November 5, 2009, the Phoenicia Times: Gas Battle Moves West Ulster & Watershed Seem Spared, Pressure Intensifies In Delaware

Gas Battle Moves West
Ulster County & Watershed Seem Spared, Pressure Intensifies In Delaware Basin

11/5/2009 By Brian Powers
A looming struggle over the prospect of large-scale natural gas drilling here in Ulster County appears over before it began, with the surprise announcement October 28 that the region’s largest gas producer will not seek to drill within the NYC watershed. While the company, Chesapeake Energy, currently has no Ulster County leaseholdings, it does own drilling rights to over 5,000 acres in neighboring Delaware County.

“We are not going to develop those leases, we are not taking any more leases, and I don’t think anybody else in the industry would dare to acquire leases in the New York City watershed” said Aubrey McClendon, Chesapeake’s CEO. “Why go through the brain damage of that, when we have so many other opportunities?”

Whether McClendon was referring to health effects of chemicals used in gas drilling and their history of turning up in surface water and people wasn’t immediately clear. But his announcement, timed to precede the first scheduled public hearing on the State’s recently released regulatory guidelines for the industry drew a cautiously positive but generally measured response.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation issued a brief statement indicating they’d anticipated such developments, noting that “the web of interrelated regulatory requirements” was “likely to present significant practical challenges” for any company seeking to drill in the watershed.

James Gennaro, chairman of the New York City Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection, was more forthcoming, saying drilling in the watershed “doesn’t make any business sense and it doesn’t make environmental sense. I think Chesapeake understands this and I’m happy they have come to that decision. If only we could get the state government to come to the same realization. It is strangely ironic.”

Genero was referring to the 809 pages of draft drilling guidelines released by DEC September 30. Those guidelines did not prohibit and only superficially restricted drilling within the City’s nearly 2,000 square mile watershed. Since its release, the Department has been widely criticized for what many believe are inadequate review procedures and protections contained in the document. Amongst the agency’s conclusions were that gas drilling in the watershed presented “no realistic threat” to the safety of the City’s drinking water.

The City’s agency in charge of that water is for now keeping a low profile; Mayor Blumberg has declined to comment until a full report on drilling impacts being prepared by their consultants is released in December. That report is widely expected to be highly critical of the state regulators’ analysis and conclusions. But the agency did on Friday provide a terse comment on Chesapeake’s withdrawal:

“One company’s voluntary moratorium at this point, “ said DEP spokesperson Mercedes Padilla, “ is not a substitute for thorough analysis by the New York State DEC and the New York State Department of Health, to determine the potential of gas drilling failures in the NYC watershed and the damage to critical infrastructure in surrounding counties.”

Meanwhile at the first of four public hearings being held statewide on the drilling process, an overflow crowd of more than 300 people showed up at Sullivan County Community College last Wednesday. Even with testimony limited to 5 minutes and most speakers taking less, the meeting ran five and a half hours with about 85% of the audience and 75% of the speakers significantly critical of DEC’s new guidelines.

Sullivan County Planning Director Luis Aragon was the first of many speakers to protest the agency’s lack of any requirement for cumulative impact analysis or socio-economic impact studies. He called for a ban on drilling in all floodplain zones and on all open-pit storage of toxic waste, said that towns must have the right to review drilling applications, and that the county legislature remained deeply concerned that the drilling might have “unprecedented and profound effects” which state regulators had no intention of studying.

Ramsey Adams, Executive Director of Catskill Mountainkeeper, said “The DEC has said they couldn’t put cumulative impact requirements into the draft document because they didn’t know how to do it. If they can’t do a cumulative impact assessment, we question whether they should be in the business of regulating gas drilling in the first place.”

Bruce Swol, however, of the Sullivan-Delaware Property Owners Association, said that “a robust new gas industry is the only hope we have” and that “what we have here,” referring to the packed hearing venue, is a small vocal group of environmental radicals.” He said his association which represents 70,000 acres in Sullivan and Delaware Counties “totally supports” DEC’s draft regulatory framework and called for the immediate approval of 24 pending gas well permits in the town of Hancock.

Scott Rotruck, VP of State Governmental Relations for Chesapeake Energy, told the Phoenicia Times that “we can drill safely anywhere but we will not drill in the NYC watershed” where “we’re the only ones with any leases.” Rotruck said “It’s a business decision” and that its 5,000 acres here were not meaningful in comparison to the 1.4 million acres the company holds leases on regionwide.

Mountainkeeper’s Adams countered that “We respect Chesapeake’s public relations acumen” but that the announcement had “no teeth” and that the watershed remains vulnerable until DEC bans drilling here.

While Chesapeake’s new position does appear, at least for now, to enhance the prospect of continued safe drinking water for NYC, the fate of the adjoining Delaware River Basin to our south appears if anything, even more tenuous. Over the past four years the massive Millenium natural gas pipeline which parallels the Delaware on its New York side has been completed to its southern terminus

in Orange County where it joins the existing distribution infrastructure. Future plans call for connection to an as yet unbuilttransshipment facility in the Long Island Sound to move gas from the Catskills around the world, with ground zero for gas drilling now centered on the Sullivan County towns of Hancock, Walton, Bethel, and Callicoon. Whether future regulatory actions amongst the three impacted states will adequately protect the 10 million people in New Jersey and Pennsylvania who rely on that watershed is entirely unknown.

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