12 November 2010

Natural gas seeps in Western NY

Posted by Jessica Ball

(My recent posts have been a bit on the negative side, so I’m going to step away from current events and work on finishing up some older ideas that I never managed to get to.)

One of the first things that everyone comments on when I tell them that I’m studying volcanology at Buffalo is the lack of volcanoes. Indeed, there is a serious lack of volcanoes, one that’s compounded by the fact that the area is underlain by sedimentary rock – not an igneous intrusion in sight. Still, there are some really neat things to see here (a waterfall comes to mind…) There’s a lot of green space in and around Buffalo (including a number of Olmstead parks), and in some of the parks I’ve visited are features that people commonly refer to as ‘eternal flames’. Unlike the ones you see at memorials in cemeteries, these are natural gas seeps that are lit on fire by geologists pyromaniacs curious observers.

One of my favorites is in the Shale Creek Preserve at Chestnut Ridge Park. See why?

The Eternal Flame falls at the Shale Creek Preserve

That’s right – it’s under a waterfall! The flame is sheltered just enough that it doesn’t go out very often (although it’s always a good idea to bring a lighter along if you’re going to visit). Gas wells in this area are generally drilled into the Medina Group (a collection of sandsones and shales, which you can see exposed in the base of Niagara Falls to the north), but the seep itself is in the Hanover Shale, which apparently also has a bit of gas in it.

The "Eternal Flame"

The whole base of the waterfall gets pretty gassy if the air isn’t moving much (it smells a bit like sulfur or rotten eggs), and I suspect that there are probably other seeps as well. (Sometimes you can see bubbling in the stream at the base of the falls.)

If you’re interested in Geocaching, this location is a great chance to snap up an Earthcache, too!

Another of my favorites is in Amherst State Park (and it’s not one that most people know about, since it takes a bit of walking and wading to get to. It’s also an interesting juxtaposition of fire and water, because it bubbles up through an island in the middle of a stream:

A well-tended gas seep in Amherst State Park

It appears to be a popular local hangout, although since it’s a bit more exposed, it’s not as “eternal” as the one at Chestnut Ridge – I don’t actually have a photo of the flame, because it was windy and too difficult to light that day. It seems to be a bit more productive, however, because the gas smell is much more pronounced. (I tend to keep my visits short if it’s not lit, for safety reasons.)

Bubbling natural gas

I’m pretty sure the unit making up the bedrock in the stream is the Akron Dolostone of the Salina Group, which includes shales (Camillus Shale). There are a number of natural gas wells in the Amherst area, however, and all of them are drilled into the Medina Group like those south of the city.

Natural gas drilling is a contentious subject in New York and Pennsylvania, mainly over concerns about the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing (where fluid is injected into an oil or gas well to stimulate the release of hydrocarbons in a “tight” rock unit). One of the professors here at UB has discovered that hydraulic fracturing could mobilize uranium from the Marcellus shale, the main hydrocarbon-producing unit in question – so it’s not as harmless as the natural gas industry would like it to be. At the moment, the New York State Senate has placed a hold on issuing gas drilling permits – essentially, a moratorium on Marcellus shale drilling – in order to assess the environmental impacts of allowing so much drilling. It wasn’t a particularly popular move, especially in a state with a $315 million budget deficit, but it’s a prudent one, since it’s given researchers time to study the effects of hydraulic fracturing.

So even though there isn’t any commercial drilling going on right now, with some effort you can still enjoy the benefits of straight-from-the-source hydrocarbon heating. (Just don’t get too close!)