Horizontal drilling has benefits for environment

Back in the days – 1970-2005 – when wells were being drilled vertically in New York state, there needed to be an access road and approximate two acre drilling pad constructed for every well.

Since the minimum spacing required by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) was 1,220 feet between wells, this meant that a road and drilling site needed to be constructed for every 40-60 acres of land involved. The average gas well in those days, drilled in the Medina Sandstone, had lifetime reserves of about 150 million cubic feet of natural gas.

Today, because of horizontal drilling, from six to 10 wells can be drilled from one site. The drilling locations are larger and usually average 4-6 acres; however, because the site is used multiple times, this new technology has dramatically reduced surface environmental impacts. There are fewer roads, sluices, sediment ponds, and drilling pads that need to be constructed.

The new shale wells being drilled also result in significantly larger reserves per well. Instead of finding 150 million cubic feet of gas, the reserves of a typical Marcellus or Utica Shale well average 5 billion cubic feet of natural gas. This is 30 times more gas per well than was being found with the old vertical drilling technology.

Assuming that at least seven of these wells can be drilled from one drilling location, it means that in terms of gas being produced, the resulting productivity for each drilling pad has gone up more than 200 times from what it is was in the “old days” of vertical drilling.

Another way to look at it, would be to say that if we were still using the old vertical technology of discovering and producing natural gas, one would have to drill 200 wells in separate locations for what can now be produced from one drilling site.

The new horizontal drilling technology also makes it easier for those charged with enforcing environmental compliance. If New York allowed horizontal drilling, Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) inspectors would not, as in the “old days,” have to go to 200 separate gas well locations to check on safety and environmental compliance they could go to one location!

In a benign political environment, such a breakthrough in productivity and environmental benefits would be lauded and praised. However, those opposed to natural gas tend to dwell on the negative. The good environmental news gets lost in the cacophony of organized opposition where positive facts are often not a part of the conversation.

It does no one any good if New York state keeps “burying its head in the sand,” and continues to burn billions of cubic feet of natural gas each day for its energy needs while prohibiting its production within the state’s borders. In addition to consuming energy, New Yorkers should be taking responsibility for producing it.

Rolland Kidder, Democrat and member of the New York State Assembly (1975-1982) and of its Environmental Conservation Committee, is former owner and chief executive officer of a natural gas exploration and production company based in Western New York.