October 30, 2009, The New York Times: Fight Over Shale Gas Drilling Not Over

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October 30, 2009, 8:03 am

Fight Over Shale Gas Drilling Not Over

By Jad Mouawad

Two days ago, my colleague Clifford Krauss and I wrote about Chesapeake Energy’s decision not to drill in the New York watershed — the environmentally sensitive region that supplies unfiltered water to nine million people.

The announcement was greeted with a sigh of relief from local politicians and environmental groups, who feared the impact of industrial drilling on New York’s drinking water.

“It has become increasingly clear to us over the past few months that the concern for drilling in the watershed has become a needless distraction,” Chesapeake said in a statement after our story ran.

The fight, however, is not over.

Many groups quickly pointed out that the company’s pledge does not lift the risk of future drilling in the watershed. Some groups suggested that Chesapeake should transfer its leases to the City of New York and are calling for the state to issue an outright ban to drilling in the watershed.

“That way, we can make sure this protection is permanent,” Deborah Goldberg, from Earthjustice, said in a statement. “Otherwise, these leases could be sold to other drilling companies that won’t keep the promise.”

The debate has also shifted to the state’s proposed new regulations for the development of natural gas from a geological formation known as the Marcellus Shale, which runs from New York to Tennessee. The New York watershed only covers 4 percent of the state. That leaves plenty of room for drilling elsewhere.

Last month, the state’s environmental agency issued its proposed guidelines for the new technology used to extract gas from the shale rock, called hydraulic fracturing.

Critics contend that the new rules are inadequate and would do little to prevent spills and other types of pollution that have become common in other parts of the country where hydro-fracking has become more common.

To extract the gas, companies inject water mixed with chemicals at very high pressure to blast the shale rocks and allow gas to flow out more easily. The technology has vigorously expanded in recent years, allowing for enormous growth in the nation’s natural gas reserves.

But it has also raised broad concerns about toxic spills, pollution and waste-water disposal.

The full name of the 800-page report is “Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program; Well Permit Issuance for Horizontal Drilling and High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing to Develop the Marcellus Shale and Other Low-Permeability Gas Reservoirs.”

James L. Simpson, a lawyer at the environmental group Riverkeeper, said the review fails to address critical issues linked to drilling, such as air emissions, increased traffic, or the so-called secondary impact from drilling, including all the ancillary services that would be needed for the industry to deploy throughout the state.

“We don’t think the Department of Environmental Conservation has the resources to review all the permits and supervise this process,” Mr. Simpson said. “The agency is cash-strapped and has been losing staff in recent years. Yet they intend to evaluate this on a permit-by-permit basis, so we can expect thousands of permits to flood the agency. We think they are not capable of processing these, let alone supervising or enforcing them.”

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