New York’s Anti-Fracking Coalition Unites in Efforts to Block CO2 Gas Drilling Spree

A Texas businessman with a multi-million-dollar plan to use carbon dioxide to extract methane from shale formations and bypass New York’s fracking ban has gone silent. New York’s anti-fracking coalition wants to keep it that way

Peter Mantius March 4, 2024

This article previously appeared in WaterFront.

The scientists and activists that pushed New York State to ban high-volume hydrofracking are working overtime against a speculative plan to inject carbon dioxide rather than water into Southern Tier shale formations to extract natural gas.

By backing new state legislation to extend the ban to include CO2, they hope to strangle the project in its cradle—if it isn’t already dead.

The health status of the ambitious scheme is now in doubt because its creator, Southern Tier Solutions (STS), has gone silent in the face of mounting practical and technical obstacles.

Last fall STS mailed packages to 6,500 landowners in Broome, Tioga and Chemung counties, inviting them to lease their properties for a nominal fee of $10 and the dangled hope of future income from gas extraction and CO2 storage.

That extra money would begin to flow, STS promised, once it completed an estimated $15 billion plan to combine carbon sequestration with a massive new gas drilling spree.

The company’s website said it envisioned a series of up to a dozen energy hubs in the three counties, each “supported by a 50,000-100,000 acre leasehold position.” Every hub would include a new gas-powered electric generating plant, a direct air capture facility (DAC), equipment to separate CO2 from methane and a network of new CO2 and methane pipelines linking it all.

Bryce Phillips, STS’s spokesman, began holding public meetings for curious landowners in Elmira on November 10. WaterFront attended and was the first news outlet to report on the scheme the following day.

Phillips was free-wheeling and garrulous in several interviews then. He told WaterFront that the company would decide by early March whether to proceed with the drilling of pilot wells. STS would only go forward, he said, if it had signed leases for at least 100,000 acres.

Phillips stopped answering phone calls and emails from WaterFront and other reporters several weeks ago, and he did not respond to questions posed in recent days.

But one inquirer did receive an email response from STS on Feb. 16, which said:

Southern Tier Solutions provides this graphic to describe its production hub concept. (Southern Tier Solutions)

“Thanks for reaching out! We do our best to reply to inquiries promptly. However, contact volume is very high, and it takes time to process requests … Yes, we have received a substantial and overwhelmingly positive response. Our project is continuing as intended, and we are actively building our initial leaseblocks. Best, Southern Tier Solutions.”

Two weeks before that private update, horrified opponents of the STS project had mobilized to promote new state legislation to block it. They announced the bills at a Feb. 2 press conference in Albany featuring Oscar-nominated actor Mark Ruffalo, activist-scientist Sandra Steingraber and several environmental groups.

“Mining methane gas using CO2 injection poses many of the same threats to our water, health, and climate as hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) as well as some additional ones,” reads the justification statement for Assembly Bill A8866, sponsored by Assembly Member Anna Kelles (D-Ithaca). In the upper chamber, Senate Bill S08357 is sponsored by Sen. Lea Webb (D-Binghamton). Both bills have now been approved by environmental committees and await floor votes in the state Senate and state Assembly.

The justification statement went on to warn that some of the CO2 injected into shale formations would be certain to leak out. It also noted that when CO2 is exposed to moisture it converts to carbonic acid, a corrosive compound that can dissolve well casings and leak into aquifers. Plus, CO2 is an asphyxiant, and when a CO2 pipeline ruptured in Mississippi last May, more than 40 people were sent to the hospital. Using CO2 to extract methane from shale is an untested technology. The base of scientific knowledge about the process and its potential side effects is limited. 

Steingraber, geologist Brian Brock and activist-scientist Irene Weiser are among those who have weighed in with detailed critiques of the project’s technical challenges.

But even when the unresolved technical questions are set aside, the grand project Southern Tier Solutions has been promoting has several practical obstacles that may doom it, they and other energy analysts have said. 

Those obstacles include:

  • Weak incentives for landowners to sign leases. STS offers only $10 for a lease of any size—not even $10 per acre. That is a tiny fraction of what landowners received a decade ago during the high-volume fracking bubble, before the process was banned. Any future STS payments to the landowners hinge on an extreme long shot: the multi-billion-dollar completion of energy hubs that include new power plants, direct CO2 air capture facilities, gas separation equipment and pipeline networks.
  • Likely landowner opposition. Completing even one CO2 hub would be extraordinarily challenging given the stated need for at least 50,000 contiguous leased acres. The Southern Tier has an abundance of landowners who are adamantly opposed to gas drilling. While the state’s pro-industry compulsory integration law allows drillers to force dissident landowners to participate, the rules normally only apply to “spacing units” limited to one square mile (640 acres). To compel landowners to join spacing units 100 times that size would require broad waivers from state regulators. Public opposition might be fierce.
  • No regulatory preparation work. Although the STS website states that “the permitting process poses our greatest operational challenge,” the company has yet to engage with state regulators. On Feb. 14, Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, told WHCU radio that he had not been contacted by STS to begin pre-application discussions about permits for pilot wells (or special waivers of compulsory integration rules). 
  • Lack of transparency. STS, which was formed less than a year ago, has not disclosed to landowners who they are dealing with besides Phillips, the lease promoter. Phillips lives in Fort Worth, Texas, and he claims to have extensive experience in the oil and gas industry. But he has refused to name any business partners or financial backers. And he said the company’s leasing statistics are “proprietary,” so landowners have no idea how likely STS is to complete its plan and begin making the supplementary payments to them for CO2 storage and methane extraction.
Mark Ruffalo spoke remotely during the Feb. 2 press conference touting new legislation to block CO2-based gas drilling.
  • Potential conflict with state climate law. “We are 100 percent in alignment with [New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act] goals,” Phillips told WaterFront in November, adding that all CO2 exhaust from the new power plants would be recycled into the wells. The state’s 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act mandates steep statewide reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases, including CO2 and methane. Even if STS were to achieve its ideal of “zero-emission electrical generation,” it hasn’t specified how it would offset the inevitable leaks of methane and CO2 from its new pipeline networks.
  • Potent organized political opposition. The anti-fracking movement in New York brings rigorous science and high-profile voices to its fights. And it has a winning record. Ruffalo, a regular supporter who brought star power to the Feb. 2 press conference, is nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar this year for his role as the debauched Duncan Wedderburn in the movie “Poor Things.” 

“We’re going to stop the gas industry again,” Ruffalo said. “People power works.”

He added:

“The industry always tries to start its experimental drilling and fracking in the Southern Tier. They must think that we’re gullible in the Southern Tier. 

“But make no mistake about it, if they start in the Southern Tier that’s not where this is going to end. It’s going statewide because the Marcellus and Utica shales cover most of this state.”

There’s probably not much danger of STS or anyone else expanding statewide, according to Jerry Acton, a retired systems analyst and lead author of a 2013 study on the very limited potential for natural gas drilling in New York State. 

Irene Weiser recently displayed this graphic from Jerry Acton’s 2013 study, which shows that production results for gas wells in Pennsylvania are correlated with the thickness of the Marcellus Shale. It implies less-than-ideal prospects for gas drilling in the Southern Tier, where the Marcellus begins to thin out. (Jerry Acton)

“The vast majority of the New York Marcellus shale is too thin (less than 150 feet thick) and to shallow (less than 4,500 feet) to yield economically recoverable natural gas,” Acton wrote in that study. 

While a natural gas “sweet spot” is located in northern Pennsylvania several miles south of Binghamton, gas production trails off sharply in wells closer to the New York border, where the shale formation is shallower and thinner. It thins out even more north of the Southern Tier.

It might be unrealistic to assume that the methane obtained through the CO2 extraction method STS proposes would be sufficient to power 10 or more new gas-fired plants.

Peter Mantius

Peter is a career journalist who spent 17 years reporting at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which nominated him for the Pulitzer Prize three times. He later edited a pair of business newspaper/websites. He founded the WaterFront blog to report on environmental issues in 2017.

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