NY fracking could yield lower profits than PA

NYPIRG focuses on economic side of the debate on drilling

Hydraulic fracturing debates on campus and in the community frequently focus on the potential environmental and health impacts of allowing fracking in New York, but most of a presentation on campus Friday focused on the economic side of the anti-fracking cause.

New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), with help from a few other groups on campus and in the community, hosted three experts in geology, engineering and the oil industry to speak about the economic potential of fracking in New York.

“When you have the former Executive Vice President of Mobil Oil calling for a statewide ban on fracking, that is a pretty powerful message,” wrote Matthew Lemke, project coordinator and Southern Tier organizer for NYPIRG.

According to Jerry Acton, a retired systems engineer, fracking in New York does not have the potential to be as profitable as it has been in Pennsylvania over the past 10 years.

“You can’t just drill a well anywhere and expect to find enough gas to turn a profit,” said Brian Brock, a retired geologist and expert in hard rock geology.

The natural gas in shale comes from the breakdown of organic matter that was in the rocks when they began to form in the Devonian era. Where black shale has a high amount of organic matter, the Marcellus shale under Binghamton is gray, meaning that only the “exceptionally rich” areas of the Marcellus can be profitable, according to Brock.

By studying all 1,540 wells in the six counties and 81 towns in Pennsylvania, Acton projected that wells drilled in New York would be low-producing.

The productivity of the wells was measured in how many million cubic feet of gas per day (mmcf/d) could be extracted in the first 30 days, the period during which a well is the most productive.

According to Acton’s study, the median is 4 mmcf/d in Pennsylvania. Acton’s projections predict that even the most productive wells in New York would still produce less than the median initial production (IP) in Pennsylvania. The most high-producing wells, those that produced over 7 mmcf/d, in Pennsylvania were clustered around what those in the gas industry call the “sweet spot,” where conditions are right for highly productive and profitable wells.

A number of factors determine if a gas well will be productive.

“To create enough gas, you need enough organic material that is heated enough, but not too much,” Brock said. “To collect enough gas, you need a shale layer that is thick enough and deep enough.”

Essentially, not all shale is created equal, and it won’t all be equally as productive due to four factors: amount of organic matter in the shale, the temperature of the organic matter, the thickness of the shale and how deeply it’s buried.

These factors severely limit how much natural gas can be extracted from New York. According to Acton, the poorest-performing wells in Pennsylvania were those in towns where the shale was too thin and too shallow in the ground. According to Brock, the science does not support implementing fracking in New York.

“Just looking at the geology, it does not look like [natural gas wells] will be as profitable as they are in the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania,” Brock said. “The best prospects are in a small area right on the border of Pennsylvania, and even this profitable region isn’t as profitable as the sweet spot farther south in Pennsylvania.”

Gas companies tend to prefer drilling where the shale is at least 4,000 feet into the ground, according to Brock, which is supported by Acton’s statistic that 80 percent of wells drilled shallower than 4,000 feet were low-performing. Unfortunately for prospective natural gas drillers in New York, the Marcellus shale this side of the Pennsylvania border is much shallower than that.

Additionally, according to Brock, the most productive wells in the “sweet spot” in Pennsylvania are in shale that is 300 feet thick. The thickest shale in New York is less than 150 feet thick, meaning that companies must use smaller, less efficient subterranean cylinders to extract the gas.

Even where the shale is thick enough and deep enough, the wells in New York may still not be profitable. Acton projected that the geology of New York only permitted for 13 wells to be even moderately productive. However, nine of these are in a region where the natural gas is “overcooked,” meaning it has deteriorated into a mixture of water and carbon dioxide and is unusable.

Besides the environmental constraints on fracking, there are legal constraints as well. Of the six counties in the Marcellus shale “fairway,” Broome County is the most highly restricted area, with 47 percent of the county legally off-limits due to restrictions about well placement near waterways, population centers and protected land like state parks.

According to Lou Allstadt, the former executive vice president of Mobil, gas companies have been aware of these restrictions, both statutory and environmental, for a while. He asserted that there is little chance of a “fracking boom” in New York, and gas companies have been sealing up wells and selling off leases in New York.

“The trend that we’ve seen with most of these companies is a narrowing focus on the Pennsylvania ‘sweet spots’ with little indication of interest outside of these,” Allstadt said.

Allstadt also mentioned some of the environmental issues associated with fracking, like the danger of excess methane emissions. For Lemke, potential environmental consequences are a major issue.

“From the rogue methane emissions at fracking sites and the emissions of thousands of diesel trucks and generators required for the process, to the unsustainable amounts of fresh water that is needed for fracking,” Lemke wrote. “We are talking about 1-9 million gallons every time they frack one of these wells. Along with where that water comes from, where all the waste water goes afterward now laden with chemicals and possibly radioactive is a grave concern.”