November 6, 2009, Albany Times Union Editorial: A drilling chant: Slow, baby, slow

A drilling chant: Slow, baby, slow

First published: Friday, November 6, 2009

The rush to drill for natural gas in New York seems to be slowing a bit. We're encouraged -- guardedly so -- by the Department of Environmental Conservation's decision to give the public an extra month to weigh in on the state's proposed new gas drilling rules.

That's a good start. We urge DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis to keep that schedule flexible.

The extension of the public comment period to Dec. 31 was probably a lot harder for the DEC than it might seem. State agencies are big battleships when it comes to making mid-course corrections, even on the easiest of issues. In this case, the issue is the more than 800-page set of rules written by the DEC itself. The agency could easily have taken a defensive posture and said it was sticking to its timetable. It could have said this has been studied and talked to death -- which it has not.

This one-month extension, then, is no small deal. It acknowledges deep and widespread concerns about the plan to extract natural gas from the vast Marcellus Shale formation that covers six states. In New York, it lies under the Southern Tier and the Catskills, including the watershed that supplies New York City with water that is so pristine it doesn't have to be filtered. That, as they might say in Brooklyn, is somethin' you don't mess with.

The industry maintains that its method of extracting the gas, hydraulic fracturing, is safe, but environmental and other groups have voiced concerns about the potential for damage, especially to drinking water. The process involves forcing millions of gallons of water mixed with various chemicals into the deep rock to crack it and break open pockets of natural gas. Critics say accidents could contaminate both underground and surface water, risks the industry says are negligible. It asks New York to shrug off incidents in other states as rare.

Whether the protections the DEC proposes are as good as the agency says remain to be seen. Pennsylvania thought it had done an exhaustive job when it pulled together a list of 31 chemicals used in the drilling process. Now, we find in New York's documents, a much higher number: 260. It's understandable that the public might be developing some trust issues when it comes to the assurances of the industry and its regulators.

We credit the DEC for learning far more already that any other state, or the federal government for that matter, about this undertaking. There may be many more questions, however, as the public looks even closer. New York City is awaiting a consultant's report on the potential threats drilling poses to its water supply, a document that isn't expected to be done by the DEC's deadline. Mr. Grannis should give the city the time it needs.

As we've said before, the gas isn't going anywhere. There is no reason New York can't take the time to get this right. And quite a few million reasons not to get it wrong.

The issue:

The state slows down the review of new gas drilling rules.

The stakes:

New York can't deliberate enough when it comes to water quality.

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