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As new proposals move ahead on possibly opening much of the state to a controversial natural gas drilling technique, federal environmental regulators are working on a study to examine how those methods will affect water supplies.
But while the state’s rules, currently under review, could lead to the drilling of the first horizontal natural gas wells during the early part of next year, the study by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency isn’t expected to be completed until 2014. A draft of the EPA study will be available next year.
“With the timing, we’re not in sync with the state schedule,” said Judith A. Enck, the administrator for the EPA’s Region 2 office, which includes New York.
Some environmental activists have urged the state to wait until the results of the EPA study are released before opening the door to high-volume hydraulic fracturing drilling techniques. An Energy Department panel is expected to issue its own recommendations later this summer.
State environmental officials, however, have said they believe the state’s proposed rules are the most comprehensive in the nation.
State Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph Martens said last week that the state could amend its rules if the EPA study uncovers any weaknesses in the regulations.
Enck said she expects the EPA to take a comprehensive look at how hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” and horizontal drilling techniques that use millions of gallons of water to blast free natural gas deposits affect water supplies.
“We care a lot about the air impacts of hydraulic fracturing. We care a lot about the impact on the landscape from hydraulic fracturing. But more than anything, we care about the water impacts,” Enck said Tuesday during a meeting with reporters and editors at The Buffalo News.
Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, said the potential benefits of stepped-up natural gas drilling — from thousands of new jobs to lucrative payments to landowners — are too valuable to delay.
More than 3,000 hydraulically fractured horizontal wells already have been drilled in Pennsylvania, creating thousands of jobs and spurring economic activity across much of the north-cental part of that state.
“We’re delaying and losing out on economic opportunity,” Gill said Tuesday during a live chat on The News website, buffalonews. com. “There’s no telling how more delayed the EPA will be, and it’s not exclusive to New York State. Nobody knows the state’s industry better than the DEC. In 30 years, I’ve never seen an EPA agent out on a New York State drill site.”
In addition to the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water supplies and wells, the EPA study will examine the treatment and disposal of millions of gallons of water, treated with chemicals and sand, used to “frack” each well.
“It’s going to be a very detailed analysis,” Enck said. “The water issues are the ones that are the most challenging.”
A consortium of environmental groups released a critique Tuesday of the DEC’s proposed rules that found them lacking in 10 main areas.
The consortium of five environmental groups criticized the state plan for not calling for a ban on any chemicals, even toxic ones, in fracking fluid. It also faulted the plan for not categorizing fracking drilling waste as hazardous waste and for allowing sewage plants to treat that waste.
“No amount of regulation, no amount of permitting guidelines and no amount of laws and ordinances can protect our water and communities from a reckless industry when our regulatory agencies don’t have the staff and resources to enforce the laws they have, no matter how stringent they are,” said Ramsay Adams, executive director of Catskill Mountainkeeper.
Horizontal wells go straight down for about a mile, then gradually turn at almost a 90- degree angle and continue for a half mile to nearly a mile horizontally, through the gas-rich layer of rock known as the Marcellus Shale.
Drillers then inject millions of gallons of water, chemically treated to kill bacteria and prevent scale buildup up on pipes, into the well at high pressure to produce tiny cracks in the rock to free the gas. They also use small explosive charges.
The technique allows drillers to tap into much larger supplies of gas from a single drill site, which can have as many as six wells extending out in different directions. A single well can cost more than $4 million, but successful wells can produce gas at very high rates.
In addition to the potential impact on water supplies, opponents say the drilling activity can cause other environmental damage through increased truck traffic and the construction of roads and pipelines through rural areas.
Most of the drilling, however, probably would miss most of Western New York, except for the eastern-most portion of Allegany County.
Unlike the layer across much of Central New York, geologists said the Marcellus Shale throughout most of the western part of the state is too thin and shallow to hold vast quantities of natural gas. Instead, most of the drilling is expected to focus on the portions of the Southern Tier from Steuben County eastward to Delaware County.