April 25, 2010, Albany Times Union: Gas drill plan still offers peril

Gas drill plan still offers peril
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First published: Sunday, April 25, 2010
There's been an unexpected great leap over what to do about the high-volume natural gas drilling proposed for New York's Southern Tier and into the Catskills.

Many who are skeptical of drilling are going to love it and rejoice. But wait, there may still be a snake or two in the woodpile for those who want to see a wider ban. In truth, it just got harder to stop the gas industry from more or less getting its way.

What's happened is this: The state in effect has taken the New York City watershed in the Catskills out of consideration for hydrofrack gas drilling. The Department of Environmental Conservation is developing a generic environmental impact statement from which a set of rules, procedures and regulations will be crafted to govern hydrofrack gas drilling. We learned this past week that the DEC should have that statement done by late fall. Pending drilling permits could begin a review process shortly after. It's coming soon, near you. Maybe.

All along, a major obstacle to the gas drilling in general has been the impact it might have on the New York City water supply. In recent years, the city has been very careful to protect water quality in the watershed, mostly in the northern and western Catskills. If it becomes compromised, a $5 billion-plus filtration plant will need to be built. The feds, who make the call as to whether a filtration plant is needed, are ever watchful,

So as a practical matter, gas drilling's effect, presumed, imagined or actual, on New York City's drinking water has been the strongest argument against it. The city, which is a very powerful political force, cannot take chances here.

The bureaucratic device the DEC is using to make the city watershed off-limits except to the very wealthy and extremely patient is to remove the watershed area from the pending generic environment review. This also applies to relatively tiny Skaneateles Lake, which provides unfiltered surface water to Syracuse, but nowhere else. As DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis was careful to point out Friday, this does not mean his agency is banning drilling in these watersheds. But it does mean that each application in the two watersheds will need its own lengthy and expensive environmental review, taking years, with no guarantee of the outcome. Besides, Grannis noted, the New York City watershed represents only 8 percent of the huge Marcellus Shale natural gas reserves in the state, and is not anticipated to be a particularly productive area for drilling anyway.

So as a practical matter, the gas industry will not lose much by not applying for permits in these watersheds. In fact, not a single permit application has been filed for drilling within them, and a major energy player, Chesapeake, has announced it won't seek permits in the New York City watershed.

By contrast, hard-core opponents of high-volume hydrofrack drilling anywhere in the state have just lost major leverage. As a tactical matter, removing the New York City watershed from the equation makes it far less complicated to deal with generic environmental safety issues. The DEC knows that, and so does the gas industry.

Grannis insisted Friday that this does not mean the DEC will rush to complete the generic environmental review, or that any short cuts will be taken.

As a practical matter, though, the contentious environmental review so far over high-volume gas drilling suddenly got far more manageable. A quicker and easier process would seem a logical conclusion.

The commissioner also said his agency is not going to wait for the outcome of a two-year study of hydrofrack gas drilling announced in March by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. This is troubling. Especially with recent contaminated residential wells in Pennsylvania a stone's throw from New York. Though Pennsylvania officials say hydrofracking itself wasn't to blame, the contamination is associated with high-volume gas drilling operations, just like the ones coming to our state.

Grannis' argument is that the EPA study is focused on federal drinking water quality standards, which gas drilling operations are exempted from meeting. New York's drinking water standards already exceed the federal rules that could be imposed as a result of the study, the commissioner noted.

But there is the larger issue of what else the EPA might find in this study, or whatever guidance for states might materialize. We just don't know what we don't know. Waiting an extra year for drilling may seem onerous to the industry, but it is a trifling in geological time. That gas isn't going anywhere.

Long Island Assemblyman Steve Englebright has introduced a bill calling for a moratorium on gas drilling in the state until 120 days after the EPA issues its report. His office says he has support in the Senate.

This is a worthwhile precaution.

While the DEC announcement last week accelerates the process, in my view, there remain at least a couple of other sticky points. Whether to allow drilling leases on public lands is a big one. Passing a severance tax now on drillers, so the state can collect revenues from the beginning, is another.

Contact Fred LeBrun at 454-5453 or [email protected].

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