May 1 , 2007

Tapping Cortland area’s potential

Companies search for natural gas


Eddie Garcia, left, who oversees the local exploration operation for Dawson Geophysical Co., of Texas, and John Gordon, geographic information systems data manager and a 1997 SUNY Cortland graduate, stand above one of  the company’s thousands of seismic sensors in a wooded area off Preble Road. At left is a closer look at the sensor.

Staff Reporter

PREBLE — Energy companies have their ears to the ground in Central New York. Natural gas exploration in the region has kicked into high gear, spurred by an increase in energy costs and advancements in technology.
Although Western New York has been a source for natural gas since the end of the 19th century, energy companies are moving into the Southern Tier and Cortland and Tompkins counties to explore relatively untapped sources of gas.
Jim O’Driscoll, president of Fortuna Energy Inc., said his company has been in the Chemung County region since 2002, and that it has had a fair amount of success there, as well as in Steuben and Schuyler counties.
“We have always felt that over time, we’d have to extend the play over to this area,” Driscoll said Friday. “And over the past couple years, we’ve started moving north towards Tompkins County.”
The evidence can be heard and seen in the thump of the helicopters as they crisscross the skies and in the fleet of trucks that has descended on the area, as well the telltale orange cords running across roads, part of the seismic testing operations.
The flurry of activity can be attributed to the increased attention being given to the Trenton-Black River formation, according to SUNY Cortland professor of geology Robert Darling.
The Trenton-Black River formation is a bed of limestone between 7,000 and 10,000 feet below the earth that has produced up to 80 percent of the natural gas in New York State in recent years.
“We don’t think there are many shallow deposits of natural gas anymore, so we have to look for deeper sources or sources that we didn’t recognize before,” Darling said Thursday.
New York saw a threefold increase in natural gas production between 2000 and 2005; 17,808 billion cubic feet of gas was produced in 2000, versus 55,176 billion cubic feet in 2005, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
There were 5,957 active natural gas wells in 2005, according to the state.
The Cortland County Clerk’s Office has records of 1,805 leases for oil and gas exploration, involving at least seven companies and going back to 1997. Every township in the county is included in the listings.
According to the DEC, there are only two non-active wells and no active wells in Cortland County.
Chesapeake Energy Corp. is the third largest independent natural gas producer in the country, and is one of the companies that has leased thousands of acres of land. Chesapeake is conducting seismic testing throughout a 72-square-mile area, said Vice President of Corporate Development Scott Rotruck.
“We’re really ramping up the operation, we’re really investing quite a bit of money in New York, both in drilling and leasing and seismic testing,” Rotruck said in mid-April. “In New York, we’ve leased in excess of a million acres.”
So far, much of Chesapeake’s activity has been confined to surveying and lining up property rights; the company is currently concentrating on seismic testing being performed by its subcontractor, Dawson Geophysical.
A network of seismic sensors is strewn throughout Cortland County at intervals of 220 feet, said Dawson Geophysical Co. Party Manager Eddie Garcia. Connected by orange cords that resemble home extension cords, each of the 5,000 “geophone” stations, also called “jugs,” consists of six of the small devices stuck into the ground.
The geophones detect concussive blasts generated by explosive charges placed 20 feet below the surface of the ground. Using a biodegradable explosive called Enviroprime, 6,040 detonations have already taken place in the research area in and around Cortland County, and another 900 will have to be prepared, said Dawson’s geophysical information system data manager, John Gordon, a 1997 SUNY Cortland graduate.
“If you’re standing near them, you’ll hear a thud, or a thump,” Gordon said. “It’s not like a boom.”
The information from each of the blasts is collected by the geophones and routed to a white truck on Preble Hill that vaguely resembles a white foodservice truck from the future. Dubbed “the Doghouse,” the interior of the truck is home to a bank of computer monitors which technicians use to collect the seismic information and to determine if there was too much background noise; Garcia said the sensors can pick up people walking within 150 feet of them, as well as vehicle traffic and even the wind.
The data will be forwarded to Chesapeake Energy’s home base in Oklahoma for interpretation.
In the end, the seismic testing generates what Rotruck described as a “sonogram of the earth,” which will help determine if the geology under the ground could support drilling operations.
“We only want to drill where we’re as certain as we can possibly be that we’ll find gas,” Rotruck said. “We’re probably going to be in here a couple more months doing seismic.”
O’Driscoll, with Fortuna, said his company is still relatively new in the area, and many months will pass before the seismic information that his company has gathered in Tompkins County would be compared to the known geology and wells producing in other parts of the state.
“Once we’ve identified a drilling prospect, we have to submit that to the Department of Environmental Conservation,” Driscoll said. “Once we have the approval to drill, we can then start clearing the immediate area around the drilling location in order to set up the drilling rig and begin to drill … It would normally take between 45 and 60 days to drill one of these wells.”
And once the drilling has been completed, another step might alarm the neighbors of well sites— flaring gas, ignited by the gas company.
“In order to set up the pipeline and set up the well, we have to test to see what kind of gas is there,” O’Driscoll said. “That always catches the attention of local people, wondering if we have a well out of control or something else.”
What many residents have already noticed is the sound of helicopter rotors — Dawson is using two helicopters to ferry the drilling equipment — for boring the holes for the explosives — to hard-to-reach parts of the county.
Gordon said a red Kaman K-MAX helicopter had replaced a Huey helicopter because the Huey was not able to carry as much equipment in a single trip, and because the K-MAX, which has two intermeshing rotors, is quieter and would not impact the residents as much.
Eileen Wood, of Wood Road in Lapeer, leased 17 acres to Chesapeake Energy in 2006. Like many others who’ve leased to the energy companies land for oil and gas exploration, Wood was paid $5 an acre and would receive 8 percent of the profit if gas is found and produced on her land.
“We haven’t heard or seen them at all yet, but we are leased up,” Wood said. “I can’t wait for the first million dollar check. I’m still waiting — hope they hurry.”


New technology and research expand options

Everyone knows that energy costs are high, and SUNY Cortland professor of geology Robert Darling said that energy companies aren’t sitting idly by.
“When the price of energy goes up, that’s when geologists are active,” Darling said.
The increase in profits has allowed energy companies to explore new sources of natural gas, and advances in technology have made accessing the new possibilities much easier.
Jim O’Driscoll, president of Horseheads-based Fortuna Energy Inc., said advancements in drilling technology and the three-dimensional seismic imaging has made exploration in this region possible.
“The interesting advancement in technology over the last few years allows us to drill 10,000 feet vertically, and then we turn the bit sideways and we can drill, for example, 3,000 feet laterally, which is called a horizontal well,” O’Driscoll said. “That allows us to drill even more deeply and increase efficiency.”
And drilling deep is very important in New York state these days.
The Trenton-Black River formation is a limestone formation generally found between 7,000 and 10,000 feet below the earth’s surface, originating in the Ordovician period 450 million years ago.
“In the energy field, geologists like to talk about two types of rock — there’s source rock, with a lot of organic matter … but the other rock that they’re searching for is the reservoir rocks.”
Although Darling said the “source rock” in this case has yet to be singled out, it might be black shale. But the Trenton-Black River formation, which acts as the porous “reservoir rock,” has become a proven source of natural gas in New York.
The pores in the limestone were formed by the action of water that made it’s way from faults underneath the Trenton-Black River formation and carved out the holes in the layers above the faults. These pores then trap the natural gas that’s released as the source rocks are pushed deeper into the earth’s crust and are broken down by heat and pressure.
“What they’re looking for (as the energy companies perform seismic testing) are the places where the sedimentary rocks actually sag downward, because underneath them are the faults,” Darling said.
In the past, geologists had looked for upward bulges in the rock layers, formed by plate tectonics, which would trap gas in the pore space underneath the “domes.” However, these have been drilled for years, Darling said.
“The idea of looking for a sag structure was pretty unheard of 15 years ago,” Darling said. “They started finding natural gas in these sags, and that caused more study, and now we have a new model and a better explanation of how natural gas occurs.”

— Evan Geibel


Supercenter site —

Planning Board discusses proposal

Staff Reporter

CORTLANDVILLE — The town Planning Board deliberated Monday over the Town Board’s request to leave undeveloped one of two 1- to 2-acre outparcels included in the proposed Wal-Mart Supercenter development.
The issue will likely remain unresolved until the end of the Planning Board’s review of the project on Route 13 at South Cortland. Monday’s meeting was the second in a series of site plan reviews scheduled through May.
The board ticked off agenda items from a list Monday provided by its engineering firm, Clough Harbour & Associates, and gave some direction to Wal-Mart’s architect and engineer regarding the building’s appearance and the 33.7-acre site’s layout.
However, Wal-Mart engineer Steve Cleason of APD Engineering and the board disagreed over the Town Board’s request to leave one of the outparcels vacant as green space to be maintained by the town.
Cleason argued that the location was unsuitable for a park environment, and that Cortlandville would merely be saddled with a 1-acre plot that it would have to maintain and remain liable for.
He recommended that an area in the extreme southern corner of the site, surrounding a retention pond, be kept green instead, or perhaps a small triangular piece of land nestled against Route 13 to the west of the proposed road’s intersection with the state road.
Wickwire said she was interested in leaving the smaller, 1.1-acre outparcel vacant as a further buffer for Walden Place.
Noting that the project meets the town’s green space requirements, and the last-minute nature of the request by the Town Board in March, Cleason said Wal-Mart had worked hard toward increasing green space and that the request was “burdensome.”
Cleason implied that some members of the Planning Board would vote against the project’s approval no matter what concessions Wal-Mart made.
However, Cleason said Wal-Mart might be more interested in discussing the proposition after the rest of the site plan review, if the request is the last point of contention.
Many other details of the site plan were also discussed Monday, and the board decided that there would not be a sidewalk along Route 13 constructed at this time; that for the moment, only an 8-foot earthen berm would shield the Walden Place senior community from the development; and that dedicated snow storage areas could be supplemented by storing snow in excess parking areas.
Noting that plans for the building’s exterior had not been altered since the original, very preliminary plans for the store were presented a few years ago, Wal-Mart architect Steve Thompson of Bergmann Associates said the company has been waiting for the Planning Board’s feedback during the site plan review.
The appearance, as it is shown in the current plans, features brick-like blocks that would serve as both structural support and as the façade. Triangular beige overhangs, dormers and parapets punctuate what is an otherwise simple exterior, interspersed with signs.
The rooftop heating and cooling units would be screened by the parapets that extend beyond the roofline, Thompson said, and board Chair Kathy Wickwire requested that a rendering of the rooftop be provided by the next meeting on May 15.


Hospital improves in annual report card

Staff Reporter

Cortland Regional Medical Center made marked improvements over last year’s report in a handful of areas that indicate overall quality of care, according to an annual hospital report card released Sunday.
After scoring below the state average in five of six key health care indicators in the 2006 New York State Hospital Report Card, CRMC was below average in just two such indicators in the 2007 report.
“It looks like they really did improve, and that’s why we do this report,” said Bruce Boissonault, president of the Niagara Health Quality Coalition, which, with a number of other health care groups, puts out the report card. “Transparency makes a big difference … hospitals are making progress.”
CRMC improved its risk-adjusted mortality rate from below the state average to at or above the state average, for patients suffering from heart attack, gastrointestinal hemorrhage and stroke.
The mortality rate for patients treated for hip fractures fell within the state average, while the rate for heart failure and pneumonia remained below average.
The 2007 report card used data from 2005 to determine the risk-adjusted mortality rate, which refers to the actual mortality rate set against the risk for mortality on a case-by-case basis.
One of the main red flags in the 2006 report, which used data from 2004, was CRMC’s risk-adjusted mortality rate for stroke, which dropped from 42.6 percent in the 2006 report to 20.2 percent in the 2007 report.
The state rate was 11.3 percent, but according to Boissonault CRMC’s rate essentially fell within a margin of error, meaning that the difference in the CRMC rate from the state rate could have been caused by chance.
“Basically, the statistics are a little complicated, but they’re at the standard level of care for New York state, which is a pretty high standard, so they’ve done well making improvements,” Boissonault said.
Joan Skawski, director of quality improvement at CRMC, said she was pleased with the report cards’ findings.
“There’s still a couple areas where we’re below the state average, but the bottom line is, we definitely did improve in some key areas,” Skawski said. “I’m really pleased that the changes we made actually seem to have paid off.”
CRMC has set up performance improvement teams that review on a case-by-case basis the process of dealing with stroke, pneumonia, heart attack and heart failure, Skawski said.
“They primarily focus on the actual processes of care — they look at, for instance with pneumonia, how soon a patient gets an antibiotic, how well they’re taken care of while in the hospital, things like that,” Skawski said of the performance improvement teams. “They’ve definitely improved the way we care for patients, and also the way we document that care.”
Documentation plays a role in studies such as the report card, Skawski said. Detailed documentation of patient care makes the numbers more accurate, she added.
“Documentation really drives these numbers, so one lesson we’ve learned is, if something isn’t written, we have to find a way to make sure it’s written so we can get credit for the care we’re giving,” Skawski said.
Of the 32 total indicators included in the report card, CRMC had enough specific instances of treatment to be graded in 17 categories, and it was at the state average in most.
CRMC was at the state average in four of five patient safety indicators, and above average, as it was in 2006, in the fifth category, the occurrence of blood clots after surgery.