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Source: Pressconnects.com

Two sides still digging into state fracking report

Environmental groups see little discussion of cumulative impacts


Posted: July 6, 2011
Originally Published: July 6, 2011

ALBANY -- A late Friday release from the state Department of Environmental Conservation provided some holiday reading material for advocates: 736 pages of proposed regulations to mitigate the environmental damage from hydraulic fracturing.

Now, with environmental and industry groups continuing to analyze the dense contents of the state's latest review of the natural gas stimulation technique, questions have begun to surface on the strength of the DEC's recommendations.

While most green groups say the new version of the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, as it's called, is a vast improvement over the DEC's initial 2009 recommendations, some say there's still a ways to go.

Of particular concern is the DEC's consideration of the impacts of not just a single gas well, but the cumulative impact of many new wells dotting parts of the state's landscape. While the latest draft includes a more robust discussion and consideration of those effects, some wondered if it might have been included just to appease environmentalists.

"The things that we are always concerned about is the evaluation of a cumulative impact to rural New York, and particularly to areas like the Finger Lakes region," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "While this (draft) is dramatically improved over the last one, it still doesn't make it comprehensive enough."

High-volume hydrofracking has been on hold in New York, which sits above portions of the gas-rich Marcellus and Utica shale formations, since July 2008, when the DEC began its review. It will remain on hold until a final version of its report is complete, which isn't expected until sometime next year.

Most groups -- including the Independent Oil & Gas Association, Environmental Advocates of New York, and the American Petroleum Institute -- said they are still reviewing the massive report and declined to offer much comment. After an appendix is added later this week, it's expected to total more than 900 pages when it's officially posted on the DEC website.

A preliminary version was given to reporters on Friday.

DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens said last week the report "strikes the right balance between protecting our environment, watersheds, and drinking water and promoting economic development." The technique can be practiced safely, he said, with rigorous safeguards like those his department is proposing.

Industry groups and natural-gas proponents say the gas locked in the Marcellus Shale could create jobs and decrease the country's dependence on foreign energy. Critics say hydrofracking can contaminate water supplies and wreak havoc on the environment.

Speaking with reporters after an appearance in Erie County on Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the DEC's latest effort balances the concerns of groups on both sides of the heated debate.

"The report goes a long way toward balancing the economic needs of New York," Cuomo said. "We need to generate jobs, grow the economy, but we also need to protect the environment, and I think the report strikes that balance."

John Felmy, chief economist for the American Petroleum Institute, said that while releasing the latest draft was a positive step from industry's perspective, it would take some time to see if they agree with Cuomo's analysis.

"We have our staff digging through it, but they haven't made it through the whole thing yet," Felmy said. "The devil is in the details for these types of things, of course."

Felmy highlighted the economic benefits of shale gas, which he said could go a long way toward restoring the long-neglected economy of the state's Southern Tier, which sits above the most promising portion of the Marcellus.

While the latest draft report includes tighter regulations for protecting public water supplies -- including an outright ban of hydrofracking within the Syracuse watershed and New York City watershed in the Hudson Valley -- Esposito questioned whether they go far enough.

Of particular concern for her was the language concerning a ban near primary aquifers, which supply water to many of the state's more-populated areas. The ban is on surface operations within 2,000 feet of the aquifers, meaning drilling companies can enter the ground outside of the buffer zone before turning the well horizontally and boring underneath.

With recent advances in technology, those companies can drill sideways for upwards of 4,000 feet, drawing concern from environmental groups.

The ban within primary aquifers, meanwhile, will be revisited by the DEC two years after the first high-volume hydrofracking permit is issued. A similar ban on surface drilling within 2,000 feet of public water reservoirs and within 500 feet of tributaries to water supplies will be revisited after three years.

"It's very expensive and challenging to clean up and remediate contamination in an aquifer system," Esposito said. "Not providing comprehensive protection means you are threatening public health and will be costing taxpayers a lot of money in cleanup costs."

For some, any step toward allowing high-volume hydrofracking in New York is a step in the wrong direction. About a dozen groups, including Frack Action from Ulster County, will meet in Albany on Thursday to call for a statewide ban on the practice.