October 16, 2008, Albany Times Union: DEC to Shield Water in Gas Boom


DEC to shield water in gas boom

Agency chief tells panel rules to control hydrofracking technique will be effective
By BRIAN NEARING, Staff writer
First published in print: Thursday, October 16, 2008


ALBANY — Anticipating an energy boom, the state Department of Environmental Conservation wants more authority over water to control a controversial natural gas drilling technique called hydrofracking.

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The process, which critics contend threatens clean water, is poised to sweep the Catskills, the Southern Tier and the western region of the state.

At a packed Assembly hearing Wednesday, DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis assured lawmakers his office won't allow drilling without being satisfied that the water-intensive method is environmentally safe.

The agency will seek authority to regulate the massive water withdrawals needed by drilling companies, Grannis said. For the past year, many of the companies have been buying up mineral rights in the Marcellus Shale, a formation that stretches from the Catskills to Buffalo.

The drillers intend to tap what could be the largest natural gas deposits in the Northeast through the process in which up to 3 million gallons of water are pumped into deep wells to crack underground rock formations and force trapped natural gas to the surface.

DEC wants power to control water withdrawals in parts of the state not covered by either the Delaware or Susquehanna river basin commissions, which already have power over the water needed by drillers, Grannis said.

"We will be seeking clear regulatory authority," Grannis told members of the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee. It was not immediately clear how much of the state is not regulated.

A handful of well permits already received by the state will be acted upon only after DEC rewrites its rules for hydrofracking, which is expected to be done early next year, Grannis said. The rules will address how and where water is taken out, and what is done with it after the water is used during drilling, when it will contain a blend of sand and drilling chemicals.

Grannis, who testified for more than two hours, was one of 24 witnesses scheduled for a marathon hearing. Only nine witnesses had appeared by 4 p.m., at which point half of the 10-member Assembly committee had already drifted away.

A panel of representatives from the drilling industry said hydrofracking posed little environmental risk.

"These are surgical operations with a minimal environmental footprint," said Thomas Price, senior vice president for corporate development for Chesapeake Energy Corp. He called drilling an "economic surge" for the state.

Grannis said that DEC also will require that companies disclose the drilling chemicals used, something has not be required in other states.

Small-scale hydrofracking has been done since the 1940s in the state without a single documented instance of water contamination, said Rick Kessy, manager of operations and engineering for Fortuna Energy of Horseheads, Chemung County.

Several environmental groups at the hearing said more needs to be known about what will be done with the used drilling water. "I have serious doubts about the health of any stream or river that will be taking this fluid over time and slowly releasing it into the environment," said Wes Gillingham, program director of Catskill Mountainkeeper.

Brian Nearing can be reached at 454-5094 or by email at bnearing@timesunion.com.

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