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Source: New York Times

Skepticism Directed at Study of Impact of Hydraulic Fracturing

BY MIREYA NAVARRO

Posted: September 5, 2011
Originally Published: September 2, 2011

New York State environmental officials commissioned a study of the impact of natural gas hydraulic fracturing on the economy and quality of life to a consulting firm that counts oil and gas companies among its clients and could gain more business from increased drilling in the state.

The $223,000 study, awarded to Ecology and Environment Inc., a global environmental and engineering services company based in Lancaster, N.Y., has yet to be released, but some community, environmental and good-government groups say that the company’s ties to the drilling industry undermine its credibility — no matter what the report concludes.

“I’m not saying they’re bad,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which does not want this kind of drilling to start until the state strengthens regulations of the industry. “I’m saying let’s not be confused. This is not an objective analysis done in the public interest. They went to someone with whom they have a work relationship and that also does work for energy interests.”

Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, wrote in an e-mail that the company “demonstrated it has the needed expertise and capabilities to perform services D.E.C. required.” She continued, “E & E’s client list played no role in D.E.C.’s decision to engage them.”

Officials at Ecology and Environment declined requests for an interview and referred questions to the state agency.

A 40-year-old public company with a staff of about 1,100 people worldwide, Ecology and Environment assists governments and other companies on renewable energy projects, pollution control on contaminated sites and on the permitting and storage needed in gas and oil exploration projects, including offshore drilling.

The State Department of Environmental Conservation had planned to unveil the report assessing “community impacts” on Aug. 31, but postponed the release until next week citing the agency’s workload in responding to Tropical Storm Irene.

The study is part of the department’s broader draft document known as the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, which identifies risks and proposes policies for allowing the practice of hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling, a controversial method of releasing natural gas from tight rock by using high volumes of water, sand and chemicals. A target for the drilling is the Marcellus Shale, a rich natural gas field that runs through New York and is already being mined in other states, including Pennsylvania.

The draft document must go through an extensive public comment period and be finalized before the first drilling permits are handed out — but the issue has deeply divided New Yorkers over whether horizontal hydrofracking can be done safely.

Joseph Martens, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s environmental commissioner, says it can.

Mr. Martens’s department released the bulk of the draft document in July but stated that it had employed “independent consultants” to research both the positive and negative impacts of hydrofracking on the upstate counties where it will be concentrated. Specifically, Ecology and Environment was asked to examine anticipated economic activity like tax revenues and job creation as well as quality of life issues like increased traffic and noise.

On its Web site, the company says it has expedited permit applications for more than 200 pipeline and gas storage projects worldwide. “E & E’s management recognized early on that the oil and gas industry provided outstanding opportunities for commercial consulting contracts due to federal and state permitting requirements for new facilities,” the company wrote in its annual report. The company has multimillion-dollar contracts with several state agencies for other work, including a $50 million, seven-year contract with the D.E.C. for what the agency says are services associated with cleanups of contaminated properties.

Eric A. Goldstein, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York who is also a member of an advisory panel on drilling convened by Mr. Martens, played down the bias concerns, noting that the public comment period would provide New Yorkers a chance to identify any problems in the report.

“We have long considered environmental impact statements not truly independent analyses, but rather partisan documents that support the intentions of project sponsors,” he said. “For that reason, such studies should always be greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism and meticulous public review.”

Mr. Goldstein said that it was not unusual for environmental consultants to work at different times for clients on opposing sides of an issue, but in the highly polarized atmosphere surrounding hydrofracking some groups were not accepting the usual practice.

In a letter to Mr. Martens last July, the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, with more than 1,400 members, asked for the hiring of another consultant to assess the impacts of drilling on agriculture, saying that both the department’s staff and Ecology and Environment “lack the level of agricultural expertise necessary to fully assess the impacts to New York’s farming industry.”

Jim Smith, a spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, which has a representative on the commissioner’s advisory panel, said the group would not comment on the choice of the author of the impacts study until its findings were out and members had a chance to read them.

Within New York, the company appears to be politically well connected; it has a political action committee and gives to elected officials of both parties, including $1,000 to Governor Cuomo’s campaign, according to New York State Board of Elections records.

“They clearly see this as a cost of doing business,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York. “They’re interested in maintaining good relations with elected officials.”

During his election campaign, Governor Cuomo supported drilling in the Marcellus, but with conditions. Ensuring a supply of low-cost natural gas “is important to New York,” he said, as long as drilling is “environmentally sensitive and safe.”

But some environmental groups said the governor had signaled his support since then in other ways — by ignoring their calls to take more time with the D.E.C.’s environmental statement or to extend the public comment period beyond the scheduled 60 days once the full report is out next week.

Based on industry projections, state officials say they expect to receive applications to drill up to 2,500 horizontal and vertical wells on the Marcellus Shale during a peak year — and about 1,600 on an average year — over a 30-year period.

But the pace of permits will ultimately be dictated by the ability of the Department of Environmental Conservation to oversee the safe development of wells. In a report given to the department’s advisory panel at its first meeting this month, the department said that because of the need to train more staff to issue permits, monitor drilling activities and enforce compliance with new state regulations, it estimated it would process fewer than 100 permit applications in the first year.