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Propane fracking proposal could sidestep state ban


ALBANY—A proposal to use gelled propane instead of water in fracking has led to a rare bit of agreement between some environmental groups in New York and the natural gas industry: They agree it could be exempt from the state's current fracking ban.

The state completed a fracking ban in late June, but proponents as well as opponents agree that the gelled propane proposal could expose loopholes in the state's prohibition. The state's final ban is on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which uses large volumes of water mixed with sand and chemicals to create fractures in rock that release gas. The gelled propane proposal, for test wells on a hay and corn farm in Tioga County in the Southern Tier, uses liquefied petroleum gas and sand instead of water to split the rock. The propane is recaptured as a gas when it rises back to the surface.

The Cuomo administration's fracking ban centered on the risks hydraulic fracturing posed to drinking water supplies. It examined the amount of water that would be required from local supplies as well as the vast number of trucks needed to transport it.

The propane proposal sidesteps water pollution concerns, said Karen Moreau, executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council.

“The ban that was put in place in New York does not include this type of well stimulation,” she said. “Fracking is not banned in New York. What's banned in New York is high-volume hydraulic fracturing.”

Walter Hang, head of the Ithaca-based environmental data firm Toxics Targeting and a vocal fracking opponent, agrees about the applicability of the ban, and said he is concerned that it leaves a back door open to the industry.

“This is exactly why shale fracking was originally put on hold,” he said. “It's absolutely unacceptable that the governor didn't prohibit all forms of hydraulic fluid fracking.”

Hang is pressuring fracking opponents to avoid donating to any environmental group that does not condemn the propane proposal, which the industry has presented as an environmentally friendlier alternative to traditional fracking methods.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation did not immediately dismiss the permit.

“As required by law, we will review the permit,” Tom Mailey, a D.E.C. spokesman, said in a statement. “DEC will follow the mandates in the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA), which could include requiring an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).”

On Monday, a coalition of environmental groups sent a letter to the D.E.C. asking the Cuomo administration to ban propane fracking as well, or conduct a thorough environmental review. The groups, which include the Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthjustice and Frack Action, said using propane would create substantial risks because of the volatility of the gas, pointing to explosions at well sites in other states in recent years.

“LPG fracturing returns polluting products to the surface that must be properly handled and disposed, in this case, flammable gases that would have to be collected in pressurized tanks or flared—a step generating air emissions and leaks that can harm public health and safety,” they wrote.

High-volume hydraulic fracturing relies on copious amounts of water, which is plentiful in states like New York and Pennsylvania, compared with western states where fracking is permitted. But gelled propane is generally used for fracking in places where there is not enough water for traditional natural gas drilling, including Texas and Canada.

The propane fracking proposal represents the type of challenge the state's fracking ban will face. New York has one of the nation's largest untapped reserves of natural gas and is the only state with a major shale gas formation to ban fracking. Proponents say the industry would bring billions of dollars in economic development to the state's poorest region.

Separately, a lawyer in Allegany County has filed suit challenging the state's ban. Moreau said the American Petroleum Council has been reviewing the state's findings statement, which made the ban permanent, for weeks. She said A.P.I. or individual energy companies will likely bring a legal challenge by the end of October.

“The more we see, the more we recognize just how arbitrary this decision was,” she said.