January 6, 2010, Syracuse Post-Standard Editorial: Gas Drilling Debate: Gov. David Paterson must step up to protect environment

Gas Drilling Debate: Gov. David Paterson must step up to protect environment

By The Post-Standard Editorial Board

January 06, 2010, 5:02AM

link to complete article is here: http://blog.syracuse.com/opinion/2010/01/gas_drilling_debate_gov_david.html

0106frack.JPGAP A DRILLING RIG extracts gas on a Pennsylvania farm.

Gov. David Paterson has stood up resolutely during the state’s budget crisis, defying special interests and urging unpopular cuts to keep the state solvent.

Now it’s time for him to weigh in just as forcefully on another potential crisis — the environmental degradation that could result in a rush to exploit the state’s abundant natural gas resources.

From the Catskills to the Southern Tier to Central New York, landowners have been overrun by companies buying up leases in hopes that the state will quickly approve a form of drilling called “hydrofracking.” The process involves drilling deep horizontal wells and blasting millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand into them to fracture the surrounding shale and release the gas.

The Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York says drilling just 300 wells could have an economic impact of $1.4 billion a year, including $32 million in income tax revenues and $100 million in lease payments to landowners. The Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce, the Manufacturers Association of Central New York and other business interests are pressuring the governor to support the drilling.

But if the state does not move cautiously, the environmental damage could overshadow the economic gain. Environmentalists decry the potential of fresh water contamination, air pollution and harm to infrastructure — some of which have been realized at sites in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. In recent weeks, the voices of caution have multiplied:

* After a lengthy review, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection called on state officials to ban the drilling in the Catskills watershed, citing “unacceptable threats to the unfiltered fresh water supply of 9 million New Yorkers.”

* The federal Environmental Protection Agency said New York’s proposed rules for the drilling need to be significantly toughened, with a focus on potential health risks.

* The Tompkins County Legislature unanimously passed a resolution blasting the state’s proposed rules for the drilling and calling for a far more detailed review.

The regulation of hydrofracking is a state responsibility because of a provision in the 2005 energy bill that has been dubbed the “Halliburton loophole.” The loophole — pushed by Vice President Dick Cheney’s former firm — stripped the EPA of its authority to regulate hydrofracking.

Now it’s up to the understaffed state Department of Environmental Conservation, whose draft environmental impact statement was released in September and has been under attack ever since.

The state’s decisions could have an enormous impact on Central New York, where drillers have rights to some 250 parcels of land in the Skaneateles Lake and Otisco Lake watersheds, both prime sources of drinking water.

Enter Gov. Paterson, whose leadership is essential to the debate. While he cites natural gas as a major part of the state’s energy future, there are a number of things he could insist on to ensure that any drilling be done responsibly:

* Back the call of U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-Saugerties, for a “cumulative impact analysis” that would address the combined impact of the drilling on water, air, local roads and communities.

* Ban drilling, at least initially, in sensitive areas such as watersheds that supply municipal drinking water.

* Require public disclosure of all chemicals used in hydrofracking and toughen the rules on the handling and disposal of the water used in the process.

* Ensure that DEC is given the authority, staff and resources to closely monitor the drilling, and that the costs be paid by the gas industry, not taxpayers.

* Make sure local communities have a say in drilling decisions.

* Delay any approvals until a federal study on the risks of hydrofracking — ordered by Congress in November — is completed.

The state’s natural gas isn’t going anywhere. It is the responsibility of the governor and other elected officials to take the time to ensure that it isn’t extracted in a way that does irreparable harm to New York’s other precious resources.

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