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Plans to frack by liquid gas, not water, still alive in NY in Tioga County


ALBANY - Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his top commissioners braced for lawsuits when they announced plans to ban large-scale hydraulic fracturing in late 2014.

A once highly-touted plan to frack a gas well in Tioga County using propane rather than water remains a non-starter after two and a half years, although supporters have not given up.

A group of landowners, Tioga Energy Partners, have been pursuing a permit since July 2015 to develop shale gas wells on their properties in the Town of Barton. The state’s ban on high volume hydraulic fracking does not apply to propane fracks, according to the group.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has not disagreed with that premise, although the agency’s demand for more information has effectively stalled the project.

Just south of the intersection of Halsey Valley and South Hill roads, the Snyder well would use a liquid propane system instead of a water-based chemical solution to generate hydraulic pressure to fracture the shale and release gas. Both systems use sand as a “proppant” to hold open minute fissures in the bedrock.

A portion of land in the Town of Barton, near Tyler Hollow Road, sits near the site of the proposed natural gas well. The gas collection will take place beneath a 53-acre plot. This photo was taken in August 2016.
(Photo: KELLY GAMPEL / Staff Photo)

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.

Linda Collart, DEC’s regional mineral resources supervisor, stated the agency needs more details to determine “if this relatively unique fracturing technology that has not heretofore been subject to a full environmental analysis has the potential to cause significant adverse environmental impacts.”

In a Notice of Incomplete Application on April 15, 2016, Collart requested information on safety and emergency protocols, truck traffic, storage, equipment specifications, waste controls, emissions and many other aspects of the project.

The group has yet to satisfy the requirements, said Kevin Frisbie, president of the Tioga County Farm Bureau and one of the landowners. Even if the permit is completed to the state’s satisfaction, the project may require an independent environmental review.

“It’s time consuming and very technical,” Frisbie said about the permit process. “In a perfect world, there’s no reason it couldn’t happen. But it’s so political and there are so many players involved, there’s no telling.”

Frisbie’s idea of a perfect world is vastly different than those who oppose shale gas development due to environmental and public health concerns.

In their view, 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.

“We are against fossil fuel development for many reasons,” said Walter Hang, an activist from Ithaca who participated in the landmark fight for New York’s fracking ban. Hang agrees that the propane frack would likely fall outside the ban, which was enacted three years ago on December 17.

“The governor’s so-called fracking ban turns out to be incredibly limited,” Hang said. “It needs a clearer definition of fracking.”

When the Barton project was announced in the summer of 2016, drilling proponents were keen on proving the viability of the Utica and Marcellus shales in New York. Since then, a prolonged gas glut in Pennsylvania has suppressed prices and made the viability of any new drilling questionable.

Economics aside, however, the Tioga proposal could present a legal and regulatory test for alternative methods to tap the Marcellus and Utica shales that become relevant in the future.

Adam Schultz, attorney for the Tioga landowners, said the application review has taken “a long time, but [is]not necessarily out of the ordinary.”