If fracking finally comes to New York, it isn’t likely to arrive like it did in Pennsylvania, via caravan after caravan of drilling rigs and trucks and wildcatters from out west.
Instead, it is more likely to start with a few wells here and there in the eastern Southern Tier before maybe – maybe – growing into a thriving industry.
That’s the closest one can come to consensus on the future of fracking in New York, which appears to be limited by two factors beyond the moratorium that currently bans the controversial gas drilling practice in the state.
For one thing, New York’s share of the Marcellus Shale just isn’t as big or as gas-rich as Pennsylvania’s.
And for another, natural gas prices have plummeted amid the fracking boom, making every newly drilled well a less profitable proposition and prompting a sharp drop in drilling.
Fracking proponents and critics disagree on just how much less productive New York’s share of the shale will be, but they agree that in total, the state is never likely to come close to spewing out as much gas as the wells just across the border in Pennsylvania.
It’s all a matter of geography and geology.
Look at any map of the Marcellus, and you will see that in Pennsylvania, the most gas-rich section stretches from the northeast corner of the state all the way down to the southwest. In New York, though, it’s concentrated only in a handful of Southern Tier counties.
A map of the formation’s “wet gas” – a more lucrative mixture of propane and other gases as well as methane – may be equally telling. That map shows that there’s plenty of wet gas in Pennsylvania, whereas New York is primarily home to dry gas, which is mostly methane and not as profitable.
When Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University, measured the potential of the Marcellus in the two states five years ago, he found that New York had 23 percent of Pennsylvania’s potential for producing gas from the Marcellus.
Engelder ranked counties on both sides of the border as to their gas production potential and gave two northwest Pennsylvania counties – Bradford and Susquehanna – the top ranking. Tioga and Lycoming counties ranked one rung below, and several other counties in central and southwestern Pennsylvania also ranked on the top two rungs.
Meanwhile, Chemung, Tioga and Broome counties in New York ranked on the third rung, and Steuben ranked in the fourth.
Still, “those four counties are very interesting,” Engelder said. “A number of companies are at least interested in testing the Marcellus in Tioga and Broome.”
Jack Weixel, an energy analyst for Bentek Energy, agreed. While there might not be as many of them, wells in the eastern Southern Tier “would be just as prolific” as those across the border, he said.
Yet there is a competing strand of research that claims that New York’s gas just isn’t worth drilling for at current gas prices. A study released last month by petroleum geologist Arthur Berman and petroleum engineer Lyndon Pittinger and commissioned by the New York League of Women Voters reached that conclusion, which echoes previous research done by Louis Allstadt, a former Exxon-Mobil executive turned fracking critic.
“Gas prices would have to rise a lot” before oil and gas companies would find it worthwhile to drill in New York, Allstadt said.
One big reason for that is that natural gas prices have plummeted as Pennsylvania’s fracked gas has flooded the market. Despite a recent uptick due to the wicked winter of 2014, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reported that for consumers, natural gas prices in February were down 41 percent from their 2005 peak.
Not coincidentally, the number of fracked wells in Pennsylvania’s four gas-rich Northern Tier counties fell from a peak of 1,172 in 2011 to 509 last year.
That should not be seen as a sign that the boom is over forever. Chris McGill, vice president for policy analysis at the American Gas Association, said inadequate pipeline capacity – which will be fixed in the coming years – is the main reason for Pennsylvania’s slowdown.
What’s more, the American Gas Association projects that demand for natural gas will rise by nearly 30 percent in the next decade as more power plants and vehicles switch to the cleaner fuel and as more liquefied gas is shipped overseas.
Current production won’t meet that increased demand, meaning more wells will have to be drilled, McGill said.
And if the state lifts its fracking moratorium, he added, some of those wells are likely to be in New York.
“The New York Marcellus is not quite as extensive as in Pennsylvania,” McGill said. But if it were to allow drilling, “New York would obviously add to the production.”