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BY EMAIL AND FIRST CLASS MAIL
April 11, 2012
New York Department of Environmental Conservation
Albany, NY 12233-1011
Re: State Environmental Quality Review Act Requires Additional Comprehensive
Environmental Review Before Permitting Liquified Petroleum Gas (Propane) Fracturing.
Dear Commissioner Martens:
We are writing to you with respect to reports regarding potential applications to conduct shale fracturing using liquefied petroleum gas (“LPG”) in New York. Several newspapers have reported that the Canadian gas company, GasFrac Energy Services, Inc. (“GasFrac”), recently reached a preliminary agreement with the Tioga County Landowners Association to employ Houston-based driller, eCORP in drilling several gas wells in Tioga County using the unconventional technique of fracturing with LPG.1 These articles further suggest that the coalition’s strategy is to bypass the current de facto moratorium on high-volume hydraulic fracturing (“HVHF”) through use of an alternative fracturing agent. New York law does not permit shale fracturing with LPG at this time. Shale fracturing using LPG has not been previously evaluated by the Department. Given both the unique and significant risks of this activity, as well as the potential for significant adverse environmental impacts, an application to perform LPG fracturing would plainly necessitate the preparation of either a supplementalgeneric or site-specific environmental impact statement (“EIS”) prior to well permitting.
The State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) requires all state agencies, including DEC, to prepare or cause to be prepared an EIS for “any action…which may have a significant effect on the environment.”2 This includes actions subject to discretionary agencydecisions, such as departmental permitting of natural gas wells.3 In circumstances where the impacts from separate actions are common and predictable, a generic EIS may be prepared analyzing the impacts of all such actions generally and cumulatively in lieu of preparing an individual EIS for each such action.4 A generic EIS, however, only covers those actions which are adequately addressed within scope of the EIS. Subsequent proposed actions which may significantly affect the environment, but which are not adequately addressed, require preparation of a supplemental generic EIS,5 or else site-specific environmental review.6
Pursuant to this mandate, DEC completed a generic EIS in 1992 (“GEIS”) addressing environmental impacts associated with conventional oil and gas exploration.7 In 2008, however, recognizing that the GEIS failed to adequately consider a number of hazards newly posed by proposed HVHF activities in the state, then-Governor Paterson directed the DEC to prepare a supplemental GEIS (“SGEIS”) to study “all potential new impacts” from HVHF.8 The Department additionally recognized that both the scale of anticipated HVHF activities and the potential for new significant impacts – such as those associated with the high-pressure injection of large quantities of then-unknown chemical additives below groundwater aquifers – were such that permitting HVHF statewide presented significant issues needing to be “addressed comprehensively and publicly.”9
Likewise, LPG fracturing presents considerable known risks which are distinct from those posed by either HVHF or conventional drilling, likely to significantly impact the environment, and not adequately addressed in either the GEIS or the revised draft SGEIS for HVHF. The main component of LPG used in fracturing, propane gas, is itself highly flammable, and because it is heavier than air, it naturally pools on the ground when leaked, creating a clear and substantial threat of explosion10 – a risk highlighted by two major explosions last year at GasFrac well sites that injured fifteen workers and caused the company to suspend all of its operations for two weeks.11 Additional hazards will no doubt result from trucking thousands of gallons of LPG to the well site,12 compressing and re-condensing the LPG for reuse, and mixing the LPG with chemicals for use in fracturing.13
While LPG fracturing has been presented as more environmentally benign than waterbased HVHF, both require the addition of toxic chemicals. In LPG fracturing, additives include gelling agents, breakers and crosslinkers, and may contain chemicals such as surfactants, amines, iron salts, and other contaminants.14 According to Ronald Bishop, Ph.D., Chemistry and Biochemistry Department of State University of New York, an early GasFrac promotional brochure listed an aluminum sulfate complex of tributylphosphate, which has been used as a nerve gas stimulant, as one of the chemical agents used in the process.15 In addition, as with HVHF, 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 flared16 – a step generating air emissions and leaks that can harm public health and safety.
Even more alarming than the known risks are the unknown and potentially numerous hazards associated with LPG fracturing. Because the use of LPG fracturing is recent and it employs a proprietary method owned by GasFrac, there is little publicly-available information on the process.17 GasFrac has multiple patents for its LPG fracturing system, often with slightly different descriptions of chemical additives.18 Because GasFrac considers the actual chemical recipes as “trade secrets,”19 it is difficult to know exactly what chemicals are actually being used as gelling agents or for other purposes. To date, there has been no independent empirical analysis of the complete life cycle of LPG fracturing.
Neither the known nor the unknown risks from LPG fracking have ever been adequately addressed in any EIS. By its own terms, the revised draft SGEIS is limited to the study of HVHF, defined as horizontal or vertical wells “using 300,000 gallons of water or more per well.”20 Furthermore, it frankly acknowledges that LPG fracturing was not considered within the scope of the study,21 noting that “at the current time, this technology is not mature enough to support development of the Marcellus Shale and other low-permeability gas reservoirs.”22 LPG fracturing is likewise well outside of the scope of the 1992 GEIS. LPG itself is discussed only in the context of underground storage of the gas, and reference to LPG constituents used in fracturing, such as “propane” and “butane,” appears only once in the entire document.23 Bearing all of this in mind, we write to remind the Department not only of the importance of comprehensive environmental review (either generic or site-specific) before permitting any LPG fracturing wells in New York State, but also of its mandatory nature. As you have said in reference to the environmental review process for permitting HVHF – “The goal of the process all along has been to identify the risks associated with [HVHF], to see if they can be mitigated in a way that protects the environment.”24 We ask that the Department give the same consideration to the unique hazards of LPG fracturing, as required by SEQRA.
Wes Gillingham, Program Director
Kate Hudson, Watershed Program Director
Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper
Delaware Riverkeeper Network
Roger Downs, Conservation Director
Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter
David VanLuven, Director
Environment New York
John Rumpler, Senior Attorney
Katherine Nadeau, Water & Natural Resources Program Director
Environmental Advocates of New York
Sarah Eckel, Legislative & Policy Director
Citizens Campaign for the Environment
Cathleen Breen, Clean Water Program Director
New York Public Interest Research Group
John L. Barone, Vice-President of Conservation
Theodore Gordon Flyfishers, Inc.
cc: Steven Russo, Deputy Commissioner and General Counsel