ALBANY, N.Y. — New York's recent decision to ban fracking is hardly seen as a big loss for the nation's production of natural gas.
That's because scientists say New York's available reserves of natural gas in the sprawling Marcellus Shale are minuscule compared to what can be extracted in other states such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
"Even if the ban were lifted right now, I doubt you'd see very much activity," said Penn State University geologist Terry Engelder, a widely acknowledged expert who has studied the Appalachian shales for decades. "The industry has committed so much capital in other states that they want to see that those investments are made good first."
Engelder, whose figures are cited by New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, estimates there are 127 trillion cubic feet of commercially viable natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. He figures New York has only about 16 trillion cubic feet of that.
Factor in local zoning restrictions and proposed permit rules that would have put 63 percent of New York's Marcellus region off limits under any circumstances, and the state's available reserves drop to just 5 trillion cubic feet. That's not even enough to meet the state's needs for five years.
Estimates of the gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale vary from year to year as new discoveries are made, well production is assessed, and prices and technologies change. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that unproved technically recoverable natural gas reserves in the Marcellus are about 119 trillion cubic feet. The U.S. Geological Survey puts the number at 84 trillion cubic feet. But scientists agree New York's share of that gas, while enough to attract have attracted some producers, is small.
"New York's portion of the resource is a small fraction of the total. There's plenty of resource without the New York gas," said Bob Ineson, natural gas expert for the analysis group IHS.
Such estimates, along with the plunging wholesale price of natural gas from $8 to below $4 per million BTU since 2008, were considered last month when Gov. Andrew Cuomo's environmental commissioner announced a ban on fracking, saying potential health risks such as air and water contamination outweighed the economic benefits.
Fracking, which fires millions of gallons of chemically treated water into rock to extract gas from horizontally drilled wells, had been seen as an economic lifeline for landowners in the state's chronically depressed Southern Tier.
Without fracking, New York will remain a state that consumes great quantities of natural gas but produces very little.
New York is the fifth-highest state in natural gas consumption, using 1.2 trillion cubic feet annually. Its production from conventional wells, according to 2013 figures, is a mere 23 million cubic feet.
The state's gas consumption is only increasing. Coal-burning power plants in western New York and the Hudson Valley are being retrofitted to use cleaner-burning natural gas. And New York City passed regulations in 2011 phasing out the use of highly polluting fuel oil to heat buildings, transitioning to natural gas and other fuels that produce lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Achieving those goals requires increased gas supply capacity and new pipelines. That supply, according to Engelder's estimates, is coming largely from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, which have gas reserves of 87 trillion cubic feet and 14 trillion cubic feet, respectively.
More than 8,000 wells drilled in the Marcellus now supply 385 million cubic meters of gas per day, more than half the amount currently burned in U.S. power plants.
Major pipeline projects are underway to bring more cheap shale gas from Pennsylvania into high-demand markets in New England and New York. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month approved the $700 million Constitution Pipeline, which will run 124 miles from Pennsylvania's Susquehanna County to New York's Schoharie County, 80 miles southwest of Albany. Shorter pipeline expansions completed in 2013 in the New Jersey/New York City area have already increased the flow of Marcellus gas into that market and helped ease winter price spikes.
Marcellus Shale gas is about half the wholesale cost of the Gulf of Mexico gas that traditionally reached Boston and New York City through existing pipelines. It's also cheaper than Canadian gas that flows into the Northeast.
But pipeline constraints, winter spikes in demand and other factors mean that residential customers in New York and New England pay among the highest rates in the country for natural gas even though they are so close to the nation's largest natural gas basin.