New York body gives amber-light to fracking

By Martin Leggett - 01 Jul 2011 12:33:0 GMT
New York body gives amber-light to fracking

New York's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) struck a half-way note today, in its draft recommendations over the future of hydraulic fracturing in the US state. New York state has had a moratorium on drilling for shale gas, using the controversial 'fracking' technique, since the summer of 2008. But in a provisional release today, the state body responsible for protecting the local environment has indicated that fracking for gas could resume - with some major caveats.

Firstly, in recognition of repeated reports of contamination of drinking water - both from methane leaks, and from spills of the chemical-laden fluids used in the drilling - the DEC is offering a blanket protection for two of the most sensitive watersheds in the area. Both New York and Syracuse rely on freshwater lakes for their water supplies - and fracking would be banned completely in the watersheds feeding those lake systems.

Secondly, they are planning to prohibit drilling within 500 feet of 'primary aquifers', those underground water reservoirs that supply local water needs. And there will also be a ban on surface drilling on any state-owned lands. That would put important wildlife reserves, parks and forests beyond the reach of fracking wellheads.

But those exemptions would only add up to 15% of the area overlying the major shale gas resource, the Marcellus formation - leaving the vast majority open for exploitation. So it that game, set and match for the shale gas industry in New York?

Not necessarily - the DEC is also looking to impose new regulations on shale gas drilling operations. A third well-casing will be needed for most fracking wells, in order to prevent gas leakage into surrounding rock formations. It is though such leakage may have been responsible for the flaming tap-water, and high methane emissions, recently attributed to fracking wells.

Shale gas companies will also have to install proper spill control measures, including sealed tanks and fail-safe containment, so that the risk of drilling waters flooding into local water courses is minimized. The companies will have to ensure that storm water protection is in place too. And all permits for drilling will check that any water extraction, needed for pumping into the shale gas formations to help fracture them, does not adversely affect the water needs of local ecosystems.

All these strengthened regulations will likely impose significant extra costs on the shale gas companies - which could make a big difference as to whether shale gas extraction happens in a big way in New York state. That's because the economics of shale gas have recently been thrown into some doubt. Leaked emails, seen by the New York Times, suggest that gas reserve sizes have been exaggerated, with many wells dry, or running low on gas sooner than expected.

So while environmental and community groups are already questioning the proposed legislation, - many would prefer a complete ban, alongside a root-and-branch reform of the 30-year old mining laws - the net effect of the measures may be to kill the shale gas boom in New York before it really gets going.

For now, even though the moratorium on shale gas drilling expires today, in practice no new drilling will start up for a considerable time. The draft legislation will be finalized by July 31, after which it will go through a consultation phase that could take many months. Whilst that is ongoing, no new drilling permits will be issued. Beyond that lies the EPA report on fracking in 2012 - it seems the shale gas bubble will be stuttering in this part of the US for a while yet.

Top Image Credit: © Paul Fleet