Where do drillers want to frack?
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If New York State allows hydrofracking, where would it happen?
With the help of officials from the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), we used the agency's searchable online oil and gas database to find out precisely where drilling companies have applied for hydrofracking permits.
So what does this map mean?
Q: What is high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF)?
A: HVHF (also known as hydrofracking, or fracking) is a controversial method of extracting natural gas. After a well is drilled, often more than a mile underground, large amounts of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, are pumped in at high pressure to break up the rock and release the gas.
Here in New York State, drilling companies have applied for permits through the DEC to use HVHF in the Marcellus Shale in the Southern Tier and the Utica Shale in Central New York.
Energy experts have known about the gas in these shale formations for more than a century, but it wasn't economically feasible to extract until drilling companies began to implement HVHF.
Q: Why is it controversial?
A: Although other states - including Pennsylvania - allow HVHF, New York has a temporary moratorium on the practice. Many environmental groups have called for a permanent ban. They cite numerous concerns, including the potential impacts of HVHF on air and water quality, as well as human health.
Late last year, federal officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) raised new concerns when they issued a draft report citing HVHF as the likely cause of groundwater contamination near Pavillion, Wyoming. Although natural gas has often been hailed as "cleaner" than other fossil fuels, researchers at Cornell University can't seem to agree on that.
The DEC has spent more than three years studying the issue, and the agency is currently finalizing its review of HVHF, known as the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS). That document will determine if the state moves forward to allow the practice. The most recent draft of the SGEIS received more than 40,000 comments from the public - a record for the agency.
Q: What do these well permit applications show?
A: The DEC began to receive well permit applications for HVHF from drilling companies in 2007. Since then, there have only been 62 applications filed, and all of them await the finalization of the SGEIS by the DEC.
Norse Energy has applied for four HVHF permits, according to DEC data. Dennis Holbrook is the vice president of Norse, and also serves on the board of directors for the Independent Oil and Gas Association (IOGA) of New York, a trade group representing the drilling industry.
Holbrook says that these well permit applications represent a good snapshot of where HVHF would occur in New York, if the practice is allowed, "I would anticipate there would probably be some additional applications."
According to Holbrook, part of the reason there aren't more HVHF applications already is because applying for a permit is a such an onerous process.
"The application can end up costing you tens of thousands of dollars," he says. "Between the state filing fees and the [Susquehanna River Basin Commission] filing fees, and then of course you have all the manpower involved in putting together all the environmental considerations ... depending on where you are, you could have wetlands issues, [or] you could have other issues that would require other agencies to sign off. So it's not a simple process."
Q: So what happens next?
A: The future of HVHF in New York will depend on the DEC's final version of the SGEIS. DEC Commissioner Joe Martens has said that the report will likely be finished before the summer of 2012. After that, the agency could begin to issue permits.
The DEC's current position is that HVHF can be done safely, as long as it is properly regulated. Martens has also said that his agency would need to hire at least 140 new employees to regulate the practice, during the first year it's allowed.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has chosen his words carefully when talking about the issue, but he recently told reporters that his 2012 executive budget proposal, "won't anticipate hydrofracking approval," this year.
Meanwhile, a 17-member panel, which was convened last summer, is charged with advising the DEC about how HVHF could impact resources for both state and local governments. That group missed its November deadline for issuing recommendations, and has called off three meetings in the past three months. The panel's recommendations are now expected to come out sometime during the first part of 2012.
More details from the data
Drilling companies and the number of HVHF permits they've applied for:
- Chesapeake Appalachia, L.L.C.: 47
- Fortuna Energy Inc.: 10
- Norse Energy Corp.: 4
- Vertical Resources, Inc.: 1
Breakdown of HVHF permit applications by county:
- Broome: 12
- Chemung: 12
- Chenango: 3
- Delaware: 23