MDN In-depth: NYS Assembly Passes 12-Month Moratorium on Hydraulic Fracturing, Both Horizontal and Vertical

For the second year in a row, the New York State Assembly has passed a bill that would create a one-year moratorium on the practice of hydraulic fracturing in the state. But there’s a difference in this year’s bill. This new bill would stop all hydraulic fracturing—both horizontal AND vertical. Oy vey. Where does one begin with this?

It is MDN’s belief that most “rank and file” people who oppose Marcellus Shale drilling don’t really understand the science of it. They hear a few catch phrases about polluting water, or using too much water, or thousands of gallons of chemicals going into the ground. And vague threats that their drinking water is about to be permanently poisoned. And that’s about all they know or want to know. Their opposition is colored by their philosophy or worldview: big energy companies are evil and lie, burning hydrocarbons like oil and gas destroy the environment and cause dangerous levels of global warming, etc. Yes, this is an over-generalization and paints an entire movement with a very broad brush that does not apply to everyone who is against drilling. MDN is just saying this is the case “in general” or “on average.”

The leaders of environmental organizations who whip up the rank and file, leaders who do understand the science, don’t talk about chemical contamination of water from drilling itself (because it doesn’t happen), but instead talk about related issues like well blowouts where fracking water escapes on top of the ground and makes it way into streams and rivers. Or about trucking accidents that spill chemicals. Or about “over industrialization” of neighborhoods with traffic, noise, light and air pollution, etc. All of which are important issues and part of the potential negatives of drilling. Environmental leaders who oppose drilling also raise concerns about just how much water is used in the process of drilling a single well (millions of gallons).

Those who support drilling, MDN among them, would counter that many of the concerns raised are overblown and accidents are (thankfully) rare—and should remain so! But it seems the core opposition to drilling always comes back to this mysterious practice called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” as it’s called. Hydraulic fracturing is the process of injecting water and sand, along with very small amounts of chemicals to prevent bacteria, into the ground, breaking apart shale rock and letting the natural gas trapped in the rock freely flow out and up the hole to the surface.

In New York State, hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas drilling has been used for years—MDN is not sure how many years, but would lay odds it’s been used in New York for at least the past 40 years. But wait! Isn’t there a moratorium in place now? How could fracking have been used for the past 40 years? It boils down to vertical and horizontal. In Marcellus Shale drilling, the bore hole goes down vertically, and then curves and goes horizontally, through the relatively “thin” layer of shale. In traditional or what is called “conventional” drilling, bore holes are only vertical—they go straight down and stop. Vertical drilling in conventional oil and gas exploration is almost always done in non-shale deposits—in limestone and other types of rock formations. Vertical drilling that uses hydraulic fracturing has been around for a long time in New York. The “new” innovation that the current moratorium prevents is using hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling.

Conventional (vertical) gas drilling tries to locate an area where the gas is pooled together in a large region—think of it as gas trapped in a bubble or dome. The gas found in shale is spread far and wide in tiny pockets. Economically speaking, conventional drilling is riskier than “unconventional” or shale drilling because you either hit a large pool or pocket of gas, or you don’t. And if you don’t, you just wasted a lot of money. Plus, there are far fewer large pockets of gas than there is gas in shale layers—so there’s just not as much natural gas available via conventional drilling.

When you drill into a shale layer, there’s almost always gas in it, so your chances are much better of finding and retrieving that gas. But to get to it, you need to drill horizontally and blast small cracks in the shale to get at the trapped gas—the “fracturing” part of hydraulic fracturing.

But here’s what many don’t understand: Conventional gas drilling (vertical only), like unconventional gas drilling (horizontal), often uses hydraulic fracturing as well. What’s the difference in fracking vertically and horizontally? The chief difference is the volume of water used. Vertical hydraulic fracturing is referred to as “low volume” fracturing because it uses less than 80,000 gallons of water for a single well. “High volume” hydraulic fracturing, or horizontal drilling, uses more than 80,000 gallons of water—typically 3-4 million gallons for a single well.

In New York, conventional (vertical) hydraulic fracturing has been going on for years, and the bill passed by the Assembly yesterday would stop it cold for the next 12 months because…well, because. Take your choice: a) Politicians simply don’t understand the science and that this has been done for years, safely, in New York; b) Politicians that don’t care about the science but are pandering to their constituents, trying to buy votes; c) Politicians have taken temporary/permanent leave of their senses; d) All of the above.

Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil & Gas Association of NY, estimates if the bill as passed becomes law, it will mean the immediate loss of 4,500 jobs statewide and inflict economic harm on some 400 oil and gas drilling-related companies.

Could it be the Assembly didn’t realize that vertical hydraulic fracturing has gone on for years in New York, and that it was an oversight to include it in this bill? A simple mistake? No.

The bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, D-Suffolk County, said issues with vertical hydrofracking have come to light in recent studies and incidents, and said it was intentionally included in the legislation to give the state time to review its impacts.*

So the situation has now come to this: Hydraulic fracturing as a technology has been demagogued to the point it now makes no difference that it has been used safely for years. There has been such an overreaction to drilling in the Marcellus, that all oil and gas drilling in the state—even conventional (vertical) drilling—may now become a casualty. How sad.

The only bright spot is that the New York State Senate is controlled by Republicans and they almost certainly will not pass this bill, if it even gets on the docket for a vote.

A high-ranking Senate Republican, however, was less than enthused about the moratorium bill. Senate Deputy Majority Leader Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, said he’d like to see politicians get out of the way and let the DEC’s experts finish their work.*

And in order for any bill to become law, it would need Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature, or an override vote by both houses of the legislature. Neither situation is likely to happen. So at the end  of the day we have political theater—Assembly Democrats cynically using the issue of Marcellus Shale drilling in order to advance their own careers. Welcome to New York.

*WGRZ-TV (Jun 6, 2011) – New York State Assembly Passes One-Year Fracking Moratorium