By BRIAN NEARING, Staff writer Click byline for more stories by writer. First published: Friday, October 16, 2009
ALBANY — State lawmakers are asking for more time to digest a complicated 809-page rule book after Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Pete Grannis testified Thursday that proposed new state controls on natural gas drilling make the environmental risk "infinitesimal."
Water experts who also testified before the state Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee said the DEC proposals, issued last month after more than a year of study, don’t go far enough to protect water, which is used in large amounts as part of a drilling technique called hydrofracking.
Gas industry officials who are eyeing natural gas production in the Catkills and Southern Tier told lawmakers the proposed rules go too far, and will put New York at a competitive disadvantage against other states, like Pennsylvania.
Numerous companies have been buying mineral rights in the Marcellus shale, a geological formation that stretches deep underground from the Catskills to Buffalo.
Drillers intend to tap what could be the largest natural gas deposits in the Northeast through hydrofracking, a process in which up to 3 million gallons of water, along with a mix of chemicals, are pumped into deep wells to crack underground rock, forcing trapped natural gas to the surface.
While also saying that hydrofracking poses no risk to water safety, an industry official balked, however, when asked whether drillers would be willing to financially guarantee no environmental impact in New York City’s massive Catskills drinking water supply system.
"We will have to think through all the ramifications of that," said Doug Morris, director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute.
City officials joined with Conservation Committee Chairman Robert Sweeney and other lawmakers at the hearing to ask Grannis to extend the Nov. 30 deadline for public comment on the new drilling rules.
"If you are wrong, and the city’s drinking water is impacted, and the city has to impose filtration, who is going to bear that risk?" asked Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell, a Manhattan Democrat who also asked for a deadline extension.
Grannis was noncommittal about any extension but said the "risks of destroying a watershed are virtually infinitesimal." New York City water gets most of its water from a 1,700 square-mile region of the Catkills that feeds four massive reservoirs. Adding filtration to the system could cost the city $9 billion, Acting Environmental Protection Commissioner Steven Lawitts told lawmakers.
Grannis, who testified for more than two hours, was one of 24 witnesses scheduled for a marathon hearing.
Both Susan Riha, director of the New York State Water Resources Institute at Cornell University, and John Williams, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said DEC’s proposals don’t go far enough to prevent drillers from depleting local water, and that stricter limits on what can be pumped should be put into place, particularly during drier summer months.
And the issue of whether Grannis, who learned last week that Gov. David Paterson plans to cut his budget by 10 percent, has enough staff to handle drilling permits if a natural gas boom occurs.
When Grannis said he has 17 staffers to handle permits, Sweeney noted that Pennsylvania, where drilling has been under way for more than year, has 92 workers in its equivalent state department.
Water controls on hydrofracking are in place in the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, which oversees part of the Southern Tier and Pennsylvania, said commissioner Deputy Director Thomas Beauduy. "We are making industry pay to help feed the growth that we need to properly manage this," he said.