October 21, 2009, Albany Times Union Editorial: Safe drilling, or risky business?

Safe drilling, or risky business?

First published: Wednesday, October 21, 2009

If a company asked you for permission to drill for natural gas by pumping chemicals into the ground near your well, you would probably ask, "What will you do if you contaminate my water?"

If that company answered "Nothing," you would probably send it packing...

Not so for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and not so for the natural gas industry that wants to drill deep into the massive Marcellus Shale formation that ranges from the Catskills across the Southern Tier and through four other states. Drilling firms propose to tap the gas through hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping millions of gallons of water, resin coated sand and an array of chemicals, some of them toxic or carcinogenic, into the shale to create fissures through which gas can be extracted.

In New York, the Marcellus Shale sits below the Catskills watershed that is the source of drinking water for more than 8.3 million New York City residents, and portions of the Upper Delaware River watershed on which another 7 million people in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware depend.

In more than 800 pages of draft rules, the DEC does not answer some pertinent questions for those 15 million or so people: What will be done if something goes wrong, and who will be on the hook for, say, the $9 billion to $10 billion it would take to build a water filtration system for New York City? The DEC's preemptive response: Don't worry, there is "no realistic threat."

Nor has the industry agreed to accept liability for such a disaster. For all the DEC's assurances that the risk is infinitesimal, for all the industry's claims that there is no risk to water supplies, drillers won't say, "If we break it, we will pay for it."

Here's the answer from Doug Morris, director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute: "We will have to think through all the ramifications of that."

Just how small is this risk that the industry balks at underwriting? Did just the very question of liability suddenly make it measurably larger? Or did incidents like several recent hydrofracking chemical spills and gas contamination of private wells in Pennsylvania change the odds?

This lack of a guarantee is not the only apparent shortcoming in the state's planned rules. Both the director of the New York State Water Resources Institute and a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist warn that the rules don't do enough to prevent drillers from depleting local water supplies -- another problem the industry has told us not to worry about.

To top it off, the industry warns that if New York gets too tough, the state could be at a competitive disadvantage. Really now. For drillers to threaten to walk away from a huge chunk of what may be the largest natural gas deposit in the Northeast suggests either a negotiating posture, or a whole lot more to worry about than a remote catastrophe.

So by all means, API and your members, think through all those ramifications. And DEC: Back to the rule-writing board.

Don't worry, all that gas isn't going anywhere.

The issue:

Natural gas drillers balk at guaranteeing they won't damage water supplies.

The Stakes:

A virtually non-existent risk suddenly seems a little larger.

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