracturing stage than in a vertical openhole oil field fracturing stage, a technique which has been used successfully for decades.

Got natural gas in your water?   A lot of water wells do and there is technology available (which is not free) to test for it and separate it if necessary. There are solutions available for everything, you just have to take a moment to look at them.

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