Empowering Communities, Advocating Solutions


Source: The Ithaca Journal

Gas-drilling companies hold leases on 30 percent of Finger Lakes


Posted: July 18, 2011
Originally Published: July 16, 2011

More than 300,000 acres in Chemung, Steuben and Schuyler counties were leased to natural gas exploration companies between 2005 and 2010, according to a report prepared by Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

The three Southern Tier counties are part of eight counties in the Finger Lakes region surveyed by the group.

In all, the report says, more than 602,000 acres across the eight-county region -- or 30 percent of the land parcels in Chemung, Cayuga, Cortland, Schuyler, Steuben, Seneca, Livingston and Ontario counties -- were leased to gas companies during the five-year period.

Citizens Campaign for the Environment, with offices in New York and Connecticut, was established in 1985. Its goal, according to the group's website, is to identify environmental concerns in the two states and help the public participate in environmental campaigns.

Hydraulic fracturing, a controversial method of drilling for natural gas where large volumes of water, chemical additives and sand are injected into underground rock formations, has risen to the top of the group's list of potential threats to the environment, the group's Executive Director Adrienne Esposito said.

To demonstrate the potential impact that widespread high-volume fracking may have on New York's agri-businesses, tourism and wine industries, the organization collected data on the amount of land under lease in the Finger Lakes region. The results of its survey were released earlier this month.

"The energy industry says jobs will come, but we want to see what will be lost," Esposito said.

"Part of the environmental impact statement is to evaluate the cumulative impact on a region, but the Department of Environmental Conservation said it had no idea on the number of leases in the Finger Lakes region and they didn't have the resources to obtain the information," she said.

The first phase of the project identified the potential number of leases filed at the clerks' offices in the surveyed counties.

The Citizens Campaign group then hired reviewers to enter the data into an online database and hired a specialist to remove the duplicates and map the information based on the parcel locations.

"There's a legitimate threat from drilling to agriculture, tourism, prime drinking water, the wine industry and to the rural communities' way of life," Esposito said.

"It all needs to be protected and you can't protect something you don't know is threatened. So we took about 16 months to collect the information."

Other findings in the report include:

» Chesapeake-Appalachia Energy and Talisman Energy USA hold leases for more than 430,000 acres in the eight-county region, or about 71 percent.

In the Chemung, Schuyler and Steuben counties, that number is 242,700 acres under lease by the two companies.

» Steuben County has 212,133 acres, or 23.6 percent of the county's land, under lease, the second largest amount within the eight counties.

Most of the leasing has taken place in the central portion of the county and is particularly heavy in the towns of Howard, Fremont, Wheeler and Thurston. Canton, Union and West Union, which each border Pennsylvania, also show heavy leasing activity.

» Chemung County has 56,654 acres, or more than 21.5 percent of the county total acreage, under lease.

Big Flats, Erin, the northern portion of Horseheads and into Veteran show the heaviest concentration of land under lease. Parcels under lease are also scattered through the towns of Baldwin and Chemung.

» Schuyler County's 36,044 leased acres account for nearly 16.5 percent of the county's total acreage.

Most of them lie in the Town of Hector, east of the Finger Lakes National Forest. Leasing is also heavy on the northwestern corner of the county, in the Town of Tyrone, with scattered parcels in the towns of Montour and Dix.

No need to panic

While the Citizens Campaign for the Environment sees environmental doom and gloom accompanying high-volume hydro-fracking, the energy industry says the group is overstating the problem.

"They're creating panic where none needs to be created," said James Smith, spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association.

The association was established in 1980 and represents about 400 oil, gas and other related service companies in New York.

"From the state's point of view, the information is good to know," said Smith. "But it doesn't lead to what they say it will.

"We're looking at an economic opportunity like this state has never seen before and to suggest the damage to the environment will be widespread is overstating the very few incidents that have occurred."

The gas association doesn't question the value of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment's mapping project, Smith said, and is taking a middle-of-the-road stance about its accuracy.

However, the study's conclusion has ruffled the association's feathers.

"You can't assume that every parcel will be developed and that every parcel would be ripe for exploration," Smith said.

"And you can't assume that means multiple wells would be drilled on any one parcel, and you can't assume that each acre is going to be developed. It won't happen."

Pretty soon, he said, the logic used by the groups opposed to hydrofracking and gas drilling breaks down.

"The industry has a tremendous track record," said Smith. "The people who oppose all drilling in New York are being unreasonable."

'False information'

Ashur Terwilliger, president of the Chemung County Farm Bureau, shares Smith's skepticism.

"They're not going to drill on every parcel," Terwilliger said.

"(The group that put the study together are) looking at the stuff that happened out west and they're putting out false information. It's all craziness. They don't tell you the latest improvements, like food oil-based lubricants. They don't tell you the process is evolving and getting better and better."

Smith also said the gas association would ask the public to let the Department of Environmental Conservation's process take and let the comment period (on the state's hydrofracking regulations) come to an end.

"Then, as they see natural gas harvested in New York, they'll see the potential for environmental damage is minimal and the potential for economic success is great."

Esposito said her group would also like to see the comment period end -- but with the concerns raised by her group's mapping study addressed in the final version of the regulations.

"We worked hard to disseminate the information," she said.

"The study is part of our public comment and we expect it to result in a rock solid agreement to increase the protections for the environment."