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Waterless Fracking Method Could Sidestep NY Gas Drilling Ban

Amid skepticism from engineers and environmentalists, landowners and drilling company bet on LPG fracking, which uses propane instead of water.

Apr 16, 2012
Map of primary aquifers and Marcellus Shale extent in NY

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.

DeSantis said LPG fracking would also require an additional assessment under the state's Environmental Quality Review Act, or even a separate environmental impact statement "if the proposed activity may result in significant adverse environmental impacts not previously or adequately addressed."

New York placed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in 2010, after environmentalists and some residents began worrying that hydraulic fracturing might contaminate the watershed that supplies water to New York City and other parts of the East Coast.

The moratorium won't be lifted until a new Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement is complete. The DEC expects to finish the work on that document by the end of the year.

The Tioga County Landowners Association announced in March that the 2,000 families it represents will lease 135,000 acres to Houston-based eCorp International. The fracking will be done by Calgary-based GasFrac Energy Services, which pioneered the LPG process.

InsideClimate News and the Albany Times Union reported in November that while LPG fracking still faces skepticism and comes with its own risks, it has several environmental benefits. By forgoing the use of water, it eliminates an entire waste stream—the toxic "flowback" water. GasFrac also claims that LPG requires 75 percent fewer truck trips and a smaller well-pad than hydraulic fracturing.

Details of the Tioga County contract are still being worked out, but under the tentative plan the landowners will form a Limited Liability Company and will essentially be given stock in the venture, in addition to royalty payments of 12.5 percent of the value of the oil or gas that is retrieved. eCorp will provide financing and GasFrac will frack the wells, which could extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale and also oil from the less-explored Utica Shale. eCorp estimates that each well will be about three to five acres large and will drill under roughly 3,200 acres of surrounding land.

"We believe this game-changing technology will be embraced by, not only regulators and the industry, but the general population as well," eCorp CEO John Thrasher said in a news release announcing the deal with GasFrac. The two companies have also signed a memorandum of understanding for potential work in some of the "premier basins of western Europe."

"We believe that propane/butane gel could very well become the shale 'treatment of choice' in all countries because of its many technical and environmental benefits relative to large volume 'slick' water fracking techniques," Mark Stauss, a senior director at eCorp, told InsideClimate News. Specifically, he said, the company is interested in shale basins in the United Kingdom, Switzerland and France.

Hydraulic fracturing is just as controversial in Europe as it is in the United States. France, for instance, has banned it. But Stauss said he thinks LPG fracking might be adopted more quickly "based upon the merits of the arguments in favor of the technology."

So far, the environmental community seems skeptical of LPG fracking. Fifteen groups, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Riverkeeper, sent a letter to the New York DEC on April 11, urging the agency to perform an environmental impact statement prior to permitting any LPG wells and describing LPG in general as a technology with "alarming" known and unknown risks.

Deb Nardone, from the Sierra Club, said in an email that, given the risk of explosions, "it is clear that propane fracking just substitutes one set of problems for another set of even more dangerous problems."

Mark Brownstein, from the Environmental Defense Fund, which did not sign the letter, said he thinks waterless fracking is a positive sign that the industry can reduce its environmental impacts, although the group hasn't taken a position on LPG yet.

Stuart Gruskin, who was the DEC's deputy commissioner from 2007 to 2010 said he's withholding judgment on LPG. Like other observers, he wants to see more data on the process’s results and safety. Gruskin does think the rise of LPG is a sign of positive trends in the evolution of fracking, as companies, faced with environmental concerns and regulations, look for solutions to wastewater problems, such as onsite recycling.

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