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Source: Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin

DEC hears impassioned debate on gas drilling

About 1,000 attend hearing at Chenango Valley High

Posted: November 13, 2009
Originally Published: November 13, 2009

FENTON -- About 1,000 people crowded into a high school auditorium Thursday night to give their best - and perhaps final - shot at influencing the great debate over natural gas drilling.

Officials with the state Department of Environmental Conservation scheduled the hearing at Chenango Valley High School to collect feedback on regulations proposed to oversee development of the Marcellus, the nation's largest natural gas reserve. It extends from the Southern Tier through the Appalachian basin, with one of the most lucrative parts going under the heart of Broome County.

The auditorium, which can hold 1,060, was filled nearly to capacity, with many people standing in the aisles, including protesters bearing signs and wearing costumes.

In what sounded and looked like a pep rally, speakers drew loud applause after digressing into impassioned praises or criticisms of the drilling industry and its plans to set up shop in Broome County.

Some opponents -- one dressed as a hazardous waste barrel, another as a baron with money stuffed in his hat -- held signs that said "unnatural gas," and "no fracking way."

Proponents wore T-shirts that said "pass-gas."

More than 170 people signed up to speak during allotted five-minute periods.

"Our electricity and gas has to come from somewhere," said Jim Ward, a Chenango Forks resident. "Let's do it here, and do it right."

Dereth Glance, representing a group called Citizens Campaign, characterized as "lies" DEC claims that drilling throughout the state has been done with no adverse impacts. Her demand that officials extend the review process for at least another month was met with a raucous wave of cheers and boos.

The hearing was similar in tone to one held in New York City earlier in the week. There was a lot of theater, speech-making and showmanship, but little in the way of new developments or insights.

There was a marked difference in loyalties, however. The New York City audience consisted mostly of people opposed to drilling under any circumstances. Thursday's meeting was a show of force by members of well-organized landowner coalitions in the Southern Tier in favor of drilling.

Judging by the intensity of applause, they appeared to equal or exceed the number of those cheering for more oversight.

County and town officials who spoke at the beginning of the hearing also praised the DEC's regulatory efforts and urged the agency to begin issuing permits sooner rather than later.

Lines began forming outside the high school an hour before the doors opened at 5:30 p.m. By that time, more than 100 people waited to fill out a card that would allow them to speak in the order in which they came in.

The hearing was scheduled to end at 10 p.m., but officials extended it by one hour. When it ended at 11 p.m., about 60 people had gotten a chance to speak.

The 800-page regulatory draft, released Sept 30, has been the focal point of a caustic debate over the merits and dangers of natural gas production. The Marcellus requires new techniques, including horizontal drilling and a process called fracking to stimulate gas production. Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, uses millions of gallons of a chemical solution injected into wells under high pressure to fracture bedrock and stimulate gas flow.

On the extremes of the debate are those who believe the Marcellus Shale will become either the engine that will power the Southern Tier's economy into lasting prosperity, or an environmental disaster that will devalue land, degrade water and ruin the landscape.

The hearing is the culmination of an 18-month regulatory review by the DEC to address environmental concerns that would accompany full-scale gas production.

The public has until Dec. 30 to comment on the draft of the regulations, called the supplementary Generic Environmental Impact Statement.

A common complaint from critics: The regulations fail to take into account drilling's cumulative impact on the environment, although they refer to a study showing monumental economic gains. The study, commissioned through Broome County's economic development office, concludes drilling could generate up to $15 billion in direct economic activity over 10 years with 4,000 Marcellus wells.

Supporters, including gas industry representatives, praised the DEC's proposed regulations as providing thorough and reasonable oversight that will allow responsible development with sufficient safeguards.