A plan to extract shale gas and oil from 135,000 acres in Tioga County, N.Y., could break through the state's hydraulic fracturing moratorium, because the wells would be fracked not with water but with liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, a mixture of mostly propane.
A relatively new technology, LPG fracking doesn't fall under New York's current hydraulic fracturing moratorium. Instead it could be permitted under the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's 1992 Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, according to Emily DeSantis, the DEC's director of public information.
When Robert Lestz was a research engineer at Chevron in the 1990s, he began searching for a way to extract deeply buried gas and oil deposits without using the vast quantities of chemically enhanced water needed for hydraulic fracturing. The industry's increasing reliance on such large amounts of water seemed unsustainable, both economically and ecologically.
At first, Lestz experimented with nitrogen and liquid carbon dioxide. But he wasn't satisfied.
Then one night at home, while he was on the phone with a co-worker, his wife asked him to turn off the gas grill. "I said 'I got it.' My wife thought I was talking to her, but I was talking into the phone."
Lestz eventually developed a fracking process that substitutes propane, or liquid petroleum gas (LPG), for water. Chevron wasn't interested in LPG fracking, Lestz said. But in 2006, a business friend in Canada took the idea and started GasFrac, where Lestz is now the chief technology officer. Based in Calgary, Alberta, GasFrac is apparently the only company that offers LPG fracking.
LPG's proponents say it is less environmentally intrusive than hydraulic fracking and that it also can be more profitable in the long run because it reduces infrastructure and waste. (Here's a story from InsideClimate News and the Albany Times-Union with more details about propane fracking.)
Cynthia Walter, an ecologist at St. Vincent College outside Pittsburgh, gets a lot of emails from local wildlife enthusiasts asking about "this bird" or "that amphibian."
But one day last year she got an uncommon request to inspect the forest cover around the Beaver Run Reservoir via Google Earth. The 1,300-acre lake is the main source of drinking water for 80,000 residents in southwestern Pennsylvania. It also rests atop the enormous Marcellus Shale gas reserve.
"Are those natural gas wells on the peninsulas?" she recalls the email sender asking.
Immediately, Walter spotted a square of barren earth on the satellite map. Later she learned that a company called CNX Gas had drilled more than a dozen wells on that bald patch from two sprawling well pads, using a controversial technique known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, to release gas trapped in layers of shale rock deep underground.
"I was kind of shocked. I've been on Beaver Run for 27 years and had no idea," Walter said. Nor was she aware that over the past decade or so about 100 shallow natural gas wells had been drilled throughout the reservoir.
But the gas operations were hardly a secret. Besides being visible by air, records obtained by InsideClimate News in response to requests reveal that the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, the local water utility, had leased the watershed in 1999 precisely to cash in on drilling opportunities.