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And you thought fracking was banned? This group wants to beat the ban


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Adrian Miller speaks against a green energy three-month moratorium adopted by the Sanford Town Board on Tuesday, July 9, 2019.
Jeff Platsky/Press & Sun-Bulletin, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin

A Tioga County landowners group appears willing to press ahead in challenging New York's hydrofracking ban by using an unconventional method of natural gas drilling designed to circumvent the prohibition.

Tioga County Partners wants to drill on a 53-acre site in Barton using gelled propane, an arcane process that skirts the existing drilling ban.

Rather than using a water and chemical mixture favored in hydrofracking, the process intended for use in Tioga County "involves the transport of propane to the well site, the chilling of that propane, and the mixture of chemical additives into the propane," according to documentation submitted by the sponsor.

But much like hydrofracking, propane would be pumped into the shale formation more than a mile below the surface, fracturing the rock and freeing trapped natural gas deposits. Propane used in the process will be recovered, sponsors said, leaving few, if any, remnants in the ground.

Bucky Snyder, 71, stands on the plot of his land in Lockwood where propane fracking has been proposed. Snyder owns over 200 acres of land where he farms hay and has lived on for the past 11 years since he retired from working as a cable splicer at Verizon for 37 years. When he bought the property he said had no idea there was natural gas on the land but believes fracking is the right thing to do, "If I thought for a minute that the company would destroy my land they wouldn't be out here."
(Photo: ANDREW THAYER / Staff Photo)

"Waterless hydraulic fracturing was first performed in Canada in 2008 and since then has been used to successfully treat more than 2,600 zones at over 800 sites in North America," Tioga Energy Partners said in its submission.

State regulators are now establishing the scope of the environment review that will eventually be submitted by sponsors.

In reviewing the impact statement, DEC staff said it will keep a keen eye on the potential climate change impact of the process, noting the state's initiative to eliminate nearly all greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Additionally, the DEC wants assurances from the applicant that dangers from transporting and storing propane — "a potentially explosive material" — will be mitigated.

Explosion risks

Due to explosion risks, propane fracks — also known as “gas fracks” — typically use robotics to keep workers out of the “hot zone” during operations. The technology is still developing and has not been widely used, especially in places where water is available.

The pending environmental review requires an extensive site analysis under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, a time-consuming, expensive process that provides opportunity for significant challenges from opponents.

"We always believed in the project and that hasn't changed," said Adam Schultz, the Albany-based lawyer for the sponsors.

Tioga Energy Partners has been trying to push the alternative natural gas drilling method since 2015, months after the state banned hydrofracking, citing health and environmental concerns.

Review by the Department of Environment Conservation comes months after the group sued the state, alleging the department was dragging its feet on a review.

Schultz said there no timetable for completing the environmental assessment.

"We will be working as diligently as we can to get it complete," he said.

Using liquid propane as a hydraulic agent for fracking is not specifically prohibited in the state’s ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing. But its viability remains questionable.

Environmental concerns

Gas fracking opponents say using propane is even more reckless than using water to frack wells because it adds the risk of fire and explosion to other health and environmental issues at the root of New York’s fracking ban. These range from risks to drinking water supplies to ongoing emissions from gas production.

"I can guarantee that Governor (Andrew) Cuomo will face brutal pressure from citizens and elected officials all over New York and the rest of the nation until he denies any regulatory approval for extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation in Barton using "Gelled Propane Hydraulic Fracturing," said Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, an environmental database firm that played a major role in prohibiting shale fracking in 2015.

Tioga Energy Partners, however, has its share of supporters.

State Sen Fred Akshar, R-Endwell, whose district includes the proposed drilling site, said he stands behind the project.

"If done safely, new natural gas drilling technologies could represent an incredible economic growth opportunity for communities like Tioga County," Akshar said. "I can only hope that this time, the DEC will carefully, but expeditiously examine the issue and let science and facts, not the direction of the political winds, dictate how we move forward. Otherwise we will be once again passing on a chance at affordable, locally-produced energy, job creation and economic prosperity for upstate New York. The time to act is now."

The project has already received letters of support from the Town of Barton board of Trustees and the Tioga County Board of Supervisors in addition to the neighboring Town of Spencer board, and Chemung County board.

The location of the gas well under question is west of Halsey Valley Road in the Town of Barton.

Permit records show Tioga Energy Partners paid a total of $6,660 in fees to the state for permit applications for two wells in the Town of Barton. The first, Snyder E1, would be an exploratory well drilled vertically for 9,530 feet into the Utica Shale. The second, Snyder E1-A, is a production well that would run horizontally into the Marcellus at 3,700 feet.

Given the state's previous assertion on the health and safety risks of hydrofracking, Tioga Energy Partners will have a long an arduous path obtaining approval of the single well.