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Source: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

DEC assesses facilities in Broome, Steuben for gas drilling

Agency looks to expand offices, add staff

BY JON CAMPBELL

Posted: September 28, 2011
Originally Published: September 26, 2011

ALBANY -- Anticipating an influx of natural gas drilling in the Southern Tier, the state Department of Environmental Conservation is looking to expand a pair of offices in the region the industry is expected to target.

The DEC estimates it will have to spend $1 million annually for additional office space in Kirkwood in Broome County, and Bath in Steuben County, when it begins permitting high-volume hydraulic fracturing, according to a document obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request.

Gannett's Albany Bureau first reported some of the details included in the document earlier this month. The complete paper gives an inside look at the amount of resources the agency believes it needs to regulate the natural gas industry.

"When we've come up with the number of staff we need ... a lot of the staff would be in the regions where they get the permit applications, and they're kind of the front lines in terms of reviewing them," DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens said Monday. "That's where most of the staff would be necessary."

The DEC estimate includes a five-year look at new employees the agency, which has shed 800 full-time workers since 2008, believes it will have to hire if high-volume hydrofracking moves forward in New York. The controversial technique used with gas drilling is expected to get the green light in New York at some point next year.

It gives a clue as to what the department may request in next year's state budget, which faces a deficit of roughly $2 billion.

For the 2012-13 fiscal year, which begins in April, the DEC anticipates hiring 142 additional workers with salaries and benefits totaling $13 million annually, though they would likely be hired about halfway through the year, according to the agency estimate.

Of those new workers, 78 would work out of regional offices and sub-offices in the Marcellus region -- like those in Kirkwood and Bath -- while the rest would be based in Albany.

The DEC also anticipates having to spend $8.2 million on vehicles, equipment and other non-personnel costs next fiscal year, including a monitoring trailer in Binghamton and a mobile lab.

While environmental groups said it's a good idea to have the additional workers "on the ground" rather than in Albany, they questioned the department's motives, pointing to current staff shortages.

"It's somewhat disturbing that the DEC understands and is advocating for more staff to oversee hydrofracking when they are currently short-staffed to oversee other duties," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "We would like to see the same aggressive enthusiasm on the part of the DEC to add staff to address the clean water and clean air laws that currently exist in this state."

The department compiled a task force to come up with a way to pay for the additional personnel and costs by recommending a fee structure for drillers. But both the agency's revenue and spending plans would have to be approved by the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the state budget process.

"I'm committed to helping DEC get the resources it needs before we move forward with environmentally safe natural-gas drilling," said Sen. Thomas W. Libous, R-Binghamton, the Senate's second-ranking member. "A bigger DEC presence in Kirkwood would be a positive step forward, and we're looking forward to seeing more details on this plan."

According to a summary included with the document, DEC anticipates issuing 75 permits for gas drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing next fiscal year, increasing steadily to 1,300 in 2016-17 before leveling off.

Since 2008, 7,220 permits have been issued for drilling in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania through August, though much more of the formation is in that state than in New York.

By 2017, the DEC expects it will need to hire 226 additional staffers if hydrofracking begins next year.

A wide variety of positions would be needed, ranging from four calculations clerks, starting at $31,031 a year, to a $103,029-a-year associate counsel.

High-volume hydrofracking has been on hold in New York as the DEC completes an environmental review. The technique involves a mix of water, sand and chemicals blasted deep underground to break up shale formations and unlock gas.