MAYVILLE - Fourteen Chautauqua County Legislators attended a special session Wednesday night to learn about high volume hydraulic fracking.
Information was presented from both sides of the issue, beginning with a slideshow by Kim Sherwood, a member of the Chautauqua County Water Quality Task Force.
"We're not just talking about drilling," Sherwood said. "We're talking about a huge amount of waste management that will have to take place."
There are more than 4,000 vertically drilled oil and gas wells in Chautauqua County. However, New York state does not allow high volume hydraulic fracking, a process which involves extending a well horizontally, several hundred or thousands of feet below the earth's surface.
A concern cited by those opposed to fracking is "flowback," a chemical mixture used during the process, which is used during the process of blasting holes out of the well to open the shale being fracked. The mixture is then pumped back to the surface, leaving spaces behind in order for gas and oil to flow to the surface.
Other concerns of Sherwood's included an increased amount of traffic in Chautauqua County in terms of work sites and environmental regulations.
"I think we have many challenges on our hands," Sherwood said.
William Boria, water resource specialist for the Department of Health and Human Services, made a presentation about existing wells in Chautauqua County which contaminated private water wells.
On the other hand, he said separation distances are greatly increased for high volume hydraulic fracturing.
Furthermore, he said studies are being performed on the health and environmental risks of fracking.
"We need stateallocated money directly to health departments to address water well complaints related to gas well drilling," Boria said. "Everything has a risk. What we want to do is minimize those problems and when they do occur we want to address them quickly."
Glenn Wahl, a geology instructor, presented several arguments against high volume hydraulic fracturing, such as the fact that hydraulic fracturing involves several hundred tons of sand, chemicals and millions of gallons of water.
Wahl said research has shown that approximately 35 percent of existing wells are leaking chemicals into the ground.
He also stated that emissions of methane into the atmosphere are extremely high due to fracking.
"Another issue that has not improved much is what to do with the flowback," Wahl said. "This is toxic fluid that comes back up when the well is initially drilled, although the percentage of original frack fluid (returning to the surface) varies greatly - anywhere from 5-50 percent. It's millions of gallons, and when we're talking about millions of wells, the amount that remains is gigantic."
Wahl said fracking in Pennsylvania has polluted streams, such as the Allegheny River, which flows north. Also, more than 1,000 businesses in New York have signed on against fracking.
"Local bans make sense," he said. "We don't know if and when the state moratorium will be lifted. Legally, it's possible for that to happen any time."
The city of Dunkirk recently passed a ban on fracking.
Mike Hogan of Hogan Energy Consulting was fourth on the panel to present information to the legislature.
He said Marcellus shale is not thick enough in Chautauqua County to be productive.
However, Utica shale, which is prevalent in the region, has potential to be tested for fracking.
"Utica shale has a great quantity of gas and oil," Hogan said. "It's thicker than Marcellus and has yielded commercial production in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia."
The most effective way to access the Utica shale is to hydraulically fracture it, Hogan said, noting that it a well could extend from 3,000-10,000 feet horizontally, underneath the earth's surface.
"About 80 percent of the natural gas we're using to keep us warm come from wells that are hydraulically fracked," Hogan said. "If we ban hydraulic fracturing, we better get the fireplaces roaring because that's the only choice we're going to have."
In terms of water used in flowblack fluid, Hogan said several companies recycle their water 100 percent, while others are working to recycle their chemicals completely.
"The environmental discussion has made our industry look at things and work harder to develop new technologies," he said.
Hogan presented economic advantages of hydraulic fracturing, such as the fact that it may relieve consumer tax burdens, support essential services and keep money in the community.
Pennsylvania saw a tax revenue of $1.8 billion, with royalty payments of $567 million to property owners over the course of 2013.
"Natural gas development relies on facts and sciences, not publicity stunts, hype or emotion," Hogan said. "It safely benefits consumers and communities."
The last speaker to present information was Attorney Mary Hajdu.
"We need, as a society, a healthy manufacturing base so our people can have a decent standard of living," Hajdu said, providing similar numbers to Hogan's in terms of economic advantages.
"Landowners benefit greatly," Hajdu said. "Royalties can be life changing for some people."
Hajdu said industry standards have improved, while water testing takes place before and after the process, and any change in quality or quantity presumed to be caused by drillers must be replaced within 48 hours.
"Utica is one of the most lucrative shale plays in the world," she added. "It's a substantial asset and we are right here in the midst of it."
Hajdu concluded that New York imports 95 percent of natural gas, while royalties are going elsewhere.
Janet Keefe, D-Fredonia, asked how communities would benefit from the presence of high volume hydraulic fracturing.
"If you had millions of dollars flowing into your community, it would help a lot of things," Hajdu said.
Shaun Heenan, D-Dunkirk, asked what would happen to the well-paying jobs if and when fracking took place in Chautauqua County, and what would happen when the wells were completely drained.
"I can't tell you how long it would take to develop the wells," Hogan said. "There are estimates in Pennsylvania that it will take 50 years to fully develop Marcellus. You're in that ballpark."
Hogan said he believes one or two companies would experiment with fracking in the beginning.
"It's not a case where there will be a rig on every corner," he said. "But those high-paying jobs they might be here for 50 years. This industry supports itself, and we're not asking for any tax money."
George Borrello, R-Irving, asked how soon companies could possibly begin fracking if New York lifts its moratorium, to which Hogan responded 5-7 years.
Legislators who were absent from the meeting included Keith Ahlstrom, D-Dunkirk; Bob Scudder, R-Fredonia; PJ Wendel, R-Lakewood; Lisa Vanstrom, R-West Ellicott; and John Runkle, R-Stockton.
The legislature's next full meeting will take place Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. In the legislative chambers of the Gerace Office Building in Mayville.