When it comes to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, one size does not fit all with respect to regulation, and moratoriums. Most people caught up in the frenzy of opposing fracking, especially in New York, may not realize that there are thousands of wells drilled in New York State, right now, that are fracked every year, and have been going back for the past 60 years. And with no cases of groundwater contamination.
Wait, what? Fracking happens right now?! Yeah, that’s right. But it’s not the same kind of fracking that would be used to get shale gas.
The fracking that happens now is called “conventional” because it’s been going on for decades. Shale gas fracking is referred to as “unconventional.” What’s the difference? The volume of water used, and the direction of the drilling, are the two primary differences in conventional vs. unconventional drilling.
With conventional fracking, the drilling is vertical, with unconventional the drilling is initially vertical, and then goes horizontal. With conventional fracking wells are typically “shallow” at around 3,000 feet deep, and with unconventional the wells are between 5,000-10,000 feet deep. Conventional fracking uses between 25,000 and 75,000 gallons of water per well, unconventional fracking between 3-5 million gallons of water per well. And that’s about the sum total of the differences between the two.
Earlier this year a new bill was introduced into the New York legislature that would have imposed a one-year moratorium on all hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells in New York. The bill made no distinction between conventional and unconventional fracking, and if it had passed, it would have been a disaster for the conventional wells drilled each and every year in New York. Such a moratorium would have meant a hit on the economy of western NY, where much of the conventional drilling and fracking takes place, to the tune of $125-$150 million per year, and a loss of some 5,000 jobs. According to Assemblyman Andy Goodell, R-Jamestown:
"And here’s the irony…this proposed moratorium would have shut down all the conventional operations for which there’s no documented problems in groundwater contamination over concerns of the Marcellus Shale’s high-volume, non-conventional drilling for which there were no drilling permits being issued. In other words, it didn’t affect the Marcellus Shale where there were concerns, but shut down everything else."*
Was it all a mistake, a misunderstanding? Did the politicos not understand what they were proposing? Assemblyman Goodell proposed an exemption to the proposed bill for conventional drilling and it fell on deaf ears. When his exemption was rebuffed, Goodell lobbied hard against the bill. The bill did eventually pass in the Assembly, but not in the Senate.
So a stable, ongoing industry that has been safely operating for the past 60 years was threatened because people have whipped themselves into a frenzy, a cause célèbre. They don’t understand the technology, and that ignorance has dangerous consequences.
*Jamestown The Post-Journal (Sep 11, 2011) – Two Types Of Fracking