July 27, 2008, The New York Times: "The Light is Green and Yellow, on Drilling"

July 27, 2008
Our Towns

The Light Is Green, and Yellow, on Drilling

It wasn’t the kind of bill to set metropolitan toes to tapping — a measure to extend New York State’s uniform well spacing system to allow additional gas wells and energy production, including intensive horizontal drilling.

But when Gov. David A. Paterson signed a measure on Wednesday essentially ushering in a new era of energy production upstate, it was hard to be sure what mattered more, the green light or the yellow one he added. Either way, the quandary was the same: the economic rewards from thousands of new gas wells, or the risk that they could be drilled in some of the most scenic parts of the state and at the doorstep of New York City’s water supply.

Sometimes big issues coalesce with people barely seeing them. That’s exactly what has happened over the past six months as an upstate land rush, important new legislation and belated environmental awareness converged at the same time over the prospects of extensive gas drilling upstate.

“This new law will ensure greater efficiency in the processing of requests to permit oil and gas wells, while maintaining environmental and public health safeguards,” Mr. Paterson said in a statement.

Or, as his deputy secretary for the environment, Judith Enck, said later: “We’re not Wyoming, no offense to Wyoming.”

Which is to say that New York can tap into trillions of cubic feet of natural gas in the Catskills and the state’s Southern Tier without suffering some of the environmental degradation you find out West, or in Louisiana or even next door in Pennsylvania. We shall see.

The green light was the new State Department of Environmental Conservation regulations that make it far easier for gas companies to dig wells using sophisticated horizontal drilling. The process uses millions of gallons of chemically treated water to crack shale formations thousands of feet underground and release the gas within them. The regulations were needed to allow gas companies to proceed expeditiously with drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation, the gigantic field running through Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and much of southern and western New York.

But at the same time, Mr. Paterson ordered the environmental conservation agency to come up with a tougher generic environmental impact statement that addresses the water-intensive drilling known as hydrofracking. The environmental review would include hearings across the southern and western parts of the state in September and October and a subsequent analysis that would aim for the new permit statements by next spring or summer.

For now, drilling applications will be required to undergo an ad hoc review reflecting broader environmental concerns, particularly those posed by the enormous water needs of the extraction process — including where to get the water; how to treat it; how to store, handle and dispose of it; and how to be sure water supplies are not tainted. Mr. Paterson also called for a study of the potential cumulative effects of multiple drilling sites on air quality, aesthetics, noise, traffic and community character.

That was enough of a cautionary yellow light to placate some of those deeply worried about the environmental consequences of drilling. Assemblywoman Donna A. Lupardo, a Democrat who represents a district around Binghamton and voted against the bill, said Mr. Paterson clearly heard and responded to the environmental concerns.

Others were less sure. On Friday, eight environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Wilderness Society, the Catskill Mountainkeeper and the Riverkeeper, sent Mr. Paterson a letter seeking a moratorium on drilling activity until the environmental impact statement is adopted.

“Natural gas development is progressing across the country at a scale and pace that no one ever envisioned,” the letter said. “Let New York State be a model of how to do this right.”

Still, gas companies have already paid hundreds of millions of dollars in leasing fees to landowners, some of them in the New York City watershed. They didn’t pay the money without expecting to drill on the land. They can argue that gas is a far more palatable energy source than alternatives like oil from the Middle East, nuclear power or coal. And as the economy sputters, the economic lure has never been stronger for individuals, communities and the state.

“You’re talking about people who are barely eking out an existence suddenly getting a real source of revenue, which is huge for an economically challenged part of the state,” said Thomas West, a lawyer who represents the gas industry. “If this play gets off the ground, and you always have to qualify it with an if, companies could be spending a billion dollars in the state. This is not an industry asking for an economic handout like most others attracted to New York State. It’s risk capital that could be spent somewhere else, which is another reason you don’t want a moratorium.”

Whether the light is green or yellow, everyone agrees that New York, now with 19 environmental conservation officials to inspect state wells, is not remotely prepared for full-bore exploration.

“They need to get up to speed fast,” said David M. Hutchison, a retired geology professor from Oneonta who has followed the upstate land rush. “This whole concept of fracking is all new for New York State. You really need well-trained people; it’s not like looking at raccoons in the woods.”

E-mail: peappl@nytimes.com

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