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"Fracking NY" Blog Series: Part 1 - Overview of Fracking in the Marcellus Shale Region of New York

Introduction to Periconi, LLC's "Fracking NY" Blog Series

Periconi, LLC does not represent clients on any side of this, the most significant environmental controversy in New York at this time - not the companies drilling for gas, or property owners who have signed leases (some of whom now regret that they did so), or the towns where such property lies. Thus, we feel that we can express an objective voice on the controversy surrounding high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in the Marcellus Shale region of New York. So to that end, we have decided to present a series of blog posts covering the issues.

Introduction to Periconi, LLC's "Fracking NY" Blog Series

Periconi, LLC does not represent clients on any side of this, the most significant environmental controversy in New York at this time - not the companies drilling for gas, or property owners who have signed leases (some of whom now regret that they did so), or the towns where such property lies. Thus, we feel that we can express an objective voice on the controversy surrounding high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in the Marcellus Shale region of New York. So to that end, we have decided to present a series of blog posts covering the issues.

Our intent here is to give a very general, brief, and neutral overview of the background of fracking in the State, what the New York State and federal regulatory agencies are doing, an overview of some of the key litigation to date, and any important updates or future predictions. Our "Fracking NY Blog Series" - which will be posted over the next few months - is aimed overall at the general population of the State, and will not be specifically targeted to those who are in the thick of the controversy. We hope that as environmental law experts who are uncommitted to any position, we can help shed light, rather than more heat, on these issues.

What Is the Marcellus Shale Formation?

Shale is a type of sedimentary rock. Natural gas extracted from shale is typically referred to as an "unconventional" source of natural gas; this is because the gas is not readily available, or extractable, from the shale by conventional extraction processes.

The Marcellus Shale formation spans from the Catskills region of New York, through Pennsylvania, Ohio, and into West Virginia, including parts of Maryland and Virginia.

What Is "Fracking"?

High-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, better known as "fracking," is a process that releases natural gas which is embedded in underground shale formations. At its very basic, the fracking process consists of drilling a well down from the surface (as deep as 4,000 feet) and then horizontally, injecting possibly billons of gallons of "fracking fluids" at high pressure to break up the shale, thereby releasing the natural gas, which is then extracted at the surface of the well. The fracking fluids consist of millions of gallons of fresh water (approximately 98% of the total volume), combined with a number of "propping agents:" sand, biocides, acids, scale inhibitors, friction reducers, surfactants, and other chemicals. However, due to their "proprietary" nature, the specific names and volumes of the chemicals used on a fracturing job are not required by law to be fully disclosed to the public. See NYSDEC, Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program: Well Permit Issuance for Horizontal Drilling and High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing to Develop the Marcellus Shale and Other Low-Permeability Gas Reservoirs ("Revised Draft SGEIS 2011"), at ES 8 (Sept. 7, 2011).

Once pumped into the ground to release the natural gas from the shale, approximately 10-30% of the water is pumped back out; this water is typically called "flowback" or "produced water." See Revised Draft SGEIS 2011, at ES 8. This produced water is then pumped into above ground impoundments (i.e., pits), that are either lined or unlined, which give the produced water a chance to evaporate, thereby allowing the recovered sand and other chemical elements of the fracking fluid - as well as additional constituents from the shale itself - to either also evaporate, settle out, or be trucked off-site for processing and disposal. The potential for the chemicals in the produced water to leach into the soil and/or groundwater may be great, especially in unlined pits. The remaining fracking fluid (i.e., the non-produced water) is left in the ground.

Hydraulic fracturing is nothing new to the world of natural gas development. In fact, in New York, hydraulic fracturing has been a permitted way to extract natural gas since at least 1992. See Revised Draft SGEIS 2011, at ES 1. Rather, what is different with the fracking (i.e., high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing) operations currently being proposed for the Marcellus Shale formation, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation ("DEC"), is the sheer volume of water and chemical additives that will be used to extract the natural gas from the shale. See id. Another difference with the fracking process now being proposed is that it is horizontal versus vertical drilling; this results in fewer but far larger drilling pads (because multiple wells can be drilled from one pad.) See id.

New York State expects to receive an average of 1,600 applications for fracking permits per year over the next roughly 30 years. SeeRevised Draft SGEIS 2011, at ES 4.

Why Is There Controversy Surrounding Fracking, Especially in the Marcellus Shale Region of New York?

There are two main sides of the fracking argument: those who are for, and those who are against. Here are just a few of the examples of the general arguments from both sides:

Proponents of fracking - namely, the natural gas development companies themselves - claim that natural gas development produces cheap, "clean," domestic energy and provides economic development in rural areas. Proponents also point out that there has been no official linkage between the process of fracking and groundwater contamination.

Opponents, on the other hand, - namely, environmental and public health advocacy groups - argue that there is not enough protection of human health and the environment for fracking, whether at a state or federal level. For example, fracking is excluded from many, if not all, of the applicable federal environmental regulations, including the Safe Water Drinking Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (which regulates hazardous wastes).

As well, opponents are concerned with the permanent contamination of groundwater and destruction of wells and public drinking supplies in rural areas, and explosions of water wells near fracking operations. Opponents are also concerned about negative health effects on humans and livestock that have been reported in some areas near fracking wells, as well as the potential for increased greenhouse gas emissions associated with trucking water and produced water to and from the drilling sites.

Perhaps the most significant concern specific to New York State is the fact that the Marcellus Shale formation underlies much of the Delaware and Catskills Rivers watershed areas, which provide unfiltered drinking water to the New York City area, the Philadelphia area, and parts of New Jersey.

These lists are not exhaustive of both sides of the issue, but should give a solid basis of the generally perceived pros and cons of fracking.

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Our next post in the "Fracking NY Blog Series" will focus on DEC's Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement that assesses the economic and environmental impacts of allowing fracking in New York State.

Note: Public Comments on the Revised Draft SGEIS and the DEC's Proposed Regulations are due by December 12, 2011.

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