ALBANY, N.Y. - Advanced drilling techniques that blast millions of gallons of water into 400-million-year-old shale formations a mile underground are opening up "unconventional" gas fields touted as a key to the nation's energy future.
These deposits, where natural gas is so tightly locked in deep rocks that it's costly and complicated to extract, include the Barnett shale in Texas, the Fayetteville of Arkansas, and the Haynesville of Louisiana. But the mother lode is the Marcellus shale underlying the Appalachians.
Geologists call the Marcellus a "super giant" gas field. Penn State geoscientist Terry Engelder believes it could supply the natural gas needs of the United States for 14 years.
But as word spread over the past year that a 54,000-square-mile shale field from southern New York to West Virginia promised to yield a trillion dollars worth of gas, making millionaires of local landowners, environmental alarms were sounded.
Would gas wells damage water wells? Would chemicals poison groundwater? Would fabled trout streams be sucked dry? Would the pristine upstate reservoirs that supply drinking water to New York City be befouled?
"This gas well drilling could transform the heavily forested upper Delaware watershed from a wild and scenic natural habitat into an ugly industrial landscape that is forever changed," said Tracy Carluccio of Delaware Riverkeeper. She'd like a moratorium on drilling to allow an inventory of natural areas to be done first.
So loud were the protests in New York that Gov. David Paterson directed the Department of Environmental Conservation to update its oil and gas drilling regulations to reflect the advanced drilling technology, which uses millions of gallons of water and poses waste-disposal challenges.
Now, while new drilling rigs sprout in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, development of the Marcellus in New York is on hold until next year, while the DEC holds hearings and drafts regulations.
Gas developers say environmental alarms are exaggerated and New York could miss out on much-needed capital investment and jobs if it takes a heavy-handed regulatory approach.
"These are surgical operations utilizing the most advanced drilling technology known to man," Tom Price Jr., senior vice president of Chesapeake Energy, told state lawmakers in Albany at a recent hearing.
The technology that has raised concern involves horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking. Thousands of wells have been drilled and fracked in New York in the past 50 years, New York DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis said. But refinement of the technology makes it feasible to extract gas from deeper, denser shales.
The latest technology, known as "slick water fracturing," uses far more water than earlier methods - 1 million to 5 million gallons for each fracking operation, Grannis said. That fact, and the proximity of the Marcellus to New York City's watershed, prompted the regulatory review.
New York and Pennsylvania regulators promise full disclosure of all chemicals used in fracking, which industry insiders say are not hazardous. John Pinkerton, chairman and CEO of Range Resources, said used fracking fluid is no more toxic than what goes down the drain at a hair salon.
Roger Willis, who owns a hydraulic fracturing company in Meadville, Pa., said thousands of frack jobs have been done in rock formations above and below the Marcellus shale in New York state with no damage to aquifers.
Willis said frack fluids are isolated from groundwater by steel and concrete well casings. The well bore goes thousands of feet deeper than potable water supplies, through multiple layers of rock, until it reaches the gas-rich shale. Then it turns sideways and continues horizontally for several thousand feet.
The fracking fluid is blasted into the shale, opening cracks that let trapped gas escape. The fractures are held open with sand mixed with the fluid.
Flowback pipes collect the gas and used fracking fluid, which now has a high concentration of salt from the ancient sea where the shale sediments formed.
The well casings that are meant to protect groundwater have occasionally failed.
"There are going to be some problems, although they're not commonplace," said Bryan Swistock, a water resources expert from Penn State. "Laws on the books are adequate to take care of that."
Disposal of salty fracking water is problematic because of limited capacity in existing treatment plants, which can't remove salt but can only dilute it to an acceptable level for discharge into rivers. Alternatives include new recycling technologies and injection well disposal, where water is blasted back into the earth for permanent disposal.
While New York and Pennsylvania require that waste water be stored in a holding pond with an impervious liner until it's disposed of, critics fear such ponds could leak, or overflow in a rainstorm.
Susan Obleski, spokeswoman for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, said the agency expects the gas industry could require up to 28 million gallons of water a day from the Susquehanna watershed when it ramps up.
"To put it in perspective, golf courses take about 50 million gallons a day, and nuclear power plants use 150 million gallons," Obleski said.
The concern isn't how much water is used, but where and when it's taken. Withdrawals during dry seasons or from small streams in remote areas would have a greater environmental impact than in other cases, Obleski said.
"One of the most expensive items in the drilling process is water, so the less we can use, the better," said Scott Rotruck, a Chesapeake executive. "We're finding ways to use less water, transport less water, and find ways to reuse it."